Ahoy there me mateys! Though I did manage to actually read and then review a book yesterday, blustery winds and crazy seas are still severely limiting the time I have to read. So here be a Tidings post with a twist! The First Mate is on an adventure elsewhere and has been reading like a fiend. I
ordered asked him to write a review of something he recently read because I be going through withdraw and NEED to hear about books. At the end of his review I will decide whether the book is kept in the hold for me future reading pleasure or be keelhauled into the watery depths. Hope ye enjoy!
From the First Mate:
Time travel is probably my favorite sci-fi sub-genre. I love loops and paradoxes and destinies and that overwhelming desire almost everyone seems to have to fix a mistake. I love time travel stories where the timeline splinters into alternate timelines when a change is made, and I love stories where the timeline is inviolable in an “Appointment in Samara” type way. I love when people use time travel to vacation in the paleolithic age, and when people use it to make sports bets, and when government agencies time travel to ensure that history turns out correctly, and when people go back in time and invent something and now you don’t know who really invented the thing (or wrote the poetry or fathered the child or…). I love time travel. Unfortunately, Carlo Rovelli is a brilliant theoretical physicist whose life’s work is attempting to prove why time is an illusion.
“The Order of Time” is only really kinda sorta a physics book. Rovelli himself makes a big deal pointing out the only equation he’s going to force on the reader. In many ways, the book is more a philosophical examination of time itself and the ramifications that stem from our growing understanding that time may simply exist in perception (e.g. the way the sky isn’t really blue, it just looks that way). There’s practically no math here to get in the way of the philosophical discussion of time. And Rovelli’s discussion is poetic.
The first part of the book deals with what we empirically know about time, which really isn’t all that much. We know that time seems to flow differently based on 1) how close you are to a gravity well, 2) how fast you’re moving, and 3) what your relative size is compared to the point of observation. Using really high precision watches physicists have been able to prove that watches become out of sync when their relative conditions (speed and position) change. And, as with most physical laws and behaviors, when you get down to the quantum level things just end up getting weird.
After that first section, though, the book takes an offramp away from what physicists empirically know about time (again, very little) and focuses on theoretical and philosophical implications surrounding Rovelli’s theories of “loop quantum gravity” and the “thermal time hypothesis.” Again, neither of these theories are discussed in any rigorously confusing manner. Rovelli describes each in simple and poetic ways that make it very clear what he’s talking about. And, after Rovelli tackles the concept of time being an illusion, he gives us a pretty decent perspective on why it’s okay to let go of believing time is an immutable taskmaster pushing the universe ever forward. Finally, the book ends with Rovelli’s meditations on death and how his view on that has changed as he’s gotten older.
While I certainly enjoy Rovelli’s beautiful words and it’s always beneficial to get new perspectives, at the end of the book I’m left with a common question when exploring the ideas of theoretical physics, “to what end?” Time at the quantum level may be an illusion, but I still age. It may not make a difference to Rovelli’s equations which direction an event occurs in, but the past remains inaccessible to me with the future never touched except fleetingly as the present. Rovelli’s concept of time may be more mathematically accurate than the one I live with day-to-day, but I don’t know what utility I can draw from his. Then again, that may be missing the point, too. Perhaps I just want to be able to travel through time.
If you’re thinking of reading “The Order of Time,” I couldn’t more highly recommend the audiobook version of it read by Benedict Cumberbatch. Regardless of one’s opinion of him as an actor, the man has a positively gorgeous reading voice. Combining Rovelli’s beautiful words with that deep, velvety voice is a delicious experience. The only downside? The audiobook is just a bit over four hours in length. Worth your time, but you’ll be left wanting more.
Highly recommended to anyone who enjoys reading about difficult scientific concepts explained in common or poetic ways. If you’ve enjoyed Richard Feynman’s books but could do without the snark, this one’s definitely for you. If your enjoyment of science requires the math and the more rigorous explanations, you won’t find that here.
Yer Captain’s Verdict:
KEELHAUL! Arrrr! I actually think this one sounds awesome but know it be not for me. I very much enjoyed this review by the First Mate and the discussions around it though.
Side note: Both the First Mate and me wish we could remember which crew member it was whose spouse was reading this and sharing all the cool thoughts from the book which led to the blog post about the book which led to me recommending this one to the First Mate. Let me know if it be ye!
Goodreads has this to say about the novel:
Time is a mystery that does not cease to puzzle us. Philosophers, artists and poets have long explored its meaning while scientists have found that its structure is different from the simple intuition we have of it. From Boltzmann to quantum theory, from Einstein to loop quantum gravity, our understanding of time has been undergoing radical transformations. Time flows at different speeds in different places, the past and the future differ far less than we might think and the very notion of the present evaporates in the vast universe.
With his extraordinary charm and sense of wonder, bringing together science, philosophy and art, Carlo Rovelli unravels this mystery, inviting us to imagine a world where time is in us and we are not in time.
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