June 23, 2024

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

Keegan Schroeder delves into Carlo Rovelli’s liminal space between physics, philosophy, and poetry.

Keegan Schroeder
26th May 2021

The Order of Time is a short and delightful blend of sciences and humanities, but it suffers somewhat from a mild identity crisis as Rovelli tries to balance the brief of communicating cutting-edge science and producing a fun read for a general audience.

Each chapter begins with a profound section of literature, then the complex ideas are nested within a bed of metaphor, anecdotes, and beautiful writing. Stitched together is an emotive and passionate description of philosophy – what it means to be a human in which time resides, rather than a human residing within time – alongside fiendishly difficult physics concepts that are, at times, immensely difficult to keep a handle on.

For someone with a decent but by-no-means expert experience of physics and chemistry, the first half of this book certainly outshone the second. Carlo Rovelli does an excellent job at explaining how relativity and quantum mechanics interact with our traditional Newtonian vision of time, a universal constant that ticks along like a loading bar. He explores the effects of gravity on time, how time runs differently in each specific location within the universe and crushes the idea of a universal “present”. Having understood entropy, thermodynamics, and time separately, it was immensely satisfying to join them together in my mind.

The second half of this book strays into highly theoretical quantum loop gravity, and almost completely lost me. I felt like I had an itch that I could not scratch, and that concepts were running through my fingers like grains of sand. I eventually resorted to accepting that I was not going to understand what Carlo was trying to tell me and instead just let his writing style and poetic framing wash over me, which made the experience more enjoyable.

“Organised in simplistic terms that our devastatingly stupid brain is capable of handling” is a quote that certainly encapsulates how I, at times, felt when digesting this book.

After mulling over this book for some time, I have concluded the strength of this book is not in the concepts that it describes, though they are certainly interesting, and that the second half of the book requires additional rereads for firmer understanding. Rather, I find The Order of Time’s strength is that its beautiful style creates a new mental environment from which to consider the passage of time, and how you wish to spend it.

So, as I sit here writing this review, listening to Kansas’ Dust in the Wind, I find myself striving to appreciate more fully the time which is given to us, and the mystery and beauty of this wonderful universe in which we reside. If I could go back in time, I would still read this book, I would still fail to fully understand it, and I would still feel as though it has added something to my perspective on the world.

Keegan Schroeder is a biology graduate from the University of York with special interest in philosophy and biotechnology.