The human relationship with time has always been a pushmi-pullyu one. Usually, when time is exhorted upon in our daily lives, it is spoken about in its quantity and availability that can be allotted and used in the chaotic arrangement that is existing. One has either “too much time” or “too little”; time is “running out” or “dragging on”; we must “set the time”; we must properly “time” musical notes and when to throw the ball; we discuss our past with the mapping phrase “back in my time”; furthermore, time as exactitude, and time as nomothetic. Time, as we experience and use it, is a constantly shifting needle, pushed and pulled throughout our lives. Should a person have one of those suspiciously strange, eerily flawless days, time is “right on”—and, before one can even savor the delicious, punctual moment, the pleasing perfection has passed—swooped into the river of this mystical thing we know of as time.
During the western Age of Enlightenment, time in literature became personified. As nature became Nature and love was exalted to Love, so time was written as Time—a subtle, though I believe, sure expression of our intimate link with the mysterious, rolling hour. Time accompanies us without falter, an ever present companion such as the likes of oxygen proceeding in and out of our bodies and the microbiology of our skin. We occupy time as much as it occupies us. Its material, mechanism, and form mostly eludes us, but its force is undeniable, unstoppable, enviable even… Time, like death, is perfect, in that it cannot be improved upon. In its function, in its being, time is unsurpassed.
I have long been an admirer of time, perhaps because I have long felt time was on my side. As a child, I yearned for my grandmother’s white hair and her vein strewn hands; as an adolescent, I craved a craggy forehead and a bespeckled, splotched chest. Now, in my thirties, I sometimes in the night flip through the pages of old diaries, and with my feet clung to the leather of my seat, chin rested on my beaten knees, I trace the ink I looped into intimate disposition, and consider how I can barely grasp what has been and what will be. Often seen as a bandit, I’ve spent my life viewing time as a great giver. Hasn’t my life been nothing short of but a constant receiving and processing of time? Time is a filler, not an emptier. I think I have been lucky, for this perception has seemingly protected me from much stress and anxiety.
So a book on time was irresistible. I have read several now, one of the best being About Time: Einstein’s Unfinished Revolution by Paul Davies. My latest read, Carlo Rovelli’s The Order of Time (in its native Italian: L’ordine del tempo) is a summarized, but rich rendering of Rovelli’s life’s work: the study of space and time. Well plotted and envisioned, Rovelli’s book is written for the layman while not shunting expertise. From the point by point charting of Newtonian time, to the nebulous musings of Aristotle and the Greek philosophers, to a fever dream of possibilities, Rovelli explores far and wide what it means to be in time, and what it means to be time itself.
One after another, the characteristic features of time have proved to be approximations, mistakes determined by our perspective, just like the flatness of the Earth or the revolving of the sun. The growth of our knowledge has led to a slow disintegration of our notion of time. What we call “time” is a complex collection of structures, of layers. Under increasing scrutiny, in ever greater depth, time has lost layers one after another, piece by piece. […]
One by one, we discover the constituent parts of the time that is familiar to us—not, now, as elementary structures of reality, but rather as useful approximations for the clumsy and bungling mortal creatures we are: aspects of our perspective, and aspects, too, perhaps, that are decisive in determining what we are. Because the mystery of time is ultimately, perhaps, more about ourselves than about the cosmos.
The Order of Time is a progression—from beginning to end—into greater and greater entropy; this, I think, is part of Rovelli’s vision, for it is the story of time. The opening chapters are of time’s material, its measurement and mechanism, and what could be considered its proofs. Some myths and beliefs are quickly expelled, and with a very sharp scalpel, time is sliced; what was once explained and referred to as a singular body, flowing and constant and in perfect sync with all of space, is blown apart into innumerable sects. Rovelli explains, “Times are legion: a different one for every point in space. There is not one single time; there is a vast multitude of them.” Gravity, and heat, are massive influences of time’s current. A human being who lives on the seafloor will have more time than one who lives up in the mountains; our aquatic friend’s processes will process more slowly, while our mountaineer’s will process faster.
This is not a matter of perception—but fact. Precision timepieces have shown us that time does indeed move at different rates, and it all boils down to Einstein’s famous Theory of Relativity. Thermodynamics also plays a role, keeping time in its forward trajectory. Though time is multitudinous, it is certainly moving in one direction, Rovelli reassures. If I fall and skin my knee, I can not go back. Time is a river, as it has long been waxed and waned; however, each drop of water, each locality, exists only in relation to the others. Though it seems the river is one, it is not. It is our limited perceptions that see it as such. Time is not the broad stroke of a very big brush; it is intricate, painstaking pointillism.
So Rovelli makes a bold conclusion: due to the splintered, smattering that is time, there must therefore be no present, just past and future. In such squeezed, bubbled localities, the present is merely a construction of the human mind; in the material of the universe, time is a strange serpent, a creature of merely head and tail, asymmetrical and without equidistance. This leads to another revelation: that time is something that is happening. To us, time is understood by the diurnal rhythms of the natural world. The rising and setting of the sun, the phases of the moon, the comings and goings of the tides, the circulations of the seasons. We count the ways in which things change. From out the fields of physics, we find ourselves being led by Rovelli into the forests of philosophers. If time is happening, and if the happening of life is the continual totaling of events occurring around us, if suddenly, nothing were to move, nothing were to change, would time cease to pass and therefore, cease to exist?
It was a question Aristotle posed, and Rovelli rolls it in his hands, considering. He does this a lot throughout the course of the book, spinning the thoughts of his predecessors, as though spinning a basketball on his finger. It’s a balancing act, and the Law of Angular Momentum. The momentum must be conserved, or the whole thing falls off.
And things do fall off. Certain parts of The Order of Time can leave one scratching one’s chin like a chimp. At stages, a reader can feel the brain growing; a lightheadedness that invokes the sensation that your head will detach from your shoulders and float upward until your crown bumps the ceiling, rolling on its side as though a helium filled balloon. To his credit, Rovelli does his best to put things within reaching distance, but sometimes you’re just left up on your tippy toes, straining for the box. “Many parts of this story are solid, others plausible, others still are guesses hazarded in an attempt at understanding the whole.” Rovelli writes. The Order of Time begins very differently than how it ends; it proceeds from definitive rudimentary bits into manifold extrapolations; lopsided, and on incline, the ball in form of a book that is Rovelli’s mind rolls further and further ahead into question: this, by all means, is time.
Though time is fascinating to me, and I have spent countless hours discussing it in both verbal and written form, it was not the subject of Rovelli’s words that I found most enjoyable about this read—rather, it was Carlo Rovelli himself. (This is something that occurs often to me in reading: it is not only books I find so interesting, but the writers of books as well.) Rovelli has a wandering mind, and his elegant prose and choice vocabulary lend a wonderful freeness to The Order of Time that is so often lacking in the genres of science and nonfiction. In the dilating eye of quantification, the soulfulness and emotion of his study does not leave. Embracing the poetry of a carefully unfurling scene, Rovelli communes easily with his memories, his loves, his life. In what he calls “the residues of the past”, it is Rovelli’s reveries that make The Order of Time a book worth reading.
As humans—most notably over the past several decades—our explorations into the cosmos and the inception of it All seems to be emitting a quadraphonic sound: gravity, heat, space and time are all converging like points on a compass, but in our eager hands the arrow keeps spinning, round and around. It is a question: will we be able to sail deep into the unknown seas with this compass? Are these great titans the guides that will aid us in our strive to know more, and go further than we have ever gone? I don’t know, but over the years of my reading, it is clear to me that slowly, a consensus is being built by an impassioned chattering of scientific minds. These four things, have something to do with the birth of our universe. And if you are someone who is interested in The Big Questions, Carlo Rovelli’s The Order of Time is a fine piece of writing to add to your library.
Make time for Carlo Rovelli’s The Order of Time. I was not disappointed; hopefully, you won’t be either.
Four out of five stars for Carlo Rovelli’s The Order of Time.