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Saturday, May 12, 2018

The Order of Time review: Where physics and philosophy meet | Culture - Irish Times

Exquisite translation captures Carlo Rovelli’s beautiful and intricate messages.

Carlo Rovelli points out that our entire conception of reality is blurred, necessarily – we can only discern the big events, not the infinitesimally small.
Photo: Stefania D’Alessandro/Getty Images
We live in the past. When we look deep into the night sky the radiance of the stars we see is anything from minutes to millions of years old: we are stargazing into the past. Even here on earth the “present moment” is an illusion. The light that for me is the image of your face takes an interval of time, however brief, to reach the retina of my eye, so that for me the you I see is you as you were an instant ago. It is a dizzying thought. Carlo Rovelli has many such facts and phenomena to confront us with, that require us to bethink ourselves. As he remarks, “We know little of the actual relation between what we see of the world and the world itself.”

Rovelli is a physicist working in the field of quantum gravity – “There is not yet a theory of quantum gravity that has been generally accepted by the scientific community, or obtained experimental support” – and is based in Marseilles, where he directs a research group at the Centre de physique théorique. He is also a masterly interpreter to the layman of highly complex and counter-intuitive current theories of the actual nature of reality, that reality to which most of us outside the laboratory are purblind. As the title of Rovelli’s previous book has it, Reality Is Not What It Seems. But have no fear: he is a wonderfully humane, gentle and witty guide through the theoretical thickets, for he is as much philosopher and poet as he is a scientist.

Perhaps the easiest means of access to this captivating, fascinating, profoundly beautiful but undeniably intricate book is to consider, as Rovelli does in Chapter 4, the contrast between Aristotle’s and Isaac Newton’s notions of what time is. For Aristotle, philosopher of the actual, time is nothing more or less than the measurement of change: “If nothing changes, there is no time.” Newton, on the other hand, founded his physics on the premise that there is such a thing as absolute time – and absolute space, too, but that is another matter – which passes in a seemingly Platonic somewhere, “independently of things and of their changes”. 

Another structure
We live in a Newtonian universe, as we must. Newton, it might be said, made a home for us, accommodating, dependable, built to our scale, and there we reside, and always shall. There is, however, not next door but on the very same site as our House of the World, another structure, wherein other laws hold sway, and another reality is in place. Here the medium in which things exist is Einstein’s spacetime. “This is the synthesis that Einstein found between Aristotle’s conception of time and Newton’s,” Rovelli tells us. “With a tremendous beat of his wing, Einstein understands that Aristotle and Newton are both right.” However, Newton is mistaken in holding that time is absolute and independent of things, “that it passes regularly, imperturbably, separately, from everything else”.
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Additional resources  

The Order of Time

Source: Irish Times