Carlo Rovelli: The man who knew time

Anita Roy | Updated on February 14, 2020

Following Copernicus: Physics has found its poet in Carlo Rovelli, says writer John Banville   -  WIKIMEDIA

To regain a sense of wonder about the commonplace mysteries of science, reading theoretical physicist and writer Carlo Rovelli is a must

Let’s get this straight: I hated physics at school.

Mainly, I hated my physics teacher, a moustachioed praying mantis of a man called Doctor Thorn. For teenage girls (it was an all-girls school), he only had withering contempt, a scathing and palpable feeling that his students warmly reciprocated. I always felt he held me in especially low esteem, a feeble creature whom the mere mention of Newton’s Second Law of Thermodynamics would reduce to a quivering heap.

He seemed to take it as a personal affront that I managed to scrape through my O-level exam. Entre nous, I can admit that had more to do with the tender tutorials by my then boyfriend, a bit of a science boffin himself, than to lessons with Doctor T.

The Order of Time; Carlo Rovelli; Penguin Random House; Non-fiction; ₹499


So when I admit to you that my current book at bedtime is by an Italian theoretical physicist, about the nature of time in quantum mechanics, you may wonder what new hell I have constructed for myself. And why. But that means, dear reader, that you have not yet had the pleasure of meeting Carlo Rovelli — and when I say pleasure, I mean it.

Now in his 60s, Rovelli teaches at the Centre for Theoretical Physics at Aix-Marseille University in France. He was an undergraduate at Bologna and a graduate at Padua just like another revolutionary European scientist, Nicolaus Copernicus. Rovelli enjoys the fact that his theories of ‘loop quantum gravity’ might sound as, well, loopy to modern ears as Copernicus’s insistence that the Earth revolves around the sun did to his audience 500 years ago.

But just because something sounds mad doesn’t mean it’s not true. Rovelli’s bookThe Order of Time glories in tripping up ‘common sense’ with quantum physics. Take the fact that time — which we ordinarily think of as a uniform field that ‘passes’ at the same rate no matter where you are — actually operates at different speeds depending on where it is being measured. Take two incredibly accurate atomic clocks, and put one on the floor. Hold the other up at shoulder level and, after a while, compare the two: The higher would show more time had passed than the lower. In other words, as the charming Rovelli puts it, “your head is older than your feet”.

It is hardly surprising that modern ideas about time are mind-bending, because time itself is far from straight: An insight Rovelli (at least partially) puts down to dropping acid in his long-haired, bell-bottomed youth.

In order to explain how modern concepts of the universe have been formulated — and where they are wrong — Rovelli brings into the ring Aristotle in the blue corner and Isaac Newton in the red. It’s a battle of the heavyweights, but he writes about these issues with a butterfly lightness of touch. Which is right, he asks: “Time is only a way of measuring how things change, as Aristotle would have it — or should we be thinking that an absolute time exists that flows by itself, independently of things?”

He then turns to space. “Newton imagines that things are situated in a ‘space’ that continues to exist, empty, even when divested of things. For Aristotle, this ‘empty space’ is nonsensical, because if two things do not touch it means that there is something else between them, and if there is something then this something is a thing, and therefore a thing that is there. It cannot be that there is ‘nothing’.”

While these two are slugging it out, Rovelli wheels on the granddaddy of modern physics, Albert Einstein. And trips the light fantastic out of the general theory of relativity in a way that even I, bottom of the heap and dunce in a corner of Thorn’s class, could follow.

The charm — and it is charm, not just clarity — that Rovelli brings to the subject is astonishing. His book is laced with quotations from poets, philosophers, musicians and artists. I loved the explanation of ‘granularity’, for example, the idea that ‘quanta’ are elementary grains, and that continuity is only the result of a ‘blurred’ perception of the fine dots. Rovelli writes, “The world is subtly discrete, not continuous. The good Lord has not drawn the world with continuous lines: with a light hand, he has sketched it in dots, like Seurat.”

With his dark eyebrows, roguish wavy hair and infectious enthusiasm for his subject, Rovelli is quite the poster-boy for quantum physics — if that’s even a thing. There’s a reason, I think, that when you Google him, the first question under ‘People also ask’ is not about quantum physics but “Is Carlo Rovelli married?”

Yes, I’m a little smitten. Perhaps it’s a throwback to those heady days of physics O-level revision. On the cover of Rovelli’s book, writer John Banville says simply, “Physics has found its poet.” I’d go along with that.

The Order of Time reads so beautifully, so deliciously, that it can and should be read by anyone, down to the least ‘scientifically minded’. And it is with enormous thanks that I doff my metaphorical hat to his talented collaborators, Erica Segre and Simon Carnell, for having lost none of its precision nor flow — granular and lyrical — in their luminous translation.

Anita Roy   -  BLink


Anita Roy is a writer, editor and environmentalist

Published on February 14, 2020

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