By Carlo Rovelli
Read by Benedict Cumberbatch
There’s a passage in Carlo Rovelli’s lovely new book, “The Order of Time” — a letter from Einstein to the family of his recently deceased friend Michele Besso: “Now he has departed from this strange world a little ahead of me. That means nothing… The distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.” Rovelli comments that Einstein was taking great poetic license with the temporal findings of his relativity theory, even to the point of error. But then the author goes on to say that the great physicist was addressing his letter not to scientists or philosophers, but to a bereft family. “It’s a letter written to console a grieving sister,” he writes. “A gentle letter, alluding to the spiritual bond between Michele and Albert.” That sensitivity to the human condition is a constant presence in Rovelli’s book — a book that reviews all of the best scientific thinking about
the perennial mystery of time, from relativity to quantum physics to the inexorable second law of thermodynamics. Meanwhile, he always returns to us frail human beings — we who struggle to understand not only the external world of atoms and galaxies but also the internal world of our hearts and our minds.
The book is read by the British actor Benedict Cumberbatch, who has benefited from significant stage experience as well as starring in such films as “The Imitation Game” and the TV series “Sherlock.” Cumberbatch possesses a deep and rich voice and reads the text in a precise but unhurried manner, with the result that we feel as if we are getting an exposition by an erudite but gentle teacher.
Rovelli, who is a theoretical physicist at Aix-Marseille University in France and the author of the international best seller “Seven Brief Lessons on Physics,” explains how scientists in his field look at time, seasoning his book with quotes from the likes of Horace and Shakespeare and a fair measure of his personal ruminations. His title was inspired by a fragment of the writings of the ancient Greek philosopher Anaximander (circa 600 B.C.): “Things are transformed one into another according to necessity, and render justice to one another according to the order of time.” In response, Rovelli’s book asks, Why should time have an order? And for whom? And to what end?
Prior to Einstein, it was believed that time was absolute. A second was a second was a second, period. Time flowed in lock-step uniformity everywhere throughout the universe. The idea was so obvious as not to be questioned — until it was. In 1905, at age 26, Einstein first set out to explain the workings of electricity and magnetism. In the process, he proposed that identical clocks in motion relative to each other do not tick at the same rate. That seemingly absurd proposition has been proved. Later, Einstein conjectured, with a highly mathematical theory called general relativity, that gravity also affects the rate of ticking of clocks: A clock in strong gravity ticks more slowly than one in weak gravity. That claim has also been proved. The final insult: Two events that are simultaneous to one person are not for another person who is in motion with respect to the first. Thus the entire concept of “now” needs rethinking.
Chapter by chapter, Rovelli shows how modern physics has annihilated common understandings of time. And both the writing and vocal delivery are beautiful.
“Meet the new Stephen Hawking . . . The Order of Time is a dazzling book.” —The Sunday Times