Skip to main content

The Order of Time - Carlo Rovelli ***

There's good news and bad news. The good news is that The Order of Time does what A Brief History of Time seemed to promise but didn't cover: it attempts to explore what time itself is. The bad news is that Carlo Rovelli does this in such a flowery and hand-waving fashion that, though the reader may get a brief feeling that they understand what he's writing about, any understanding rapidly disappears like the scent of a passing flower (the style is catching).

It doesn't help either that the book is in translation so some scientific terms are mangled, or that Rovelli has a habit of self-contradiction. Time and again (pun intended) he tells us time doesn't exist, then makes use of it. For example, at one point within a page of telling us of time's absence Rovelli writes of events that have duration and a 'when' - both meaningless terms without time. At one point he speaks of a world without time, elsewhere he says 'Time and space are real phenomena.' The difficulty I think Rovelli faces is that he uses the common physicist's approach of talking of a model as if it were reality. 

The wofflyness often gets in the way of understanding. For example, when talking about the second law of thermodynamics and entropy, he claims (I think - it's difficult to tell exactly what he is claiming) that the only reason we perceive the arrow of time from the increase of entropy is the way we label things. The implication is that, for example, the atoms in your body are no more ordered than the atoms in a scrambled mess - it's just that it's easier to see the order in your body because on the scale of atoms everything is blurred, but if we could see every atom exactly, whatever configuration they would be in would itself be unique. It sounds impressive, but skips over the way that fundamental quantum particles are indistinguishable. The arrangement of the cloud of atoms is only unique if you can tell one hydrogen atom (say) from another.

This is rather a shame, as Rovelli covers a considerable amount in what is a distinctly short book (though, thankfully, you get more for your money than in Seven Brief Lessons). Amongst other things, Rovelli passingly covers the special and general theories of relativity, thermodynamics and, of course, loop quantum gravity. And it's particularly frustrating because his attempt to put across the idea that it’s better to model reality in terms of events rather than things is a very powerful one which isn't often seen in popular science - but the message could easily be lost in the confusion. You come away with very little information - far more that rapidly disappearing odour.

I've no doubt this book should do well for those who are impressed that a physicist can refer to Proust. But I like a popular science book with significantly more meat in it, rather than vague impressions.

Hardback:  

Kindle:  


Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

  1. I read his earlier 7 Brief Lessons in Physics, and concluded that he creates the impression of explaining without the reality

    ReplyDelete

Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

The Art of Logic - Eugenia Cheng ***

This is an important book, though I'm not sure Eugenia Cheng would agree with my logic in saying so. 

Going on the marketing, what we have here is a counter to fake news and dodgy argumentation in the form of mathematical logic. The back cover tells us 'Newspaper headlines and social media use emotions to warp the facts. Politicians and companies master rhetoric to mislead us. What one book could help us make sense of it all?' Admittedly they don't answer their rhetorical question, but I assume the answer is intended to be The Art of Logic. (Did the company behind this book realise it was using rhetoric, though presumably not to mislead us?) 

What we actually have is a combination of a lucid and interesting explanation of the basics of logic with the mathematical equivalent of those books such as Algorithms to Live By that were so popular a couple of years ago. They used the logic of algorithms (differently worded, and, to me, easier to understand), the heart of computer…

Quantum Economics - David Orrell ****

David Orrell's earlier title Economyths is one of my favourite popular science books of all time. Or, perhaps, I should say popular non-science, as Orrell shows just how devastatingly traditional economics uses the tools of science without having a scientific basis. I was, therefore, really looking forward to reading Orrell's new book - until I saw the title. As anyone involved with physics can tell you, there's nothing more irritating than the business of sticking the word 'quantum' onto something to give a pseudo-scientific boost to waffle and woo. Was Orrell doing the same thing? Thankfully, his introduction put my fears aside.

Orrell, a mathematician with a physics background quickly makes it clear that the way he is using quantum theory is not just employing magic words, but involves making use of strong parallels between the nature of quantum objects and concepts like money (more on money in a moment). Yes, this is to some extent a metaphorical use of quantum …

Lost in Math - Sabine Hossenfelder *****

One of my favourite illustrations from a science title was in Fred Hoyle's book on his quasi-steady state theory. It shows a large flock of geese all following each other, which he likened to the state of theoretical physics. In the very readable Lost in Math, physicist Sabine Hossenfelder exposes the way that in certain areas of physics, this is all too realistic a picture. (Hossenfelder gives Hoyle's cosmological theory short shrift, incidentally, though, to be fair, it wasn't given anywhere near as many opportunities to be patched up to match observations as the current version of big bang with inflation.)

Lost in Math is a very powerful analysis of what has gone wrong in the way that some aspects of physics are undertaken. Until the twentieth century, scientists made observations and experiments and theoreticians looked for theories which explained them, which could then be tested against further experiments and observations. Now, particularly in particle physics, it…