Does Time Exist?

A review of ‘The Order of Time’ by Carlo Rovelli

By Rachel Black

Does time exist? It is an awfully big question. And perhaps one you have never thought to ask yourself. Carlo Rovelli’s ‘The Order of Time’ presents a poetic and enlightening account of the nature of time, and its implications for modern physics and beyond. I offer a warning to those of you prone to existential crises; this one may be your greatest yet.

We all experience the passage of time – we have memories of the past, we have hopes and dreams for the future, and we live, to the best of our abilities, within the present. Timetables and zoom meeting alerts govern our modern lives – and the rising and setting of the sun has guided us since our very beginnings. Despite this, the mystery of time has been one that humankind has always pondered – from Aristotle, who defined time as the measurement of change, concluding that if nothing changes then no time has passed, to Einstein, who (disputedly) called time an ‘illusion’ after the development of his theory of General Relativity.

Good, old 2020 was certainly a year of change, and one in which my interpretation of time was severely challenged – time passed painfully slowly during lockdown, whilst moving alarmingly fast when I finally made it back to university. In fact, I was not alone in this adventure though time. A study conducted by psychologist Dr Ruth Ogden found that over 80% of us felt our perception of time dramatically change during lockdown – with a half and half split between those who felt it fly by more quickly, and those who felt it drag on endlessly [1]. But our perception of time relative to what? What is the ‘normal’ passage of time? Time is not a sense – nor have we any organ that particularly measures it. Scientifically speaking, we also know that the perfect clock has not and will not ever be made [2]. As well as this, we know from our relativity classes that if I sent my twin sister, Rebecca, off on a spaceship (very willing to try this, by the way) that she would come back having aged less than me.

So, I ask you again, with slightly more educated wording, does objective time exist? Hold on to your timepieces, folks; things are about to get a whole lot more bewildering than this…

Just as we once thought that the Earth was flat, or that there might actually be treasure at the end of a rainbow, in his book, ‘The Order of Time’, Rovelli gracefully destroys everything we thought we knew about reality. By inviting the reader to review their own naïve perspective of the world, the founder of quantum loop theory will quickly convince you that there is no such thing as a universal present; that the difference between past and future does not exist (in the eyes of the equations) and that the world is made up of ‘kisses’, not ‘stones’.

Corelli narrates his tale of time in three parts. The first breaks down our common understanding of time, using topics that are well known to us as physicists, such as time dilation and the second law of thermodynamics, as his tools. The second helps us to visualize what a world without this ‘time’ may look like. The third works to rebuild our picture of time in this timeless existence.

Now, if you think that all this sounds a little too paradoxical for a Sunday morning read, do not give up on me yet. There is a reason that this book has sold over a million copies and has been translated into 41 languages. Far from the academic (might I say boring, dull, and uninspiring?) style of writing I am used to from my physics textbooks, Corelli’s writing convinced me that I was reading an autobiography, a philosophy book, and a collection of poetry at the same time; all whilst giving me an incredible lesson on the history of modern physics.

Not only because I had nothing much else to do this lockdown 3.0, I managed to devour the book in less than a week, as well as forcing it upon the rest of my family. The book pushed me to think more profoundly about the nature of the world, but I also could not have discovered it at a more perfect time (no pun intended). Nearing the end of my undergraduate degree, it felt as though the book was hugely valuable to me and my fellow 4th years, succinctly linking together every one of our modules in a delightfully colourful summary. However, it should not be exclusively considered as pitched towards this group – a wide range of readers will get a lot out of it (unless you get a headache thinking about space – this might turn it into a migraine).

Whilst the book is, as I have said, extremely readable and beautifully written, I must confess that with so much packaged into each chapter, I found it easy to become distracted (a.k.a. lost and confused) in parts. Rather than making me want to put down the book, however, it made me want to pick the book up again and get to the bottom of it. In saying that, I have almost four years of an undergraduate physics degree under my belt. The book is written for the genre of ‘popular-science’, and should hypothetically be appropriate for any reader, regardless of their scientific background. Corelli does provide a disclaimer on difficulty around particular concepts, such as thermal time (yup, still do not really know what that was all about) and quantum loop theory (absolutely NO chance), however I do think that this was a bit of a ‘get out of jail free’ card.

I was also not mentally prepared for the closing chapter, in which the physicist offers a lengthy philosophical discussion on why we should not be afraid of death, but this is perhaps more of a reflection on my own psychology than anything else…

Should you bother reading it? Well, I suppose, in the words of J.R.R. Tolkien, ‘all we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us’. And I think this would be an exceptionally good use of that time indeed, but if you do not want to commit to buying the book, Anson’s article ‘How to Travel Upwards in Time’ may be a good place to start…

Book Availability
The Order of Time by Carlo Rovelli , translated from Italian by Erica Segre and Simon Carnell, may be bought from Blackwell’s on offer for £7.31. It can also be found from all other popular booksellers.

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