Rock star physicist Carlo Rovelli on why time is an illusion

“I found something extraordinarily beautiful and extraordinarily radical. And I thought, wow, this is better than LSD”

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

At the outset of Julian Barnes’s novel The Sense of an Ending, the narrator observes: “We live in time – it holds us and moulds us – but I’ve never felt I understood it very well.” This recurred to me as I read Carlo Rovelli’s new book. In The Order of Time, the Italian theoretical physicist dismantles our most fundamental assumptions about the subject.

“The sense of time flowing has nothing to do with physics and everything to do with our brain,” Rovelli, 62 – a short, soft-spoken man – explained when we met at his publisher Penguin’s offices in London (Rovelli’s last book, Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, sold 1.3 million copies). The past and future, for instance, are purely human constructs; at the microscopic level they are indistinguishable. Time passes at different rates depending on place (moving faster in the mountains and slower at sea level) and motion (a runner ages less quickly than a walker).

Albert Einstein intuited this more than a century ago; technology has since confirmed his insights. “We now have clocks that clearly measure the different speed at which time goes in different places,” Rovelli said. “As soon as interplanetary travel develops, it will be obvious that we can age at different speeds. The astronaut can go for a trip and come back and find her children older than her.”

When we speak of “time”, Rovelli’s book explains, we are in fact referring to entropy: the tendency of all systems to progress from order to disorder (waves break but do not unbreak; we grow older, not younger). Entropy was lower in the “past” and will be greater in the “future”.

The Order of Time is a lucid, poetic work that channels the Grateful Dead, Martin Heidegger, Émile Durkheim and Marcel Proust, and that ends with a moving coda on death (“the sister of sleep, Bach calls it”). Rovelli stands proudly in the omnivorous Renaissance tradition (in 2011, he wrote a biography of the Greek philosopher Anaximander, entitled The First Scientist).

Rovelli’s determination to make quantum physics accessible – and his prodigious book sales – have led him to be labelled “the new Stephen Hawking”. But he shrugs at the comparison. “It doesn’t disturb me, it doesn’t offend me – it doesn’t particularly please me either.” Rather than the new Hawking, one senses, he would prefer to be known as the first Carlo Rovelli.

Rovelli was born in Verona, Italy, and now lives in the French seaside village of Cassis. He works at the nearby Centre for Theoretical Physics at Aix-Marseille University. In his youth, the modest, amiable scientist was a radical insurrectionary. “I was in a strong personal conflict with everything around me: school, family,” Rovelli recalled in the manner of JD Salinger’s Holden Caulfield.  “And then I realised that I was not alone – it was a common story. My political engagement followed naturally.”

“The movement”, as he called it, stretched from “mystic hippies to radical Leninists and Trotskyists”. They were united, Rovelli told me, by their desire for “a world without classes and without war. In fact, without private property and without family.”

Rovelli was one of the founders of Radio Alice, a pirate station in Bologna, and was later arrested and charged with “disrespecting the state” after co-authoring the book Fatti Nostri (Our Business).

The “new political order” of which Rovelli dreamed never materialised. “The movement failed because it was based on a very bad reading of reality,” he said. “We were confusing the dreams of a minority of the population, which was us, with the concerns of the majority. We thought of ourselves as the Leninist vanguardia – it was total bullshit – we were just a bunch of kids dreaming.”

But it was at this moment of profound disappointment that Rovelli’s enchantment with science began (he studied physics at the University of Bologna and received his PhD from the University of Padua). The absence of political revolution drew him towards the revolutions of the natural world. “I found something extraordinarily beautiful and extraordinarily radical. It’s not just that social life can be different – the entire universe can be! And I thought, wow, this is better than LSD.”

Rovelli’s experiments with the drug influenced his perception of time (“You feel that it’s stopped, that you’re in eternity”). But the chemicals produced by the human brain, he realised, mean our view of the world is permanently distorted.

Having achieved renown in the scientific world in the late Eighties for his pioneering work on loop quantum gravity theory, Rovelli is endearingly startled by his success as an author. “I’ve not absorbed the idea that I’m a writer. I think of myself as a physicist who happened to write some books.”

It is as “a citizen”, Rovelli said, that he engages politically (he is a regular contributor to Italian newspapers such as La Repubblica and Corriere della Sera). “Italy is often the first to do wrong things,” he lamented of the populist Five Star Movement’s recent general election victory. “Fascism was invented there. It’s messy, it’s chaotic but somehow the country works in spite of the politics.” Rather like the disordered universe, I suggested.

Rovelli has now resigned himself to progressive incrementalism (“I have no problem voting for the mainstream centre left”). But even now, flashes of his youthful idealism endure. “The idea that collaboration works better than competition is very weak in the world – and I still feel sorry for that.” 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 04 May 2018 issue of the New Statesman, What Marx got right