Conclusion—Homo sapiens' folly: In the end, which is it?
Does time pass slowly up there in the mountains, as Bob Dylan once insisted?
Or it there really "less time" by the shore, as Professor Rovelli now claims? Does time actually pass more slowly down there?
In this theoretical dispute, Dylan's claim holds one large advantage. As a general matter, people knew what he was talking about when he made his famous assertion.
Rovelli's theoretics don't rise to that level. Let's return to the start of Part 1 in The Order of Times, his impossibly easy-to-understand and also poetic new book.
Rovelli's Part 1 begins on page 9, beneath a selection from Horace's Odes. By page 10, the poetical professor is saying that Dylan was actually aging faster when he lived up in the mountains.
According to Rovelli, times passes more slowly down there by the sea! There's actually "less time" by the shore, where the waves crash and drag, Rovelli unclearly says.
The physical process of "aging faster" is perfectly easy to picture. In the context of Rovelli's page 10, the notion of "less time" pretty much isn't. No matter how many times we quote Rilke or Horace, the concept is murky, unclear.
At this point, as he reads page 10, the reader may make an assumption. Rovelli will clarify his claims as he proceeds, the hopeful reader may assume.
Soon, though, that reader will reach the passage shown below. At this point, we'd have to say that the basic "At What Page?" question has perhaps been answered.
At what page might a sensible reader judge that all hope for clarity is lost? As he or she tiptoes onto page 12, the reader is offered this as Rovelli explains, or pretends to explain, the basic way gravity works.
We highlight the final hope-killer:
ROVELLI (pages 11-12): Einstein asked himself a question that has perhaps puzzled many of us when studying the force of gravity: how can the sun and the Earth "attract" each other without touching anything between them?In that passage, Rovelli begins to discuss Einstein's explanation of the way the sun and the Earth attract each other. That said:
He looked for a plausible explanation and found one by imagining that the sun and the Earth do not attract each other directly but that each of the two gradually acts on that which is between them. And since what lies between them is only space and time, he imagined that the sun and the Earth each modified the space and time that surrounded them, just as a body immersed in water displaces the water around it...
In response to our request, an international panel of experts has offered a basic assessment. According to these well-known figures, a sensible reader can reasonably quit on Rovelli's book by the part of the passage we've highlighted in the excerpt above.
Others may continue to read, assuming that Rovelli will straighten things out as he proceeds. But a sensible reader is justified in quitting right there, on page 12!
Why did our panel of experts so rule? Consider what Rovelli says in that highlighted passage:
In that excerpt about Einstein's explanation of gravity, Rovelli says that two things lie between the sun and the Earth. Those two things are space and time, Rovelli says.
Most readers will feel comfortable with the first part of that statement. As a general matter, we've all been told that the sun lies roughly 93 million miles from the Earth.
Even a trip from the Earth to the nearby moon is typically described as a trip "into space." Few readers will balk at the general idea that there's a lot of "space" between the sun and the Earth.
(That said, the general reader may generally think of this as empty space. This creates a basic problem for what's coming next.)
Does space lie between the Earth and the sun? Few readers will balk at that notion. But what about the second part of the highlighted statement? What about the claim that the sun and the Earth are also separated "by time?"
According to our international panel, all of whom have read Oedipus Rex, the average reader will have no idea what that puzzling claim means. All the dancing shivas on Earth—all the dancing figures Matisse ever painted; every line in Rilke's Elegy—won't help the average reader decipher that claim, our expert panel has assessed.
Given the general incoherence of his earlier statements, a sensible reader is thereby justified in dumping Rovelli's book right there, our expert panel has judged. According to our Coherence Bureau, a reader can sensibly quit Rovelli right there, on page 12, after maybe two thousand words.
The sensible reader might quit right there, that fast! That said, we thought you might want to see where Rovelli's easy-to-understand page 12 goes from there. First, one small bit of backtracking. Consider:
In the excerpt we've posted, the reader is told that time somehow lies between the sun and the Earth. As noted, the general reader will almost surely have no idea what that claim is supposed to mean. Nor does Rovelli ever attempt to explain.
Beyond that, the reader is also told, in that passage, that the sun and the Earth each "modify the space which surrounds them." The reader has likely accepted the idea that the sun and the Earth are surrounded and separated by space, but he's likely to have no idea what it means to say that this space, which he likely thinks of as empty, gets "modified" by these bodies.
Alas! Even by page 12, this master of explication has left the general reader far behind. As he does, journalists swear on a stack of pay-stubs that they've understood every word of his easy-to-understand text.
(Nineteen years earlier, their colleagues swore on a similar stack that Al Gore said he invented the Internet. Can you see where this willingness to swear to fictions can lead?)
Back to Rovelli's page 12:
Already, the alert reader may understand that he is hopelessly lost. That said, the murky concept of "modifying space" will play no role as Rovelli pretends to explain the way gravity works.
What did Einstein conclude about gravity? As it turns out, the whole thing turns on the concept of "modifying time," which turns out to mean the way time passes slowly away from the mountains, the puzzling concept which didn't exactly get explained on Rovelli's page 10.
In standard Einstein-made-easy texts, one incoherent point gets stacked upon many others. (It's turkeys all the way down!) Before Rovelli exits page 12, we find him offering this:
ROVELLI (pages 12-13): If things fall, it is due to this slowing down of time. Where time passes uniformly, in interplanetary space, things do not fall. They float, without falling. Here on the surface of our planet, on the other hand, the movement of things inclines naturally towards where time passes more slowly, as when we run down the beach into the sea and the resistance of the water on our legs makes us fall headfirst into the waves. Things fall downwards because, down there, time is slowed by the Earth.Interesting! Here on our planet, the movement of things inclines naturally towards where time passes more slowly!
In fairness to rote learning, everyone can learn to repeat such words. After such a recitation, the reader can also say that the idea is easy to understand.
That said, what makes that natural inclinations occur? Why does "the movement of things incline naturally towards where time passes more slowly?" Why doesn't the movement of things incline towards where time passes faster?
Rovelli is apparently saving that explanation for his next easy book. In his current amazingly simple text, we're simply told that this "naturally" occurs, full stop, with reviewers rushing to say they understand. Why not say that things "naturally" fall toward the Earth? How much have we gained at this point?
According to a panel of experts, a reader is justified in quitting this book as early as page 12. For ourselves, we kept going all the way to the end of Part 2, on page 36.
The subsections called HEAT and BLUR may be as incoherent as any work we've ever encountered. Still, reviewers repeat the script. This book is so easy, they say.
According to Professor Harari, this nonsense started 70,000 years ago. At that time, our currently floundering, lightly-skilled species developed two new abilities—the ability to gossip, and the ability to invent and affirm wide-ranging group fictions.
According to numerous studies, this helped our species, Homo sapiens, wipe out other human species and take control of the Earth. According to Professor Harari, the tendency to invent and affirm absurd group fictions was a boon to our species back then.
This short time later, our journalists largely work from group fictions today. One such fiction involves the blatantly ludicrous claim that people like Rovelli are easy to understand. This one group fiction provides comic relief, even as many other tribal fictions lie at the heart of our discourse.
At one time, the ability to affirm nonsense as a group gave us control of the planet. Pleasures of comic relief to the side, this tendency to repeat Fictive Group Tales seems much less adaptive today—or so it very much seemed to us on our summer vacation.