Part 4—Bob Dylan, turned on his ear: "Times passes slowly up here in the mountains."
So Bob Dylan improbably claimed in the song, Times Passes Slowly, on his 1970 album, New Morning.
In our view, the album describes the unexpected discovery of personal happiness in married life and fatherhood. In the song Day of the Locusts, Dylan seems to describe an escape from an earlier crabbed, crowded world:
I put down my robe, picked up my diplomaIt's one of our favorite lyrics. That said, The album crawls with imagery of personal contentment in the uncrowded west.
Took ahold of my sweetheart and away we did drive
Straight for the hills, the black hills of Dakota
Sure was glad to get out of there alive
When Dylan said that "time passes slowly," he seemed to be saying that he had left a type of rat race in favor of a different and better subjective experience. In Sign on the Window, he borrowed from the folk tradition as he described this new/improved state of affairs:
Build me a cabin in Utah"One named Paul and one named Davy?" Dylan was working directly from the tradition—and he claimed that time was passing slowly, in a deeply agreeable way.
Marry me a wife, catch rainbow trout
Have a bunch of kids who call me "Pa"
That must be what it's all about,
That must be what it's all about.
Presumably, everyone knew, in a general way, what Dylan meant by his claim. That's fortunate because, as it turns out, the gentleman—a college dropout—may have been technically wrong.
Does time pass slowly up there in the mountains? In his new book, The Order of Time, Carlo Rovelli says no.
His claim comes right at the start of his short book's Part 1, in a sub-section called THE SLOWING DOWN OF TIME. Beneath a citation from Horace's Odes, the great simplifier says this:
ROVELLI (page 9): THE SLOWING DOWN OF TIMERovelli has always resented Dylan! one of the analysts angrily cried. We talked her down from her limited view, then returned to Rovelli's text.
Let's begin with a simple fact: time passes faster in the mountains than it does at sea level.
Stating the obvious, the "simple fact" Rovelli describes is highly counterintuitive. More accurately, it isn't clear, at least at this point, what Rovelli actually means by this puzzling statement at all.
At least in a general way, everyone knew what Dylan meant by his (poetical) statement. He seemed to mean that he had escaped a hurly-burly when he went, with his wife and his children, into the mountains to live a simpler life.
That was poetic, but Rovelli's a physicist. What the heck does Rovelli mean when he says that time passes faster up there in the hills?
Basically, this passage constitutes his full explanation. These are the first two pages of Part 1 of his short, allegedly very clear book:
ROVELLI (pages 9-10): Let’s begin with a simple fact: time passes faster in the mountains than it does at sea level.Say what? "There is simply less time" at sea level? Set side your views on Dylan's work. Based upon that brief explanation, do you feel you understand what Rovelli's statement means?
The difference is small but can be measured with precision timepieces that can be bought today on the internet for a few thousand dollars. With practice, anyone can witness the slowing down of time. With the timepieces of specialized laboratories, this slowing down of time can be detected between levels just a few centimeters apart: a clock placed on the floor runs a little more slowly than one on a table.
It is not just the clocks that slow down: lower down, all processes are slower. Two friends separate, with one of them living in the plains and the other going to live in the mountains. They meet up again years later: the one who has stayed down has lived less, aged less, the mechanism of his cuckoo clock has oscillated fewer times. He has had less time to do things, his plants have grown less, his thoughts have had less time to unfold. Lower down, there is simply less time than at altitude.
Is this surprising? Perhaps it is. But this is how the world works. Time passes more slowly in some places, more rapidly in others.
Truthfully, we do not. We were puzzled when we first read that passage. We're still puzzled today.
According to Rovelli, clocks run slower at sea level. Assuming that statement is accurate, why couldn't that be an artifact of gravity's effect on a clock?
Rovelli also says this: "all processes are slower" at sea level, including the aging process. Why couldn't that simply be a statement about the effect of gravity upon physical processes, including those of the human body?
Clocks run slower at sea level? Human bodies age more slowly? What turns these straightforward claims about clocks and bodies into a murky statement about time, indeed about "less time?"
Why does "time" have to come into play here at all? What turns a bunch of straightforward statements about physical processes into a puzzling statement about "time"—indeed, about the amount of time available in different places?
"Lower down, there is simply less time?" We're not real clear about what that means. Consider:
The friend who has lived at sea level has revolved around the sun the same number of times as the friend in the mountains. In what sense has he experienced "less time" when they meet again?
Why hasn't he simply "aged less" in the same amount of time? Are you sure you're clear about that? Unless we simply agree to repeat the things authorities tell us to say, it seems to us that this "explanation" is perhaps a bit undercooked.
"Times passes slowly up here in the mountains?" Dylan was speaking poetically about a subjective experience. Speaking as a physicist, Rovelli flips Dylan's tale on its head.
Time passes faster up there in the mountains, Rovelli says. Making his brief even less clear, he even says that there is less time at sea level.
Please understand! We're not saying Rovelli is wrong; we're saying his claims are unclear. And until you can make a statement that's clear, your statement doesn't rise to the level of being wrong.
From (slightly) slower clocks and (slightly) slower aging, we've moved somehow to "less time." This move didn't seem real clear to us.
Heroically, we continued reading. Did Rovelli, the great clarifier, ever straighten this out?
Tomorrow: Various places to quit