WHAT WE DID: Vacation's end!


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?

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 that passage, Rovelli begins to discuss Einstein's explanation of the way the sun and the Earth attract each other. That said:

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.


  1. What, nothing at all about the Trump's War? A lucid moment, I guess. I'm glad you still have them.

    1. Trump is a liar and a thief.
      And Putin's bitch.

      p.s. Mao: your index finger must be bloody from whacking that "refresh" icon.
      Nothing else to do? eh?

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  2. In the sciences. anything described without math is considered easy to understand. The college intro course in any field is similarly dumbed down, full of gee whiz findings intended to entice freshmen to change their majors. Details, rigor, completeness of explanation are glossed to permit easy entry to the material. Rovelli is doing that and there is nothing wrong with it. The reader who wants to know more will seek out the Intro to physics for physics majors 101 course, with calculus. Everyone else will move on. All serious questions will be answered in grad school.

    The more you study any topic, the more complex it becomes. But Somerby doesn't really want to understand time and the cosmos. He wants to attack academics for being unable to oversimplify to his satisfaction. As a passive consumer of learning he thinks all should be poured into his brain without effort on his part, or the book jacket blurbs are full of lies. Is he also waiting for liberals to pour knowledge into the minds of minority kids so their NAEP scores will be higher, and mad because the schools are withholding it?

    Or is he mad because he is the only one who takes book jacket blurbs literally and feels foolish because he actually thought there was a shortcut to learning hard stuff. Maybe if he goes back to Amazon they'll give him a refund.

  3. Surely everybody has heard of space-time, where physicists pretend that reality is 4 dimensional instead of only 3 dimensional. I mean, Ramona explained that on episode 117 of Dr. Who fer chriscakes.

    What is not explained though is, if it is hard to figure out how the Sun can grab the earth from 93 million miles away, it's even harder to figure out how either of them can grab "space" itself from even two giga-angstroms away. I know they use the analogy of a sheet of rubber, but all that does is explain how it is worked out mathematically it does not explain HOW an object of mass can do that to either space or time.

    Somewhere I imagine physicists out there bending space in much the same way that my brother bent rebar on his mission trip to Vieques. Good luck with that.

    I have to object though. Do things really just float in interplanetary space? Unless they are in an orbit they should actually fall towards the sun, if not towards the nearest substantial object.

    Certainly there must also be a time difference (or should I say 'rate of time') between r1 and r2 if one is 92 million miles from the sun and the other is only 90 million. Gonna have to let one of those precision clocks fall into the sun while it broadcasts its time back here.

    My own gravitational question involves bicycles. I often notice that as I am slowly attempting, say, to pass a person on the left, their walking seems to veer to the left at that same time. Which is kinda inconvenient. Is the gravitational pull between us strong enough to alter their course, or is it just an unhappy coincidence?

  4. Please temper criticisms of Mr. Howler by remembering that he has no understanding of "Monty Hall," problem, which involves concepts and mathematics that are orders-of-magnitude easier to comprehend than Einstein's Theories.

    1. Nice point, @4:45. Bob Somerby was one of many fooled by that problem. And, what was so striking was that many of those who didn't understand the problem were so certain about their (wrong) answer.

    2. David, I don't remember the details of the Monty Hall problem and its solution, but when Marilyn vos Savant raised the issue, I found her argument correct but unconvincing. A friend and I wrote a Basic program simulating a thousand plays, and the results were consistent with her result, whatever it was.

    3. Donald R. Quixote Jr.July 15, 2018 at 6:18 PM


    4. As I recall, Marilyn vos Savant stated the problem a little loosely. It's crucial to know that Monty Hall always opens a door with a goat and offers the contestant a chance to switch. Looked at properly, it's simple, albeit non-intuitive. When Monty Hall opens a door with a goat, the contestant gets no information about his first choice. There's always at least one door with a goat available. So that first choice remains 1 in 3 to get the car.

      It would be a different situation if Monty Hall opened a random door, which turned out to have a goat behind it. Then the probability would be 1/2.

    5. No, the probability would still be 1 out of 3.

    6. Why is that so difficult?

    7. @11:44 -- I don't know what your background is in the subject of probability theory. Maybe this will help. In the original problem, Hall opens a door that he knows has a goat behind it. This gives you no information, because such a door is always available.

      However, when Hall opens a random door, not knowing where the car is, you DO get information. You were lucky enough to avoid the door that Monty Hall opened. That's why your probability goes up.

    8. Sorry, I read you wrong.

    9. "In the original problem, Hall opens a door that he knows has a goat behind it. This gives you no information, because such a door is always available."

      Actually, it does. And that's the whole point.

      Imagine the same game with a 52-cards deck, where you need to guess the ace of spades (for example). You point to a card, and then I turn over 50 cards that I know are not the ace of spades. So, now there only 2 cards unknown: the one you picked and the one (of the rest) that I left unturned. Would you switch?

  5. From “The Musings of the Slowest Boy in Science Class”:

    What about the claim that the sun and the Earth are also separated "by time?”

    What about it? Do you think you’re seeing the sun as it is when you look at the sunset? The sun is about eight minutes away, since that’s the time it takes its light to reach the Earth.

    According to our Coherence Bureau,….

    Hey! Is that a quantum mechanical pun?

    Beyond that, the reader is also told, in that passage, that the sun and the Earth each "modify the space which surrounds them.”

    Yep, as John Wheeler said, “Spacetime tells matter how to move; matter tells spacetime how to curve.”

    But a sensible reader is justified in quitting right there, on page 12!

    At which point a curious reader might try to educate himself about topics like spacetime.


    I’m waiting for the library to get me The Order of Time. While I’m waiting, I read Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, which I found to be fatuously empty. There’s nothing “unclear” in that slim volume, but it’s far removed from any actual physics. I don’t understand what’s so surprising that non-experts like simplistic explanations written for non-experts. What does this really have to do with the journalistic malpractice we see in the arena of politics and public policy?

    I’m not gonna read Harari since he couldn’t possibly know about gossip in hominid species 70K years ago. His whole thesis sounds like one big evolutionary Just-so story, in the words of Stephen Gould.

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. “Do you think you’re seeing the sun as it is when you look at the sunset?”

      In fairness, you’re referring to time as a function of the speed of light between two objects. I’m not at all certain it works that way. Is time “different” at any particular moment between the Earth and the sun? Local realism would seem to indicate otherwise.

      I agree that Bob is really stretching when he compares this book to the usual journalistic malfeasance he normally writes about.


    3. I'm not going to read Revelli because he couldn't possibly know about the cosmos when they are so distant in space and time. If Revelli has methods for studying such things, so does Harari, studying things much closer to our lives. But deadrat accepts one and not the other.

    4. Leroy,

      In fairness, the distance between events in spacetime is the function of the speed of light multiplied by the time between the events. I’m not sure why you put different in scare quotes. Different observers will measure different time intervals and spatial lengths, but the spacetime interval will be the same. Local realism here will be preserved as long as the speed of light has a fixed, finite value.

      I think part of the problem is that Rovelli talks about space and time as separate entities because that’s what’s familiar to his audience. But he also wants to explain the modifying properties of mass, which is hard to make clear if you keep space and time separate. This is a guess from Bob’s description. I haven’t read Rovelli’s book yet.

    5. Anonymous on July 15, 2018 at 11:14 AM,

      Very clever, but remote distance and time do not limit Rovelli in building reliable models of the universe. He (and his colleagues) can make observations, take measurements, and draw inferences (say, from observed symmetries) that can be tested.

      Harari simply has nothing like that. The necessary evidence of the environmental and social conditions of our ancestors from 70K years ago is gone. The light from objects billions of lightyears away still reaches us.

      There’s no evidence for the emergence of specific genetic changes to the brains of Homo sapiens that gave rise to gossip 70K years ago. Our brains evolved to higher complexity, and certainly that complexity allows us to gossip now, so it’s reasonable to assume that we’ve been gossiping for a long time. But there’s no evidence of the prevalence or importance of gossip from long ago.

      Not only has no genetic material been preserved from that time, we’re not even sure of the entire evolutionary path of our species. Did gossip help us wipe out the Neanderthals? Or did they have no resistance to our diseases? Or did they disappear into our genome through interbreeding? I don’t know, and neither does Harari.

      I’ve sifted through enough reviews of Harari’s work to know that he’s a candidate for the Howler’s List. Perhaps I’ve judged him too quickly and on indirect evidence, but life is short, and you don’t have to eat a whole egg to know it’s bad.

    6. Did he say it was genetic? There is archaeological evidence of many cultural practices. Next thing you'll be saying people didn't live in family groups either, since he can have no direct evidence of that. Quite a few speculations of physicists have been contradicted over the decades but you haven't tossed out that field whole hog. Why the stricter standard when it comes to human behavior?

    7. “I’m not sure why you put different in scare quotes.”

      First, I must say that I don’t understand what you mean when you wrote “…the distance between events in spacetime is the function of the speed of light multiplied by the time between the events.” I’d enjoy a primer on the subject if you’re so inclined. A link would do.

      However, I didn’t say anything about the time between events. What I was trying to convey, and what I believe, is that time is the same for the sun as it is for the Earth at any given moment. If that’s not true, then I really don’t understand anything about this subject, comrade. Perhaps you’re referring to entanglement in this conversation, which I know I don’t understand.

      But I digress. Is it true that there’s less time for Mercury, which orbits much closer to the Sun, than there is for Earth? That’s the same allegory Rovelli used to describe a man at sea level and a man in the mountains.

      In fairness, is there “less time” in either of these scenarios?

      I like the Wheeler quote. Thanks.


    8. Anonymous on July 15, 2018 at 4:08 PM,

      Yes, i believe Harari does say it’s genetic, the result of cognitive changes in the hominid brain that occurred about 70K years ago.

      I’m open to investigation of cultural practices (e.g, burial rituals) for which there is archaeological evidence. Gossip is talk; “group fictions”, wide-ranging or otherwise, are mental constructs. These leave no archaeological evidence.

      Yes, quite a few speculations of physicists have been contradicted over the decades. Because data from experiments didn’t support the speculations. I haven’t tossed out physics “whole hog” because there’s data that confirms other models built by physicists. In the same way, I haven’t tossed out the study of human behavior on the basis of the whole porker.

      Now, maybe I’m wrong about evidence for how we talked and reasoned 70K years ago. Harari says there are “studies” that support his claims. I doubt it.

    9. Language is the result of cognitive changes, not gossip. Language makes gossip and narrative possible. The cosmos are old but the experiments are recent. Same thing for the role of gossip in social groups. Instead of dismissing them, you could have looked them up.

    10. Donald R. Quixote Jr.July 15, 2018 at 10:58 PM


    11. Language is the result of cognitive changes, not gossip.

      Yes, but I believe that the argument is that the evolutionary pressure that preserved increasingly-complex cognitive changes was the advantage to living in larger communities. More complex brains allowed for language that was used to gossip, which it is claimed is a prerequisite larger social structures.

      The cosmos [sic] are old but the experiments are recent.

      The experiments examine data from the old cosmos, such data as the cosmic background radiation.

      Same thing for the role of gossip in social groups.

      No, the “experiments” are new, but so is the data. See the paper in the link given by DRQ, Jr.

      Instead of dismissing them, you could have looked them up.

      I could have, and thanks to DRQ, Jr, we have one of them. And sure enough, all the data is from observations about modern primates. But it has to be that way. We have no record of how language was used 70K years ago.

      Here’s the claim of the paper:

      Without gossip, there would be no society. In short, gossip is what makes human society as we know it possible.

      This is a breathtakingly broad claim, and the paper provides precisely some evidence for the claim for values of some equal to none. Read it for yourself.

      The author continues

      To be able to make this claim, I need first to step back in evolutionary time to what we might see as the ancestral state from which modern humans sprang. … I then argue that language evolved as a mechanism for bonding large social groups, and that it does so precisely because it allows us to exchange information about the state of our social networks.

      But we know very little about that “ancestral state”, which makes the whole paper a giant Just-so story. The author can argue all he wants, but what he needs to do is present evidence. That quote above from the first page of the paper is the last time “ancestral state” is mentioned, and in no sense does the author ever “step back in evolutionary time.”

      None of the claims is implausible, but they all rely on retrograde extrapolation, which would be OK if there was a testable mechanism to validate the backward chain. None is presented in the paper.

      The paper also makes the basic mistake of concluding that some function evolved because that function is useful. It’s entirely possible that complex brains evolved because they provided a mechanism for understanding cause and effect and for making predictions based on that understanding. Language may have been an emergent product of that complexity, and the uses of language may have been passed on culturally. If that’s the case, the author needs to step back in cultural time, which he can’t do back to 70K years ago.

    12. Leroy,

      What do you mean when you say “that time is the same for the sun as it is for the Earth at any given moment”? If you mean that there’s a universal time against which anyone in any frame of reference can check, then that’s wrong. Wherever you are, your clocks tick at one second per second, but when you check clocks in other frames of reference, you may find they don’t agree with yours. The clock on the sun’s surface is slow compared to yours on the earth’s surface. If you’re on the surface of the sun, you’re very hot and the clocks on the earth’s surface appear to run fast.

      If you want to calculate the distance between two points in plain, old three-dimensional space, you assign a coordinate system on three axes — up/down, left/right, and backward/forward (or height, width, and depth). Mathematicians prefer to call these x, y, and z. The square of the distance between two points is obtained by summing the squares of the differences of like coordinates. In two dimensions, the space of Euclidean geometry, this is just the Pythagorean Theorem.

      For spacetime, you add a fourth dimension, past/future, and thus also a fourth coordinate usually called t. But the distance formula in spacetime is different from that in 3-space. The square of the spacetime interval is the speed of light times the square of the difference in the t coordinates minus the square of the spatial distance as given above. Which is why I say that distance in spacetime is a function of the speed of light multiplied by time.

      It’s not that hard to visualize a four-dimensional analog to 3-space. Think of a holographic movie. Every point in the movie can be identified by its three spatial coordinates in a frame of the movie and its frame number (the latter representing time). And when Rovelli says that what lies between the earth and the sun is space and time, he encourages his readers to think of the time coordinate as the same as the space coordinates. Since addition commutes, we can switch around the spatial coordinates at will. We can relabel height as width and vice versa and we’ll come up with same distance. But subtraction doesn’t commute, which is what makes spacetime distances so different from Euclidean distances, what makes spacetime different from space and time, what makes spacetime so hard to visualize, and what makes Rovelli’s language so misleading.

      I’m not sure what Rovelli means about there being less time for Mercury, unless he means that after some interval of time on earth, it appears from earth that less time has elapsed on Mercury.

      Check out the spacetime entry in Wikipedia.

      Let me add a disclaimer that I’m no expert in the physics because if I don’t say that I’ll wake up my own personal Anonymous troll, who appears from time to time to tell me that no one likes me. If only he would tell me something I didn’t know.

    13. dr, thanks for the rather involved explanation. I’ll parse it anon.

      "I’m not sure what Rovelli means about there being less time for Mercury, unless he means that after some interval of time on earth, it appears from earth that less time has elapsed on Mercury." That gets to the center of what I was trying to convey.

      Within the universe itself, how could there be less time, anywhere? That seems to be exactly what Einstein’s theory of relativity addresses. Slower in some places, faster in others according to a clock in relation to velocity, gravity or acceleration with another body. But less of it? Well, everything about this rarefied level of mathematical theory seems beyond the comprehension of most, and I’m definitely part of the most.

      Perhaps we can chalk it up to translation of Rovelli’s text, plus maybe some artistic license.


  6. You embarrass only yourself with this particular line of criticism, mr. somerby.

    Your failure to comprehend even a simplified presentation of advanced physics is not a crime. But your subsequent attempt to blame the author for your lack of comprehension, and, if I read you correctly, to actually cast aspersions on the whole field of physics, is Trump-level gaslighting. That it's probably due to unwitting self-delusion just makes it all the more unfortunate.

  7. Want an interesting popularization of physics? Try:

    Adam Becker, What is Real? The Unfinished Quest for the Meaning of Quantum Physics

    I'm on page 93, and I certainly don't intend to quit. I'm reading this one all the way.



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