Part 2—And other extremely deep thoughts: Can it really be true? Is Carlo Rovelli's The Order of Time the worst book ever written?
For us down here on this darkling plain, such judgments may seem overwrought, perhaps even hard to justify. Still, we're told that in the future caves where future anthropologists were forced to huddle in the wake of Mr. Trump's War, Rovelli's book is widely described as "fascinatingly awful," indeed as instructively so.
(We've recently learned that Mr. Trump's War is also described, in this future realm, as The War of Vast Liberal Indifference. In this formulation, "liberal" is a shortened form of "pseudoliberal," a reference to the tribe which came to exhibit vast complete and total disdain toward all who were seen as lesser. We're now told that this future war actually occurred in the first year of Ivanka Trump's brief tenure as her father's appointed successor, during which time the former president was able to focus on his new role as Secretary of Endless and Fully Dispositive War.)
Setting future history aside, let's return to the worst story ever told.
Alas! Playing by the rules of the game, The Guardian has offered these prefab remarks about Rovelli's new book:
THOMSON (4/24/18): Nobody said that relativity theory was easy. Einstein’s notion that time and space are essentially one (the concept of curved “spacetime”) is the stuff of abstract poetry. Fortunately, the Italian physicist Carlo Rovelli writes of “warped time” and other tentative physics with incisive clarity. Known for his work on loop quantum gravity theory and the pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Anaximander, Rovelli is one of our great scientific explicators. His poetic essay collection Seven Brief Lessons on Physics sold more than a million copies in English translation in 2017 and remains one of the fastest-selling science books ever.In this way, Guardian readers were told that Rovelli's "jargon-free" book exhibits "incisive clarity" while being deep, abstruse, poetic. When such breakdowns in acuity spread across the wider world of journalism, the path was laid which eventually let Donald J. Trump take power.
The Order of Time, a deeper, more abstruse meditation, elucidates some of the key developments in the philosophy and physics of time. Fortified with quotations from Proust, Anaximander and the Grateful Dead (Rovelli has a hippyish past), the book continues a tradition of jargon-free scientific writing from Galileo to Darwin that disappeared in the academic specialisation of the last century.
Whatever! In yesterday's report, we told you that the "At What Page" question yields this answer: page 12. At that page, it can reliably be said that, despite Rovelli's incisive clarity, no reader has the slightest idea what The Great Explicator is actually talking about.
By that point, an early-round knockout has occurred. After page 12, there's no real reason to extend the pretense of reading this book.
Warning signs come earlier. On pages 1-6, Rovelli presents the part of the book which precedes Part 1.
The pomposity is general. On page 3, when readers encounter this passage, the gods on Olympus roar:
ROVELLI (page 3): Wonder is the source of our desire for knowledge, and the discovery that time is not what we thought it was opens up a thousand questions. The nature of time has been at the center of my life’s work in theoretical physics. In the following pages, I give an account of what we have understood about time and the paths that are being followed in our search to understand it better, as well as an account of what we have yet to understand and what it seems to me that we are just beginning to glimpse."Wonder is the source of our desire for knowledge?"
Why do we remember the past and not the future? Do we exist in time, or does time exist in us? What does it really mean to say that time “passes”? What ties time to our nature as persons, to our subjectivity?
What am I listening to when I listen to the passing of time?
Peculiarly, this statement, found at the top of page 3, is adorned with the citation of an endnote. Impossibly, the endnote sources this air-filled claim to Aristotle's Metaphysics I.2.982—and no, we aren't making that up!
Surely, the gods on Olympus roar when mortals read that endnote. We'll guess that, in their future caves, future anthropologists default to sullen thousand-yard stares.
So these others react. But what are we supposed to make of the questions we've highlighted from that passage? Right there, on page 3, the reader is confronted by this:
Why do we remember the past and not the future?Why do we remember the past and not the future! As the gods on Olympus roar, the rare pre-survivor on modern earth may politely answer this question with one of his or her own:
Because the past has already happened and the future hasn't?Already, such readers may have a sense of the chaos to come. Others, observing the rules of the game, will agree to imagine that this deep question comes from the realm of Deep Thought.
It doesn't! Meanwhile, what should readers make of this subsequent question?
What am I listening to when I listen to the passing of time?People who haven't been led astray may balk at that pseudo-question. It will perhaps occur to them that they have a rough idea what someone means when he says he "listened to a passing train," but they've never heard anyone claim to "listen to the passing of time."
For that reason, it may occur to them that they don't have the slightest idea what Rovelli means by his admittedly deep-sounding question. At this point, it may cross their minds that rough waters lie ahead.
Some will quit on this book right there. They may say something like this, as they safely place the book out of the reach of children:
"Rovelli may be a brilliant physicist. But in other realms, he seems hopeless, perhaps a bit lost."
In our view, it's premature to quit on Rovelli's book on page 3. At what page is all hope lost?
In our view, all hope is lost by page 12. Tomorrow, we'll visit that planet.
Tomorrow: Time to move on
For lovers of foolishness only: Part 1 of Rovelli's book starts on page 9. It's preceded by six pages of pompous piffle from which today's excerpt was drawn.
Luckily, Rovelli's pages are very short. Thanks to Penguin Random House Canada, you can read pages 1-6 here.