In Review: The Order of Time

by Sam Griffin on 10 August 2022
In Review: The Order of Time
“Our ‘present’ does not extend throughout the universe. It is like a bubble around us.”

In many ways, the title of this book is paradoxical. After the first few chapters, the notion that time can be associated with ‘order’ has already been shattered. A more fitting title might, in fact, have been The Disorder of Mind.

In quantum mechanics, time is understood as an external concept; crudely, it does not exist. This concept remains a fiercely debated topic amongst the scientific in- telligentsia. However, perhaps unwittingly, Carlo Rovelli adds a new piece to the puzzle of time. He sheds light on the transcendental architecture underpinning spacetime. If time is driven by events and observers at given points in spacetime, would an understanding of what drives these occurrences not lead to a greater understanding of time?

Rovelli, who has been called “the new Stephen Hawking” by The Sunday Times, is an Italian theoretical physicist. He works mainly in the field of quantum gravity and is one of the founders of loop quantum gravity theory. His fusion of general relativity with theories from quantum physics work to cancel out distinct notions of past and present, replacing these with uneven, amorphous gravitational fields.

The history of time

Before introducing us to quantum loop theory, Rovelli takes us through a brief his- tory of how humanity came to understand time. The likes of Plato and Aristotle, writing between 335 and 323 BC, considered movement and alteration to be part of a pure time that was chronic, calendric and linear. Over a thousand years later, mod- ern physics of the 17th Century was able to prove that time was not subjugated to movement as Ancient Greek philosophy understood. Isaac Newton calibrated a system of mathematics using a concept of universal, absolute time – t – to help solve equations that were previously intractable. Clock time, as it became known in physics, was able to calculate speed and distance within given variables. Time was thus unhinged from its ancient subordination to movement. In other words, there is time on the one hand, and what happens in time on the other.

The arrow of time?

Albert Einstein would be the first to recognise that the two times are constitutive of each other. Absolute time is relative to a given planet’s gravitational pull. As for Rovelli, he illustrates this by explaining how time passes faster for someone in the mountains than for someone down below. More dramatic examples of this can be found in the film Interstellar. If astronomers travel to planets with different rates of gravitational pull than that of Earth, a few hours for one may feel like decades for another. Einstein flattens one-dimensional time onto three-dimensional space to account for gravitational waves within the electromagnetic field that curve, or distort time. Images of light cones are used to represent an expanded, incomplete universe that is extremely sensitive to change. For Rovelli, the gravitational field we inhabit is a “dynamic component of the great dance of the world”.

And yet, despite this hallucinogenic revelation, we are still able to identify an arrow of time as part of our sensory intuition. This is explained by one of the most cru- cial, devastating parts of the book. Entropy – the second law of thermodynamics – describes the process by which heat passes from hot to cold. Thermal agitation caused by the random movement of particles is the natural disorder and decay of all things. Entropy conditions our perception of passing through time. To shamelessly invoke another example from, yes, another Christoper Nolan film, consider TENET: in the 2020 blockbuster, ‘reverse entropy’ technology allows characters to travel backwards and forwards in time along a path that matches their entropic trail. If one travels in reverse from a given in the future, all events in their vision will appear reversed. Rovelli states that “entropy exists because we describe the world in a blurred fashion.” This blurring is precisely the disturbing aspect of time’s relation to, and creation of, our reality.

Rovelli rounds off the book by delving into specific components of quantum physics and its relation to time. The indeterminate and relativistic nature of quantum physics reveals an incredibly small inter- val of time operating at the substratum of gravitational waves – this is what’s known as Planck time. Named after Max Planck, who discovered it at the end of the 19th century, the Planck time is an in- credibly small interval of time that emerges naturally from a few basic quantities in theoretical physics. This granular time operates “only by interacting, and is not to be found beneath a minimum scale.” Rovelli’s quantum loop theory stresses that observers and events are required for time to manifest at all. It marks an attempt to reconcile Einstein’s theory of general relativity with the quanta of space, putting forward a time structure that is a set of interconnected, improbable events. Rovelli states that time is best described as “a set of interrelated perspectives.” Yet he stops short of articulating any sociological processes that govern or influence these perspectives.

The politics of time

If, as Rovelli argues, events, happenings, memory and collective memory all account for a quantum loop theory of time, the role that capital plays in driving certain events cannot be ignored. The industrial revolution, alongside modern physics, introduced the clock and a global standard of time, rendering variables of time quantifiable, measured and enforced. In Capitalism’s Transcendental Time Machine, Anna Greenspan argues that the industrial revolution and the global instantiation of clock time ultimately gave rise to capitalism’s overarching apparatus. After all, Time notoriously equals Money. Spacetime compressions tend towards increasing precisions in time, demanding more efficient time- keeping to accelerate rates of profit in a competitive market. For Greenspan, “time at its most abstract is characterised by a continuous process of production”. According to Rovelli’s quantum loop theory, our memories, positioning and collective action shape what we understand to happen in time, as well as what we understand time to be as a concept. Capital, then, plays a significant role in shaping both dominant conceptions of time as well as our experience of it.

To exist without time

In his Critique of Pure Reason, Immanuel Kant argues that space and time are forms of a priori sensible intuition. That is to say, time is a form of knowledge which is universally and necessarily true, but remains something that cannot be experienced empirically. Time may not exist as a tangible thing, but it exists insofar as it allows the human species to navigate its terrain, remember events prior, and maintain a sense of cognitive and rational order. When discussing Kant’s comments on time, Rovelli maintains that:

“The basis for the temporal structure of the world is to be sought in something that closely relates to our way of thinking and perceiving, to our consciousness. This remains true without having to get tangled up in Kantian transcendentalism.”

He is arguing that the existence of quantum gravity (an ongoing debate amongst physicists) takes us into a world without time. However, is it realistic to imagine we could exist in a world without time? In an increasingly financialised and forward-planning economy, these unknown forces are intertwined with the techno-capitalist practices of time-keeping that guide much of our lives. Despite more phys- icists speculating on its non-existence, time is not disappearing in quotidian life. In fact, it often feels like it’s accelerating.

Kairos: an alternative view of time

There is a kind of time – kairos – that has been somewhat lost in language. It refers to ways in which time is more qualitative, encompassing opportune moments and luck. Phrases like “just in time”, “make the time”, “right place at the right time”, are still commonplace, cutting through contemporary notions of time that are equated with capitalism and have lost their original association with kairos. Should Rovelli’s poetic prowess and fondness for physics inspire us to reclaim our time wherever pos- sible? To consume time as much as time consumes us? To capture those positive, enticing elements of our experience wherever possible? To give us more time? If entropy, or a lack of order, is all we are left with, perhaps it’s no wonder that the anadrome of time is emit.