Ignorance Is Space-Time, not Bliss
Thank You, Carlo Rovelli
I suspect my attempts at understanding concepts on the frontiers of science, like Time or Gravity, are ridiculous. I don’t have the background or training for it. I veered toward reading and writing instead of ‘rithmetic from an early age.
The professionals investigating Quantum Physics should probably be insulted by me thinking I could understand what they’re talking about. Maybe I’m smart enough and maybe not, but I definitely haven’t put in the time.
I’ve read some of what Steven Hawking wrote and some of what has been written about him to help people like me. But I didn’t get much out of it. I am not inherently fascinated by black holes as he apparently was. Time and Gravity might be difficult for me to approach as concepts, but I sure experience them without even trying, or it feels like I do. Black holes, not so much. Great metaphor though.
I followed the efforts to capture a gravity wave and was very excited back in 2015 when the LIGO laser beams didn’t cancel each other out, finally, and so they had one. That was fairly easy to understand. Subsequent measurements are the basis for claiming there are only four dimensions, no more, no less. That one I don’t quite get, yet. The String Theory people must hate it.
I also have trouble with String Theory. The vibrating string part has potential; I can feel that. It’s all those additional dimensions that are supposedly needed.
I didn’t pick up Carlo Rovelli’s, “The Order of Time” because it offers an understandable alternative to String Theory, but that was part of what kept me going until the end, and then had me starting all over and reading it again. It’s a small book.
There’s no math, at least no math as math was presented to me throughout my entire formal education. Plus he writes about Time and Space and Gravity with a clarity most writers never achieve about any topic. Not a dry clarity either. Rovelli’s warmth and his personal life long quest for understanding is there on every page.
I can’t remember a book that shifted my thinking this much since Thomas Kuhn’s, “Structure of Scientific Revolutions.”
Until Rovelli, I didn’t see the implications of what seemed so obvious, that heat only moves in one direction. I didn’t think much about the fact that nothing else in physics is irreversible that way.
My understanding of Thermodynamics was totally defined by Flanders and Swan, the British comedy team, who sang years ago:
Oh, you can’t pass heat from the cooler to the hotter
You can try it if you like but you far better notter
’Cause the cold in the cooler will get hotter as a ruler
That’s the physical law
Now I see that the rule of heat transfer sets the order of time. Rovelli actually calls it Thermal Time.
There are three parts to the book — knock Time down, describe no-Time, then build Time back up.
I was familiar with the knock Time down part — no unity, no direction, no universal present. The idea of no-Time, just events at the quantum level is one I’ve been working on imagining for decades. Rovelli is very good at providing clear statements and a few graphic visualizations that definitely helped me grasp the ideas more clearly than I ever have.
It’s how he then builds Time back up to account for our experience of it that helped me the most: How entropy is just a measure of disorder from a certain perspective of what order is. How it is specifically our own perceptual inadequacies that cause us to miss most of what happens in quantum interactions.
Rovelli refers to our limited vision as “blurriness,” kind of a pejorative term for the source of things in time.
It is hard to hold two contrary views at the same time — that a scientific law can be true and also not true, that a consistent cause and effect relationship is only the result of our incomplete view — but from our view, it works dependably.
If we could somehow apprehend and process every single emerging-interacting-and-changing relationship at every level of the cosmos, we would no longer distinguish the past and the future. We only do so because of what we don’t take in, because our view is just an approximation.
A smart professor named Andy Gibbons said the hardest part in designing anything is deciding what’s good-enough. He was channeling Herbert Simon and the ‘satisficing’ perspective. It turns out to be kind of how life works. Getting it all is crazy making. Getting it close enough is a port in the storm.
Rovelli’s career has focused on quantum gravity. What he offers in “The Order of Time” isn’t a comprehensive Theory of Everything (TOE) just a theory that describes what we think we know about Time and Space and Gravity so far.
Reading Rovelli has helped me imagine sub-atomic crud relating with adjacent crud to make webs that bump into other webs which turn into new webs that bump into other webs and so on forever. He believes they go through predictable changes when they bump into each other.
All the collisions together are called Spinfoam, constantly transforming itself in millionths of billionths of trillionths of a second. That’s a little too fast for you and me to see, or for our electron microscopes or anything we know of to see. Instead we just see the smooth blurred surface of all the underlying activity. It is this surface that Einstein called Space-Time.
I can deal with that.
I’m leaving out some major Aha!s. I want this piece to be good enough, but it can’t describe everything. Buckminster Fuller’s concept of a ‘Bare Maximum’ is useful. The ‘Bare Minimum’ is what you would settle for, without feeling good about it. Work up from there until it doesn’t feel Minimum but still feels Bare. Stop.
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