Is time real or simply a useful measurement of change? The author of Seven Brief Lessons on Physics takes us to the limits of our understanding with clarity and style
In Hitler’s Germany, a handful of physicists bristled at the mere mention of quantum theory. The troubling uncertainties of Einsteinian relativity and other physical exotica were viewed as “Jewish science” inimical to German nationhood and the Newtonian mechanics of Deutsche Physik. “German physics” (sometimes called “Aryan physics”) failed to make inroads in 1930s Germany because its champions were so plainly deluded. To forward-looking German physicists such as Max Planck and Werner Heisenberg, the idea that relativity was a “Jewish fraud” was manifest nonsense. Albert Einstein was indeed Jewish, but had he masterminded a “world crisis” in physics, as the anti-relativity lobby insisted? Hardly.
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.