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TAC Bookshelf: The Bizarre Reality of Time

Here's what our writers and editors are reading this week.
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Rod Dreher, TAC senior editor: Last summer, on a vacation in England, I found myself in a bookstore skimming through The Order of Time, by the physicist Carlo Rovelli. It’s a dense but lovely book about the fundamental nature of Time—lovely because Rovelli writes about scientific abstractions with a poet’s gift. I bought a number of books on that trip—if you plan to visit London this year, bring an extra bag for your haul from Daunt Books—which meant that back home, Rovelli’s slim volume quietly took a place on my bookshelves, in the “Unread, But I’m Going To Get To It, I Swear” section.

It took a television show to make it happen. I’ve lately become addicted to the Netflix series “Dark,” a German-language sci-fi drama that’s like what you would get if David Lynch had directed “Stranger Things.” The series is about Time, and what the past and the future have to do with the present. This is a venerable theme in science fiction, of course, but “Dark” explores it in ways that have surprising moral and metaphysical weight. After one episode introduced the character of an elderly physicist who muses on the nature of Time, I found myself asking, “Is what he says real, or is it just something they made up for TV?” And so I dug out the Rovelli, and began to read.

As it turns out, the book is more difficult than I expected, especially in the second half—but also thrilling at times. And yes, Rovelli confirms at least part of the TV series’ metaphysical conceits. For example, an investigator looking into the disappearance of a boy switches from wondering where the boy is to when he is. According to Rovelli, that is a more accurate way of thinking about the universe.

“We cannot think of the physical world as if it were made of things, or entities. It simply doesn’t work,” he writes. “What works instead is thinking about the world as a network of events.”

Rovelli says that scientists now believe that the causal structure of the world—that is, past, present, and future—describe reality, but only in a limited way. In one chapter, Rovelli discusses how our grammar is simply inadequate to convey the true complexity of reality: that the past and the future do not have universal meaning. This is a fundamental insight of Einstein’s, but over a century later, the implications of it still have the power to overwhelm our capacity for reckoning with them.

In one of his most moving chapters, Rovelli muses on the intersection of time with a person’s identity—that is, how the nature of our individual personhood depends on memories. A person who wakes up in a new world every day remains a human being, but who is that person? There is no “who” without a series of “whens”—and this is something the series “Dark” takes up, though in an exaggerated form that makes for good dramatic television. It’s not surprising that a sci-fi drama requires a leap of faith beyond what is scientifically credible. What is surprising about “Dark”—and I’ve confirmed this beyond consulting Rovelli’s wonderful little book—is how close to scientific truth the series sticks.

Reality is genuinely that bizarre. It was a delightful surprise to have an eerie sci-fi TV drama send me to a book on the real-life mysteries of time and personhood, and to open up the book in a new way to me. Having just finished both the existing two seasons of “Dark” and Rovelli’s book, I have been thinking about the recurrence of certain themes across generations in the life of my family and my hometown, and reflecting on the metaphysical implications of William Faulkner’s well-known observation, “The past is not dead. It’s not even past.” Now, about all those Faulkner novels on my Unread, But shelf…