Benedict Cumberbatch meets Albert Einstein in Carlo Rovelli’s new audiobook


Carlo Rovelli and Benedict Cumberbatch PHOTO/Annabel Huxley

The Order of Time by Carlo Rovelli (translated by Erica Segre and Simon Carnell). Read by Benedict Cumberbatch, 4 hours, 19 minutes. Penguin Audio.

There’s a passage in Carlo Rovelli’s lovely new book, “The Order of Time” — a letter from Einstein to the family of his recently deceased friend Michele Besso: “Now he has departed from this strange world a little ahead of me. That means nothing… The distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.” Rovelli comments that Einstein was taking great poetic license with the temporal findings of his relativity theory, even to the point of error. But then the author goes on to say that the great physicist was addressing his letter not to scientists or philosophers, but to a bereft family. “It’s a letter written to console a grieving sister,” he writes. “A gentle letter, alluding to the spiritual bond between Michele and Albert.” That sensitivity to the human condition is a constant presence in Rovelli’s book — a book that reviews all of the best scientific thinking about the perennial mystery of time, from relativity to quantum physics to the inexorable second law of thermodynamics. Meanwhile, he always returns to us frail human beings — we who struggle to understand not only the external world of atoms and galaxies but also the internal world of our hearts and our minds.

The book is read by the British actor Benedict Cumberbatch, who has benefited from significant stage experience as well as starring in such films as “The Imitation Game” and the TV series “Sherlock.” Cumberbatch possesses a deep and rich voice and reads the text in a precise but unhurried manner, with the result that we feel as if we are getting an exposition by an erudite but gentle teacher.

The ancient Babylonians saw time as a wheel, repeating in cycles. Confucius likened the passage of time to the flow of a river’s stream. For the kabbalists, time is an illusion. Isaac Newton conceived of time as a rigid scaffolding erected by God.

Rovelli, who is a theoretical physicist at Aix-Marseille University in France and the author of the international best seller “Seven Brief Lessons on Physics,” explains how scientists in his field look at time, seasoning his book with quotes from the likes of Horace and Shakespeare and a fair measure of his personal ruminations. His title was inspired by a fragment of the writings of the ancient Greek philosopher Anaximander (circa 600 B.C.): “Things are transformed one into another according to necessity, and render justice to one another according to the order of time.” In response, Rovelli’s book asks, Why should time have an order? And for whom? And to what end?

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