‘There is no such thing as past or future’: physicist Carlo Rovelli on changing how we think about time

Seven Brief Lessons on Physics sold over a million copies around the world. Now Rovelli is back to explore the mysteries of time. He tells Charlotte Higgins about student revolution and how his quantum leap began with an acid trip

Extract from Carlo Rovelli’s new book: on the elastic concept of time

What do we know about time? Language tells us that it “passes”, it moves like a great river, inexorably dragging us with it, and, in the end, washes us up on its shore while it continues, unstoppable. Time flows. It moves ever forwards. Or does it? Poets also tell us that time stumbles or creeps or slows or even, at times, seems to stop. They tell us that the past might be inescapable, immanent in objects or people or landscapes. When Juliet is waiting for Romeo, time passes sluggishly: she longs for Phaethon to take the reins ...

‘Time is elastic’: an extract from Carlo Rovelli’s The Order of Time

What does it really mean to say that time ‘passes’? Why does time pass faster in the mountains than it does at sea level? The physicist explains in this extract from his latest book

Interview with Carlo Rovelli

I stop and do nothing. Nothing happens. I am thinking about nothing. I listen to the passing of time. This is time, familiar and intimate. We are taken by it. The rush of seconds, hours, years that hurls us towards life then drags us towards nothingness ... We inhabit time as fish live in water. Our being is being in time. Its solemn music nurtures us, opens the world to us, troubles us, frightens and lulls us. The universe unfolds into the future, dragged by time, and exists according to the order of time. What could be more universal and obvious than this flowing?

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‘There is no such thing as past or future’: physicist Carlo Rovelli on changing how we think about time

Seven Brief Lessons on Physics sold over a million copies around the world. Now Rovelli is back to explore the mysteries of time. He tells Charlotte Higgins about student revolution and how his quantum leap began with an acid trip

Extract from Carlo Rovelli’s new book: on the elastic concept of time

What do we know about time? Language tells us that it “passes”, it moves like a great river, inexorably dragging us with it, and, in the end, washes us up on its shore while it continues, unstoppable. Time flows. It moves ever forwards. Or does it? Poets also tell us that time stumbles or creeps or slows or even, at times, seems to stop. They tell us that the past might be inescapable, immanent in objects or people or landscapes. When Juliet is waiting for Romeo, time passes sluggishly: she longs for Phaethon to take the reins ...

Natural Causes by Barbara Ehrenreich review – against health sages and fitness gurus

A great iconoclast has written a polemic about ageing that sends up New Age platitudes and is full of scepticism of the wellness industry

Ten years ago, Barbara Ehrenreich read an article in Scientific American that shook her to the core. Its argument was that the body’s immune system, far from protecting us, can enable the growth and spread of tumours, “which is like saying that the fire department is indeed staffed by arsonists”. In the 1960s, Ehrenreich had worked on immune cells as a PhD student, specifically on those known as “macrophages”, and had come to think of them as friends – frontline defenders against microbial invaders. Now that they stood exposed as traitors, one of her basic beliefs was shattered. If our body can attack itself, why bother trying to look after it? What’s the point in striving to stay healthy, when longevity is beyond our control?

“Old ...

The Happy Brain by Dean Burnett review – the science of happiness

The neuroscientist, comedian and science blogger rattles through studies and reflects on his own life in a quest to find the secret of contentment

As a neuroscientist, comedian and Guardian science blogger, Dean Burnett knows that science communication is both important and hard to get right. Early in this book he expresses his frustration with the way that the media often sensationalise research to sell a story. In one newspaper, the following headlines all purported to reveal the latest scientific truth about how to be happy: “Forget cash – how sex and sleep are the key to happiness”; “Key to happiness? Start with £50k a year salary”; “Why the secret to happiness is having 37 things to wear”… Readers would be forgiven for thinking that it’s all nonsense. So how does a responsible scientist condense all of the relevant research and make it accessible?

The Burnett method is to combine ...

Natural Causes by Barbara Ehrenreich review – wise words on real wellness

The author and activist’s sharp critique of what she calls an ‘epidemic of overdiagnosis’ is a joyous celebration of life

You may view your body as a temple – particularly if you exercise ferociously, detox regularly, desist from alcohol, tobacco, sugar and all processed foods and positivity seeps out of every pore – but the indefatigable Barbara Ehrenreich has news for you. No amount of mindfulness, self-discipline and denial can spare you from your macrophages, the large white blood cells in your tissues that are found especially at the site of infection. They are out to get you. If they so choose, you will depart this world early and possibly painfully; control is an illusion.

Ehrenreich is a socialist, activist and fighter for universal healthcare, women’s rights and economic justice; she is a multi-award-winning investigative journalist and author of more than 20 books, including the seminal bestseller Nickel and Dimed: ...

Brainstorm by Suzanne O’Sullivan – the neurologist as sleuth

The author of It’s All in Your Head investigates mysterious symptoms as a detective would, but still marvels at the mysteries of the brain

Victor Horsley, one of the first surgeons to carry out a successful brain operation, was renowned for his arrogance towards peers and extraordinary sensitivity to patients. A junior doctor recalled that when conducting ward rounds, “he gave each patient the impression that he was his sole care in life and would arrange their pillows with a tender deftness”. In 1886, his operation on James B, an anonymous patient with intractable epilepsy, cured him of further seizures; it rendered James B a significant footnote in medical history and made Horsley a star.

That first brain surgery illuminates the symbiotic relationship of patient and physician, now explored often in this golden age of doctor-authors. In transcribing case histories as the source material for books, medics must wrestle with ...

Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine by Alan Lightman review – at one with the universe

The physicist and novelist’s discursive essays on the mysteries of the physical world are full of wonder and insight

Alan Lightman has made a unique career finding imaginative ways to bridge the “two cultures” of science and humanities. A novelist and physicist, he was the first person to be awarded a joint professorship in literature and astrophysics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). His work in the latter discipline has resulted in notable contributions to the theory of astrophysical processes under extreme temperatures; he has helped to map the behaviour of such out-of-this-world concepts as “accretion discs” and “relativistic plasmas”.

He made his name as a writer of fiction, meanwhile, with Einstein’s Dreams in 1993 – a lyrical series of short sketches, each one an attempt at a different understanding of time, and all rooted in the freewheeling mind of Einstein as he grappled with relativity in Berne, Switzerland in ...

Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine by Alan Lightman review – at one with the universe

The physicist and novelist’s discursive essays on the mysteries of the physical world are full of wonder and insight

Alan Lightman has made a unique career finding imaginative ways to bridge the “two cultures” of science and humanities. A novelist and physicist, he was the first person to be awarded a joint professorship in literature and astrophysics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). His work in the latter discipline has resulted in notable contributions to the theory of astrophysical processes under extreme temperatures; he has helped to map the behaviour of such out-of-this-world concepts as “accretion discs” and “relativistic plasmas”.

He made his name as a writer of fiction, meanwhile, with Einstein’s Dreams in 1993 – a lyrical series of short sketches, each one an attempt at a different understanding of time, and all rooted in the freewheeling mind of Einstein as he grappled with relativity in Berne, Switzerland in ...

The Drugs That Changed Our Minds by Lauren Slater – review

Twenty years after hailing antidepressants in her memoir Prozac Diary, a now jaded, sceptical Lauren Slater revisits the psychopharmacological industry – with uneven results

In Prozac Diary (1998), Lauren Slater wrote powerfully of the way fluoxetine had transformed her previously chaotic life. While the author recorded a handful of negative side-effects – a profound loss of libido, for instance – the reader was left with the sense that Prozac had pieced back together the shards of Slater’s existence. In some ways, The Drugs That Changed Our Minds is a sequel to that book. Slater is now in her mid-50s, recently divorced, and on a cocktail of antidepressants. She’s “a consumer of polypsychopharmacy”, having taken fluoxetine, venlafaxine, olanzapine, aripiprazole, clonazepam, lisdexamfetamine “and probably one or two other tablets I’m forgetting because there are so many”.

The book weaves between Slater’s personal history and a wide-ranging narrative of the development of the psychopharmalogical ...

The Wood by John Lewis-Stempel review – a fortress against agribusiness

Pheasants, pigs, sparrowhawks and holly share a handful of acres in this heartfelt and evocative diary of a year among the trees

“A wood should not be a museum,” says John Lewis-Stempel. For four years he managed Cockshutt Wood in south-west Herefordshire, three and a half acres of deciduous and coniferous woodland “with a secluded pool where the winter moon lives”. This is his diary of his final year there.

Such small woods play a vital role in the life of our countryside: they are the last refuge of many flora and fauna. Grassland sustains 70 pairs of birds per 100 acres but a wood is home to 400. Woods are “fortresses of nature against the tide of people and agribusiness”.

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Who We Are and How We Got Here by David Reich review – new findings from ancient DNA

Using advances in DNA sequencing, the geneticist shows the effects of migrations and the mongrel nature of humanity in this fascinating study

“Arrival of Beaker folk changed Britain for ever, ancient DNA study shows”, ran a Guardian headline in February, concerning the people whose ancestry lay in central Europe and further east to the steppes. Now comes the author of that study, Harvard geneticist David Reich, with his book that gives us, at last, the first draft of a true history of the last 5,000 years.

Genetics first started to complement the work of archaeologists and linguists in the 1990s in the work of Reich’s mentor, the Italian-born population geneticist Luca Cavalli-Sforza. But genetics was the poor relation at the time because its data was so thin. Not any more. The genome is a palimpsest that retains strong traces of the past, so current populations can reveal something of previous population movements. ...

Penelope Lively picks five books about renewal

From horticulture to tsarist Russia, the novelist chooses works that represent new growth

The definitive account of the remarkable botanical entrepreneurs of the 19th century is Alice Coats’s The Plant Hunters. We owe to Robert Fortune, George Forrest, David Douglas and others the plants that are ubiquitous in our gardens today, but which were acquired by way of perilous expeditions and the arduous collection of specimens. Buddleias, azaleas, rhododendrons, hydrangeas and many more are staples today, but they were brought back to the UK by men who risked life and limb, climbed mountains, braved bandits and pirates, or scoured remote areas of China, like Ernest Wilson in his pursuit of Davidia involucrata, the handkerchief tree, the ultimate horticultural trophy of the early 20th century.

Willa Cather’s My Ántonia is the great novel of pioneer life in the American west. Ántonia Shimerda is the daughter of Bohemian immigrants, and the feisty ...

The Mind is Flat by Nick Chater review – we have no hidden depths

There is no subconscious, no ‘inner life’ that holds the secret of understanding ourselves, argues a behavioural psychologist. We improvise and can change

You probably think you have beliefs, desires, fears, a personality, an “inner life”, maybe even a subconscious. Poppycock, says Nick Chater, a behavioural psychologist. All that stuff is folk nonsense. The brain essentially just makes everything up as it goes along – including what we fondly think of as our direct perceptions of the world, which are a patchwork of guesses and reconstructions. There is nothing going on “underneath”; there are no depths. The book could equally have been called “The Mind Is Shallow”, though potential readers might have found that more off-puttingly rude.

This is one of those books that is a superb exposition of scientific findings, from which the author proceeds to draw highly polemical and speculative inferences. There are beautiful discussions of how little we ...

Female-dominated Wellcome book prize shortlist spans Victorian surgery and modern Nigeria

Titles vying for £30,000 award for books on health and medicine include Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀’s novel Stay With Me and Sigrid Rausing’s memoir Mayhem

A reflection on death from a palliative care consultant sits alongside a Nigerian novel tackling the heartbreak of infertility on the female-dominated Wellcome book prize shortlist.

Chair of judges Edmund de Waal praised the six contenders for the £30,000 award for adding to public discussion about what it means to be human. The panel of judges, he said, were looking for “books that start debates or deepen them, that move us profoundly, surprise and delight and perplex us, that bring the worlds of medicine and health into urgent public conversation”.

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Out of Nothing review – a breezy trip from the big bang to the end of days

Daniel Locke and David Blandy’s graphic novel covers everything from the creation of the universe to hip-hop through the eyes of a blue-skinned time traveller

This bright, imaginative graphic novel moves from the universe’s creation to its destruction, taking in clay tablets, the Gutenberg Bible, the birth of hip-hop and DNA sequencing. Out of Nothing gives its odyssey a human face through its narrator, a blue-skinned, green-eyed time traveller who is as happy waiting in a sea of blackness for time to begin as she is talking about the world wide web with Tim Berners-Lee.

Her account celebrates humanity’s attempts to explore the world around it and the great beyond, from cave paintings and lion totems to scientists and astronauts. Darkness (whether the Manhattan Project or existential nihilism) lingers around the edges, but this is a mostly breezy account, fuelled by the good stuff – campfire companionship, creative leaps and symbols that talk ...

Michio Kaku picks five books to help you understand the future

From medicine to space travel, these works explore how the newest wave of science will transform society

Science is the engine of prosperity. From the industrial revolution (powered by the steam engine), to the electric revolution (which lit up our cities), to the current computer revolution (which connects us all), science creates wealth and progress. Now, to predict the future of society, we have to understand the fourth wave of science, which is AI, biotech and nanotech.

Beyond Boundaries: The New Neuroscience of Connecting Brains with Machines – and How It Will Change Our Lives by Miguel Nicolelis captures all the progress and excitement in this field. He predicts a future in which we will create a brain net: an internet where emotions, memories and feelings can be sent over the internet. Like magicians, we will simply think and send messages, move objects, feel the thoughts and emotions of others, ...

The Genius Within review – a smart look at boosting our brains

David Adam explores the history of intelligence and ways to improve his own, raising timely questions

Which of us would not want to enhance our intelligence? Indeed, some ethicists, such as John Harris at Manchester University, argue that it is our duty to improve ourselves if we can, and in turn society and the quality of life for future generations. If we were more intelligent, perhaps we would invent better ways to generate energy efficiently at less cost and damage to the environment. Or generate ideas for solving political disputes without engaging in aggression and conflicts.

It is interesting that when we think of improving ourselves as individuals, we immediately consider boosting “cold” cognition – logic, critical thinking, memory capacity, etc – rather than “hot” cognition – the type required for you to understand what another person is thinking, termed “theory of mind”, and so important for soft diplomacy, ...

Sight by Jessie Greengrass review – a stunning debut about pregnancy

This novel is a poised meditation on our bodies and the perils of becoming a parent

The man who invented the x-ray, Wilhelm Röntgen, happened upon his discovery by accident, devoting a few weeks to it before moving on. Nevertheless he revolutionised medicine, and changed for ever the way we relate to our bodies. No longer opaque, obscure things, they were now – at this very beginning, in 1895 – more knowable. But this did not mean that they were any less inscrutable.

Related: Top 10 contemporary short stories

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