Tuesday, 11 November 2014

About Time - Adam Frank ***

This is a curious book that tries to be great - and it almost succeeds. Adam Frank makes a determined effort to interweave two apparently unconnected strands of science and technology history - the personal appreciation of time in human culture and our cosmology. Along the way he brings in a whole host of little details - whether or not you feel that the main aim of the book is successful, there is plenty to enjoy in here.

To begin with, that blend of two disparate strands works very well. We start with time that is linked to the heavens and so is inevitably tied up with cosmology. Later on we get the monastic measures of time, the first clocks, the spread of mechanical time, electrical synchronisation and the railways, modern time keeping, the Outlook program from Microsoft Office and our modern hyper-connected, always aware world, and alongside it the move from mythical cosmologies through Greek and Copernican versions of the solar system, our expanding view of the universe, various Big Bang theories and their burgeoning rivals. (Frank pretty much has the Big Bang as dead by now.)

Sometimes the interweaving is impressive. For instance, I knew that Einstein came up with his special relativity with its very different views of simultaneity while he was working in the Swiss Patent Office in Bern. But I had assumed the work was a sinecure he got out of the way quickly before thinking his important thoughts. Frank points out that much of the patent material he was working on would be about electrical synchronisation of clocks - a concept with simultaneity at its heart - so could be directly inspirational in his thinking.

For much of the rest of the book, though, the linkage between our cultural perception of time and cosmology seemed forced, especially when Frank makes Outlook one of the crucial steps. Unlike the other mileposts, which applied to everyone, only a small percentage of the population has ever used Outlook, making it a clumsy choice. I found the style decidedly forced, particularly in the way each chapter began with a rather twee fictional dramadoc representation of a point in history (or the future). And there was a tendency to state as 'fact' descriptions of historic, and particularly prehistoric events we really don't know much about. This particularly struck me in the description of neolithic myth and ritual which is pure supposition. I think Frank should have read the superb Motel of the Mysteries, which features future archeologists treating a motel room as if it were an Egyptian tomb, assuming, for instance, that the sanitisation strip on the toilet was a ritual marker. (Oh, and I was really irritated with the way he used 'megalith' as a name for a monument like Stonehenge, where it is actually one of the stones the structure is built with, not the monument itself.)

All in all, then, a noble effort, and there was much to like, but it just didn't quite work for me.

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Review by Brian Clegg

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