Skip to main content

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.


Paperback 

Kindle 
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Great Silence – Milan Cirkovic ****

The great 20th century physicist Enrico Fermi didn’t say a lot about extraterrestrial life, but his one utterance on the subject has gone down in legend. He said ‘Where is everybody?’ Given the enormous size and age of the universe, and the basic Copernican principle that there’s nothing special about planet Earth, space should be teeming with aliens. Yet we see no evidence of them. That, in a nutshell, is Fermi’s paradox.

Not everyone agrees that Fermi’s paradox is a paradox. To some people, it’s far from obvious that ‘space should be teeming with aliens’, while UFO believers would scoff at the suggestion that ‘we see no evidence of them’. Even people who accept that both statements are true – including  a lot of professional scientists – don’t always lose sleep over Fermi’s paradox. That’s something that makes Milan Cirkovic see red, because he takes it very seriously indeed. In his own words, ‘it is the most complex multidisciplinary problem in contemporary science’.

He points out th…

The Happy Brain - Dean Burnett ****

This book was sitting on my desk for some time, and every time I saw it, I read the title as 'The Happy Brian'. The pleasure this gave me was one aspect of the science of happiness that Dean Burnett does not cover in this engaging book.

Burnett's writing style is breezy and sometimes (particularly in footnotes) verging on the whimsical. His approach works best in the parts of the narrative where he is interviewing everyone from Charlotte Church to a stand-up comedian and various professors on aspects of happiness. We get to see the relevance of home and familiarity, other people, love (and sex), humour and more, always tying the observations back to the brain.

In a way, Burnett sets himself up to fail, pointing out fairly early on that everything is far too complex in the brain to really pin down the causes of something as diffuse as happiness. He starts off with the idea of cheekily trying to get time on an MRI scanner to study what his own brain does when he's happy, b…

Beyond Weird - Philip Ball *****

It would be easy to think 'Surely we don't need another book on quantum physics.' There are loads of them. Anyone should be happy with The Quantum Age on applications and the basics, Cracking Quantum Physics for an illustrated introduction or In Search of Schrödinger's Cat for classic history of science coverage. Don't be fooled, though - because in Beyond Weird, Philip Ball has done something rare in my experience until Quantum Sense and Nonsense came along. It makes an attempt not to describe quantum physics, but to explain why it is the way it is.

Historically this has rarely happened. It's true that physicists have come up with various interpretations of quantum physics, but these are designed as technical mechanisms to bridge the gap between theory and the world as we see it, rather than explanations that would make sense to the ordinary reader.

Ball does not ignore the interpretations, though he clearly isn't happy with any of them. He seems to come clo…