Skip to main content

Time Travel, a history - James Gleick ***

It's hard to imagine a topic that is more rife with paradoxes than time travel (or 'Time Trave' as this book's trying-too-hard cover design appears to call it), so it shouldn't be surprising that this book itself is a paradox. There are few subjects more dripping with potential for fun popular science than time travel - but this isn't a popular science book. It's true that there are few writers who can rival James Gleick when he's on form at writing a popular science title. But this isn't one. Quietly, without fuss, he announces that time travel is impossible. It's not real. It could be a very short book... but it isn't.

Perhaps I should have got a clue from the amount of time Gleick spends in the first two chapters on The Time Machine. Of course, it makes sense now. He's going to give us a rollicking exploration of the science fiction that has made time travel a part of our everyday lives and tell us more about the writers who've made it happen. But the book doesn't do that either. Although Gleick gives us a spot of biographical information on H. G. Wells, we hear hardly anything about the other SF writers he references - and, in the end, this isn't much of a book about the science fiction of time travel either.

Instead what we get is hand-waving philosophising, bringing together a pop-philosophy mix of time in our culture, pure philosophy and a spot of philosophy of science, considering whether physicists really do believe that time does not exist. It's verbose, waffly and hard work for little reward.

If you are into the likes of Jorge Luis Borges, Marcel Proust and David Foster Wallace you will probably love this book. But if, like me, you find them overblown and unnecessary then it will be something of a penance. Here's a short extract to get a flavour of the style:
These physical objects, worn or broken by the years, were like bottles containing messages written by our ancestors, to tell us who they were. 'Antiquities are Historie defaced, or some remnants of History, which have casually escaped the shipwrack [sic] of time,' Roger Bacon had said. By 1900, London had surpassed Paris, Rome, Venice and Amsterdam as the world's centre of trade in antiquities...
If you read that and think, 'Wow, great prose,' this is the book for you. If, on the other hand, your pretentious twaddle detector goes off, avoid it. I'd also note that this is not the only example of something in the book that raised an eyebrow. Roger Bacon only wrote in Latin, so this is a translation, and why Gleick has used such an old fashioned one, other than to be quaint, is hard to understand. 
This book will definitely divide readers - but as popular science I can't feel any love for it.


Review by Brian Clegg


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 Order of Time - Carlo Rovelli ***

There's good news and bad news. The good news is that The Order of Time does what A Brief History of Timeseemed to promise but didn't cover: it attempts to explore what time itself is. The bad news is that Carlo Rovelli does this in such a flowery and hand-waving fashion that, though the reader may get a brief feeling that they understand what he's writing about, any understanding rapidly disappears like the scent of a passing flower (the style is catching).

It doesn't help either that the book is in translation so some scientific terms are mangled, or that Rovelli has a habit of self-contradiction. Time and again (pun intended) he tells us time doesn't exist, then makes use of it. For example, at one point within a page of telling us of time's absence Rovelli writes of events that have duration and a 'when' - both meaningless terms without time. At one point he speaks of a world without time, elsewhere he says 'Time and space are real phenomena.'…

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…