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

Cosmology for the Curious - Delia Perlov and Alex Vilenkin ***

In the recently published The Little Book of Black Holes we saw what I thought was pretty much impossible - a good, next level, general audience science title, spanning the gap between a typical popular science book and an introductory textbook, but very much in the style of popular science. Cosmology for the Curious does something similar, but coming from the other direction. This is an introductory textbook, intended for first year physics students, with familiar textbook features like questions to answer at the end of each chapter. Yet by incorporating some history and context, plus taking a more relaxed style in the writing, it's certainly more approachable than a typical textbook.

The first main section, The Big Bang and the Observable Universe not only covers basic big bang cosmology but fills in the basics of special and general relativity, Hubble's law, dark matter, dark energy and more. We then move onto the more speculative (this is cosmology, after all) aspects, brin…

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry – Neil deGrasse Tyson *****

When I reviewed James Binney’s Astrophysics: A Very Short Introduction earlier this year, I observed that the very word ‘astrophysics’ in a book’s title is liable to deter many readers from buying it. As a former astrophysicist myself, I’ve never really understood why it’s considered such a scary word, but that’s the way it is. So I was pleasantly surprised to learn, from Wikipedia, that this new book by Neil deGrasse Tyson ‘topped The New York Times non-fiction bestseller list for four weeks in the middle of 2017’.

Like James Binney, Tyson is a professional astrophysicist with a string of research papers to his name – but he’s also one of America’s top science popularisers, and that’s the hat he’s wearing in this book. While Binney addresses an already-physics-literate audience, Tyson sets his sights on a much wider readership. It’s actually very brave – and honest – of him to give physics such prominent billing; the book could easily have been given a more reader-friendly title such …

Once upon and Algorithm - Martin Erwig ***

I've been itching to start reading this book for some time, as the premise was so intriguing - to inform the reader about computer science and algorithms using stories as analogies to understand the process.

This is exactly what Martin Erwig does, starting (as the cover suggests) with Hansel and Gretel, and then bringing in Sherlock Holmes (and particularly The Hound of the Baskervilles), Indiana Jones, the song 'Over the Rainbow' (more on that in a moment), Groundhog Day, Back to the Future and Harry Potter.

The idea is to show how some aspect of the story - in the case of Hansel and Gretel, laying a trail of stones/breadcrumbs, then attempting to follow them home - can be seen as a kind of algorithm or computation and gradually adding in computing standards, such as searching, queues and lists, loops, recursion and more.

This really would have been a brilliant book if Erwig had got himself a co-author who knew how to write for the public, but sadly the style is mostly heavy…