Skip to main content

Time Machine Tales - Paul Nahin ***

This book has the feel of two different books that have been shoehorned together - which isn't entirely surprising, as the author tells us that he has combined a simplified version of his earlier title Time Machines with material on time travel in philosophy and science fiction.

I expected to find the science fiction part more interesting, as I've read far too many books on the physics of time travel, but it was actually the other way round. By reducing the maths content of his earlier book, Paul Nahin has made the physics of time travel bits significantly more approachable (there are some pages full of equations, but they're nowhere near as scary as they may appear at a glance). It'd probably help to have physics and maths A-levels, but it certainly doesn't require an undergraduate training. There is plenty here that I have never seen presented in such an effective way for that kind technical-end popular audience, and it's worth buying the book for that alone.

By contrast, the fiction-based parts don't work so well. This is odd, as Nahin includes as appendices two published science fiction stories he wrote in the 70s, which are both very readable, if a little stiff by modern standards. He knows how fiction works. Yet what's missing from the sections on the science fiction approach to time travel is any sense of narrative - we are overwhelmed with example after example (which require repeated checking of the footnotes) of every tiny variant in the portrayal of time travel - it's a factual overload, where a lot fewer examples with more detail and exploration of what's behind them might have worked far better.

I was also a little horrified by the grey-background end sections of each chapter, which ask the reader questions, supposedly to help them probe their understanding of what has come before, in what felt a very condescending, back to school, style. These might work for some, but I hated them.

The good news, then, is that you get two books for the price of one, and the physics of time travel one is really interesting, but as a single entity it didn't work well for me.

Paperback:  
Kindle:  

Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

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…