‘Time Travel’ by James Gleick

‘Great, But Wanted More’

Score: 5/5

James Gleick

I suppose I’ve been spoiled by some of James Gleick’s other works - like The Information or Chaos - but I anticipated a lot more science in this book than is actually there.

I like it - it’s a great book. I thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s just that the focus is primarily on time travel in literature and popular culture rather than the science of time. It’s not that there’s no talk of what time is, because that’s there. There’s even discussions of some of the philosophical thinking behind it (even my favourite, McTaggart, gets a mention). Just that there’s less of that than talk of time travel in books. Maybe it’s because time is such a nebulous label and that we have such basic questions about it that are still unanswered by current science.

(Yes, I’d probably have known better what to expect if I’d read the blurb and read reviews, but I stopped reading things like that after the cover of War Of The Rats - a book about a duel between snipers - gave away the outcome. So I don’t read blurbs any more, I avoid reviews and I generally just want to be left alone to read a book on my own.)

Anyway, here is a snippet from ‘Time Travel’ (starting from page 137 in my paperback) to give you a flavour of the prose:

We have a tendency to take our words too seriously, which happens (paradoxically) when we are unconscious of them. Language offers a woefully meager set of choices for expressing what we need to express. Consider this sentence: “I haven’t seen you for a [?] time." Must the missing word be long? Then time is like a line or a distance - a measurable space. The language forces this upon us. Who was the first person to say time “passes” or time “flows”? We are seldom conscious of the effect of language on our choice of metaphors, the effect of our metaphors on our sense of reality. Usually we give the words no thought at all. When we do, we may well wonder what we’re really saying. “I’m terrified of the thought of time passing (or whatever is meant by that phrase) whether I ‘do’ anything or not," Philip Larkin wrote to his lover Monica Jones. The words lead us in a certain direction.

In English and most Western languages, the future lies ahead. In front of us. Forward. The past is behind us, and when we are running late we say we have fallen behind. Yet this forward-backward orientation is neither obvious nor universal. Even in English, it seems we can’t agree on what it means to move a meeting back one day. Some people are certain that back means earlier. Others are equally certain that it means later. On Tuesday, Wednesday lies before us, though Tuesday is before Wednesday. Other cultures have different geometries. Aymara speakers, in the Andes, point forward (where they can see) when talking about the past and gesture behind their backs when talking about the future. In other languages, too, yesterday is the day ahead and tomorrow is the day behind. The cognitive scientist Lera Boroditsky, a student of spatiotemporal metaphors and conceptual schemas, notes that some Australian aboriginal communities orient themselves by cardinal direction (north, south, east, west) rather than relative direction (left, right) and think of time as running east to west. (They have a strongly developed sense of direction, compared to more urban and indoor cultures.)...

I hope you can see what I mean about how good a book it is. That’s less than 2 paragraphs but look at how much it covered!

There’s a density to this work that made me read a bit, pause to think, then read a bit more. And it was all the more enjoyable because of that. Much as I wish it had covered more of the latest thinking in wormholes, or dwelled more on Lee Smolin or Julian Barbour or Kip Thorne, it’s lovely just the way it is.

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