Title: Time Travel
Rating: 2 Stars
Time is a fascinating concept. We know intrinsically what it is but ultimately no one can describe it. Often times dictionaries define time to be the duration between events. Fair enough. Perfectly clear. In some cases, those same dictionaries then define duration as the time during which something occurs.
Ummm…can someone say circular definition?
This book takes as its subject time. First of all, I found it interesting that even the concept of time passing is fairly new. Sure, the sun goes up and down and the moon waxes and wanes. Time itself, however, was not actually celebrated. It wasn’t until the year 1900 that centennials were widely celebrated.
Perhaps this was because of industrial inventions such as railroads and telegraphs. Suddenly, time was not a local event that was controlled by church bells. Railroad schedules were published. Greenwich Mean Time was defined. Systems were established that relied upon a standard definition of time.
Since then, we’ve become obsessed with time, what it means, and can we somehow reach outside our time. Of course, H.G. Wells The Time Machine started all of this off and entire generations of science fiction writers / film makers have taken the concept and have run wild with it. You have the idea of the closed loop expressed by a movie like La Jetee (that ultimately was partially remade as 12 Monkeys). You have the idea of multiple time lines, most realistically portrayed in Primer. And then you have movies, like Predestination, that go completely off the rails, where a time traveler ends up being both his mother and his father.
Starting with Einstein, the physicists get involved. They blow away the theory that somehow time is the same for everyone. They then totally lose their minds and start talking about the nature of time, does time actually pass, and what, physically, does it mean to move from one moment to the next. At some point, you end up with theories like MWI (many worlds interpretation), which essentially states that there is a possibly infinite number of universes for every possible action in our past not taken. This then opens up the world of time travel to the past. Go back in time, kill Hitler, and you are now in a different universe. If you’re into Borges, then that plays nicely into all of his compelling but mind blowing labyrinth fiction.
And of course the philosophers get involved as well. They’re the ones that approach time travel with formal logic and deduce that time travel to the past is impossible, or alternatively, that it’s possible to travel to the past but it is impossible for a time traveler to change the past (eg maybe you try to kill Hitler but you forget to load your gun or some nonsense like that).
So, all of this is interesting. It’s just too bad that the book wasn’t more interesting. Gleick had clearly done a tremendous amount of research and he seems hellbent on making sure that every single bit of it appears on a page somewhere. It’s all a bit overwhelming and scattershot.
There were chapters that pulled me in and kept me interested. There were other chapters where he appeared to be just throwing research sources against a wall to see what would stick.
The problem probably is that the entire exploration of time is just too big of a topic. If he’d just narrowed it down to the concept and problems of time travel, or if he’d talked about the physicists struggle to define, understand, and develop a framework of time, then that could have been a nice, compact, tightly focused work. Instead, it just ended up kind of a hodgepodge mess of semi-related essays.
At the end of the day, I really have no more idea of what time is than when I started, and that could very have been the point.