In Search of Time: The Science of a Curious Dimension In Search of Time: The Science of a Curious Dimension by Dan Falk
Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books
Year: 2008
Pages: 352

I’ve always had an affinity for science fiction about time travel; to the limited degree that I comprehend it, I like hard science too. Something about the fundamental and inscrutable nature of time intrigues me, and so picking up Dan Falk’s In Search of Time wasn’t a difficult decision. It didn’t turn out to be the book I was expecting, but it was enjoyable enough regardless.

When a book proposes to look at the concept of time, one’s immediate impression is that it will be heavy on physics—probably it will cite heavily from Stephen Hawking—and talk about closed timelike curves and many dimensions. Falk does, eventually, but In Search of Time is more about anthropology than it is about physics. After all, in order to write a book about time travel in the way that Toomey did, we first have to develop a branch of science which can deal with the mathematical vagaries of time; in order to do that, we have to have a language to describe time, which itself requires that we have cultural or biological awareness of time!

We tend to take this for granted—our biology seems innately aware of time—but not all cultures have the same notion. Consider Latin American time: our southern neighbors’ curious cultural lackadaisical approach to punctuality that makes Type A westerners uncomfortable is not a metaphysical difference, but the mean attached to time in these countries is clearly different. Even in my own Anglo-Saxon history, minutes weren’t even known concepts until timepieces had evolved sufficiently enough to make them worthwhile.

The development of calendaring system—from ancient lunar cycles to our modern UTC time—was one of the most interesting parts of the book, as Falk managed to blend the scientific with the anthropological. Our base-60 system of time was a curious inheritance from the Babylonians; you probably knew about Leap Years, but did you know about leap seconds? Regardless of how one chooses to measure the passage of time (lunar cycles, solar orbit, or 9,192,631,770 rotations of a cesium atom), it defies a perfect system of measurement—hence our leap seconds and other fudging.

Even within recent memory, agreeing on time has been tricky. Our modern notion of time zones didn’t come around until the end of the 19th century, and even then only due to the Herculean effort involved in coordinating transcontinental railroads. Differences of even ten minutes between towns could give rise to catastrophic accidents. And if the concept of time zones was complicated, how would we ever figure out time travel—a concept fictionalized by H.G. Wells at about that same time?

At this point, Falk finally comes around to the difficult physics that we expected from the beginning: Einstein’s theories, quantum mechanics, closed timelike curves, paradoxes, and that sort of thought experiments that are as fun as they are painful. In talking with a number physicists (whose names, aside from Lee Smolin, I don’t know), Falk playfully asks his readers to consider if Julius Caesar is still alive. Is there a version of me for each moment that passes, existing simultaneously? Or is there a single me that passes through a series of empty frames in a linear fashion, in the way we usually experience time? Some theorists believe—not that there’s really any evidence to support the notion—that time is an illusion; based on our scientific notion that time is a dimension just like the three dimensions of space (hence the combined “spacetime” which arose from Einstein), this seems a little tenuous, but neither am I smart enough to refute or confirm any kind of statements about the nature of time.

In the end, In Search of Time provides no answers. Like much of this review, it trafficks in hypothetical questions and offers several competing half-answers from physicists from different camps (string theorists, loop quantum gravity theorists like Smolin, &c.) which all builds to the entertaining non-conclusion that the study of time is still more or less a crapshoot.

§5789 · August 6, 2010 · Tags: , , , , , ·

2 Comments to “In Search of Time”

  1. boston says:

    Did you read this book twice as its marked #43 and #45 in your list?

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