Sunday night I finished reading James Gleick’s Time Travel: A History. It’s the fourth book of his I own/have read, and I gotta admit, I was a little underwhelmed.
First of all, James Gleick is a fantastic pop-sci writer. His Isaac Newton biography is pretty good.* But Gleick really shines when he steps into the deep waters with Chaos: Making a New Science and The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood. He’s an incredibly skilled story-teller and educator when he takes on these two incredibly difficult-to-understand fields (nonlinear dynamical systems and information science). I can’t recommend these two books enough.
But Time Travel isn’t about hard science. It’s not even about soft science (the sciences that don’t use regularly make use of nor contribute back to mathematics**). Instead it’s an analysis of the cultural phenomenon that is the time travel trope. He starts with H.G. Wells book, The Time Machine, and then expands out into how our culture took to the idea of “traveling” through time. Einstein’s ideas about (and the ideas inspired by) time and general relativity end up clashing hard against what philosophers were thinking about time at the same…time (early-early to regular-early 20th Century).
Which is why I’m a little underwhelmed by the book. I came in thinking it would be harder (not in a “this is hard to understand” sense but rather “these are heavy ideas” sense) given Gleick’s prior work, and I just didn’t see any of that. It was a lot of talk about philosophers constantly falling to the way side as Einstein and Godel ran roughshod over our understanding of what reality is. But even in that, there wasn’t a lot of tension nor any moments of “Holy cow! For real?!” (which was a common refrain I had while reading The Information).
I think my disappointment with the book stems from time travel being such a familiar trope, and so, because of that, I didn’t find anything new or overwhelmingly interesting. Which is too bad because I love James Gleick’s writing. I’m not giving up on him! But I’m also not too enthused with having bought the hardcover edition.
Anyway, if you want a real education in time travel, just watch Bender’s Big Score. The stuff in that movie covers basically the middle-to-final third of the book. (The initial third is basically three extended essays about H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine.)
* Although, truth be told, it’s the only full biography about Newton I’ve ever read. It mostly just filled in the gaps of what I’d learned of the man during my physics education.
** This is my own definition, by the way.