Eh, Time Travel is okay

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.


  1. nmp3102

    Okay, I beg to differ on your “hard science” definition. Genetics is a hard science. Chemistry is a hard science. Certain branches of molecular biology could be considered hard science. Soft science includes ecology, sociology, psychology, and political science. I admit that this definition is not as cohesive as yours BUT implying that the non-physical sciences are soft is part of what leads to gross public misinformation and misunderstandings about science and science research. That’s why there are people and schools who refute evolution as “just a theory.” (Which, of course, it is, but no one makes the same argument about gravitational forces.) You may not be bio-inclined, but I’d encourage you to consider revising that definition to be a little broader and dial down the disdain.

    1. dasfuller (Post author)

      Dividing sciences up based on their use and contribution back to the field of mathematics does not lead to “gross public misinformation and misunderstandings about science and science research.” Splitting sciences up along mathematical lines also does not lead to “people and schools who refute evolution.” That’s a slippery slope fallacy. I don’t disagree that there is a problem with gross public misinformation and misunderstanding and people who flat-out reject science, but classifying fields that claim to be science along mathematical lines is an act (one of many possible acts) of clarification, not ambiguation.

      1. nmp3102

        I apologize if my message was unclear or seemed aggressive. I have no issues with a division of the sciences based on mathematics. The point I tried and failed to make was that the hard/soft classification can exacerbate (what I tend to see as) issues regarding the legitimacy of biological research. My objection to your definition was that it implied that non-physical sciences were soft, which can lead to misunderstandings – like the evolution example – about the use of the scientific method and measurable variables.

        The people reading this blog don’t tend to visit it for science; it’s about a lot of other things, but not particularly that. Using phrases like hard and soft science in this or any other less formal context could further inherent bias of readers about what makes something scientific (in this case, physics, and not biology). As a young researcher, and someone poised to enter the world of biochemical research, I’ll admit that I got defensive.

        I’m sorry. Probably shouldn’t have said anything in the first place.

        1. nmp3102

          (Also, I’m one of Lou’s former students, so if you object to my firing back at your comments, you can blame him. He trained me.)

        2. dasfuller (Post author)

          No worries on any of this, and never apologizing for speaking up. Even if you’re wrong (and you’re not wrong here, just using easily-refutable rhetorical tools), it’s still a learning experience.

          The whole thing about math being the difference between “hard” and “soft” science is a thing I made up once to tease a biology PhD friend. It’s my modern take on the famous Rutherford quote, “All science is either physics or stamp collecting.”

          1. Luigus

            Time travel sure is cool, huh?

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