This book was a gift given to me by E, a physics friend, an embarrassingly long time ago. He happened to give me it as a Christmas present one year when I received a huge number of books. At the time I was a physics undergraduate student and felt like I was reading enough physics during my courses – I didn’t want to read it during my leisure time as well. Nevertheless, time is an undeniably interesting subject and I found myself opening the book and reading the first couple of pages several times over the year. I never got much further until, having read Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being, I got the time bug, and decided to read Dan Falk’s book once and for all.
Falk is a science journalist. The subtitle of In Search of Time is Journeys Along a Curious Dimension. These two facts lead to an obvious conclusion: This book is mostly about physics. No surprises there. However, the first few chapters a pretty light on science. Falk talks about time from an anthropological and historical stand point. He discusses how different societies in history interpreted time and how they measured it. He talks about the first calendars and the first clocks. This is all quite good fun – as a physicist it can sometimes be hard for me to read popular physics because I’m too close to the subject. I have no such problems reading history.
Soon enough, though, the hard science begins. Falk takes a predictable route from Newton to Einstein and beyond to interesting yet untestable ideas like string theory. He interviews lots of current physicists about their ideas about time and asks them what they think Einstein thought. Often he stops to describe the pretty little quaint English villages they live in (Falk clearly likes the South of England very much and I suspect he could write a successful book about it). Repeatedly he returns to the same question: What is time?
Unfortunately, like many others, he is unable to come to a solid answer. Time passes so that processes can occur, or it is what we measure change by, or it is a discrete series of moments that all constantly exist and our perception of its flow is an illusion. Or something else. He argues that time is such an ingrained concept for us that we may never be able to truly, satisfactorily define it.
Maybe that’s fair but his final conclusion, which presents Einstein apparently changing his mind* about the nature of time feels like a cop out. It reads like Falk is saying, “Oh, I don’t bloody know, but Einstein didn’t either, so there.” Sure, it’s a hard question to ask, and I certainly don’t know the answer either, but then, why write an entire book dwelling on a question you never really answer? Why not shift the focus slightly so a more interesting, more satisfying conclusion can be drawn? While I enjoyed parts of the book, I couldn’t help finding this focus to be an odd choice.
*Einstein consistently said he couldn’t accept the idea of time being an illusion but then, late in life, he wrote in a letter that all physicists must see it as being so.
P.S. Sorry for the most recent bout of radio silence. My viva is on Thursday. I’ll be back to my usual unable-to-shut-up-on-the-internet self shortly afterwards.