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Introducing Time – Craig Callender & Ralph Edney *****

It is almost impossible to rate these relentlessly hip books – they are pure marmite*. The huge Introducing … series (about 80 books covering everything from Quantum Theory to Islam), previously known as … for Beginners, puts across the message in a style that owes as much to Terry Gilliam and pop art as it does to popular science. Many of the pages feature large graphics with speech bubbles that are supposed to emphasise a point.
If you scan the shelves on popular science it is surprisingly difficult to find a book on time, which is strange when you consider what a fundamental part of the physical world time is. Yes, you’ll discover books on time-keeping, on clocks and the measurement of time. Equally you’ll find books covering subjective time. Our personal experience of time, as opposed to time as a physical entity. But there’s very little on ‘real’ time.
It was a very pleasant surprise, then, to discover this entry in the ‘Introducing…’ series is a little cracker. Not only is it one of the better written members of the series, it really does explore the nature of time, far beyond a quick dip into St Augustine and Aristotle (even though these two worthies do get a look in).
There’s a powerful exploration of the difference between block time and the unfolding now – or as Callendar puts it, the detensers and the tensers – and plenty of reflections on the possibilities for time travel emerging from a wide range of physical concepts. Relativity, of course, gets a look in, as do the various paradoxes of time travel and some teasing possibilities that would emerge if, for example, spacetime were a Mobius strip.
While occasionally, and almost inevitably with what can be quite an esoteric subject, the author came close to losing me, most of the time he manages to make these mind boggling concepts surprisingly approachable. I wish I could say this was down to the illustrations, but to be honest I didn’t take them in all that much (though they are very well drawn). I was so engrossed with the text, I ignored much of the illustration (which is less obtrusive and more separate than in many of the series). Just occasionally you have to read the text in the illustration, which carries the narrative forward – this I found a bit irritating, as I had usually skipped it, realized it was missing and had to go back.
There’s just one point that seemed entirely wrong. When describing the use of the special relativity twins paradox to travel in time, the characters in the drawing say ‘It doesn’t bring us back to the past or forward to the future… it just enables our clock, at best, to age slower than clocks elsewhere.’ It’s certainly true that the twins paradox doesn’t enable travel into the past. But it does enable travel into the future. You might, for example, leave Earth in 2050, travel for 5 years (as far as you are concerned), and arrive back in 2100. In what way have you not travelled 45 years into the future? This just doesn’t make sense.
That apart, though, this is not only an excellent addition to the series but the best book on time I’ve read. Inevitably it’s very condensed to fit the format, but that’s somehow not inappropriate given the subject. Nice one.
*Marmite? If you are puzzled by this assessment, you probably aren’t from the UK. Marmite is a yeast-based product (originally derived from beer production waste) that is spread on bread/toast. It’s something people either love or hate, so much so that the company has run very successful TV ad campaigns showing people absolutely hating the stuff…
Review by Brian Clegg


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