Monday, 28 July 2008

Making Time – Steve Taylor ***

If you think of Albert Einstein you might come up with many things, but not necessarily jokes. Yet Einstein did once do a funny. He claimed that this was the abstract of a paper he once wrote: When a man sits with a pretty girl for an hour, it seems like a minute. But let him sit on a hot stove for a minute – and it’s longer than any hour. That’s relativity. The journal he claimed it was published in was called Journal of Exothermic Science and Technology, and the full paper is supposed to describe him attempting to undertake the experiment in question. (The film star Paulette Goddard, introduced to Einstein by mutual friend Charlie Chaplin, was the pretty girl in question.) I have only ever seen this paper referred to as a genuine, if humorous, academic contribution, though the way that the initials of the spurious sounding journal spell out JEST might suggest that Einstein made the whole thing up. Funny though this may be, it reflects an underlying truth – time runs away with us when we aren’t concentrating on a regular beat, and that is at the heart of this book.
The trouble is, there is very little other significant content. Steve Taylor tells us how we subjectively speed up and slow down time, and for me this book definitely slowed down time because there was so little in it – it was the classic example of a magazine article stretched out to fill a whole book. It didn’t matter how much Taylor padded out the simple observations that some things we do make time go faster for us, and some things slower – whether by giving these concepts grand sounding names as the “Laws of Psychological Time” – the fact is it there’s very little substance here.
It gets even worse when Taylor attempts to bring in science, because the result is all too reminiscent of the way pseudo-scientists use a few scientific terms to try to dress up hokum, but get the science just a bit wrong. I’m not qualified to say how up-to-date his psychological ideas are – though the dependence on such a Freudian term as “the ego” may suggest they are dated, but when he strays into physics and cosmology, things certainly go to pieces. Taylor doesn’t make the classic mistake of thinking Einstein was serious, and Einsteinian relativity is concerned with subjective time, but he does make plenty of comments about relativity, whether it’s the fact that cause and effect can be reversed (true if you travel faster than light, but not hugely common otherwise) or saying that relativity means that time flow varies, an observation that is only true when observing someone in relative motion to yourself and not in the cases he is talking about. This suggests he has only a faint grasp of what Einstein was on about.
In just one paragraph, he makes it clear his ideas on cosmology are way out of date, getting the dating of the big bang over 2 billion years out by modern reckoning (what’s a couple of billion years?) and suggesting that the current belief is that we are headed for a “big crunch” where the universe will collapse back together – he seems to have missed the whole dark energy thing. He then tells us that our “western scientific viewpoint” is historically anomalous. Really this is a big “so what?” point. Almost everything we know to be true now is historically anomalous, because until a few hundred years ago, no one had a clue what was going on either in the universe or on a microscopic scale. All of medicine is historically anomalous. The Earth moving around the Sun is historically anomalous. So?
Finally he offers us some solutions based on meditation and deep scientific considerations like “we will get more out of life if we explore new places and get in new situations.” This is the sort of book that will get plenty of coverage in the media, but frankly does very little for the advancement of scientific knowledge. You know the sort of book it’s going to be when you read that there’s massive anecdotal evidence for precognition. Scientists are often suspicious of anecdotes, preferring to stick to hard facts they can verify (or not) through experiments. But surely there are some cases where anecdotal evidence is so widespread an persuasive that is has to be taken seriously? The simple answer is “no”, Mr Taylor.
I really get fed up of repeating the wonderful quote from the book Voodoo Science by Robert Park: “Data is not the plural of anecdote.” There used to be loads of anecdotal evidence for the existence of unicorns, just as there still is for alien abduction. Anecdotes prove nothing. They can show there is a need for investigation, but that is all. In cases of the paranormal, like precognition, all the anecdotes have yet to produce any significant results (Taylor has to dig back to Rhine’s discredited work). If Mr Taylor has any doubts, James Randi has a million dollars on offer for anyone who can reproduce an ability like precognition under proper conditions. (See his website for details.) No one has yet to come close.
All in all, then, a fascinating topic, but this book provides very little useful content on the matter.
Review by Brian Clegg

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