Skip to main content

Time Travel: a writer’s guide – Paul J. Nahin ***

Time travel is an absolutely fascinating aspect of physics, if only because few people realize that it’s not fantasy – not only does time travel fail to break the laws of physics, we even have to deal with (very small scale) time travel on the part of GPS satellites to make them work properly. Paul Nahin doesn’t point this out, quite possibly because this is a surprisingly old book – although reissued in 2011 with a new preface, it dates back to 1997.
GPS might not have been part of everyday life back then, but most of the time travel science has survived pretty well unchanged. There are a few time-based omissions. No mention of superluminal tunnelling experiments or laser-based frame dragging, for instance. But the biggest omission in the science due to the age of the book has nothing much to do with time travel – it’s the casual dismissal of the cosmological constant, showing a predating of the discovery of dark energy. But luckily this is more a side-comment than of any great significance.
Apart from those small omissions, Nahin does a great job of getting through all the possibilities in a reasonably compact way. However, the way the book is tightly targeted means that it isn’t the ideal popular science book on time travel for the general reader. This is very much aimed at would-be writers of science fiction, and this comes through very strongly, both in Nahin’s remarks and in his approach which relies on many, many examples of science fiction stories featuring time travel. I’m quite a fan of science fiction, but I have to confess I found it heavy going with so many fictional references.
There are a couple of other tiny problems with the book. The science is mostly put across in a friendly fashion, but there are two times when Nahin goes into much too much detail, in a way that may well put off a lot of readers (particularly if they are looking at this as authors rather than would-be scientists). The other problem I had was a rather hectoring tone – at times he almost says that people with certain ideas (e.g. having problems with the killing-your-grandfather type paradox) are idiots because the paradox obviously won’t happen. I’m sorry, it isn’t obvious, and taking this approach is not particularly helpful.
Overall, then, a good if rather dated summary of the science of time travel, but because of the way it is put across only really of interest to serious SF fans or would-be writers (which, to be fair to the author, is exactly the audience that it is aimed at).
Paperback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

A Tale of Seven Scientists - Eric Scerri ***

Scientists sometimes tell us we're in a post-philosophy world. For example, Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow in The Grand Design bluntly say that that philosophy is 'dead' - no longer required, as science can do its job far better. However, other scientists recognise the benefits of philosophy, particularly when it is applied to their own discipline. One such is Eric Scerri, probably the world's greatest expert on the periodic table, who in this challenging book sets out to modify the philosophical models of scientific progress.

I ought to say straight away that A Tale of Seven Scientists sits somewhere on the cusp between popular science and a heavy duty academic title. For reasons that will become clear, I could only give it three stars if rating it as popular science, but it deserves more if we don't worry too much about it being widely accessible.

One minor problem with accessibility is that I've never read a book that took so long to get started. First t…

Four Way Interview - Tom Cabot

Tom Cabot is a London-based book editor and designer with a background in experimental psychology, natural science and graphic design. He founded the London-based packaging company, Ketchup, and has produced and illustrated many books for the British Film Institute, Penguin and the Royal Institute of British Architects. Tom has held a lifelong passion to explain science graphically and inclusively ... ever since being blown away by Ray and Charles Eames’ Powers of Ten at an early age. His first book is Eureka, an infographic guide to science.

Why infographics?
For me infographics provided a way to present heavy-lifting science in an alluring and playful, but ultimately illuminating, way. And I love visualising data and making it as attractive as the ideas are.  The novelty of the presentation hopefully gets the reader to look afresh. I love the idea of luring in readers who might normally be put off by drier, more monotone science – people who left science behind at 16. I wanted the boo…

Einstein's Greatest Mistake - David Bodanis ****

Books on Einstein and his work are not exactly thin on the ground. There's even been more than one book before with a title centring on Einstein's mistake or mistakes. So to make a new title worthwhile it has do something different - and David Bodanis certainly achieves this with Einstein's Greatest Mistake. If I'm honest, the book isn't the greatest on the science or the history - but what it does superbly is tell a story. The question we have to answer is why that justifies considering this to be a good book.
I would compare Einstein's Greatest Mistake with the movie Lincoln -  it is, in effect, a biopic in book form with all the glory and flaws that can bring. Compared with a good biography, a biopic will distort the truth and emphasise parts of the story that aren't significant because they make for a good screen scene. But I would much rather someone watched the movie than never found out anything about Lincoln - and similarly I'd much rather someon…