Skip to main content

The Book of Time – Adam Hart-Davis ****

There seems to be a new breed of popular science book around aimed at families. These range from the ‘for children but adults will like it too’ book like Richard Dawkins’ The Magic of Reality to ‘for adults but children will like it too’ in the case of my own Inflight Science. I’d put Adam Hart-Davis’s latest in the latter category. It is pitched at adults, but never gets so heavy that older children would appreciate it too.
What’s more, the format is one that seems designed to appeal to those younger readers. It’s the size of a small coffee table book and has pages that have the sort of mix of text, photographs, zappy little mottos and factoids that you would expect to find in a children’s science book. The contents, though, are meaty enough for an adult reader to get their teeth into them – which is just as well, as, in writing about time, Hart-Davis is taking on a non-trivial topic.
One of the hardest things about time is to define what it is, especially up front where you can’t really go into block universes or the ‘becoming present’ and other philosophical concepts. However before long we are launched into the philosophical side and beginning to get a feel for the way human beings have struggled with the concepts of time since the earliest days through to modern philosophy. We then move on to time in nature, how we fix the units of time, how we measure the passing of time and a ‘time and science’ section that pulls together the various scientific implications and considerations of time from the speed of light and relativity to the big bang.
On the whole this all handled very well, at a level that won’t challenge, but will keep the interest going with some truly fascinating factoids and entertaining histories. I was slightly surprised that there was nothing much about thermodynamics with its implications for ‘time’s arrow’, but most of the important areas were covered. One of the difficulties in taking a relatively light approach is not over-simplifying. This doesn’t happen often, but, for instance, in talking about pendulums, there is no mention that Galileo’s idea that the period of pendulum does change with the size of its swing is wrong (despite often being repeated). In a conventional pendulum it only holds true for a small swing – once the pendulum moves more than about 15 degrees either side of the vertical, the force acting on it cease being linear, no longer producing a consistent frequency.
There is also one out-and-out error. We are told that, because of special relativity, the clocks on GPS satellites run slow by about 38 microseconds a day. Unfortunately, GPS satellites are also subject to general relativity – and this says that with lower gravity, clocks run faster. The lower gravitational pull on the satellites compared with the Earth’s surface means that they run fast, and this effect is stronger than the slowing from special relativity. In reality, the combination of the two effects means that GPS satellites run fast by 38 microseconds each day.
My only other concern is that as an adult reader, I find the busy visual presentation something of a distraction. I have nothing against illustrations in a book, but when you are having to jump here and there to read boxes and quotes and factoids, I find I lose the flow and don’t really get into the book in the same way I would with a conventional layout. I know this isn’t a problem for everyone – if you like this kind of layout, you will love this book – but it’s not my favourite approach.
Overall, this is an excellent introduction to the concepts of time, measuring it and its importance to science. It is pitched just right so that an adult can feel they are getting some worthwhile material, but a younger reader can also enjoy it. There is plenty to capture the interest, and a good balance of the historical and the scientific. Although the approach won’t work for everyone, and occasionally can over-simplify, I would still heartily recommend it, as time is subject that really isn’t covered enough in popular science.

Hardback 
Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

A (Very) Short History of Life on Earth - Henry Gee *****

In writing this book, Henry Gee had a lot to live up to. His earlier title  The Accidental Species was a superbly readable and fascinating description of the evolutionary process leading to Homo sapiens . It seemed hard to beat - but he has succeeded with what is inevitably going to be described as a tour-de-force. As is promised on the cover, we are taken through nearly 4.6 billion years of life on Earth (actually rather more, as I'll cover below). It's a mark of Gee's skill that what could have ended up feeling like an interminable list of different organisms comes across instead as something of a pager turner. This is helped by the structuring - within those promised twelve chapters everything is divided up into handy bite-sized chunks. And although there certainly are very many species mentioned as we pass through the years, rather than feeling overwhelming, Gee's friendly prose and careful timing made the approach come across as natural and organic.  There was a w

Michael D. Gordin - Four Way Interview

Michael D. Gordin is a historian of modern science and a professor at Princeton University, with particular interests in the physical sciences and in science in Russia and the Soviet Union. He is the author of six books, ranging from the periodic table to early nuclear weapons to the history of scientific languages. His most recent book is On the Fringe: Where Science Meets Pseudoscience (Oxford University Press). Why history of science? The history of science grabbed me long before I knew that there were actual historians of science out there. I entered college committed to becoming a physicist, drawn in by the deep intellectual puzzles of entropy, quantum theory, and relativity. When I started taking courses, I came to understand that what really interested me about those puzzles were not so much their solutions — still replete with paradoxes — but rather the rich debates and even the dead-ends that scientists had taken to trying to resolve them. At first, I thought this fell under

Regeneration - Paul Hawken **

This is a really big book. I don't mean big in the sense of important, but physically enormous for what it is - it's roughly the size of a children's annual, though a lot thicker. Interestingly, the format appears to be a Paul Hawken speciality - he did it with his previous title, Drawdown ,  though that was far less glossy. Paul Hawken's aim is to put forward a solution to climate change driven from humans rather than from the science. The tag line on the back of the book reads 'The climate crisis is not at science problem. It is a human problem.' And that itself is a problem. It's not that climate change isn't a human problem, but rather that it's both a human problem and a science problem - requiring human and science-based solutions. But the approach taken in this book is anything but scientific. It's a bit like saying the Covid-19 pandemic is a human problem, not a science problem. The pandemic is indeed a human problem, but if we'd tr