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:  
Also in paperback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

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…

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…