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

Cosmology for the Curious - Delia Perlov and Alex Vilenkin ***

In the recently published The Little Book of Black Holes we saw what I thought was pretty much impossible - a good, next level, general audience science title, spanning the gap between a typical popular science book and an introductory textbook, but very much in the style of popular science. Cosmology for the Curious does something similar, but coming from the other direction. This is an introductory textbook, intended for first year physics students, with familiar textbook features like questions to answer at the end of each chapter. Yet by incorporating some history and context, plus taking a more relaxed style in the writing, it's certainly more approachable than a typical textbook.

The first main section, The Big Bang and the Observable Universe not only covers basic big bang cosmology but fills in the basics of special and general relativity, Hubble's law, dark matter, dark energy and more. We then move onto the more speculative (this is cosmology, after all) aspects, brin…

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry – Neil deGrasse Tyson *****

When I reviewed James Binney’s Astrophysics: A Very Short Introduction earlier this year, I observed that the very word ‘astrophysics’ in a book’s title is liable to deter many readers from buying it. As a former astrophysicist myself, I’ve never really understood why it’s considered such a scary word, but that’s the way it is. So I was pleasantly surprised to learn, from Wikipedia, that this new book by Neil deGrasse Tyson ‘topped The New York Times non-fiction bestseller list for four weeks in the middle of 2017’.

Like James Binney, Tyson is a professional astrophysicist with a string of research papers to his name – but he’s also one of America’s top science popularisers, and that’s the hat he’s wearing in this book. While Binney addresses an already-physics-literate audience, Tyson sets his sights on a much wider readership. It’s actually very brave – and honest – of him to give physics such prominent billing; the book could easily have been given a more reader-friendly title such …

Once upon and Algorithm - Martin Erwig ***

I've been itching to start reading this book for some time, as the premise was so intriguing - to inform the reader about computer science and algorithms using stories as analogies to understand the process.

This is exactly what Martin Erwig does, starting (as the cover suggests) with Hansel and Gretel, and then bringing in Sherlock Holmes (and particularly The Hound of the Baskervilles), Indiana Jones, the song 'Over the Rainbow' (more on that in a moment), Groundhog Day, Back to the Future and Harry Potter.

The idea is to show how some aspect of the story - in the case of Hansel and Gretel, laying a trail of stones/breadcrumbs, then attempting to follow them home - can be seen as a kind of algorithm or computation and gradually adding in computing standards, such as searching, queues and lists, loops, recursion and more.

This really would have been a brilliant book if Erwig had got himself a co-author who knew how to write for the public, but sadly the style is mostly heavy…