Copyright 2016 by the author
If you were looking for someone who could explain all the ins and outs and forwards and sideways of time travel, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better writer than James Gleick. He’s previously tackled topics like chaos theory and the life and work of Richard Feynman. So a history of the idea of time travel seems like a natural subject for him to present to the average intelligent reader.
Gleick starts by taking us back in time to when H.G. Wells was penning “The Time Machine”. He discusses early drafts of the novel, and mentions some of the problems that reviewers noted – what happens if solid objects are in the space the Traveler is passing through, for one, and how do you account for the fact that the earth is both rotating and moving through space (the latter is one that time travelers always seem to forget).
From there, he moves forward in time through physicists treating time mathematically as a dimension, philosophers grappling with the concept of time, and even lexicographers trying to simply come up with a definition of the term that doesn’t wind up spinning in circles: “Time is what clocks measure”; “A clock is a device for measuring the passage of time.”
Science fiction writers get their due. Hugo Gernsback is credited with the idea of the “Grandfather Paradox”, we see Robert Heinlein’s doodle where he planned out the loops in his story “By His Bootstraps” (One wonders what Gleick would have made of the loops-within-loops of Shane Carruth’s 2004 movie Primer; it doesn’t look like he’s seen it); Isaac Asimov’s The End of Eternity comes in for some harsh commentary; though its sexual politics have to be seen as a product of its time. Wormholes do get discussed, but Gleick seems more interested in pointing out what he sees as the wasteful futility of time capsules.
But just as physics starts to catch up with the writers (in their chats while strolling around Princeton in the 1950s, Kurt Gödel showed Albert Einstein that the equations for General Relativity allowed for a solution where time travel is theoretically possible), Gleick switches tracks. His new focus is on the general philosophical implications of time travel, and the concept of “time” in general. Does our remembrance of things past count as travel back in time? What about prognostications or dreams of the future? He bounces around from topic to topic, in a barely linear fashion. It’s as if he’s time traveling himself as he writes.
With Gleick’s physics background, it’s not really surprising that he doesn’t devote much to what neuroscientists have been finding out about our perception of time. Alternate histories do get some mention, though they aren’t really germane to the topic.
All in all, it’s a decent overview of the subject, if a bit disjointed and scattershot. It’s still enough to get you thinking – if not about traveling back to the future, at least about what this thing we call “time” really is.
1. Gleick’s own definition? “Things change. Time is how we keep track.”
2. Proust comes up a lot in this work.
3. I’m writing this in May, 2017. Are you traveling back to the past by reading it?