Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Time Travel by James Gleick (kindle edition)

This mostly accessible book covers vast cultural, philosophic, and scientific terrain, under the premise of examining time travel -- a possibility, a paradox, a phenomenon? First, James Gleick is my favorite non-fiction author, bar none. So I'm a big fan. Second, the topic is of deep interest to me, not just because of my last name (Rip VW could be called a time traveller, sleeping for 20 years), but also because it is a fascinating trope in our culture that allows for some pretty fun storytelling. So, this is going to be a positive review, nicht wahr? Of course it is, but you don't have to skip to the end to know that.

The scientific worldview that Gleick comes from is a frame for examination of ideas. He takes the idea of time travel and traces its origins, beginning with the H.G. Wells novel The Time Traveller, but of course starting much earlier than that, in fits and starts, with let's say the industrial revolution. That's where we get our "modern" sense of time as something that can be synchronized and structured by things like time zones. In physics, time begins to be "measured" around the time of Sir Isaac Newton, but Newton used his heartbeat to time his experiments, I believe. The invention of mechanical clocks and the discovery of longitude are outside the scope of Gleick's book, but they are important scientific and technological achievements -- not the subject of the book, but related to it. Newton's laws of physics take time as an essential element (velocity = distance/time). But what is time?

Now we're really thinking. We discover through Gleick's analysis that time is both psychological and experiential, as well as paradoxical -- we know what it is until we try to describe it. Is it subjective or objective? Does it "flow" like a river? No, Gleick concludes, that is strictly a metaphor. And, I discovered by reading this novel, the Latin motto tempus fugit means not, as I had assumed, time flies, but rather, time flees. Time escapes rational characterization. And time travel turns out to be both a logical impossibility (causes lead to effects, after all) and a possibility in physics (time can run backward or forward, based on the sign in an equation -- just as the irrational number i, the square root of -1, is a logical impossibility that creates all kinds of interesting possibilities, so too is -t).

So, Gleick is having some fun with the idea of time travel, in a discursive, almost deconstructive way. He mentions an artist almost in passing, Chris Marker, who "may have been a time traveller," it appears, but created a work of art (film) named la jetee, about memory, remembrance, forgetfulness, and film, that I defy any modern filmmaker to beat. I haven't seen it, so I can't say with confidence that it is a good film, but it is interesting, to say the least. In any event, Gleick takes us through cultural and scientific ideas of time travel, ranging from time capsules (which he says are a somewhat foolish way to try to evade death) to novels like The Time Traveller, to Dr. Who (a hard-won favorite of mine, too), and aims at answering the question of whether time travel is possible or desirable, based on such cultural phenomena.

His answer is yes, but with some caveats. First, he believes time travel is an act of the imagination that is valuable, much as dreaming or fiction generally is valuable. He isn't interested in the paradoxes or "rules" of sci-fi time travel so much, though he does mention them. Instead, what he's interested in are the stories that break the rules -- the so-called "bootstrap paradox" gets a whole chapter, for example, based on Robert Heinlein's comic short story in which a character named Bob interacts with various versions of himself who have traveled through time. What he's after is what those stories reveal about the nature of time and life itself. Second, he doesn't think time travel is really possible, although it turns out the laws of physics don't contradict it necessarily, except maybe entropy. He talks about popular physicist Richard Hawking holding a dinner party for time travellers, invitations issued after the fact, to which no one came, as an example of the logical fallacy of cause coming after effect. He also mentions the Biblical account in Joshua where God stops the sun to create a longer day, but dismisses it as wishful thinking, "who hasn't wished for more hours in the day?" He doesn't dismiss the possibility of time travel outright, either in fiction or in real life, but he comes to a conclusion of sorts about the limitation of the scientific equations to really describe reality, in that what appears possible in some senses based on Einstein's space-time continuum and other physics equations, isn't possible in our experience, except in fiction.

Time travel is therefore essential to our culture. It is both possible and impossible. It is a paradox and a mystery, but also a cold hard fact, that time travel is not possible. Or is it? So much of our storytelling these days involves time travel that we've gotten used to it; it's part of the culture. In the end, Gleick's concluding chapter on our current times is a little disheartening. The future is dystopian these days, not just because that view of time travel has won out, whether from 1984 on or from the invention of the Internet, I'm not sure; but also because we have shorter memories and shorter futures than we thought we did in the 1960s, say. The Internet has a way of foreshortening both past and future -- after all, we have access to a wealth of knowledge there, but, as Gleick says, "who has time to think?" Books like Gleick's, though, give me some hope that we can rise above our current predicament and invent a future that is better than our present, still.


Saturday, September 10, 2016

The Martian by Andy Weir

I liked this novel well enough to finish it, even though I had seen (most of) the movie prior to picking it up. It has a lot of talk about measurements in it, which will be off-putting to some and reminded me too much of high school chemistry class and calculations of limiting factors. Still, if you skip some of the analysis of how much the hero needs of what, the story is  very entertaining and the characterization of Mark Watney is fun. Yes, I dare say fun in a scifi novel about a scientist likely to starve to death on Mars after being mistakenly abandoned there. His voice has enough humor and humanity in it to keep me reading through the end. I liked the ending better than the movie's ending, even though it is pretty outlandish, and that's all I'll say so as to not ruin it. Read the book before seeing the movie if you can.

Saturday, February 06, 2016

Three novels I haven't finished and four books I'm still working on

I haven't been able to finish many novels lately, and I promised myself I would only post on books I've actually finished. However, some rules need to be broken. The thing is, I enjoyed each of these novels up to a point, and I think they're well crafted, with good stories to tell. I just couldn't get through them, for the following reasons.


Station Eleven (Kindle book about 1/2 way through) -- I think I stopped because I couldn't picture the world as well as I would have liked. It's a sci fi novel about a Shakespearean acting troop wandering in a post-apocalyptic world taken over by a massive viral attack, but there's not much Shakespeare in this novel so far.

The Goldfinch (trade paperback about 1/5 of the way through) -- a sense of foreboding over the ending stopped me. It's a long literary novel that won some awards and had some people comparing it to Dickens, which intrigued me. The beginning is shocking, and the in-depth description of what happens is very well done, but I couldn't help feeling the novel was a little too artful.

City on Fire (hardcover about 1/5 of the way through) -- an intentional interlude in this murder mystery (a letter written by a main character's grandfather) threw me out of the main plot and provided a long backstory, so it was a slog to get back to the main plot -- once I got back, I wasn't as interested as I was at the beginning. Then new characters get introduced pretty far into the novel, so I wasn't sure where it was going. I may pick this one back up if I get time.

I also am still working on the following books in various genres:

Life on Mars, a poetry collection by Tracy K. Smith (almost finished) -- I liked this book for its honesty and clear imagery, not sure about the anger and where it's directed.

The Science of Interstellar, a science textbook by a theoretical physicist who consulted on the film (got through the first few chapters) -- I determined that the science had been stretched considerably to fit the film, and stopped reading

God is with you every day (read almost every other day through January) a devotional by Max Lucado that I discovered is random snippets of his books, with a little bit of scripture thrown in -- not as inspiring as I'd hoped

Glory Days (not started) by Max Lucado