Feature Physics

Essential Reads on Time

What is time?

What is time? Is it made of tiny particles like most things in our universe? Is it a fourth dimension? Does it exist at all? In We Have No Idea, Cham and Whiteson say, “We can’t stop time to study it, and we can’t make repeated time measurements of the same event. This topic is so out there that very few scientists are working on it directly.” Maybe it’s its elusiveness that makes it so fascinating. Maybe it’s the fact that we experience it so much in our everyday lives but really “have no idea” about its fundamental nature.

Aristotle said time is a measurement of change. Newton said there is a “true” time that passes no matter what. Einstein synthesized these two theories with curved spacetime. Carlo Rovelli says the world is made up of events, not things, and not ordered in time. Bertrand Russell said, “The Law of Causality… is a relic of a bygone age.” Dean Buonomano says your brain is a time machine. But the 1277 Bishop of Paris, Etienne Tempier, said it is heretical to maintain that age and time do not exist in reality but only in the mind. What are today’s best scientists saying about the science of time? Here are some new and essential books to add to your TBR pile:

The Clock Mirage: Our Myth of Measured Time by Joseph Mazur

The Clock Mirage is a tour of clocks throughout the centuries—from the sandglass to the telomere—to reveal the physical, biological, and social nature of time. Award‑winning author and mathematician Joseph Mazur provides an engaging exploration of how the understanding of time has evolved throughout human history and offers a compelling new vision, submitting that time lives within us. With a narrative punctuated by personal stories of time’s effects on truck drivers, Olympic racers, prisoners, and clockmakers, Mazur’s journey is filled with fascinating insights into how our technologies, our bodies, and our attitudes can change our perceptions.

The Science of Time Travel: The Secrets Behind Time Machines, Time Loops, Alternate Realities, and More! by Elizabeth Howell, PhD

The Science of Time Travel explores time travel through your favorite science-fiction franchises, from the classic time travel paradoxes of Star Trek to the universe-crossing shenanigans of Doctor Who. Discover the real science behind questions such as:

  • Can time travel really erase our past regrets like in A Christmas Carol?
  • Is it worth killing people in the past to prevent a horrible future like in Terminator?
  • What can we learn from living the same day over and over again like in Groundhog Day?
  • Could time travel destroy our right to privacy like in Deja Vu?
  • And so much more!

Time Reborn: From the Crisis in Physics to the Future of the Universe by Lee Smolin

Developments in physics and cosmology point toward the reality of time and the openness of the future. Smolin’s groundbreaking theory postulates that physical laws can evolve over time and the future is not yet determined. Newton’s fundamental laws may not remain so fundamental. Time Reborn serves as a popular primer and investigation of time, both what it is and how the true nature of it impacts our world.

The Order of Time by Carlo Rovelli

From the bestselling author of Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, comes a concise, elegant exploration of time. One of TIME’s Ten Best Nonfiction Books of the Decade. A personal favorite of PopScienceBookClub.com, The Order of Time offers a profoundly intelligent, culturally rich, novel appreciation of the mysteries of time.

“Meet the new Stephen Hawking . . . The Order of Time is a dazzling book.” —The Sunday Times

Now: The Physics of Time by Richard A. Muller

You are reading the word “now” right now. But what does that mean? “Now” has bedeviled philosophers, priests, and modern-day physicists from Augustine to Einstein and beyond. In Now, eminent physicist Richard A. Muller takes up the challenge. He begins with remarkably clear explanations of relativity, entropy, entanglement, the Big Bang, and more, setting the stage for his own revolutionary theory of time, one that makes testable predictions. Muller’s monumental work will spark major debate about the most fundamental assumptions of our universe, and may crack one of physics’ longest-standing enigmas.

About Time Too: A Miscellany of Time by the Royal Observatory Greenwich

This lighthearted, illustrated miscellany goes a long way to answering some of these questions and also presents a whole range of other amazing facts and figures that reveal the surprising influence of time on our daily lives. Time, we realize as we page through this book, affects us all in a wide range of unexpected ways. And it also generates some of the most intriguing questions asked by visitors to the Royal Observatory, the “Home of Time.” Building on those questions, the experts at the Royal Observatory present here a captivating primer on just what it is we mean, think about, and understand when we talk about time.

Your Brain Is a Time Machine: The Neuroscience and Physics of Time by Dean Buonomano

Leading neuroscientist Dean Buonomano embarks on an “immensely engaging” exploration of how time works inside the brain (Barbara Kiser, Nature). The human brain, he argues, is a complex system that not only tells time, but creates it; it constructs our sense of chronological movement and enables “mental time travel”―simulations of future and past events. These functions are essential not only to our daily lives but to the evolution of the human race: without the ability to anticipate the future, mankind would never have crafted tools or invented agriculture. This virtuosic work of popular science will lead you to a revelation as strange as it is true: your brain is, at its core, a time machine.

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