Time Travel: A History
We may never figure out how to time-travel, but that doesn’t mean our infatuation with the notion has been useless, said Jonathon Keats in New Scientist. In his new book, science writer James Gleick “provides an absorbing history of the idea,” tracing how physicists, philosophers, and science fiction writers have used it to expand their cosmologies and ours since novelist H.G. Wells introduced the concept in his 1895 debut, The Time Machine. Before that, Gleick argues, fictional characters who visited the past or future did so through dreams or some other loose magic. Wells instead proposed that time was a fourth dimension, and put his time traveler on a bicycle-like contraption that could navigate it. Ten years later, Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity added ballast to Wells’ speculation, and it’s been generating thought experiments ever since.
The newness of the idea comes as a surprise, said Colin Dickey in The New Republic. Gleick credits the technological advances of the Industrial Revolution, which not only made observers expect further leaps in technology but also changed people’s conception of time. When railroad trains began racing across vast distances and demanding synchronized clocks, time became a concrete concept and the future became a place history was heading toward. Science fiction helped us mull how we might visit that place, but “at their best,” stories and novels about time travel also used the idea to help us ask profound questions about present life. For example: If a different self exists in the past and future, what is the self?
Gleick’s insistence on the 1895 launch point might be the book’s biggest flaw, said Rosalind Williams in The Washington Post. The urge to travel through time has been with us since we first confronted the problem of our own mortality, as Gleick eventually acknowledges. But he’s fashioned his book as if it were a salon, and on its best pages, Marcel Proust and Virginia Woolf “mix and mingle” with Einstein and Kurt Gödel, engaging in lively conversations about deep philosophical matters. Though the chatter “can be head-spinning at times,” it also makes “a great read.”