Review of reviews: Books
Book of the week
Why Time Flies: A Mostly Scientific Investigation
by Alan Burdick
(Simon & Schuster, $28)
“It ticks away, neutrally, yet it also flies and collapses, and is more often lost than found,” said The Economist. We all experience time, yet the greatest scientists and philosophers have struggled for centuries to pin down its precise nature. Alan Burdick, a New Yorker staff writer, accepts that he won’t be the person to resolve time’s mysteries, but he’s pulled together “a thoughtful ramble” through the thickets, stopping along the way to let us hear from St. Augustine and William James, clockmakers and research psychologists. Time drags here and there when Burdick goes too deep on a puzzle such as “When is ‘now’”? said Christopher Kemp in ScienceMag.com. But when he’s visiting the Arctic to experience endless daylight, or chatting with scientists in Paris who keep time for the whole planet, the book zips along. “It is erudite and informative, a joy with many small treasures.”
“From whatever side we address it, the nature of time is a source of perplexity and wonder,” said Carlo Rovelli in The New York Times. Philosophers debate time’s very existence, and physicists have discovered that if it does exist, it runs at different speeds under different conditions. Even time as we experience it can be a puzzle. Our brain, body, and cells, for example, all keep track of time in a variety of ways that science doesn’t fully understand. Muscle strength, blood pressure, and physical coordination all wax and wane across each 24-hour period, and the body’s different internal clocks don’t always appear to be on speaking terms. A transplanted kidney, for example, will sometimes demand bathroom breaks on the donor’s schedule rather than the recipient’s. And we haven’t even begun to discuss the intersection of psychology and our experience of time.
The science in that area is notably shaky, said Sam Kean in The Wall Street Journal. At one point, Burdick describes a study showing that time seems to slow down for people looking at an elderly face rather than a younger one. But given how often researchers fail to replicate the results of psychological tests, a reader “can’t help being skeptical.” Still, there’s much to learn from Burdick, a “playful, reflective” writer with a real talent for summing up long stretches of exploration with pithy oneliners. That said, the book’s finest aperçu is arguably supplied by one of his young sons, who after watching Dad wrestle for years with the subject at hand, suggested the following title: Time Is Confusing. ■