Sunday 30 April 2017

Taking a minute to unlock the mysteries of time

Science: Time Travel, James Gleick, 4th Estate, hdbk, 313 pages, €19.50

Guy Pearce in the 2002 film version of The Time Machine based on HG Wells' 1895 novel
Guy Pearce in the 2002 film version of The Time Machine based on HG Wells' 1895 novel
Time Travel by James Gleick

Darragh McManus on a fascinating book that looks at how time travel has beome embedded in popular culture, while also posing mind-blowing philosophical questions.

And why stop there? Time is a multifaceted thing, a fractal which can be sub-divided again and again as we peer at it ever closer (rather like time itself).

So this may or may not be a book about time in one of the potentially infinite number of alternate cosmoses in a hypothetical multi-verse.

It clearly exists as a book about time for an infinitesimal moment - the ever-repeating "now" - but does this single moment have any meaning outside itself, if the past and future are mere theoretical abstractions and there's nothing to set and measure the present against?

That's one of the most deliciously mind-blowing philosophical questions raised by this book: does time actually exist, in the sense of a definite quality of the universe, moving forward in linear progression? Some scientists would argue that, for something to exist, you must be able to define it - and as Gleick says, time is devilishly difficult to define, even in the simplest terms.

Right back to the fourth century, Saint Augustine was expressing the problem in his famous aphorism: "What is time? If no one asks me, I know. If I wish to explain it to one who asks, I know not." Like Augustine, we all know what time is, obviously, we know - except, of course, we don't. Or at least we can't express it in words, which in terms of human consciousness, basically amounts to the same thing.

Time is something that stops everything occurring all at once: that sounds clumsy, but is perhaps the best of a flawed bunch. Everything else is either meaningless albeit poetic - time is a river, a road, a tunnel in darkness - or meaningless in a more prosaic way: the best the OED can manage is "the indefinite continued progress of existence and events in the past, present and future regarded as a whole". Well, quite.

Gleick is an award-winning science writer who has previously written on Newton, chaos theory and information theory among other subjects. Note that adjective, "writer". While virtually every popular science book is very engaging and full of interesting information, not all are wonderfully well-written.

But Time Travel (complete with a simultaneously sincere and tongue-in-cheek subtitle, A History) is really nicely crafted. Gleick has a smooth, easy style that blends literary elegance with clarity and accessibility. The only fault I'd find with the writing, per se, is in structure: at times (ahem) the book sort of drifts along; thematically it's not always clear where exactly we are.

But these are small, finicky points: I loved Time Travel because I'm one of those annoying people who'd much prefer to ignore whatever you're saying and instead gaze into space, pondering the big mysteries of existence - and there's hardly a bigger mystery than time.

It's all so… weird, enthralling, surreal, dreamlike, almost intoxicating. And unknowable. That, especially, I love: the fact that we can never truly understand time, never know precisely what it is and what it means - and, I suppose, what we mean, in the context of time.

In many ways, I don't want to know. Pondering the mystery is its own reward, and Gleick's book is a great pleasure if you're of similar mind. The American casts his net far and wide, ranging from Classical Antiquity to the online age, across hard physics and straight history, pop culture and high art, psychology and anthropology, and much else besides. The title, meanwhile, references this work's two main themes: time itself, and the concept of time travel.

We begin with sci-fi pioneer HG Wells: if not exactly the first to write a time-travel story (Dickens, for instance, has Scrooge encountering past and future), Wells was first to popularise it, and incidentally coin the term "time travel", in 1895's The Time Machine.

Since Wells opened the (time)gate, there's been a flood of similar stories, in every medium, output increasing all the time. Gleick points out how time travel has become embedded in the culture; hardly anyone alive now remembers when it wasn't woven into the fabric of "the pop songs, the commercials, the wallpaper".

He has a lot of fun exploring the many time-travel stories - including the most iconic, and some I hadn't heard of - and pulling apart the logical inconsistencies and contradictions inherent in the form. We greet again all those enduring old conundrums of time travel: would you kill Hitler as a child? What if you murdered your own grandfather?

Does changing one thing in the past, no matter how small, set off a temporal chain-reaction, a Butterfly Effect echoing down the centuries? Step on an ant in Jurassic times, return to a present where everyone has two heads and vomits ice-cream all day long.

As I say, this stuff is great fun, although somehow insubstantial, too; I guess the mind, deep down, agrees with Gleick that physical time travel is, ultimately, impossible. It simply can't be done, no matter how cool it looks on a movie or how much we might want to try it for ourselves.

We can only circumvent the restrictions of time in other, metaphorical ways: the greatest, of course, being storytelling. Read Macbeth and you're zoomed back to medieval Scotland; better yet, read Proust and you're in fin de siècle France, inside the mind of a charming man as he philosophises about the nature of time.

And there are other ways to transcend time: dreaming, inebriation, meditation, great physical exertion, floating in a sensory deprivation tank. Death, too. But no need for anything quite so drastic as that: just lie on the couch and read some of this book, then gaze into space… and contemplate time, that most inscrutable of mysteries.

Darragh McManus' novels include Shiver the Whole Night Through and The Polka Dot Girl

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