About Time: Einstein’s Unfinished Revolution

“We are”, Paul Davies tells us at the end of About Time, “approaching a pivotal moment in history, when our knowledge of time is about to take another great leap forward.” Nearly 300 pages earlier, in the preface, he’d warned us that “we are far from having a good grasp of time”. Between these two markers of an unfinished narrative is something of a potboiler: a collection of more or less self-contained chapters, each divided up into assimilable chunks that focus on some strange aspect – preferably a riddle or paradox or enigmatic consequence – of the understanding of time held by contemporary physics. What holds it all together is Davies’s notion that scientific time in the twentieth century is Einstein’s time, namely the time component of that unified, four-dimensional amalgam we know as space-time, but that the great man’s revolutionary achievement of snatching time away from the poets, philosophers and metaphysicians and de-absolutizing it (as space had been de-Euclideanized in the nineteenth century) has yet to be completed.

What manner of great leap forward and in what direction Davies doesn’t really say. On offer is a popular account, not a research monograph, and what we get is a gallop through some of the main woodlands and fields of modern physics: from the heat-death end of the universe to the big-bang beginning of it all, from the paradox of space-travelling twin and her more rapidly ageing earthbound sister to mysterious tachyons that can’t and yet might travel faster than light. We find black holes and the freezing of time therein as well as the cosmological constant: was it really Einstein’s greatest mistake or the mark of his genius, a yet to be vindicated insight? We move along the thermodynamic arrow of time, remark the disappearance of time in Quantum phenomena, glance at the imaginary time of Hawkins and Hartle, the possibilities or otherwise of time travel, and the question of whether time is real or merely (as they say) subjective. Davies is a prolific and accomplished popularizer of physics, one of the best around, who obviously knows his stuff and writes here in a breezy informative style (I could have done without the obvious puns and tag-lines that punctuate the book, but perhaps they go with the territory). He manages to convey a lot of physics with the minimum of technical or mathematical detail – no mean achievement. It is less of an achievement – glib, a bit slick, given to thought-bites – when he leaves scientific explanation as such and offers wisdom about the history and/or the phenomenology of time.

Indeed, the last topic of About Time is consciousness and the various temporal phenomena associated with it, rather than the physics. Here Davies owns to a feeling of unease at the gulf between the confident subordination of time to space-time that has fuelled his account so far and the feelings of time’s flow and the sense of passage that seems to afflict us all. He offers no solution or bridge between the two (one wouldn’t expect him to), but neither does his account show much awareness of those who have (however unsuccessfully and obscurely perhaps) tried to think through the question in this century, such Husserl, Heidegger and his followers, and more to the point, given Einstein’s heroic status in Davies’s account, Henri Bergson. Thus, while he records that Einstein at the end of his life, expressed a worry about the problem of the “now”, he does not mention the celebrated confrontation between Bergson and Einstein about this very question; a confrontation that centered on Bergson’s charge that the scientific understanding of time, whatever its formidable accomplishments, which he praised as much as the next man, had nothing whatsoever to say about human duration.

But complaints and conjectures aside, Davies’s book has less scientific hubris, is culturally more textured and a lot more informative about scientific time than Hawking’s oversold recent effort; many who bought but didn’t read the latter will find it far better value.


TLS July 5, 1996

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