Science writer James Gleick’s latest book tracks the evolution of time travel as an idea. While in reality it’s not possible, he says, through memories, movies, novels and hope, we are all Time Lords.
In his previous books Chaos: Making of a new Science and The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood, bestselling author James Gleick became known for lucid and accessible explanations of complex issues. Now he turns his attention a perennial favorite of science fiction in his latest book, Time Travel: A History.
From its beginnings with H. G. Wells to its sprawling influence on literature, philosophy, and physics, time travel continues to fascinate us today. Mr. Gleick sat down with Googler Keith Schaefer in Los Angeles for a wide-ranging discussion of this most modern of ideas.
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Time plays such a big part in our lives, it’s no wonder we’re fascinated by the idea of escaping it. And what better way to escape it that to travel back into the past or forward into the future? This hour, we explore our obsession with time travel. Why is such a recurring them in movies and TV shows? And what can time travel teach us about ourselves?
Our long human fascination with time travel, with best-selling writer and science thinker James Gleick.
Physicists’ ideas about the nature and existence of time may seem incongruent with our experience of it, but author James Gleick makes a case for why we need to keep an open mind. Gleick is the author of "Time Travel: A History" (goo.gl/pGaWug).
Read more at BigThink.com: http://bigthink.com/videos/james-gleick-asks-does-time-exist
Transcript - There is a sort of funny things that you hear people say that time doesn’t actually exist. And it’s something that physicists argue about, I mean physicists actually have symposia on the subject of is there such a thing as time, and it’s also something that has a tradition in philosophy going a back about a century. But I think it’s fair to say that in one since it’s a ridiculous idea. How can you say time doesn’t exist when we have such a profound experience of it, first of all? And second of all, we’re talking about it constantly. I mean we couldn’t get – I can’t get through this sentence without referring to time. I was going to say we couldn’t get through the day without discussing time. So obviously when a physicist questions the existence of time they are trying to say something’s specialized, something tech…
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This year’s winner of the prestigious Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books, James Gleick, discusses The Information. Plus, will we see a Briton on the moon in our lifetimes?
A podcast interview with James Gleick
James Gleick is a native New Yorker and a graduate of Harvard and the author of a half-dozen books on science, technology, and culture. His latest bestseller, translated into 20 languages, is The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood, which the NY Times called "ambitious, illuminating, and sexily theoretical." Whatever they meant by that. They also said "Don’t make the mistake of reading it quickly."
Time travel is time research
Gleick began with H.G. Wells’s 1895 book The Time Machine, which created the idea of time travel.
It soon became a hugely popular genre that shows no sign of abating more than a century later.
“Science fiction is a way of working out ideas,” Gleick said.
Wells thought of himself as a futurist, and like many at the end of the 19th century he was riveted by the idea of progress, so his fictional traveler headed toward the far future.
Other authors soon explored travel to the past and countless paradoxes ranging from squashed butterflies that change later elections to advising one’s younger self.
Gleick invited audience members to query themselves: If you could travel in time, would you go to the future or to the past?
When exactly, and where exactly?
And what is your second choice?
(Try it, reader.)
“We’re still trying to figure out what time is,” Gleick said.
Time travel stories apparently help us.
The inventor of the time machine in Wells’s book explains archly that time is merely a fourth dimension.
Ten years later in 1905 Albert Einstein made that statement real.
In 1941 Jorge Luis Borges wrote the celebrated short story, “The Garden of Forking Paths.”
In 1955 physicist Hugh Everett introduced the quantum-based idea of forking universes, which itself has become a staple of science fiction.
“Time,” Richard Feynman once joked, “is what happens when nothing else happens.”
Gleick suggests, “Things change, and time is how we keep track.”
Virginia Woolf wrote, “What more terrifying revelation can there be than that it is the present moment?
That we survive the shock at all is only possible because the past shelters us on one side, the future on another.”
To answer the last question of the evening, about how his views about time changed during the course of writing Time Travel, Gleick said:
I thought I would conclude that the main thing to understand is: Enjoy the present.
Don’t waste your brain cells agonizing about lost opportunities or worrying about what the future will bring.
As I was working on the book I suddenly realized that that’s terrible advice.
A potted plant lives in the now.
The idea of the ‘long now’ embraces the past and the future and asks us to think about the whole stretch of time.
That’s what I think time travel is good for.
That’s what makes us human—the ability to live in the past and live in the future at the same time.
5 years ago, Boing Boing described James Gleick’s The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood as "a jaw-dropping tour de force history of information theory… The Information isn’t just a natural history of a powerful idea; it embodies and transmits that idea, it is a vector for its memes (as Dawkins has it), and it is a toolkit for disassembling the world. It is a book that vibrates with excitement, and it transmits that excited vibration with very little signal loss. It is a wonder."
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A biographer of science ideas, Gleick is usually found exploring unusual corners of science. His latest book looks at the surprisingly recent concept of Time Travel. How recent? H.G. Well’s The Time Machine, published in 1895, was the first mention of time travel. I am looking forward to diving into Time Travel: a History.
I interviewed him at Bloomberg for my radio show/podcast (MP3), and Gleick opened up about his researching and writing process. He describes himself – too modestly in my opinion – as “merely a journalist.”
His approach to writing is somewhat humbling – he claims he starts out knowing nothing of his subject, and keeps researching until he feels he has learned enough to communicate about the subject. “Each book, each time I feel like I am figuring it out, starting from scratch … I don’t need to dumb anything down, I need to raise my own understanding to the level of grasping the stuff I am writing about.”
Its fascinating stuff.
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