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17 OCTOBER, 2011

7 Must-Read Books on Time

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What the second law of thermodynamics has to do with Saint Augustine, landscape art, and graphic novels.

Time is the most fundamental common denominator between our existence and that of everything else, it’s the yardstick by which we measure nearly every aspect of our lives, directly or indirectly, yet its nature remains one of the greatest mysteries of science. Last year, we devoured BBC’s excellent What Is Time? and today we turn to seven essential books that explore the grand question on a deeper, more multidimensional level, spanning everything from quantum physics to philosophy to art.

A BRIEF HISTORY OF TIME

It comes as no surprise to start with A Brief History of Time — legendary theoretical physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking’s 1988 masterpiece, which is commonly considered the most important book in popular science ever published and one of our 10 essential primers on (almost) everything. In it, Hawking attempted to answer one of humanity’s most fundamental questions — where did the universe come from? — and tackled the complex subject of cosmology through a multitude of angles, including the Big Bang theory, black holes, high mathematics, the nature of time, gravity and much more, blending the rigor of a brilliant scientist with the eloquent ease of a masterful storyteller to invite even the non-expert reader to consider the universe in an entirely new way. (Eight years later, a fantastic illustrated edition offered a revised, updated and expanded version of the book.)

With a foreword by none other than Carl Sagan, the book remains a fundamental sensemaking mechanism for understanding the cosmos, our place in it, how we got there, and where we might be going.

Perhaps most powerful of all is the human hope and scientific vision of Hawking’s ending:

If we find [a unified theory], it would be the ultimate triumph — for then we would know the mind of God.”

FROM ETERNITY TO HERE

In From Eternity to Here: The Quest for the Ultimate Theory of Time, CalTech theoretical physicist Sean Carroll — who might just be one of the most compelling popular science writers of our time — straddles the arrow of time and rides it through an ebbing cross-disciplinary landscape of insight, inquiry and intense interest in its origin, nature and ultimate purpose. From entropy and the second law of thermodynamics to the Big Bang theory and the origins of the universe to quantum mechanics and the theory of relativity, Carroll weaves a lucid, enthusiastic, illuminating and refreshingly accessible story of the universe, and our place in it, at the intersection of cosmology, theoretical physics, information theory and philosophy, tied together by the profound quest for understanding the purpose and meaning of our lives.

This book is about the nature of time, the beginning of the universe, and the underlying structure of physical reality. We’re not thinking small here. The questions we’re tackling are ancient and honorable ones: Where did time and space come from? Is the universe we see all there is, or are there other ‘universes’ beyond what we can observe? How is the future different from the past?” ~ Sean Carroll

Sample Carroll’s entertaining and enlightening storytelling with his excellent talk from TEDxCaltech.

Full review here.

TIME

Our experience and understanding of time need not be confined to science. Time chronicles the extraordinary work of British artist Andy Goldsworthy, who for the past three decades has been defying the Western art tradition of creating work that outlasts the artist’s lifetime by instead creating exquisite temporal sculptures out of leaves, twigs, petals, ice, sand, feathers, water, stone, and other fragments of nature. These ephemeral, lyrical miracles, spanning Canada, Mexico, Japan, Scotland, and Holland, are left open to the forces of time and change, and are captured here in 500 magnificent photographs, most taken by Goldsworthy himself, alongside thoughtful meditations on the vision for and mutation of each piece.

Movement, change, light growth and decay are the lifeblood of nature, the energies that I try to tap through my work. I need the shock of touch, the resistance of place, materials and weather, the earth as my source. I want to get under the surface. When I work with a leaf, rock, stick, it is not just that material itself, it is an opening into the processes of life within and around it. When I leave it, these processes continue.

[…]

My approach to the photograph is kept simple, almost routine. All work, good and bad, is documented. I use standard film, a standard lens and no filters. Each work grows, strays, decays—integral parts of a cycle which the photograph shows at its height, marking the moment when the work is most alive. There is an intensity about a work at its peak that I hope is expressed in the image. Process and decay are implicit.” ~ Andy Goldsworthy

Goldsworthy was the subject of the excellent 2001 Scottish-German documentary Rivers & Tides: Working with Time — here’s a short excerpt for a taste:

CARTOGRAPHIES OF TIME

Cartographies of Time: A History of the Timeline, also one of these 7 favorite books on maps, traces the history of graphic representations of time in Europe and the United States from 1450 to the present. The gorgeous, lavishly illustrated collection of timelines features everything from medieval manuscripts to websites to a chronological board game developed by Mark Twain.

Cartographies of Time is easily one of the most beautiful books to come by in the past year, both a treasure trove of antique artwork and a priceless cultural timecapsule containing humanity’s understanding of time and place in the larger context of existence.

Full review here.

INTRODUCING TIME: A GRAPHIC GUIDE

We’ve previously explored 10 masterpieces of graphic nonfiction and just last week swooned over this graphic novel biography of iconic physicist Richard Feynman, so it’s only fitting we explored time from within the genre. Granted, philosophy professor Craig Callender’s Time: A Graphic Guide isn’t exactly a graphic novel, but it does borrow from the genre’s signature visual storytelling to explore the history of time with a fascinating philosopher’s lens, from Augustine’s contention that there is no time to Newton’s fluid time to the static time of Einstein to the contemporary theory that there is no time in quantum gravity, coming full circle. Callender covers a wide range of facets — clocks, psychological time, entropy, spacetime curvature, the Big Bang, Gödel, endocrinology, and just about everything in between — to deliver a sum total of illumination that will leave you with newfound awe for the intersection of philosophy and science.

THE TIME PARADOX

Stanford social psychologist Philip Zimbardo is best known as the mastermind of the infamous 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment, which revealed one of the most gruesome glimpses of human nature in the history of social science. (Zimbardo recently launched The Heroic Imagination Project in an effort to use what psychology knows about good and evil to harness the human potential for good.) In The Time Paradox: The New Psychology of Time That Will Change Your Life, Zimbardo brings his social psychologist’s lens to the phenomenon of time to explore its importance in our lives, why we systematically devalue it, and how to enlist insights from psychology and behavioral science to optimize our relationship with time. He segments people into past-, present-, and future-oriented based on our time-perspectives, and offers insights into how each type experiences the four central paradoxes of time he identifies.

Sample the book with this charmingly so-bad-it’s-good trailer:

Our ability to reconstruct the past, to interpret the present, and to construct the future gives us the power to be happy.” ~ Philip Zimbardo

THE THIEF OF TIME

The Thief of Time: Philosophical Essays on Procrastination, originally featured in our 5 cross-disciplinary perspectives on procrastination, is an absorbing anthology featuring essays by a wide range of scholars and writers spanning the entire spectrum of theoretical and empirical.

Procrastination is familiar and interesting but also puzzling. Although it is generally perceived as harmful and irrational, recent studies suggest that most of us procrastinate occasionally and many of us procrastinate persistently. Not even saints are immune. Saint Augustine records in his Confessions how, after years of sexual hedonism, he vowed to return to Christianity and prayed for chastity and continence — ‘only not yet.’ Although he ‘abhorred’ his current way of living and ‘earnestly’ wanted to change his course, he kept deferring any change until ‘tomorrow.'” ~ Chrisoula Andreou & Mark D. White

From the morality of it (is procrastination a vice?) to its possible antidotes (what are the best coping strategies?), the book is an essential piece of psychosocial insight. That is, if you get around to reading it.

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14 OCTOBER, 2011

A Visual Ethnography of the World’s Last Living Nomads

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From Morocco to Mongolia, or what we can learn about climate change from Inuit whale hunters.

What is it about Dutch photographers that makes them so visually eloquent at capturing the human condition? From Jeroen Toirkens comes Nomad — a fascinating and strikingly beautiful visual anthropology of the Northern Hemisphere’s last living nomadic peoples, from Greenland to Turkey. A decade in the making, this multi-continent journey unfolds in 150 black-and-white and full-color photos that reveal what feels like an alternate reality of a life often harsh, sometimes poetic, devoid of many of our modern luxuries and basic givens, from shiny digital gadgets to a permanent roof over one’s head.

Since the beginning of time, nomadic people have roamed the earth. Looking for food, feeding their cattle. Looking for an existence, freedom. Living in the wild, mountains, deserts, on tundra and ice. With only a thin layer of tent between them and nature. Earth in the 21st century is a crowded place, roads and cities are everywhere. Yet somehow, these people hold on to traditions that go back to the very beginning of human civilization.” ~ Jelle Brandt Corstius

Zuun Taiga, Mongolia, 2007

Tiniteqilaaq, Greenland, 2009

Altai Mountains, Russia, 2006

Tiniteqilaaq, Greenland, 2009

Nuuk, Greenland, 2009

Zuun Taiga, Mongolia, 2007

Zuun Taiga, Mongolia, 2007

Arghangai Aimag, Mongolia, 2007

Gobi Desert, Mongolia, 2007

Gobi Desert, Mongolia, 2007

Gobi Desert, Mongolia, 2007

Kola Sami, Russia, 2006

Nenets, Russia, 2005

Baruun Taiga, Mongolia, 2004

Kazakh, Altai Mountains, Russia, 2004

Berbers, High Atlas Mountains, Morocco, 2002

Kirgiz, Kyrgystan, 2000

Yörük, Bolkar Mountains, Turkey, 1999

Sami, Karesuvanto, Finland, 2001

Kola Sami, Russia, 2006

This video of what the “Eskimo” life really means, made in the settlement Tiniteqilaaq hunters, will give you a taste for the project’s breathtaking mesmerism:

Because of climate change, we can see and feel winter days get colder and the sea, it’s warmer. And, because of that, it’s more difficult to hunt in the winters.”

A stunning exercise in perspective-shifting, Nomad invites you to see the world — our world, and yet a world that feels eerily other — with new eyes, embracing it with equal parts fascination and profound human empathy.

Images courtesy of Jeroen Toirkens

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14 OCTOBER, 2011

BBC’s Volatile History of Chemistry

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How the elements came to be, or what alchemy and urine have to do with the God particle.

Chemistry is the science of matter, of everything we touch and, existential philosophy aside, of everything we are. And even though we brush up against it with every molecule of our bodies in every instant of our lives, most of us haven’t dedicated formal thought to it since high school. Now, thanks to the fine folks at BBC Four — who previously pondered such captivating issues as the nature of reality, the age-old tension between science and religion, how music works, and what time really is — you can refresh and enrich your understanding of this complex world with Chemistry: A Volatile History, a fascinating three-part series by theoretical physicist Jim Al-Khalili, exploring everything from the history of the elements to the rivalries and controversies that bedeviled scientific progress to the latest bleeding-edge attempts to split matter.

In Part 1, Discovering the Elements, Al-Khalili tackles one of the greatest detective stories in the history of science, tracing the steps of the chemists who risked their lives to find and fight for the building blocks of our entire world.

Part 2, The Order of the Elements, explores the 19th century chemists who set out to make sense of the elements, from working out their exact number to plotting them in one of the most intricate and brilliant intellectual organizational systems of all time: the periodic table. All throughout, bitter disputes and explosive experiments inflict fascinating chaos on this ultimate quest for order.

Part 3, The Power of the Elements, uncovers the incredible passion and, often, heartache that went into chemists’ efforts to command the extreme forces of nature and combine elements to build the modern world. From last century’s dramatic breakthroughs to a riveting tour of modern-day alchemy across some of the world’s best chemistry labs, Al-Khalili’s story not only offers an illuminating history of this fundamental science, but also reinstills a profound awe for the complexity and whimsy of our world.

For more on the wonderful and fascinating world of chemistry, don’t forget The Elements, Theodore Grey’s impressive book and app, They Might Be Giants’ lovely Here Comes Science educational album for kids, and Lauren Redniss’s stunning cyanotype-illustrated story of Marie Curie’s science and romance.

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