Brain Pickings

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 of which 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 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 expresses 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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