In this list, you will find some of the best books about a subject that is both familiar and strange. They range from St Augustine’s philosophy to HG Wells’ science fiction. When we talk about time, we don’t know what it is. Cosmologists are still debating the most basic physical and mathematical aspects of time. There are many good books on the subject, from Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time to Richard Muller, who wrote Now: The Physics of Time, in the last few years. As a scientist, I’ve always been interested in how our cells tell time, and how that information spreads up through our bodies, minds, and consciousness. People don’t understand why their phones and wristwatches always agree on the time. We also have clocks inside us that can be changed. Speed up, slow down, go backward. So why do we have so much trouble with time?
Many years ago, I looked for answers to these questions. I put them together in my new book, “Why Time Flies: A Mostly Scientific Investigation.” What started out as an intellectual journey has turned into something between a pastime and an obsession. It has been with me through many jobs, the birth of my children, pre-school, grade school, beach vacations, and many missed dinner dates and deadlines. It was supposed to be a book about time that I finished on time. Instead, it became a book about living life and not wanting time to end, and I finished it on time. Along the way, I read a lot of books written by other people who talked about time in some way. These are some of my favorite.
Confessions by St Augustine
Augustine, who wrote in the fourth century, was the first person to talk about time as an internal experience – to ask what time is by looking at how it feels to live in it. Zeno, Aristotle, and the other early Greek philosophers had trouble understanding the physics of time. Augustine was the first person to talk about time as an internal experience. He said that what we call three tenses are really just shades of the same thing: our present experience of the past (memory), our present experience of the future (anticipation), and our present experience of the present (now) (attention). A modern scientist who studies how people see time would say this: “In you, my mind I measure time,” he wrote.
The Time Machine by HG Wells
Still great after so many years! His time-traveling device lets him choose where he wants to go and when he wants to be there. This is different from other time-traveling characters of late 19th-century literature. Wells was well-versed in the most recent scientific research on memory, consciousness, visual perception, suggestion, and illusion, and the first chapter of this novel is like a short course on how people thought about time at the time. When it’s time to send a model of the time machine on its first trip, the psychologist is the one who turns the switch.
Time Travel by James Gleick
There is a lot more to Gleick’s book than just the Time Machine. He talks about how our species has always been interested in the (entirely impossible) possibility of time travel. Cyberspace, time capsules, predestination, Dr. Who, Parmenides, and Nabokov: Gleick is at home in every field of thought. A must-read for anyone who wants to know why the present isn’t enough for us.
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle
Girl and her brother, along with three otherworldly women (the Mesdames Who, Which, and Whatsit), fight against a giant brain that doesn’t have a body. One of my favorite books as a child and now a favorite of my own kids.
Your Brain Is a Time Machine by Dean Buonomano
There are many neuroscientists who are trying to figure out how the brain tells and navigates time. Buonomano is one of them. The author takes the reader on a tour of the most recent research, from how our brains work to how we project ourselves into the past and the future. So, how does time pass? Do we have just one clock in us, or a lot? It’s a lot of fun and very interesting, and it’s very easy to do.
A Tenth of a Second by Jimena Canales
Seconds have been around since ancient Egypt as a way to measure time. But the 10th of a second isn’t very old. It was only made available in the middle of the 19th century thanks to new clock technology. Candles, a history professor at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, talks about how this small but important window of time came to be and how it had a big impact on the sciences, from astronomy to experimental psychology, and on society. Studies of reaction times, for example, show that the speed of thought is not infinite. The impulse to lift a finger doesn’t happen right away, and the time lag (about a 10th of a second) allowed scientists for the first time to put consciousness under the microscope.
Cartographies of Time: A History of the Timeline by Daniel Rosenberg and Anthony Grafton
It’s a fun and beautiful look at how humans have tried to show time, from 1450 to the present. There’s a diagram from 1862 that shows how time varies around the world and why we need time zones. This is how it worked: (Noon in DC was 5:08 pm in London and 5:17 pm in Paris.) This is how it worked: There’s the April 1912 Marconi North Atlantic Communication chart, which tracked ships, including the Titanic, at points in time rather than where they were. There’s even a board game made by Mark Twain that tracks ships in chronological order. Timeless.
The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad
On February 15, 1894, a bomb went off early in London, killing the young French anarchist who was carrying it. Whether or not it was meant to destroy the observatory. Conrad thought so, too, and he told me. The building housed a clock that defined Greenwich Mean Time, the standard time for the nation and, since 1884, the baseline for the entire world – as a symbol of industrialisation and government reach it would have been a tempting target. A 1907 book by Adolf Verloc, a porn shop owner and secret government agent named Adolf Verloc, is based on circumstantial evidence. In the book, Verloc is caught up in an anarchist terror plot.
The Clockwork Muse by Eviatar Zerubavel
Anxiety-prone writers should read this book. It makes a very important point: When it comes to getting things done on a day-to-day basis, organizing one’s schedule is more important than inspiration. People who study society also write books about calendars and the meaning of the week. Zerubavel is one of them.
Einstein’s Clocks, Poincaré’s Maps by Peter Galison
Galison, a historian of science at Harvard, explains relativity better than anyone else. This book, on the other hand, paints a rich picture of the technological and cultural landscape in which the science came into being, making it more interesting than any other book. Time-keeping, map-making, and communication all got better over time, and with the invention of time zones and railroad schedules, accurate time became a commodity that could be bought, sold, and given away. This is what happened: How do we agree on what time it is now? How did that question start out? Galison says it was a very practical one, but it quickly spread across both physics and philosophies, and Einstein and Poincaré had to help.