Tag Archives: time

Where does the time go?

Sorry that the blog has been rather quiet of late. Time just seems to evaporate and it is increasingly difficult to find the space to sit down and write anything from start to finish. My evenings in the week are non-existent, as various projects at work keep me there until gone 7 most days, so by the time I’ve come home, cooked, eaten, done the washing up and had a wash myself it is usually gone 10.

Then there’s also the problem of what to write about. As I mentioned fairly recently, it can be overwhelming in trying to decide what discussions one may contribute to in a constructive manner. All too often I find myself tapping out something along easy, negative lines which would ultimately be of no use to anyone but my own ego. It’s only when I get half way through this that I discover that the ease with which something comes forth is inversely proportional to its value and I feel compelled to hit ‘delete’.

I like to have blocks of at least 20 minutes in which to write, but they are so hard to come by, even at weekends. I still haven’t had time to visit the Post Office to post a USB stick back to my brother-in-law that he left with me by mistake over a month ago. Since, for all intents and purposes, the Post Office is only open for half a day a week, one needs a free Saturday morning on which to go, yet none have been forthcoming.

It’s not as though I am, in any sense of the phrase, ‘living life to the full’. It’s more like time is leaking out of a dodgy plughole so that nomatter how much I try to make adequate provision I just can’t accumulate a bathful with which to do anything useful.

Book Review: Longitude by Dava Sobel

I first heard about this some time ago as one of the best ‘popular science’ books of recent years. I spotted it in the same bookshop when I picked up Daniel Tammet’s Thinking in Numbers. It was somewhat shorter than I thought it would have been, but then my perception may be skewed by having only recently read Richard Holmes’ The Age of Wonder which may have spoilt me.

Sobel introduces us to the problem at hand, namely that of working out what your longitude is when at sea. It was comparatively easy to work out what your latitude is; this can be done with some astronomical/solar observations. However, if you are on the equator, then to sail east or west by one degree of longitude will entail travelling further than if one is sailing at a constant latitude of, say 30 degrees. Though in so doing, Sobel does betray a lack of understanding of spherical geometry by stating that sailing on a line on constant latitude yields the shortest route west, instead of following a great circle.

The book then focuses on the work of John Harrison who thought the best way to solve the problem was with accurate timepieces that could be kept on board ships at sea. He was not without his rivals, though, with some convinced that further astronomical measures would avoid the need for accurate clocks. Yet the overriding sense one gets is that there was an institutional snobbery  which Harrison was subjected to as he attempted to prove to the relevant authorities that his work was up to the task.

In so doing, Sobel avoids much of the science after having fumbled a little bit at the start and the rest is much more “pure” history. That left this reader a little frustrated, not least because I had heard such high praise for Longitude. As it is, it’s interesting enough but did not capture my attention as I had hoped it might. So it’s a pleasant enough read with some interesting aspects of history noted that I was previously unaware of, but it’s nowhere near as fine as The Age of Wonder. For anyone interested in the history of science, it is one to put on the reading list, but there is no need to unduly rush into reading it straight away.

Book Review: On Space and Time by various authors

When I first saw this book it instantly appealed to me and my sense of the pursuit of cutting edge science. Some of the writers I was familiar with, such as Roger Penrose, Alain Connes and John Polikinghorne. The other writers were less known to me, but the inclusion of the above names on the topic of Space & Time meant that this wasn’t one to be missed.

In truth, the book is dominated by Shahn Mahjid. He writes the introduction and his chapter is by far the longest in the book.

Andrew Taylor – The dark Universe

This first essay introduces some of the big issues in cosmology, including dark matter and dark energy. However, the chapter doesn’t shy away from the details. In this respect it is extremely hard going. It may have something to do with the fact that I was a theoretician, rather than an experimentalist, but it struck me as being far too technical for the non-expert reader.

Shahn Majid – Quantum spacetime and physical reality

With Taylor having laid the groundwork in experimental evidence, Majid picks up the mantle and takes us back into theoretical physics. Again, though, he goes down a very narrow road where few can follow him. I have heard it said than expert is someone who knows more and more about less and less, until they know everything about nothing. In this case, you have to know an awful lot about very little in order to fully follow Majid. I think I got stuck in the passageway about a third of the way down it.

The general thrust of the essay is on the potential solutions to how we might think about quantum spacetime and the implications that may have on how we think of the rest of reality. For example, while calculus has been an enormously helpful tool in physics, we may have to ditch it as a tool if we are to penetrate to the heart of reality.

Roger Penrose – Causality, quantum theory and cosmology

Of all the writers in this compilation, Penrose is by far and away the best communicator. In his essay, he gives an outline of some of the problems that thermodynamics poses to the issue of space and time, particular with relation to causal structure. He then goes on to give a description of his theory of Conformal Cyclic Cosmology (CCC). If you have read his Cycles of Time, then much here will be familiar, even if it remains at the very cutting edge of science.

Alain Connes – On the fine structure of spacetime

Connes is most famous for his work on noncommutative geometry, so it is no surprise that this is the subject of his essay. He starts off easily enough and does scare the reader somewhat by giving a complete Lagrangian of the standard model displayed on a slide, which is a gargantuan formula. This is merely to demonstrate that perhaps another approach is needed. Connes’ outline of noncommutative geometry starts off accessible enough, but quickly goes out of sight of the non-expert reader, much as Majid’s essay did.

Michael Heller – Where physics meets metaphysics

Heller is a catholic philosopher whose essay marks a radical change in the tone of the book. Instead of focusing on the physics, the emphasis is on the metaphysical implications of the theories discussed. For someone picking this up off the shelf, imagining it to be a book purely on physics, then Heller’s essay may be a disappointment. I, however, found it a welcome break from the intensity of the preceding chapters, as it was eminently readable and understandable to non-expert like me.

He gives a helpful, though not devastating, critique of the idea of “God of the gaps” which is an idea I have personally grown out of. He also looks at the idea of non-locality (an idea discussed in detail elsewhere in the book, and is mooted as a potential answer to the problem of action at a distance) and how that might then go on to inform and reform our understanding of philosophy and theology.

John Polkinghorne – The nature of time

Christian theologian, and former particle physicist, Polkinghorne gets the shortest essay tucked at the back of the book, which is just 6 pages long. As such, there is very little here, apart from an advertisement for Exploring Reality which Polkinghorne had published in 2005. The core of his argument may be found at the end, where he proposes that when it comes to studying time, physics, metaphysics and theology all have a role to play. This may be seen as a provocative statement by some positivists, though that would be testament to their lack of understanding of metaphysics.

Conclusion

The last 2 essays are very distinct from the rest of the book, which could be perceived by a purist physicist as spoiling it slightly. Instead, I think it adds a different dimension to the book which is quite welcome. The extremely hypothetical nature of the book is what appeals, though to get to grips with it all, you will need a PhD in theoretical physics. Where it is accessible, it is highly thought-provoking and will be interesting to return to it in the years and decades to come to see what, if any, becomes mainstream science and what may be discarded as hypotheses that failed to get off the ground.

Book Review: You Are Here by Christopher Potter

I was first made aware of this book some time ago by an article in the Guardian which interviewed him. I cannot find the link for the particular article in question, nor can I recall the details of it. What I do recall, however, is that it piqued my interest and sounded like the kind of casual science reading that is right up my street. So I bought it, and then it sat on my shelf for a couple of months, unread, while I got on with other reading (just hit the tag “book reviews” to see all the others I have done lately).

The opening chapter was a bit mixed, where he talks a little bit about his own history, plus a fairly random smattering of other things, with no real structure to it. It turns out that Potter had a very similar background to me, being as he did his undergraduate studies in maths, before going on to pursue other things for a career, while maintaining an interest in science. There did seem to be a metaphysic which he laid on top of what he regarded science to be which I have only ever come across in those who are entirely untrained in science and yet talk it about confidently as the answer to everything. However, the rest of the book showed that if were ignorant about science, that that was entirely hidden.

He does a whistle-stop tour of the major philosophical developments of science over the last 2,500 years or so, along with a brave and noble attempt to summarise quantum mechanics and general relativity for the lay reader; a task which he does with some aplomb and not a little dexterity.

From here, there was a slightly peculiar list of seemingly random things which were listed in order of size. Potter’s aim was to look at bigger and bigger scales, effectively zooming out from our world to look at the wider universe. From here, Potter takes on a parallel journey, though instead of going from the smallest size to the largest size, he wants to take us from the earliest time right through to the present day, taking in an overview of the developments in cosmology and high energy physics.

Overall, the book is very much at the lightweight end of science writing, but nonetheless thoroughly enjoyable. It is spoilt a little by technical errors, though these are relatively minor (for example, he states that “Humans are often carnivorous” when he should have said omnivorous). The other drawback that is has, which is specific for his advocacy of the scientific method, is that he does not include references. All we have is a bibliography of further reading, where there is no linking between the books referenced and the relevant passages. The reader is left to work this out by the titles, I think. However, that would not stop me from recommending as a great book, especially a “starter” for someone not overly familiar with ‘pop science.’

Very brief update

A week ago, I was left a comment on an old post, Doubting Thomas and a scientific approach to theology. I am in the process of putting together a response, however it is quite lengthy and I have not had a lot of time to devote to it or to check cross-references. Some personal circumstances have also caused me to have less time than usual, so I apologise for the delay. I hope to get the post done by the end of the current calendar month.