Non-Fiction Reviews


The Labyrinth of Time: Introducing the Universe

(2005) Michael Lockwood, Oxford University Press, 19.99, hdbk, vii + 405 pp, ISBN 0-199-24995-4.

Understanding time and exploring the possibilities of time travel for real necessitates grappling with some of the most exotic concepts of physics. Even physicists have a problem in relating to these (outside of mathematical constructs which they do with a little success), so what hope those of us who aren't blessed with a high level of physics education? Well, fortunately there are science writers, Michael Lockwood among them, who are bravely prepared to take on this challenge.

Lockwood's book explores the various concepts of space-time and reviews their evolution. He explains flat and curved space-time, closed timelike curves (this in a chapter sub-titles 'Science fact or science fiction'), time asymmetry (CP violation etc.,), entropy and gravity, the emergence of order and the atomic quantum/macroscopic reconciliation attempts, and, of course, time travel. His book is dotted with the occasional, pertinent, illustrations as well as the occasional text boxes to explain a particular aspect of physics. His writing style is perhaps a little dry but is near enough to the proverbial New Scientist standard to makes his book accessible to anyone with a general high school or first year university understanding of science: which includes many hard SF readers if book market surveys are to be believed. However those whose knowledge of science is more general will find this book hard work. Sorry folks but that's just the nature of the subject matter.

I have to say that over the years (decades) I have tended to found that many of those whose expertise is grounded in the arts and humanities are generally very poor at coming to grips with understanding and explaining science. They use more words than necessary, present simple concepts in an overcomplicated way, and attempt (badly) to use an academic science style when it is not necessary. Fortunately, while many in the arts and social 'sciences' are pretentious and make far too much out of a muckle than is warranted, there are a few who actually do a reasonable job. Fortunately for Oxford University Press, and us, Michael Lockwood is one who does talk sense, and sensibly.

Michael Lockwood has bravely taken on a daunting task of explaining this exotic area of physics. Some might say that this is a little audacious but, let's face it, if physicists have difficulty in conveying matters then why not let someone from the humanities have a go, especially if their skill (philosophy) includes logical analysis. And Lockwood makes a fair fist of it.

If you have the background in science as suggested above then you may well find The Labyrinth of Time illuminating albeit a somewhat heady read. Science Fact and Fiction Concateneers will particularly welcome the occasional reference to the works of: Douglas Adams, H. G. Wells, Carl Sagan (his Contact), Leinster and Aldous Huxley. This is the sort of book you will welcome if you really want to find out space-time and time travel. It is not the only such book on the subject but then, given the diversity of human thought processes and the exotic if not speculative nature of much of this topic; I am convinced that more than one explanatory perspective is needed. Consequently Lockwood's book could be the necessary take on the topic you need? It comes complete with a decent reference list that spans the science-arts divide and it is properly indexed. Indeed physicists themselves may find the arts perspective interesting if not actually useful.

Bugbears: my usual gripe about capitalization. Planet Earth is relegated to a common noun, while nature is aggrandised to 'Nature'. I'm not at all sure what this last is all about other than to blame the current standards of professional copy editing that abound. Not that anyone at Concatenation can talk as we are all amateurs on the proofing front. However don't let this put you off. It changes naught the book's substance.

Jonathan Cowie


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