Friday, April 23, 2010

In Search of Time (Dan Falk)

Phew, it's about time I got this review up! Pun intended (wah wah).


Dan Falk is a journalist/physicist who basically writes "Highly Intelligent Concepts for Dummies" type books. His first, Universe on a T-Shirt, studied the history of science's search for a "Theory of Everything," something complex enough to tie in all the laws of physics, but simple enough to be a logo on a t-shirt. His newest book, In Search of Time, takes a similar approach by studying the history of time as a concept, construct, and physical law.

Honestly, I'm not sure where to begin with this book. On the one hand, Falk has done an incredible job writing about a complex subject in a way that makes it extremely accessible. I enjoyed the physics discussions just as much as the chapters on Stonehenge or medieval timepieces. On the other hand, though, it took me forever to get through the first few chapters. Once he got into Newton and the 17th century, everything picked up, no doubt. I read the last 200 or so pages of this 300-page book in one sitting. But that wasn't the problem. Those first 100 pages took me something like 3 weeks to get through. Sure, the information is interesting; I don't mind reading about the development of the hour as a unit of scientific measurement. I actually find that intriguing. The book just had no flow. Each of the first five chapters is an island of information, hardly contributing to any kind of larger narrative. Yes, it's a nonfiction book, I understand. Yes, yes, it's a book by a physicist, mainly about physics. I get all that, but once he gets into the actual physics, I couldn't read the book fast enough. He strings together theories and biographies and anecdotes and philosophies in a way that made me feel like he was really moving towards something instead of just spouting off random facts.

By the time I finished In Search of Time, I realized that Falk had helped me come to my own philosophical decisions on how I feel time is conceptualized, and whether or not it truly exists as some kind of "flow" through the universe. I now feel like I understand fully my own views on the future, the past, and even time travel, and would be confident in defending my stance in a debate. Falk has done an incredible job laying out the research in an accessible and presentable way. It just took him a little while to get there. And don't get me wrong, those early chapters aren't exactly boring. There is plenty to take away from his discussions on solar time—time based around the motions of the sun—versus clock time, but as I mentioned earlier, each chapter is an island of information. I had no trouble putting the book down after finishing an early chapter and then forgetting to pick it back up again. I think Falk is an excellent writer, an excellent researcher, and a terrific judge of how to frame an argument without burdening the reader with his own personal views. I also think he could have made the beginning of the book a little more interesting. All that being said, I still recommend In Search of Time to anyone with even a mild interest in the philosophy and science of time. It seems to me an invaluable text when forming one's own views on the subject. Just don't get bogged down in those early chapters.


In Search of Time
by Dan Falk

I normally wouldn't grant a research book like this a story rating, but In Search of Time is a special case. His narrative structure is very weak in the beginning of the book, but then unusually strong starting about a third of the way through. He turns time into a character who interacts with famous thinkers throughout the ages, while maintaining the concept that this character's identity is still shrouded in mystery. For the most part, a great job.

I liked his voice, I liked his pace, and I liked the way he dumbed down information without actually making me feel dumb. Falk knows how to handle his science. Now, if he could only work a little on how he handles history...

I had a lot of fun with this book, and learned much more than I expected. Yeah, it starts a little boring, but at the end of the day I'm glad it was recommended to me, and I would absolutely recommend it to all of you.


The score might seem a little low, but remember that I don't usually include Story in the ratings for these kinds of nonfiction books. Without the Story score, the Overall jumps up to 7.56, which is pretty high. Make sure you come back Friday, April 30 when I review the first of the ridiculous number of books I picked up at this year's AWP Conference in Denver! Until then, keep reading, Genoshans!

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