Time Travel - A History

by Gleick, James
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Gleick, James Time Travel - A History
Gleick, James - Time Travel - A History

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"A time-jumping, head-tripping odyssey." -The Millions
"A bracing swim in the waters of science, technology and fiction." -Washington Post
"A thrilling journey of ideas." -Boston Globe

From the acclaimed author of The Information and Chaos, here is a mind-bending exploration of time travel: its subversive origins, its evolution in literature and science, and its influence on our understanding of time itself.

The story begins at the turn of the previous century, with the young H. G. Wells writing and rewriting the fantastic tale that became his first book and an international sensation: The Time Machine. It was an era when a host of forces was converging to transmute the human understanding of time, some philosophical and some technological: the electric telegraph, the steam railroad, the discovery of buried civilizations, and the perfection of clocks. James Gleick tracks the evolution of time travel as an idea that becomes part of contemporary culture-from Marcel Proust to Doctor Who, from Jorge Luis Borges to Woody Allen. He investigates the inevitable looping paradoxes and examines the porous boundary between pulp fiction and modern physics. Finally, he delves into a temporal shift that is unsettling our own moment: the instantaneous wired world, with its all-consuming present and vanishing future.

(With a color frontispiece and black-and-white illustrations throughout)


Gleick, James

Further information


A man stands at the end of a drafty corridor, a.k.a. the nineteenth century, and in the flickering light of an oil lamp examines a machine made of nickel and ivory, with brass rails and quartz rods-a squat, ugly contraption, somehow out of focus, not easy for the poor reader to visualize, despite the listing of parts and materials. Our hero fiddles with some screws, adds a drop of oil, and plants himself on the saddle. He grasps a lever with both hands. He is going on a journey. And by the way so are we. When he throws that lever, time breaks from its moorings.

The man is nondescript, almost devoid of features-"grey eyes" and a "pale face" and not much else. He lacks even a name. He is just the Time Traveller: "for so it will be convenient to speak of him." Time and travel: no one had thought to join those words before now. And that machine? With its saddle and bars, it's a fantasticated bicycle. The whole thing is the invention of a young enthusiast named Wells, who goes by his initials, H. G., because he thinks that sounds more serious than Herbert. His family calls him Bertie. He is trying to be a writer. He is a thoroughly modern man, a believer in socialism, free love, and bicycles. A proud member of the Cyclists' Touring Club, he rides up and down the Thames valley on a forty-pounder with tubular frame and pneumatic tires, savoring the thrill of riding his machine: "A memory of motion lingers in the muscles of your legs, and round and round they seem to go." At some point he sees a printed advertisement for a contraption called Hacker's Home Bicycle: a stationary stand with rubber wheels to let a person pedal for exercise without going anywhere. Anywhere through space, that is. The wheels go round and time goes by.

The turn of the twentieth century loomed-a calendar date with apocalyptic resonance. Albert Einstein was a boy at gymnasium in Munich. Not till 1908 would the Polish-German mathematician Hermann Minkowski announce his radical idea: "Henceforth space by itself, and time by itself, are doomed to fade away into mere shadows, and only a kind of union of the two will preserve an independent reality." H. G. Wells was there first, but unlike Minkowski, Wells was not trying to explain the universe. He was just trying to gin up a plausible-sounding plot device for a piece of fantastic storytelling.

Nowadays we voyage through time so easily and so well, in our dreams and in our art. Time travel feels like an ancient tradition, rooted in old mythologies, old as gods and dragons. It isn't. Though the ancients imagined immortality and rebirth and lands of the dead time machines were beyond their ken. Time travel is a fantasy of the modern era. When Wells in his lamp-lit room imagined a time machine, he also invented a new mode of thought.
Why not before? And why now?


The time traveller begins with a science lesson. Or is it just flummery? He gathers his friends around the drawing-room fire to explain that everything they know about time is wrong. They are stock characters from central casting: the Medical Man, the Psychologist, the Editor, the Journalist, the Silent Man, the Very Young Man, and the Provincial Mayor, plus everyone's favorite straight man, "an argumentative person with red hair" named Filby.

"You must follow me carefully," the Time Traveller instructs these stick figures. "I shall have to controvert one or two ideas that are almost universally accepted. The geometry, for instance, that they taught you at school is founded on a misconception." School geometry-Euclid's geometry-had three dimensions, the ones we can see: length, width, and height.

Naturally they are dubious. The Time Traveller proceeds Socratically. He batters them with logic. They put up feeble resistance.
"You know of course that a mathematical line, a line of thickness nil, has no real existence. They taught you that? Neither has a mat
Media Type:
Penguin Random House
Biography Artist:
JAMES GLEICK (around.com) is our leading chronicler of science and technology, the best-selling author of Chaos: Making a New Science, Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman, and The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood. His books have been translated into thirty languages.
"A fascinating mash-up of philosophy, literary criticism, physics and cultural observation. It's witty . . . pithy . . . and regularly manages to twist its reader's mind . . . . Throughout the book [Gleick] displays an acute and playful sensitivity to how quickly language gets slippery when we talk about time . . . a wonderful reminder that the most potent time-traveling technology we have is also the oldest technology we have: storytelling." -Anthony Doerr, The New York Times Book Review (cover)

"Exhilarating . . . Time travel has become a veritable theme park of playful attractions, which Mr. Gleick explores with infectious gusto." -Michael Saler, The Wall Street Journal

"A grand thought experiment, using physics and philosophy as the active agents, and literature as the catalyst. Embedded in the book is a bibliography for the Babel of time-a most exquisitely annotated compendium of the body of time literature. What emerges is an inquiry, the most elegant since Borges, into why we think about time, why its directionality troubles us so, and what asking these questions at all reveals about the deepest mysteries of human consciousness and about what Gleick so beguilingly calls 'the fast-expanding tapestry of interwoven ideas and facts that we call our culture'...the kind of book that lodges itself in the imagination, planting seeds of ideas, insights, and revelations bound to go on blossoming for the remainder of this lifetime." -Maria Popova, Brainpickings

"Like [David Foster] Wallace, Gleick's a wide-ranging enthusiast and a graceful explainer....one of the great charms of this book is its author's willingness to embrace multiple points of view and to credit art and experience as much as theory." -Kate Tuttle, Los Angeles Times

"Extraordinary....Ultimately, Time Travel centers around a single question: Why do we need time travel? To find the answer, Gleick brilliantly stitches together moments at seemingly disparate points in history: He goes from explaining the plot of an episode of Doctor Who in one sentence to revisiting the invention of the Cinématographe in 1890s France the next. But what could be a dizzying narrative is deftly handled. And that's because Gleick's adventure in time travel is, in the end, not about distinctions between past and future, but a love letter to 'the unending now.'" -Adrienne LaFrance, The Atlantic

"In his enthralling new book, James Gleick mounts H.G. Wells's time machine for an invigorating ride through the most baffling of the four dimensions. In these pages, time flies." -John Banville, author of The Sea

"James Gleick is a master historian of ideas-no one else can do what he does. Synthesis leads to elucidation leads to stunning, original insight. Time Travel, like so much of his work, is simply indispensable." -Charles Yu, author of How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe

"Time Travel is another of James Gleick's superb, unclassifiable books-rich in obscure and illuminating information, laced with lyricism, wit, and startling and convincing insights. It is an exploration not only of the (theoretical) phenomenon of time travel but of our understanding of 'time' itself." -Joyce Carol Oates

"Magnificent. A riveting history of an idea that changed us so profoundly, we forgot we had even been changed. But Gleick remembers." -Lev Grossman, Books Editor of TIME and author of The Magicians Trilogy

"Against Kingsley Amis' skeptical assertion that 'time travel is inconceivable,' Gleick adduces impressive evidence that the phenomenon has tantalized novelists, philosophers, poets, scientists, moviemakers, and even cartoonists as a transformative possibility. Readers follow the fictional 'Time Traveler' that H. G. Wells sends into future centuries; track the gyrations of time-spanning thought that Borges unfolds in his labyrinthine tales; ponder the temporal cause-effect paradoxes that Bertrand Russel surmounts; and puzzle over the reversibility of time in the ph
Number of Pages:

Master Data

Product Type:
Paperback book
Release date:
27 September 2016
Package Dimensions:
0.188 x 0.146 x 0.024 m; 0.24 kg
Manufacturer Part Number:
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