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The Little Book of Time

Klaus Mainzer
Springer Verlag
Publication Date: 
Number of Pages: 
[Reviewed by
Thomas R. Berger
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Time is a big subject and The Little Book of Time is a very little book. The book will probably be interesting to enthusiasts, but might be a bit easy for others to put down. Possibly, enthusiasts already know more than is in this book. The flavor is philosophical, which is not surprising since Mainzer is a philosopher. In any case, the book is a nice summary.

The first chapter relates the ancient view of time. The next four chapters follow the evolution of thinking about time based upon physics, beginning with classical physics, followed by relativity, quantum theory, and finally thermodynamics. An important test of a physical theory is that it is time reversible so that the directionality of time enters into physics only in very special places, like thermodynamics. Mainzer's treatment of this point is a bit sparse, even though he spends space on a bifurcation diagram without relating them strongly to his discussion of time. The last three chapters cover biological, psychological, and cultural time. Given the depth of these last three topics, the treatment is extremely brief.

Because the approach is philosophical and intellectual, topics are separated from their cultural and social connections even though history teaches us they are inextricable. For example, even in scientists' minds there were enormous conflicts about religion and time. Newton interpreted Genesis literally. Brydone related an observation by a Roman Catholic priest that some lava flows on Mt. Etna had to predate the creation. For writing this Brydone was castigated by Dr. Johnson, and the publisher inserted an apology into a later edition Brydone's book. Lord Kelvin showed the Earth had to be younger than the age required by geologic time. Darwin felt enormous internal conflict over the Biblical story of creation and the time necessary for selection and adaptation to work. The cultural and philosophical developments are inseparable.

Because all aspects of history interact, I would have included references such as History of the Hour, by Gerhard Dohrn-Van Rossum, The Quest for Longitude, ed. by William J. H. Andrewes, or even a popular book like Time's Pendulum, by Jo Ellen Barnett.

Thomas R. Berger ( is Carter Professor of Mathematics and Computer Science at Colby College.

Preface; 1. Time in Prehistoric Societies; 2. Time in the Eyes of Early Astronomers; 3. Classic Philosophers View Time; 4. Western and Eastern Religious Interpretations; 5. Newton and Time; 6. Darwin and Time; 7. Einstein and Time; 8. Modern Physics and Time; 9. The Future of Time