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Ontology on the gone!

The Journal of the Lincoln Heights Literary Society
Miscellanea and Ephemeron

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05/09/2005 Archived Entry: "Book review: Breaking the Time Barrier: The Race to Build the First Time Machine"

Breaking the Time Barrier: The Race to Build the First Time Machine
By Jenny Randles
Publisher: Pocket Books

Review by Betsy Phillips

Jenny Randles's book, Breaking the Time Barrier: The Race to Build the First Time Machine must be the kind of book that people with any kind of scientific knowledge hate, because people like me, who had to cheat to get through high school physics, read it and think we now have some deep knowledge of quantum mechanics.

So, being totally ignorant of almost all physics (what I know, I get from the Discovery Channel or old episodes of Star Trek) I liked it. Randles takes really complicated scientific problems and theories and articulates them in very easy to understand prose. She introduces the reader to a number of famous and not-so-famous scientists who all have, at one time or another, been working on the question of whether people will ever be able to travel though time. She asks what I think are interesting questions about whether "kooky" phenomena like some kinds of reports of alien abduction might be easily explained by some type of heretofore unknown but potentially naturally occurring time travel anomaly. And it's nearly impossible not to get caught up in her enthusiasm.

Still, I can't help but suspect that her quest to make complicated theory understandable to the average person means that she sometimes simplifies things to such an extent that she's then doing bad science. Like I said, I cheated my way through physics, so I don't know for certain, but here's an example of what I'm talking about. She spends a great deal of time talking about string theory, which is the idea that there are these tiny sub-atomic doohickeys that might be like tiny vibrating strands or strings. (Though she doesn't get into it, it's the theoretical presence of and behavior of these sub-atomic doohickeys that give some scientists hope that they will be able to reconcile the laws of the universe on a grand scales with the laws of physics that operate at the subatomic scale.) My understanding, limited though it may be, is that these strings are the fundamental building blocks of everything -- infinitely thin but potentially infinitely long, existing in many dimensions -- and that if one could look on a small enough scale, she would find these strings everywhere. And I thought that this was what Randles believed.

However, then, she starts talking about how scientists think that if they could locate one of these strings that was long enough to reach from here to, say, Mars, that it would have enough density to cause space-time to warp around it, thus allowing time travel.

But, if these strands are the building blocks of everything, aren't they already there, too small for us to see? Aren't they all already warping space-time around them? Wouldn't it be simple, once scientists learned how to locate these strings, to find one between here and Mars? To find millions of them? I don't know and she doesn't explain it.

So, as much as I enjoyed reading it, I can't say that I feel secure in the veracity of what I've read. Because of this, I'd have a hard time recommending it to other non-science people. I'd be really curious to know what someone with a good grasp of physics thought of the book, but I can't imagine why such a person would read it, since it's so clearly a basic introduction to these ideas.

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