Thursday, June 5, 2008

23. Soul of the World

The title: Soul of the World: Unlocking the Secrets of Time
The author: Christopher Dewdney
Publication: HarperCollins, 2008
Got it from: Library

Confound him, too,
Who in this place set up a sundial,
To cut and hack my days so wretchedly
Into small portions
-Titus Maccius Plautus (254-184 B.C.)

Some people pick up Jayne Ann Krentz for their summer reads. I prefer to read about the meaning of time. (Since Einstein theorized that all times exist at once, somewhere on a June day in 1991, that little bully Francis Logan is hissing "nerd!" at me in third grade French class, while Mme. Sutton tsks, "Écouter , Mademoiselle Howe!") I didn't think I'd enjoy this book nearly as much as I did. I found myself unable to put it down for long periods of time. There were a lot of things in here that I've read extensively about (such as time-travel) and many more things I encountered for the first time.

The author is a Torontonian, which made his description of local landscapes accessible to me. He hails from the "personalize everything with anecdotes from my life," school of non-fiction writing. (See: Bryson, Bill. Winchester, Simon.) Some people like this, others do not. Beware: rambly sojourns ahead! This is no straight scientific/social narrative. There's a lot of sub-plot involving the author's garden. I like him. I could see myself having tea with this man at a tea shop. That's saying something. I actually did meet Simon Winchester, once, but we didn't get to have tea. If I ever met Bill Bryson, I'd take him to The Rocky Mountain Candy Company, because he seems like a chocolate-covered apple kind of guy. But I digress (as does the author, frequently.)

What nuggets can I use to tempt you to read this book? Well, there's always those fascinating details that makes you go: hey! I never knew! For instance, the 2004 tsunami actually changed the angular momentum of the Earth's spin, shortening our day by 3 millionths of a second. I mean, not just the day it happened, but every day since then. How cool is that? Another interesting part is when he asks friends and acquaintances to describe time in terms of its physicality. Most people said it was blue. Someone described it as "the colour of diamonds underwater." I like that. On a more practical note, one of the most fascinating sections was on how technology, specifically things like telephones and motion pictures, changed our perception of time forever.

I'll leave you with one of my favourite pieces from the book. Since much about time is speculative, it's a bit of a whimsy, but I found it funny. Maybe you have to be a nerd to get it. I don't know. On pages 52-53, he describes a possible sub-culture living among us: the Femtonians. A femtosecond is one millionth of a billionth of a second, so naturally Femtonians living among us would be unaware that we were anything but unmoving mountains. We, in turn, would not be able to detect them:

The Femtonians could be living among us as if we were so many figurines. Should their science become advanced enough, a genius among them might announce that the statues are not utterly unchanging, but that they are, in fact, moving! Controversy would erupt. It would be well-known that, although most of the statues' eyes are open, some are half-closed, while a minority are completely closed. Using comparison photographs from over a century, the Femtonian scientist would show how the eyelids of a particular statue with half-closed eyes have moved incrementally over the decades. "Preposterous!" would be the response from the dissenting scientists. "How could statues move? I suppose next you'll be telling us they're alive?"

Ah, the theory of relativity in practice. A.


Anonymous said...

I have to read this book. That theory about the Femtonians boggles my mind in a fascinating way.

I wonder if fairies and gnomes etc are the same way and sometimes come thru. I wouldn't have thought that but I recently read a very interesting book with accounts of people meeting fairies et. al. Just a different kind of people, in a different kind of place, but still 'here.' Who knows?


KJH said...

I really recommend.

Yes, it is folly to suppose that we know everything. I say, why not other people living among us? It's counter-intuitive, but so is the earth being round.