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What the second law of thermodynamics has to do with Saint Augustine, landscape art, and graphic novels.
Time is the most fundamental common denominator between our existence and that of everything else, it's the yardstick by which we measure nearly every aspect of our lives, directly or indirectly, yet its nature remains one of the greatest mysteries of science. Last year, we devoured BBC's excellent What Is Time? and today we turn to seven essential books that explore the grand question on a deeper, more multidimensional level, spanning everything from quantum physics to philosophy to art.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF TIME
It comes as no surprise to start with A Brief History of Time – legendary theoretical physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking's 1988 masterpiece, which is commonly considered the most important book in popular science ever published and one of our 10 essential primers on (almost) everything. In it, Hawking attempted to answer one of humanity's most fundamental questions – where did the universe come from? – and tackled the complex subject of cosmology through a multitude of angles, including the Big Bang theory, black holes, high mathematics, the nature of time, gravity and much more, blending the rigor of a brilliant scientist with the eloquent ease of a masterful storyteller to invite even the non-expert reader to consider the universe in an entirely new way. (Eight years later, a fantastic illustrated edition offered a revised, updated and expanded version of the book.)
With a foreword by none other than Carl Sagan, the book remains a fundamental sensemaking mechanism for understanding the cosmos, our place in it, how we got there, and where we might be going.
Perhaps most powerful of all is the human hope and scientific vision of Hawking's ending:
If we find [a unified theory], it would be the ultimate triumph – for then we would know the mind of God."
FROM ETERNITY TO HERE
In From Eternity to Here: The Quest for the Ultimate Theory of Time, CalTech theoretical physicist Sean Carroll – who might just be one of the most compelling popular science writers of our time – straddles the arrow of time and rides it through an ebbing cross-disciplinary landscape of insight, inquiry and intense interest in its origin, nature and ultimate purpose. From entropy and the second law of thermodynamics to the Big Bang theory and the origins of the universe to quantum mechanics and the theory of relativity, Carroll weaves a lucid, enthusiastic, illuminating and refreshingly accessible story of the universe, and our place in it, at the intersection of cosmology, theoretical physics, information theory and philosophy, tied together by the profound quest for understanding the purpose and meaning of our lives.
This book is about the nature of time, the beginning o the universe, and the underlying structure of physical reality. We're not thinking small here. The questions we're tackling are ancient and honorable ones: Where did time and space come from? Is the universe we see all there is, or are there other 'universes' beyond what we can observe? How is the future different from the past?" ~ Sean Carroll
Sample Carroll's entertaining and enlightening storytelling with his excellent talk from TEDxCaltech.
Full review here.
Our experience and understanding of time need not be confined to science. Time chronicles the extraordinary work of British artist Andy Goldsworthy, who for the past three decades has been defying the Western art tradition of creating work that outlasts the artist's lifetime by instead creating exquisite temporal sculptures out of leaves, twigs, petals, ice, sand, feathers, water, stone, and other fragments of nature. These ephemeral, lyrical miracles, spanning Canada, Mexico, Japan, Scotland, and Holland, are left open to the forces of time and change, and are captured here in 500 magnificent photographs, most of which taken by Goldsworthy himself, alongside thoughtful meditations on the vision for and mutation of each piece.
Movement, change, light growth and decay are the lifeblood of nature, the energies that I try to tap through my work. I need the shock of touch, the resistance of place, materials and weather, the earth as my source. I want to get under the surface. When I work with a leaf, rock, stick, it is not just that material itself, it is an opening into the processes of life within and around it. When I leave it, these processes continue.
My approach to photograph is kept simple, almost routine. All work, good and bad, is documented. I use standard film, a standard lens and no filters. Each work grows, strays, decays—integral parts of a cycle which the photograph shows at its height, marking the moment when the work is most alive. There is an intensity about a work at its peak that I hope is expresses in the image. Process and decay are implicit." ~ Andy Goldsworthy
Goldsworthy was the subject of the excellent 2001 Scottish-German documentary Rivers & Tides: Working with Time – here's a short excerpt for a taste:
BLACK HOLES AND TIME WARPS
Despite a title that reads like a sensationalistic Huffington Post linkbait headline, Black Holes and Time Warps: Einstein's Outrageous Legacy by CalTech theoretical physicist Kip Thorne is the most ambitious account of spacetime from Einstein to Hawking since Hawking himself. (Who actually penned the excellent foreword to the volume.) Originally published in 1994, the book offers an articulately illustrated journey into the fundamental ethos of astrophysics – Einstein's theory of relativity – and how mankind arrived at what we assume to be the most accurate model of physical reality. Intertwined with these triumphs of science are the implicit controversies and contradictions that bedeviled the process – Einstein, for instance, didn't believe that stars could collapse under their own gravity and curve the space around them so much as to cut themselves off from the rest of the universe, but a number of other physicists eventually proved these black holes were in fact an inevitable consequence of his theory.
From the pioneering work of the scientists who shaped the field, including Einstein himself, to modern-day mind-benders like black hole mechanics, Thorne covers an extraordinary range of disciplines and subject matter, managing to make it all absorbing and intelligible without dumbing down or compromising the spirit of science.
The theory of black holes was developed before there was any indication from observations that they actually existed. I do not know any other example in science where such a great exploration was made solely on the basis of thought. It shows the remarkable power and depth of Einstein's theory." ~ Kip Thorne
INTRODUCING TIME: A GRAPHIC GUIDE
We've previously explored 10 masterpieces of graphic nonfiction and just last week swooned over this graphic novel biography of iconic physicist Richard Feynman, so it's only fitting we explored time from within the genre. Granted, philosophy professor Craig Callender's Time: A Graphic Guide isn't exactly a graphic novel, but it does borrow from the genre's signature visual storytelling to explore the history of time with a fascinating philosopher's lens, from Augustine's contention that there is no time to Newton's fluid time to the static time of Einstein to the contemporary theory that there is no time in quantum gravity, coming full circle. Callender covers a wide range of facets – clocks, psychological time, entropy, spacetime curvature, the Big Bang, Gödel, endocrinology, and just about everything in between – to deliver a sum total of illumination that will leave you with newfound awe for the intersection of philosophy and science.
THE TIME PARADOX
Stanford social psychologist Philip Zimbardo is best-known as the mastermind of the infamous 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment, which revealed one of the most gruesome glimpses of human nature in the history of social science. (Zimbardo recently launched The Heroic Imagination Project in an effort to use what psychology knows about good and evil to harness the human potential for good.) In The Time Paradox: The New Psychology of Time That Will Change Your Life, Zimbardo brings his social psychologist's lens to the phenomenon of time to explore its importance in our lives, why we systematically devalue it, and how to enlist insights from psychology and behavioral science to optimize our relationship with time. He segments people into past-, present-, and future-oriented based on our time-perspectives, and offers insights into how each type experiences the four central paradoxes of time he identifies.
Sample the book with this charmingly so-bad-it's-good trailer:
Our ability to reconstruct the past, to interpret the present, and to construct the future gives us the power to be happy." ~ Philip Zimbardo
THE THIEF OF TIME
The Thief of Time: Philosophical Essays on Procrastination, originally featured in our 5 cross-disciplinary perspectives on procrastination, is an absorbing anthology featuring essays by a wide range of scholars and writers spanning the entire spectrum of theoretical and empirical.
Procrastination is familiar and interesting but also puzzling. Although it is generally perceived as harmful and irrational, recent studies suggest that most of us procrastinate occasionally and many of us procrastinate persistently. Not even saints are immune. Saint Augustine records in his Confessions how, after years of sexual hedonism, he vowed to return to Christianity and prayed for chastity and continence – 'only not yet.' Although he 'abhorred' his current way of living and 'earnestly' wanted to change his course, he kept deferring any change until 'tomorrow.'" ~ Chrisoula Andreou & Mark D. White
From the morality of it (is procrastination a vice?) to its possible antidotes (what are the best coping strategies?), the book is an essential piece of psychosocial insight. That is, if you get around to reading it.
A first-hand tour of the heart and mind of one of our era's greatest visionaries, culled from 30 years of wisdom.
While writing my personal remembrance of Steve Jobs last week, I sifted through the dozens of quotes I had clipped to Evernote from his many interviews, speeches, and keynotes over the years – for all his visionary entrepreneurship, Jobs was also a rare outlier in being incredibly eloquent and articulate about his vision, a master of speaking his mind, even in the face of resistance and controversy, and using his specific expertise to extract general insight about design, psychology, behavior, and just about all of the human condition. So I'm thrilled for the release of I, Steve: Steve Jobs in His Own Words – a wonderful anthology of more than 200 quotes and excerpts from his many appearances in the media over the years.
(And if you're quick to write this off as a heartless exploitation of Jobs' recent death, it turns out the publisher had the book in the works since last spring, set to publish in March 2012, but they moved it up after Jobs resigned as CEO in January.)
Edited by George Beahm, the volume is a wonderfully curated curtain-peeler that offers a singular look at Jobs' mind as an entrepreneur, his heart as a passionate visionary, and Apple's fundamental DNA. Here are a few of my favorite quotes:
On broad-based education:
Reed College at that time offered perhaps the best calligraphy instruction in the country… I decided to take a calligraphy class to learn how to do this. I learned about serif and san serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great. It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can't capture, and I found it fascinating. None of this had even a hope of any practical application in my life. But ten years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me." ~ Commencement address, Stanford University, June 12, 2005
(Be sure to watch his entire Stanford commencement address, it's a piece of existential poetry.)
On the importance of broad life experiences:
A lot of people in our industry haven't had very diverse experiences. They don't have enough dots to connect, and they end up with very linear solutions, without a broad perspective on the problem. The broader one's understanding of the human experience, the better designs we will have." ~ Wired, February, 1996
On being the best:
We're not going to be the first to this party, but we're going to be the best." ~ Apple event for iPHone OS 4.0, April 8, 2010
On media monopoly and lowest-common-denominator content:
When you’re young, you look at television and think, There’s a conspiracy. The networks have conspired to dumb us down. But when you get a little older, you realize that’s not true. The networks are in business to give people exactly what they want. That’s a far more depressing thought. Conspiracy is optimistic! You can shoot the bastards! We can have a revolution! But the networks are really in business to give people what they want. It’s the truth." ~ Wired, February 1996
On Bill Gates:
I wish him the best, I really do. I just think he and Microsoft are a bit narrow. He’d be a broader guy if he had dropped acid once or gone off to an ashram when he was younger." ~ The New York Times, January 12, 1997
On the importance of saying "no":
And it comes from saying no to 1,000 things to make sure we don’t get on the wrong track or try to do too much. We’re always thinking about new markets we could enter, but it’s only by saying no that you can concentrate on the things that are really important." ~ Business Week, October 12, 1994
On selling out:
The problem with the Internet startup craze isn’t that too many people are starting companies; it’s that too many people aren’t sticking with it. That’s somewhat understandable, because there are many moments that are filled with despair and agony, when you have to fire people and cancel things and deal with very difficult situations. That’s when you find out who you are and what your values are. So when these people sell out, even though they get fabulously rich, they’re gypping themselves out of one of the potentially most rewarding experiences of their unfolding lives. Without it, they may never know their values or how to keep their newfound wealth in perspective." ~ Fortune, January 24, 2000
On Apple's existence:
What if Apple didn't exist? Think about it. Time wouldn't get published next week. Some 70% of the newspapers in the U.S. wouldn't publish tomorrow morning. Some 60% of the kids wouldn't have computers; 64% of the teachers wouldn't have computers. More than half the Websites created on Macs wouldn't exist. So there's something worth saving here. See?" ~ Time, August 18, 1997
What a computer is to me is the most remarkable tool that we have ever come up with. It's the equivalent of a bicycle for our minds." ~ Memory & Imagination, 1990
On creativity and cross-pollination:
Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things. And the reason they were able to do that was that they’ve had more experiences or they have thought more about their experiences than other people. Unfortunately, that’s too rare a commodity. A lot of people in our industry haven’t had very diverse experiences. So they don’t have enough dots to connect, and they end up with very linear solutions without a broad perspective on the problem. The broader one’s understanding of the human experience, the better design we will have." ~ Wired, February, 1995
Being the richest man in the cemetery doesn’t matter to me … Going to bed at night saying we’ve done something wonderful… that’s what matters to me." ~ The Wall Street Journal, May 25, 1993
An invaluable treasure trove of inspiration and insight, I, Steve captures the essence of one of our era's greatest hearts, minds, and souls with the candor and precision only self-revelation can unlatch.
An irreverent, artful antidote to GPS appification, or what the NYC subway has to do with tsunamis.
Iconic designer Paula Scher is one of my big creative heroes, her thoughts on combinatorial creativity a perfect articulation of my own beliefs about how we create. Since the early 1990s, Scher has been creating remarkable, obsessive, giant hand-painted typographic maps of the world as she sees it, covering everything from specific countries and continents to cultural phenomena. This month, Princeton Architectural Press is releasing Paula Scher: MAPS – a lavish, formidable large-format volume collecting 39 of her swirling, colorful cartographic points of view, a beeline addition to my favorite books on maps.
I began painting maps to invent my own complicated narrative about the way I see and feel about the world. I wanted to list what I know about the world from memory, from impressions, from media, and from general information overload. These are paintings of distortions." ~ Paula Scher
(Cue in cartograms.)
A foreword by Simon Winchester contextualizes Scher's maps as cultural objects, and an introduction by Scher herself offers a peek inside the mind and personal history that sprouted her cartographic creativity.
A Paula Scher map is both detached from reality and yet at the same time becomes an entirely new reality, one that manages to be useless and essential all at once. What follows here is cartography as living art – fun and whimsical, obsessively made, and knowingly offered, lovingly, to be read… Maps such as these are never ever to be replaced by the cold blinking eyes of the GPS. Use them, enjoy them, glory in their madness." ~ Simon Manchester
The World, 1998
NYT Transit, 2007 (left); Manhattan at Night, 2007 (right)
Shock and Awe, 2005
International Air Routes, 2008
The Dark World, 2007
Sample Scher's extraordinary mind and creative process with her now-legendary talk from Serious Play 2008.
Artful and opinionated, Princeton Architectural Press is releasing Paula Scher: MAPS is a beautiful antidote to the sterile objectivity of location-aware apps and devices, reminiscent of Ward Shelley's analog data visualization and the poetic subjectivity of You Are Here: Personal Geographies and Other Maps of the Imagination, but presaging both and shining with Scher's own distinct, quirky, visionary voice.