What is time? Unravel the mysteries of past, present and future with these fascinating books

Time is one of the most complex properties of our universe to explain. Time is what a clock reads. Time is also, depending on whom you talk to and when you talk to them, relativistic, subjective, eternal and running out.

What is time? Unravel the mysteries of past, present and future with these fascinating books

It is one of nature’s greatest mysteries, but it’s also something we all live within.

In classic Newtonian physics, time is seen as an absolute, external to the universe, progressing at a constant pace. In his Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica, Isaac Newton argues: “Absolute, true and mathematical time, of itself, and from its own nature flows equably without regard to anything external.”

Move the clock forward to the early 20th century, and the advent of relativity brings about a different conception of time; one that folds time into the space-time fabric of the universe, but also one that is flexible and relative to accommodate the invariable speed of light. It’s a core aspect of the Special Theory of Relativity proposed by Albert Einstein, who also had the following to say on the subject:

“When a man sits with a pretty girl for an hour, it seems like a minute. But let him sit on a hot stove for a minute — and it’s longer than any hour. That’s relativity.”

Since then, the shift towards a quantum model of the universe has had further implications to our understanding of time, throwing up ideas like the many worlds interpretation and entanglement. Reconciling quantum mechanics with general relativity has long been a problem, leading to what many physicists deem the “problem of time”.

Instead of trying to summarise the entirety of global thought on the immensely complex idea of time, we recommend the following books as a good start to getting a grip on the subject.


A Brief History of Time – Stephen Hawking

Perhaps the most famous piece of popular science, Stephen Hawking’s 1988 book covers the history of cosmology from the early theories of Aristotle and Ptolemy, through Newton and Einstein, into the uncertainty principle, black holes and the arrow of time. It’s a great starting point for anyone interesting in the slippery notion of temporality.  

Einstein’s Cosmos: How Albert Einstein’s Vision Transformed Our Understanding of Space and Time – Michio Kaku

The life and work of Albert Einstein are the subjects of Michio Kaku’s engaging book about the great 20th-century physicist’s legacy. The way we understand time changed fundamentally with Einstein and Kaku centres his study on three core theories: special relativity, general relativity and the unified field theory.

From Eternity to Here – Sean Carroll

A lucid trek through subjects ranging from quantum mechanics and the possibility of time travel to relativity and information science, Sean Carroll’s book is a fascinating read on the nature of time.

The Magic Mountain – Thomas Mann

Thomas Mann’s 1924 novel follows a young man, Hans Castorp, as he journeys to a tuberculosis sanatorium in the Swiss Alps, were what starts as a brief holiday turns into a seven-year stay. Mann’s work is steeped in ideas about time and its subjective experience in the human mind, with the first day of Castorp’s journey taking up as much space as one year later in the story. One of the greatest novels about time.

Being and Time – Martin Heidegger

Not for the faint hearted, Heidegger’s philosophical masterwork is a cornerstone of continental thought, and an essential tome for anyone looking to grapple with the existential and ontological questions around temporality and being.

Feynman – Jim Ottoviani and Leland Myrick

Something a bit lighter: this gorgeous graphic novel covers the larger-than-life adventures of quantum physicist Richard Feynman. Written by Jim Ottoviani and illustrated by Leland Myrick, the book tells the story of the Nobel prize-winning scientist’s life from boyhood, to his work on the Manhattan Project. It’s an accessible and thought provoking read that touches on a number of big ideas about time.

Timekeepers: How the world became obsessed with time – Simon Garfield

The various ways we’ve perceived and observed time over the last 250 years is the subject of Garfield’s book, which digresses between composers, soldiers, princes and watchmakers. Full of compelling stories, and a fine waltz through the recent history of timekeeping.

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