Book Review: From Eternity to Here

Sean Carroll, March, science read, physics, popular science, time, entropy, time travel

March is technically the first month of autumn in Australia, but it’s always known for its sweltering month, the final dog days of summer. But now it’s April, and with April comes…well, not spring showers, but shall we say autumn showers? I love it. The weather reminds me of spring, but without the plague of spring hay fever. Some days herald the coming of an Australian winter, rainy and grey and just begging for you to curl up on a sofa and read a book. Others are sunshiny and summer-bright but with a hint of autumnal chill.

April the first (April Fool’s Day) was a mix of both. I woke to a wintry grey day with a hint of showers – perfect running weather for me – and by the time I finished my run, the clouds had blown away and it was bright and brisk.

This strange mix of weather shifting back and forth between autumn, summer and winter like a time-hopping weather god brings to mind Sean Carroll’s From Eternity to Here. In this book, Sean Carroll asks the questions: Just what is time? Is it possible to time travel? And could we ever reverse the arrow of time? And then he proceeds to chase after these questions down the rabbit hole of time, delving into a world of physics and equations, the cosmos and baby universes. (Note: be prepared to throw out every single conception of time you’ve ever had. Time, Carroll informs us, is nothing at all like what we’ve imagined it to be.)

With each science book I read for 2016, I will pause to ask the question: just how science-y is it? With From Eternity to Here, I have to say, quite science-y. I must admit to stumbling and whirling my way through a load of physics, mathematics, hypotheses and science-speak, just barely winging past it all. I don’t pretend to understand everything in this book. I would probably have to go back and re-read some sections several times, and also be prepared to scribble notes to properly work out and fully understand everything Carroll’s talking about. Very classroom-y! But with the help of Carroll’s engaging style, I think I got through enough to get the gist of what he’s on about it. Though I would someday like to go back and have another hack at it.

Nevertheless, Carroll does drop in enough layman-speak to intrigue the non-physicists amongst us, and in particular, the sci-fi lovers. If you’ve ever wondered if it’s possible to freeze time the way Pru did in Charmed, well, the answer is no. It’s just not scientifically possible – and Carroll explains why fairly early on in the book. Charmed fans, weep not! The magic isn’t wholly done away with, and I for one would like to try my hand at writing a story where freezing time or time travel could be possible using the constraints Carroll has set out in his book – it would definitely be a challenge, if nothing else. And, once again for the science writers, there is any number of demons in this book – Laplace’s Demon, Maxwell’s Demon… Granted, they aren’t real demons but science-hypothesis terms, but they do certainly enliven the reading.

I read Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time for my February science read and what Carroll does is to expand a great deal – a great deal – on the topics Hawking touches on in his book – the laws of thermodynamics, entropy, the arrow of time, disorder and just what the beginning of the universe was like. Carroll spends a lot of time (hah! Pun totally intended here!) trying to answer the question of why the beginning of the universe was the way it was, why there was such a low level of entropy at the beginning and why are we in a universe where entropy is ever expanding, and what does this mean for the future of the universe? Is it possible that all we (or more accurately, our descendants in the very, very, very distant future) have to look forward to is a cold, dark, ever-expanding world? Did our universe really begin with the Big Bang (and furthermore was there really such a thing as a Big Bang) or was there somewhat more before that? Are we just part of a number of other baby universes, separated from each other in our own little ‘bubbles’? Why do we only follow one direction of time (that is, from the past to the future) rather than the reverse? If we discovered the answers to all these questions, would we be able to manipulate time and unscramble an omelet back into an unbroken egg?

I’ll give you the quick answer for now – we don’t have the answers to any of these questions. But scientists all over the world are currently working on this – and Sean Carroll takes us down a lot of rabbit warrens in this book, chasing a variety of hypotheses. It can get a little weary, following him into constant dead-end warrens or warrens that may have a way through but for now we just can’t see that passageway because of all the dark earth (or should I say, dark matter) in the way, and one might almost ask the question, “Well, what is the point of this book?” The point is, with each new hypothesis we chase down, we learn a little more about the right direction in which to orient ourselves to find the right answers. If nothing else, Sean Carroll certainly gives a comprehensive, if not completely final, discussion on time and the origins/future of our universe.

Stay tuned for April’s science read!

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