The best books on time for people who love physics and deep thinking

Craig Callender Author Of What Makes Time Special?
By Craig Callender

Who am I?

I am a philosopher of science who has an obsession with time. People think this interest is a case of patronymic destiny, that it’s due to my last name being Callender. But the origins of “Callender” have nothing to do with time. Instead, I’m fascinated by time because it is one of the last fundamental mysteries, right up there with consciousness. Like consciousness, time is connected to our place in the universe (our sense of freedom, identity, meaning). Yet we don’t really understand it because there remains a gulf between our experience of time and the science of time. Saint Augustine really put his finger on the problem in the fifth century when he pointed out that it is both the most familiar and unfamiliar thing.

I wrote...

What Makes Time Special?

By Craig Callender,

Book cover of What Makes Time Special?

What is my book about?

As we navigate through life we instinctively model time as having a flowing present that divides a fixed past from open future. This model develops in childhood and is deeply saturated within our language, thought and behavior, affecting our conceptions of the universe, freedom and the self. Yet as central as it is to our lives, physics seems to have no room for this flowing present.

Does physics really “spatialize” time, as is commonly alleged? By looking at the world "sideways" - in the spatial directions -- Callender shows that even relativity theory makes significant distinctions between the spacelike and timelike directions, often with surprising consequences.

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The books I picked & why

The Direction of Time

By Hans Reichenbach,

Book cover of The Direction of Time

Why did I love this book?

Most academics have played the game David Lodge calls “Humiliations” in his novel Changing Places: you have to list books that you should have read but didn’t, the more scandalous the better. For a while, Reichenbach’s book was my go-to. I was writing my PhD on the direction of time but hadn’t read Reichenbach. Because it was old I figured I indirectly knew everything in it. Holy moly was I wrong! Not only is The Direction of Time the first serious blend of good philosophy and physics tackling the direction of time — plus a great example of the type of philosophy I deeply value — but it is still packed with insights. No question, I should have read it earlier in my life.  

By Hans Reichenbach,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Direction of Time as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Ever a source of philosophical conjecture and debate, the concept of time represents the beating heart of physics. This final work by the distinguished physicist Hans Reichenbach represents the culmination and integration of a lifetime's philosophical contributions and inquiries into the analysis of time. The result is an outstanding overview of such qualitative, or topological, attributes of time as order and direction.
Beginning with a discussion of the emotive significance of time, Reichenbach turns to an examination of the time order of mechanics, the time direction of thermodynamics and microstatistics, the time direction of macrostatistics, and the time of quantum…

Book cover of The Physicist & the Philosopher: Einstein, Bergson, and the Debate That Changed Our Understanding of Time

Why did I love this book?

In March 1922 Albert Einstein came to Paris to deliver some lectures and had a famous exchange with the well-known French philosopher Henri Bergson about the nature of time. This accessible history uses this short exchange as a lens to look at many big topics, including the fascinating history of the resistance to relativity in Europe, the nature of time, the division between science and philosophy, and the role of science in society. What I especially loved was the writing style and Canales’ bringing to life historical characters we seldom hear about anymore, such as Herbert Dingle, Ernst Cassirer, Paul Langevin. 

By Jimena Canales,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Physicist & the Philosopher as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

On April 6, 1922, in Paris, Albert Einstein and Henri Bergson publicly debated the nature of time. Einstein considered Bergson's theory of time to be a soft, psychological notion, irreconcilable with the quantitative realities of physics. Bergson, who gained fame as a philosopher by arguing that time should not be understood exclusively through the lens of science, criticized Einstein's theory of time for being a metaphysics grafted on to science, one that ignored the intuitive aspects of time. The Physicist and the Philosopher tells the remarkable story of how this explosive debate transformed our understanding of time and drove a…

Book cover of Mindworks: Time and Conscious Experience

Why did I love this book?

When I moved to San Diego I began to get interested in time perception as well as the physics of time. My colleague Patrica Churchland kindly gave me this book to read. It’s a popular, accessible book on cognitive science and time perception. I couldn’t put it down. For sure it changed my academic path. I knew the mind plays all kinds of tricks on us, but the way it creates our inner sense of time experience still amazes me. 

By Ernst Pöppel,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Mindworks as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Discusses the nature of time, suggests a hierarchical model of human temporal experience, and proposes a new definition of consciousness

Book cover of Time's Arrow and Archimedes' Point: New Directions for the Physics of Time

Why did I love this book?

Price is a philosopher and this book, along with Paul Horwich’s Asymmetries in Time and David Albert’s Time and Chance, are heirs of Reichenbach’s masterpiece. I select Price’s book here because it is more accessible than Horwich’s or Albert’s books. It is packed with fun and deep stuff: criticism of Hawking’s cosmology, exploration of the electromagnetic arrow of time, and serious discussion of wild ideas like causation going backward in time.

By Huw Price,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Time's Arrow and Archimedes' Point as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

`splendidly provocative ... enjoy it as a feast for the imagination.'
John Gribbin, Sunday Times

Why is the future so different from the past? Why does the past affect the future and not the other way round? The universe began with the Big Bang - will it end with a 'Big Crunch'? This exciting book presents an innovative and controversial view of time and contemporary physics. Price urges physicists, philosophers, and anyone who has ever pondered the paradoxes of time to look at the world from a fresh perspective and he throws fascinating new light on some of the great…

Book cover of Time Machines: Time Travel in Physics, Metaphysics, and Science Fiction

Why did I love this book?

I’ve never met Nahin but I recognize in him a kindred spirit of someone similarly obsessed with time. If you want to know about time travel, here it is in all its glory. The “tech notes” at the end show that this is a labor of love. Not only will you encounter some of the most fascinating physics (in the works of Godel, Novikov, Thorne, Tipler, and dozens more), but you’ll also learn about early science fiction, the threat of fatalism, the history of the idea that time is the fourth dimension, and more.

By Paul J. Nahin,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Time Machines as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This book explores the idea of time travel from the first account in English literature to the latest theories of physicists such as Kip Thorne and Igor Novikov. This very readable work covers a variety of topics including: the history of time travel in fiction; the fundamental scientific concepts of time, spacetime, and the fourth dimension; the speculations of Einstein, Richard Feynman, Kurt Goedel, and others; time travel paradoxes, and much more.

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