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Between the Lines: Synchronize Your Watches!
(December 2001, addition February 2002)
By David Pitt

'Time is on my side, yes it is,' Norman Meade wrote. But when the Stones perform it, the song goes: 'ti-iy-yi-ime, is on my side, yes it is,' Jagger stretching out time, making the word seem much longer than it really is. I suspect Einstein would have approved.

Possessing Genius: The Bizarre Odyssey of Einstein's Brain (Viking, hardcover), by Carolyn Abraham, is a very interesting book about the scientist, his work, and the pathologist who seemed to take an inordinate amount of interest in the man's brain. 'I came late to the parade,' Abraham writes in the introduction, and she's right: she isn't the first writer to tell us about Thomas Stoltz Harvey, the Princeton Hospital chief pathologist who not only dissected Einstein's brain, but vowed to protect it from treasure-hunters and other curious individuals. He kept the brain, took it with him when he moved, and if you're looking for a truly weird and entertaining book about Harvey, you should probably grab a copy of Michael Paterniti's Driving Mr. Albert, which came out a couple of years ago.

Abraham's book isn't quite as entertaining, and - this may be a drawback, depending on your point of view - it isn't nearly as weird. Unlike the Paterniti book, which was essentially a pop culture road trip book, Possessing Genius is serious, even sober in places, with a hefty dose of science and medicine. Who was Albert Einstein, and how did he get to be so smart? What was he really saying, with his intricate theories about space and time? And, by studying his brain, can we discover what makes a man a genius? Abraham, a medical reporter for The Globe and Mail, takes us to the cutting edge of neuroscience, and shows us that, even half a century after his death, Einstein is still making headlines.

If Abraham's discussions of Einstein's work leave you wanting more, you must read David Bodanis's E=mc2: A Biography of the World's Most Famous Equation (Anchor, paperback). This is an astonishingly exciting book - yes, an exciting book about mathematics, go figure - that will leave you with a greater understanding of Einstein's discoveries than you may have thought possible.

Bodanis's approach is simplicity itself: 'Instead of using the rocketship-and-flashlight approach,' he writes, referring to the usual clunky way of explaining relativity, 'I could write the biography of E=mc2. Everyone knows that a biography entails stories of the ancestors, childhood, adolescence, and adulthood of your subject. It's the same with the equation.' Bodanis breaks the equation down into its constituent parts, discussing how each of them came to be (how did we come to understand energy, for example) and how they relate to one another. His prose is simple and straightforward - but never dumbed down - and you'll wonder why no one ever thought about writing about mathematics this way before. This is the book all other explaining-Einstein books will be judged against.

Another astonishingly exciting book (how do these guys do it?) is Measuring Eternity: The Search for the Beginning of Time (Broadway, hardcover), by Martin Gorst. Einstein might have said some of the most interesting things about time - it bends, it stretches, it contracts - but he wasn't the only one to boggle our minds on the subject. Take James Ussher, for example: in 1649, after some truly impressive research (his work required him to learn a few new languages, just for starters), the Irish bishop concluded that the world was created Saturday, October 22, 4004 B.C. (At precisely 6:00 p.m., if you want to set your watch by Creation.)

Ussher is ridiculed these days - how could anyone with a grain of common sense say the world's age can be measured in mere millennia? - but we tend to forget how brilliant the man was. Measuring Eternity is a book with plentiful splendors, but one of Gorst's greatest accomplishments here is his transplanting of Ussher from the drawer labeled crackpot to the drawer labeled genius. Ussher's conclusions may have been wrong, but the method he used to arrive at them was magnificent: a close reading of the Bible (at the time the accepted authority on the age of the earth), a thorough investigation of all known historical records, and some remarkably accurate educated guesses. Ussher's date for the death of Nebuchadnezzar (562 B.C.), which he arrived at by reconciling Biblical accounts with a Greek astronomer's list of Babylonian kings, is still generally accepted by historians as being correct.

Gorst's description of Ussher's research, his lifelong pursuit of the beginning of time, is thrilling, pure joy, and here's the best part: it's only the first chapter of this amazing book. Gorst brings us right up to the present, showing us, with precision and clarity and a page-turning pace, how we got to where we are today ... and how little we really understand.

And here, as a late (Jan. '02) addition, we have Time Lord: The Remarkable Canadian Who Missed His Train, and Changed the World (Vintage, paperback), by Clark Blaise. It's the story of Sandford Fleming, the Scottish immigrant - to Canada, that is - who got a little fed up with all the confusion over what time it was. In the Until the late eighteenth century, you see, pretty much every town in North America (and the world) kept its town time, so it might be noon where you are, but for me, a mere twelve miles away, it might be only 11:55. Or perhaps it's 12:07. Who knows?

Anyway, Fleming is the enterprising fellow who figured out how to put everybody in the same geographical area on the same time; Time Lord is his story, but it's also the story of time itself: how we measure it, why we measure it, and whether it would even exist, if we didn't need it so much. Enlightening stuff.

Read it. Read all these books. You'll have a great time.
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