The Magazine

From the Beginning

Time is shorter than you think.

Nov 5, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 08 • By LAWRENCE KLEPP
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Along the way Richet offers some lively thumbnail sketches of the scientists, such as Buffon (Georges-Louis Leclerc, Count of Buffon, Lord of Montbard, Marquis of Rougemont, Viscount of Quincy, and Vidame of Tonnerre), whose fortune allowed him to live undisturbed in monkish seclusion while devoting himself to inventing a new science, natural history. There was Darwin--a mediocre student whose father had told him, "You care for nothing but shooting, dogs, and rat-catching, and you will be a disgrace to yourself and all your family"--and Ernest Rutherford, who went from digging potatoes on a rugged pioneer farm in New Zealand to the top of British physics in a few years. Or Fritz Houtermans, a German physicist who had to survive detention and interrogation by both the Gestapo and the Soviet NKVD, and did so with both physics and sense of humor intact.

These sketches help scientifically semiliterate readers, like me, negotiate their way through the book, which gets increasingly technical as it goes on. But Richet never loses sight of his story, which is edifying and far from over, as scientists continue to thrash out the fiat lux of the Big Bang and the lights-out entropy perhaps looming 100 billion years or so in the future, as well as hypothetical alternate universes rising and disappearing in cyclical succession. The arguments reprise the old competing ideas of eternal worlds and unique creations, circular and linear time.

If there's a moral to the story, it's probably that time remains a riddle, and it's going to take forever to solve it.

Lawrence Klepp is a writer in New York.