Let's Do the Time Warp Again

As we approach the new year, Scott McLemee gives a preview of some of the new books coming out in 2019.

December 21, 2018

A wrinkle in time usually appears in late spring or early summer, when the first review copies of books scheduled for publication the following year start to arrive in the mail. It's hard to believe the future is approaching quite so fast -- but there it is, in the form of printed artifacts. These days I often read review copies issued in digital formats, but they never have the same effect. Only paper and ink bearing next year's copyright date ever feel really anachronistic.

Not at the moment, of course. Plenty of 2019 titles are already hitting the bookstores, and university presses have been sending their spring catalogs in recent weeks. I've noticed a few books likely to be of general interest, so let's close out 2018 with a partial survey of what's just ahead. Publication dates are from the presses' websites and may vary from what's indicated by online retailers; quoted material is taken from catalog listings.

Mark your calendars: May 29 will be the centennial of a major event in the history of science -- the astronomical expeditions that observed the total solar eclipse of 1919 from locations in Africa and South America. Measurements taken during the eclipse showed a deflection of starlight -- its bending by gravity -- as predicted by Albert Einstein's general theory of relativity. Daniel Kennefick's No Shadow of a Doubt: The 1919 Eclipse That Confirmed Einstein’s Theory of Relativity (Princeton University Press, April) claims to supply "the most comprehensive and authoritative account of how expedition scientists overcame war, bad weather, and equipment problems to make the experiment a triumphant success.”

In Gravity’s Century: From Einstein’s Eclipse to Images of Black Holes (Harvard University Press, May), Ron Cowen explains a project now underway that will test Einstein's theory in greater detail. Using "a globe-spanning array of radio dishes," researchers will examine "space surrounding Sagittarius A, the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way." Besides confirming (or challenging) Einstein's work, the effort will provides "the first direct view of an event horizon -- a black hole’s point of no return.” The mind boggles.

Also coming in the middle of the year is the semicentennial of the first time human beings set foot on the lunar landscape. Roger D. Launius's Reaching for the Moon: A Short History of the Space Race (Yale University Press, August) covers the years between the Soviet Union's launch of Sputnik in 1957 and the end of the final Apollo moon mission in 1972 -- a period of "breathtaking feats of ingenuity and disturbances to a delicate global balance of power." Catherine L. Newell pushes the story back to an earlier period in Destined for the Stars: Faith, the Future, and America’s Final Frontier (University of Pittsburgh Press, May). Between 1944 and 1955, space exploration was popularized in American culture in ways that had "less to do with the Cold War strife commonly associated with the space race" than with a religious vision "that contributed to the invention of space as the final frontier."

Manifestly destined or not, the Apollo 11 landing in July 1969 was followed within a month by the Woodstock music festival. First published in 2017 and due out in paperback in March, Neil M. Maher's Apollo in the Age of Aquarius (Harvard) argues that "the celestial aspirations of NASA’s Apollo space program were tethered to terrestrial concerns, from the civil rights struggle and the antiwar movement to environmentalism, feminism, and the counterculture.”

One thing Einstein, the space program and the counterculture had in common was that J. Edgar Hoover wanted his agents to keep an eye on all of them. Scientists Under Surveillance: The FBI Files (MIT Press, March) collects the G-men's reports "on some of the most famous scientists in America," especially during the Cold War years, "reproducing them in their original typewritten, teletyped, hand-annotated form." The same editorial team (JPat Brown, B. C. D. Lipton and Michael Morisy) also compiled Writers Under Surveillance, also from MIT, published in 2018.

Isaac Asimov, it seems, has been classified among the scientists rather than the authors. While teaching at the Boston University School of Medicine, he was "a prime suspect in the hunt for a Soviet informant code named ROBPROF." After all, "he wrote about robots and was a professor." I doubt it was the most implausible hunch they followed up.

Finally, we have Nick Yablon's examination of a time machine of sorts -- one pre-Einstein in concept and low-tech in design. His Remembrance of Things Present: The Invention of the Time Capsule (University of Chicago Press, June) "traces the birth of the time capsule to the Gilded Age, when the growing volatility of cities prompted doubts about how, if at all, the period would be remembered." (Remember it? Hell, we keep re-enacting it.) Besides writing letters and documents to put inside time capsules, members of the public tried to communicate with the future by depositing "sources that professional historians and archivists still considered illegitimate, such as material artifacts, photographs, phonograph records and films."

I see from The Texarkana Gazette that the practice is not defunct, by the way. Citizens of Hempstead Country, Ark., have until the end of this year to write letters and donate objects for a time capsule to be opened when the county celebrates the 250th anniversary of its founding, come 2068.


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