Einstein’s Clocks, Poincare’s Maps I give it 2 stars

Einstein’s 1905 paper on special relativity uses the problem of synchronizing two clocks as a jumping-off point. Peter Galison’s book has a clever thesis: Einstein’s insight was no bolt from the blue, but rather a clever new twist on an engineering problem that was everywhere at the turn of the century. Thus, Galison retells the history of clock synchronization—physical, telegraphic, electromagnetic—with special focus on the work of Henri Poincaré, who anticipated Einstein’s emphasis on the centrality of synchronization in understanding time, but couldn’t bring himself to give up the ether.

It’s a great concept, but the execution is lacking. Whoever had this copy before me heavily underlined the first chapter, but the annotations peter out after that. I can understand why. The writing suffers from Devil in the White City syndrome: excessive dramatization of matters that would have been more engaging if told straightforwardly. There are long set pieces—such as one on the 1884 International Meridian Conference, which fixed the Prime Meridian in Greenwich—that seem to have been written by transcribing and condensing (though not by enough) some set of archival documents. Worse, for someone seemingly obsessive about getting right the subtle distinctions in Einstein’s and Poincaré’s conceptions of time, Galison gives too short a shrift to the details of their actual writings. Just when you think you’ve got it, the authorial voice intrudes.

In the end, I unleashed my inner Tyler Cowen and put the book down, unfinished. I’ve got better uses for my time—like folding laundry.

I had a different experience with this book. I liked it when I read it in 2003, though I admit I haven’t re-read it since then.

My own experience was very likely colored by having taken Galison’s course as a senior spring elective (before the book was published). The course was a fun romp through physics that I hadn’t ever actually studied, with a heavy dose of fascinating historical context. For a non-physics guy, it was just enough detail that I felt like I was learning technical information, but not enough to overwhelm.

The book tells a very similar story to the one that Galison did for much of the course, though the course covers a broader narrative, starting earlier and ending later. I’m sure you’re right about the writing. I probably read through it more quickly, because it was mainly review for me. It’s a shame, because I find the material itself fascinating.

Highlighting in used books always peters out after the first chapter, I’ve found. I highlight the crap out of mine, then never sell them back (because I doubt anyone would buy a heavily copyedited edition of “The Wealth of Networks”).

My dad and I both loved it. Unlike you, he and I are complete autodidacts when it comes to science and technology. (Though he knows a lot more than I do.) Maybe because we have such large, weird gaps in our knowledge, we both have a lot of patience for the kind of things that bothered you about this book.

And the anecdotes were fun—I’ve retold the story about setting the location of the meridian a few times, usually when someone mentions some French-related irritation, and also the story about why clock towers used to have several clocks on them. Though as I write this comment, I realize that my having repeated these anecdotes may say more about the quality (or lack thereof) of my conversations, and less about the quality (or lack thereof) of the book….