James Gleick’s most recent book is Time Travel: A History. (October 2018)

Follow James Gleick on Twitter: @JamesGleick.


Matters of Tolerance

‘I have great power of selection’; cartoon by Abner Dean from What Am I Doing Here? (1947), republished in 2016 by New York Review Comics

The Perfectionists: How Precision Engineers Created the Modern World

by Simon Winchester
What makes precision a feature of the modern world is the transition from craftsmanship to mass production. The genius of machine tools—as opposed to mere machines—lies in their repeatability. Artisans of shoes or tables or even clocks can make things exquisite and precise, “but their precision was very much for the few,” Simon Winchester writes. “It was only when precision was created for the many that precision as a concept began to have the profound impact on society as a whole that it does today.”

When They Came from Another World

A giant alien spaceship that has landed in Montana in Arrival, Denis Villeneuve’s film adaptation of a story by Ted Chiang


a film directed by Denis Villeneuve

Stories of Your Life and Others

by Ted Chiang
What if the future is as real as the past? Physicists have been suggesting as much since Einstein. It’s all just the space-time continuum. The film Arrival, written by Eric Heisserer and directed by Denis Villeneuve, is being marketed as an alien-contact adventure: creatures arrive in giant ovoid spaceships, and drama ensues, but it is a movie of philosophy as much as adventure. It’s really a movie about time. Time, fate, and free will.

Today’s Dead End Kids

People wearing Guy Fawkes masks to identify themselves as members of Anonymous, Stockholm, 2013

Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous

by Gabriella Coleman
William Gibson, who invented the word “cyberspace” for his futuristic 1984 novel Neuromancer, has said that the notion came to him when he watched kids playing video games at an arcade in Vancouver. They stared into their consoles, turning knobs and pounding buttons to manipulate a universe no one else …

Time Regained!

Time Reborn: From the Crisis in Physics to the Future of the Universe

by Lee Smolin
We say that time passes, time goes by, and time flows. Those are metaphors. We also think of time as a medium in which we exist. If time is like a river, are we standing on the bank watching, or are we bobbing along? It might be better merely to say that things happen, things change, and time is our name for the reference frame in which we organize our sense that one thing comes before another.


The Making of Future Man

Hugo Gernsback wearing his Isolator, which eliminates external noises for concentration, from Science and Invention, July, 1925

Hugo Gernsback (1884-1967) has mostly vanished from our cultural memory, which is a pity, because he was an extraordinary man, and his influence on our modern age—electrical, science-permeated, and full of wonders—was outsized.

What Libraries Can (Still) Do

Heinrich Lukas Arnold: The Reading Room, circa 1840

Librarians will need to cherish their special talent as “stewards” while letting go of the instinct to be “collectors.” Knowledge in physical form needs to be preserved and curated. But with digital information pouring into iPhones and Kindles in petabytes, libraries need to rethink old habits. They cannot collect everything, or even a small fraction of everything.

Bot or Not?

The robot Elektro

It’s understood now that, beside what we call the “real world,” we inhabit a variety of virtual worlds. Take Twitter. Or the Twitterverse. Twittersphere. Increasing numbers of Twitterers don’t even pretend to be human. Or worse, do pretend, when they are actually bots. “Bot” is of course short for robot. And bots are very, very tiny, skeletal, incapable robots—usually little more than a few crude lines of computer code. The scary thing is how easily we can be fooled.

My Carcass and Myself

Abner Dean:

In our time the transformation and transplantation of bodies are commonplace. The bionic woman, the bionic man—that’s us, more and more every day. We don’t have brain transplants yet, but we’ve thought about it. So what if a person could survive past his bodily death, to be reconstituted in another form? That is the question Marcel Theroux explores in his novel Strange Bodies.