time-travel

We need time travel.

I have read in several places that before H.G. Wells wrote The Time Machine no one had considered time travel. Unless you’re talking just about literature, I find that hard to believe. Does that mean that no one thought about the “what if” of being able to go back and undo or redo something? No one considered the advantage of being able to shoot ahead in time to see what was to become in order to prepare for it or prevent it?

It’s common today for literature and film to use time travel for all the reasons that any of us consider its possibilities. We want to see history. Nostalgia. We want to change history. We want to see the future. Perhaps, the future will give us hope. It may make us fearful and we will want to change the future. Time is a mystery.

If Wells invented time travel in 1895, he preceded Albert Einstein’s work by a few years. I’d love it if someone found evidence that Einstein read The Time Machine. Einstein’s theory of Special Relativity allows for time travel, though not in a very satisfying way.

Space and time are really aspects of the same thing—space-time. There’s a speed limit of 300,000 kilometers per second (or 186,000 miles per second) for anything that travels through space-time, and light always travels the speed limit through empty space.

If  you could move through space-time and your speed relative to other objects is close to the speed of light, then time goes slower for you than for the people you left behind. Not exactly what most of us think of when you say “time travel.” You won’t notice this effect until you return to those people who were not traveling with you.

This kind of time travel was part of the movie Interstellar. Suppose you were able to travel at the speed of light. They put you on this spacecraft when you are 15 years old and you leave your life on Earth. You travel for five years and at age 20 you come back to Earth. Those kids you left in high school are now 65 years old. You missed the prom and a whole lot more from the past 50 years.

Did you time travel to the future? You seem closer to being Rip Van Winkle than a spaceman. In Washington Irving’s story “Rip Van Winkle” he does the same thing. No time machine or speed needed. He drinks some strange liquor owned by the ghosts of Henry Hudson’s crew and it knocks him out for about 20 years. He returns home and his now-grown daughter takes him in. Oddly, he seems little changed by the experience.

It happens that way to Woody Allen’s character in Sleeper and to the astronaut in Planet of the Apes.

He resumes his usual idleness, and his strange tale is solemnly taken to heart by the Dutch settlers.

traces the invention of the notion of time travel to H.G. Wells’s 1895 masterpiece The Time Machine. Although Wells — like Gleick, like any reputable physicist — knew that time travel was a scientific impossibility, he created an aesthetic of thought which never previously existed and which has since shaped the modern consciousness. Gleick argues that the art this aesthetic produced — an entire canon of time travel literature and film — not only permeated popular culture but even influenced some of the greatest

Time travel helps us cope with a varity of anxieties. Science historian James Gleick explores wrote Time Travel: A History which is part history and part Einstein thought experiment mixing physics, literature and philosophy.

Isn’t it strange that H.G. Wells, who was so interested in history, only had his time machine travel to the future? Did he give thought to the looping paradoxes of traveling back and changing the past so that you didn’t exist in the future and therefore couldn’t have traveled back and changed things?

Do you ever have the feeling that you’re stuck in a time loop? I’ve written before about my love for the film Groundhog Day. First you feel bad for Bill Murray’s character and he lopps through the same day over and over. But eventually he gets things to work “correctly” and is able to move on.

If all that is too frivolous, then move on to Stephen Hawking. He once, quite unscientifically, hosted a party for time travelers. No one showed up. Where are those people from the future? maybe they are here but are being very careful not to change anything and so are being very, very covert.

John Archibald Wheeler popularized the term “black hole” and coined “wormhole” and gave new hope to time travel literature and Dr. Who.

The wonderful podcast, To the Best of Our Knowledge, has done a bunch of stories on time travel. In one segment, they talked with someone who dreamed about creating a time machine as a child. His intent was to go back and save someone he lost. That child became a theoretical physicist and has spent a lot of his career studying time.

Currently, my time travel is limited to memory, photo albums and video excursions into the past. Nothing in the future so far. I was more in favor of time traveling as described in stories like Time and Again that didn’t require any machines.

When I first read about Einstein’s theories, I was disappointed. I imagined that my 19 year old self might travel back to when I was 9 years old and so have no memory of my present that had become the “future.” I would be trapped in a loop of growing up to 19, getting in the time machine, going back to age 9 and doing it over and over for eternity. I wouldn’t even remember that I had ever done it before. Or maybe I do remember some things. That would explain déjà vu.

Maybe we haven’t met any time travelers because we are all time travelers. We were sent back from some disastrous future and are reliving history over and over again in the hope that we can somehow change things and negate that disastrous future. The hope of time travel.

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