I love the idea of time travel, all the theories about it, and all the fiction created about it. That giant of theoretical physics, cosmology, and pop culture, Stephen Hawking, did a simple time travel experiment. He invited time travelers to a party.
It was held on a Sunday, June 29, 2009. Hawking had a nice party room set up with champagne and food at Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge, beneath a banner reading, “Welcome Time Travellers” and he waited.
The party invitations gave precise GPS coordinates for the travelers. Of course, Stephen did not send out any of the invitations until after the reception had passed. That was critical to the experimental design: Only those who could travel back in time would be able to attend.
No one showed up.
There is a video of the party. Canapes uneaten, flutes filled with Krug champagne untouched, balloons decorating the place and Stephen sitting in his wheelchair under that banner.
Wouldn’t any future time traveler have been excited to go back and party with Hawking?
The invitation was included in his mini-series Into the Universe With Stephen Hawking and the Discovery TV crew filmed the event just in case someone did travel back.
Some fancy invitations were auctioned off for charity and the party got a lot of press and exists all over the Internet. “I’m hoping copies of [the invitation], in one form or another, will survive for many thousands of years,” Hawking said, considering that maybe some future time traveler will see it and decide to show up to the party. Of course, if anyone did show up from the future that would create a whole new timeline in one of the many possible universes out there.
So why didn’t any time travelers attend? I’ve seen a bunch of possible reasons posited.
We never do figure out how to time travel because it’s not possible. A bummer reason for believers.
Maybe people in the future who had a way to time travel just never knew about Hawking’s party.
Despite Hawking’s wishes, the invites didn’t survive to the time when time travel was invented.
Might Stephen have lied and they did show up but he kept it secret to protect the space-time continuum?
Perhaps you can only travel back to the point where time travel was invented.
Maybe the time travelers went to a party with Stephen but it was in an alternate universe.
Maybe the party didn’t sound all that exciting and they decided to pass on this party.
The blog Giant Freakin Robot came up with some other possible reasons including that the party took place on a different reality timeline;
Despite all the stories and films and my own best efforts, it doesn’t seem like we will be able to time travel in my lifetime. Readers of this blog know that time travel is a topic I write about rather often. I have come to the somewhat disappointing conclusion that there are only a few ways that I can travel back in time. (I haven’t figured out any travel to the future methods yet.)
One way is simply by using memories. They are, of course, somewhat inaccurate as each time we recall something from the past, we seem to alter it slightly. Still, it is the most common time travel tool.
Richard in the 1970s is dying. He decides he wants to spend his last days back in time. He is motivated by a picture of a woman on a hotel wall that he finds himself attracted to – although she was a famous stage actress who performed at the hotel in the 1890s. He stays in the historic hotel and buys an 1890s suit to wear to help reinforce his traveling back to that place and time. He surrounds himself with that time and place. It works.
Photographs and video are also commonly used for traveling back in time. I often wonder how my grandchildren’s memories will be different than mine simply because of the unbelievable amount of photo and video evidence of their lives that already exist. My sons grew up with me photographing them with film cameras. Film and processing and printing were expensive, so I was a bit limited pre-digital. I also took a lot of videos. Most of that was on a big VHS camcorder. Those tapes were converted to DVDs eventually and now I suppose I should convert them to digital files if I want them to survive. The black and white photos my parents took of me as a child still exist in their original format and don’t require conversions – though I have scanned a lot of them so they could enter the digital age. When I look through old photo albums, it is a kind of time traveling to the past.
A third time-traveling method came to mind recently when my wife and I went to France. We were walking through the little town of Pérouges. This medieval walled town is northeast of Lyon and has been kept very much intact over the centuries. As we walked the narrow paths through the own and when I climbed the watchtower on this small hill that overlooks the plain of the river Ain, I did feel myself back in time.
No, I didn’t see ghosts from centuries past. I touched objects that were ancient. I stood where people had stood 900 years ago. I didn’t time travel, but I did feel something.
According to the archaeological findings, humans have been present at Pérouges since the Chalcolithic Age (about –2500 to –1800). They don’t know when the fortress was built but its first written mention appears in the 12th century, so it is assumed to have been built in that period.
It still looks like a place from almost 1000 years ago. Films set in medieval times are sometimes filmed there, including Les trois mousquetaires (The Three Musketeers)(1961), The Bride (1985), and The Hour of the Pig (1993)
This past week the James Webb Space Telescope’s photos of deep space became another kind of time travel. It is showing us light that began a journey towards us at the birth of the universe.
The line that intrigues me most in the graphic above is this: “If you were in a Virgo Cluster galaxy today, and you had a telescope powerful enough to study the Earth, you would be able to see the prehistoric reptiles.” It’s theoretical and probably not possible, but you could see the dinosaurs. You could see the past. From place in deep space, with that powerful telescope, I could see my past.
Richard Matheson’s original title for Somewhere in Time was Bid Time Return. That comes from a line in William Shakespeare’s Richard II (Act III, Scene 2): “O call back yesterday, bid time return.” At the conclusion of the novel, after Richard has died, a doctor claims that the time-traveling experience occurred only in Richard’s mind. It was the desperate fantasy of a dying man. Richard’s brother is not completely convinced and publishes his brother’s journal of the experience which is the novel.
We are all traveling forward in time. You’re traveling as you read this sentence. Do you want to go back? Go much further forward? So far, I have not found any ways to travel forward in time. I’m still searching.
After a deadly virus released intentionally wipes out almost all of humanity, The survivors are forced to live underground. That’s the premise of a film that that resonates differently in 2021 than it did when the film, 12 Monkeys (or Twelve Monkeys), was released in 1995.
I rewatched the film last week when I saw that December 13 was the anniversary of the disaster that puts the story in motion. I saw it back in 1995 in a theater. I didn’t see it in a theater this year. I have only seen two films in theaters this year. I’m fully vaccinated and still COVID-cautious.
This science fiction film directed by Terry Gilliam and starring Bruce Willis, Madeleine Stowe, and Brad Pitt is set in the future. It concerns a group known as the Army of the Twelve Monkeys who it is believed released a terrible virus into the world on December 13, 1996.
It was inspired by the 1962 short film La Jetée, which I saw a long time ago in a French cinema course. It is quite an unusual piece of cinema as it is almost entirely constructed from still photos. It is the story of a post-nuclear war experiment in time travel.
Time travel figures into 12 Monkeys too. The protagonist, James Cole (Willis), lives in 2035 and is a prisoner living in a subterranean compound beneath the ruins of Philadelphia. He is selected to be trained and sent back in time to find the original virus. The plan is not for him to stop the virus from being developed or released – which is what you would expect – but to get the information for the 2035 scientists to develop a cure.
The deranged “eco-activist” who puts the virus release into motion is Jeffrey Goines (Brad Pitt) whose father’s company developed the virus for non-nefarious reasons. Cole begins to blame himself for the plague because when he is put into a 1990s mental institution with Goines he blurts out something about a viral apocalypse, and Goines responds that “Wiping out the human race? It’s a great idea!”
In a kind of Sixth Sense allusion, Cole/Willis knows that the people he sees in the past are unsavable. “All I see are dead people.”
The story is complex and the film benefits from multiple viewings. It’s not surprising that a TV series was made to expand the story. I have not seen the series, but it moves the story to 2014 when a plague is released. It’s an airborne virus so deadly it causes the death of 93.6 percent of Earth’s human population.
In playing with time travel, the film says that the scientists in that future know that they cannot stop the spread because it has already happened. There is no changing the past. Rather, if they can get a sample of the original, pure virus, they should be able to create a cure/antibody. The goal is to allow the remaining human race to return to the surface of the planet. It’s all about changing the future. Cole confuses the people in the past he is visiting by telling them that they are in the past and he is from the present which, of course, is their future.
One thing that pops up here and in other science-fiction and time travel tales is that a person from the future who knows what will happen in the past is not believed. This is known as the Cassandra metaphor (or Cassandra “syndrome”, “complex”, “phenomenon”, “predicament”, “dilemma”, “curse”). The term has come to mean any person whose valid warnings or concerns are disbelieved by others. It could apply today to a whistleblower or environmental scientist warning us of something bad that is sure to come.
The term originates in Greek mythology. Cassandra was a daughter of Priam, the King of Troy. She was so beautiful that Apollo gave her the gift of prophecy. He expected some romance in return for the gift but Cassandra rejected him. The gods don’t like rejection by mortals. Apollo placed a curse o her ensuring that nobody would believe her warnings. So, poor Cassandra was left with the knowledge of future events but could neither alter these events nor convince others of the validity of her predictions.
A number of books and films have seemed relevant or even prescient since the COVID-19 pandemic arrived. 12 Monkeys is certainly not an optimistic take on surviving a pandemic or even preventing it. Rather, it is about what you do after to try to restart life, which is closer to where we are now with COVID-19, Omicron variant, COVID-20, 21, or whatever version we’re dealing with when you read this.
I’m time traveling. So are you. We’re moving at the speed of one hour per hour. We are moving always forward towards the future.
Of course, when we speak of time travel most people think about speeding up or slowing down time or visiting the past or looking at the future.
Einstein wasn’t a believer in the constant, linear construct that most of us operate within. He actually proved that time changes depending on your position in space.
I’m sitting at my laptop at the desk looking out the window and occupying the three dimensions of space – length, width and height – but, though I’m seemingly motionless, I am moving forward in that fourth dimension of time.
Einstein’s Theory of Special Relativity proposes that time does not pass at the same rate for everyone. If you are an observer or you’re the one traveling and being observed, time moves at different speeds.
The people in the International Space Station are moving faster in space through time than we are on Earth. But not much faster. If we could travel at 186,282 miles per second. (speed of light) then time slows down. Your clock runs slow relative to people who are still. Travel that way and you could return many years in the future.
If we could go faster than the speed of light (670 million mph), one year on that timecraft would equal 223 years on Earth.
Of course, Einstein is a time travel spoiler because he said that anything with a mass cannot physically reach the speed of light. So much for that time machine.
Sci-Fi folks like to offer the warp drive for time travel. Yes, this is a Star Trek thing but scientists have picked up on it. What warps is the fabric of space-time. Planets, stars, constellations – all of the universe is on that fabric. Our timecraft would push up the fabric of space in front of it causing a bubble of space-time we could travel on and we wouldn’t be traveling faster than light.
I won’t even try to discuss traveling via cosmic strings which would enable our timecraft to attach onto them and fly through space at amazing speeds which might allow time travel.
As intriguing as time travel is to me, I have no hope that we can do it. So, I will continue to move at one hour per hour into the future and think about the past and guess at the future and try to slow down the present.
“There is a planet in the Solar System where the people are so stupid they didn’t catch on for a million years that there was another half to their planet.” – Kilgore Trout
The timequakes keep happening to me in my reading and viewing.
I finished Timequake by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. which is a tough book to categorize. It is labeled as a novel and there are some parts credited to Kilgore Trout that are stories or fragments of stories. But Kurt enters frequently as himself adding passages that are autobiographical. It is a bit of a memoir, but since he treats fictional author Trout as a real person that he interacted with in life, the line is blurry.
“And so it goes…”
Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. published this in 1997 and it is his last “novel.” He died in 2007. Vonnegut described the book as a “stew” and it is that. Less of a novel and more of him summarizing a novel he had been trying to put together for years.
All that makes it sound like the book is a mess, but it’s not. I enjoyed it. Not as much as his other novels but three-star Vonnegut is still more enjoyable than a lot of other writing.
“And so it goes…”
What is a timequake? It is a repetition of actions. A quake in the continuum of Time.
The timequake in the book has quaked citizens of the year 2001 back in time to 1991. This global time travel is Einsteinian in that everyone is forced to repeat every action they undertook during that time. Kilgore Trout writes all over again every story he wrote the first time
So, in this story, Vonnegut is pondering free will, which after the timequake does not exist. Maybe it didn’t exist before. Vonnegut has explored determinism in earlier works.
“Of all the words of mice and men, the saddest are, “It might have been.”
Kilgore Trout is a fictional character created by Vonnegut who is an unsuccessful author of paperback science fiction novels. We are told here that Trout died in 2001, at the Xanadu retreat in Rhode Island. Perhaps Kurt knew that his own end was near or was just thinking and preparing for it.
He said that he wasn’t happy with the first version of this book and so he went back and rewrote it and included more of his personal thoughts, anecdotes about his family and death. The deaths of Trout and also loved ones, and the last words of people.
He also brings in lots of depression and sadness that comes from observing our own bad choices and those of other people. There might be some relief after the timequake because then we would know that there was no free will. You can’t blame yourself for what happens if you don’t have the tree will to make those decisions. Can you?
“I didn’t need a timequake to teach me being alive was a crock of shit. I already knew that from my childhood and crucifixes and history books.” ― Kurt Vonnegut, Timequake
Vonnegut has played with time before. People famously became “unstuck” in time in Slaughterhouse-Five, and here people have to watch loved ones die again. A drunk driver will again get drunk and cause a fatal accident.
When the timequake ended you might think people were happy, but no. Now they have control, free will, and it’s all up to them to screw up on their own.
“And so it goes…”
Kilgore Trout is not as sad or apathetic as others and he keeps telling people “You were sick, but now you’re well, and there’s work to do.”
“My wife thinks I think I’m such hot stuff. She’s wrong. I don’t think I’m such hot stuff.
My hero George Bernard Shaw, socialist, and shrewd and funny playwright, said in his eighties that if he was considered smart, he sure pitied people who were considered dumb. He said that, having lived as long as he had, he was at last sufficiently wise to serve as a reasonably competent office boy.
That’s how I feel.”
Time travel has been moving in and out of my life this summer. There were two books I read and one series I watched that had me thinking again about this topic. Time travel has long been an interest of mine. I posted here two days ago about the right to be forgotten online and rereading it this morning I see a connection in that revisionist history to time traveling to change the past.
I kept a journal in college that I filled with quotations that caught my fancy. There were many from the literature courses I took as an English major, but there were also ones from history and philosophy classes. One that has stuck with me over these many years is “You can’t change anything without changing everything” which I credited to Blaise Pascal.
Blaise Pascal was a 17th-century French scientist, author, and Christian philosopher who is best known for his work, “Pensées” or “Thoughts.”
The book is a classic but, probably like my own book that will be a classic one day, it was first published posthumously.
Pensées is an edited compilation of the notes that he had made for a book he planned to write. Scholars call that unfinished book “Apology for the Christian Religion.” The religion doesn’t much appeal to me and though I looked into the book in college, I’m sure I never actually read it.
I looked back into Pensées this summer because I wanted to find context for that quotation. I couldn’t find it. I found lots of other Pascal quotes I know and appreciate:
“The heart has its reasons which reason knows not.”
“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”
“I have only made this letter longer because I have not had the time to make it shorter.”
“Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.”
But I didn’t find the quote I was looking for. An online search for it showed those words being used by people but the only credit I could find was to William James.
Still, the quote is important to me. It is why I try not to have regrets for the choices I have made. I don’t mean clearly bad choices, foolish like buying a loser stock or eating two more slices of pizza. I mean not regretting things that in my timeline would change everything – that decision to go to a certain college; moving to a new home; taking a new job; choosing a spouse. Changing any of those things changes an almost infinite number of subsequent events in ways good or bad that we can never predict.
Changing the past is a major plot driver in time-travel fiction. Overwhelmingly, changing the past changes the future (or the time traveler’s present) in ways that were unintended and generally bad.
Maybe the line of Pascal’s that connected with me this time around is “You always admire what you really don’t understand.” I don’t understand much of the science of studying time (I’m not sure scientists really understand it either.) but I am fascinated by it. I’m convinced we need and want to time travel and so it appears in many books, movies and on TV.
Albert Einstein said that “People like us, who believe in physics, know that the distinction between past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.”
The big book I read this summer is Stephen King’s 11/22/63. which had been recommended by several friends who know I like time travel books.
I am a slower reader these days, or rather, I read in shorter blocks of time. I no longer spend an entire afternoon in a chair reading. I am more likely to read for twenty minutes before falling asleep or even more likely to listen to an audiobook while driving or walking.
I wish I had the audiobook for this 800+ page novel because it took me two renewals from the library to finish. But I’m glad that I read it.
You can tell from the title that this concerns the assassination on November 22, 1963 in Dallas of President Kennedy. King is certainly not the first or last person to think about what if he could have been saved. Other common revisions to our timeline are history-changing things like killing Hitler.
I like that the novel does not rely on any sci-fi technology for the protagonist to travel back in time. I also like the idea that each time he (or anyone) goes back and changes anything, it leaves a mark. Also that each trip back resets the timeline and whatever you might have changed the last time is back to what it was before.
In King’s version, the past is obdurate, stubbornly refusing to change. Time even makes attempts to stop the protagonist from making changes. It is said that history does not repeat but it rhymes. (A line often credited to Mark Twain but probably not of his invention.) King seems to follow that idea.
The plot center on Jake Epping, a 35-year-old high school English teacher in Maine, who is given the time travel secret by Al, who runs the local diner. That diner is a time portal to 1958 and only to one day in that year. When you return through the portal, only a few minutes in the present of June 2011 have passed. Al is dying and wants Jake to continue his mission to go back to 1958 and work his way to that day in 1963, and along the way determine if Lee Harvey Oswald was really the lone shooter. And then stop him. Al is convinced this will change the world in many positive ways.
I won’t give spoilers about the success of that mission, which Jake does accept after a few shorter time excursions that do seem to work.
There is a mini-series on Hulu of the novel. I watched it. It makes a lot of changes to King’s story, but if you’re unwilling to read that big book, maybe you can watch the series.
Then more recently, a friend recommended that I read Recursion by Blake Crouch. This novel is also about revising timelines, this time with some heavy-duty technology.
In Crouch’s version of time, memory makes reality. The time-traveling journeys here rely on the traveler’s memories of event. The changes cause what is known in that world as FMS – False Memory Syndrome. FMS is not the author’s invention. Though the term is not officially recognized as a psychiatric illness, the premise that memories can be altered by outside influences is accepted by scientists – though it is not caused by time travel. FMS haunts people with memories of a life they never lived.
At first, the successful tests of their technology seem innocent. Who wouldn’t want to re-experience sweet memories of first love or the birth of a child? Who wouldn’t want the chance to change something bad that happened, like an accident that killed someone you love?
What makes the FMS in the novel different is that friends and family of the afflicted also remember portions of the false lives.
These kinds of alternate-reality or revisionist histories can be very appealing because they play on our own desires to be able to somehow safely correct the past.
Have I ever met a time traveler? Unfortunately, no, as Stephen Hawking asked, “Where are they?’ My answer is that if they have come back to out time from a future time, they cannot interact at all with us. They can make no changes. They are simply observers.
As Pascal said back in time, “Il n’est pas certain que tout soit incertain.” Luckily, my wife taught French, so I know that means “It is not certain that everything is uncertain.” Was he thinking about Time?
It’s not a time travel novel but it is an alternate history. In the novel, Franklin D. Roosevelt loses the 1940 presidential election to that aviator hero Charles A. Lindbergh. Historically, Lindbergh was a fanatical rabid isolationist who wanted to avoid war. In the novel, negotiates an “understanding” with Adolf Hitler. His administration also embarks on an agenda of making America great again which includes anti-Semitism.
Roth based his novel on the views of real-life Lindbergh who was a spokesman for the America First Committee. That was a pro-German propaganda group, which opposed American aid to Britain in its war against Germany. Lindbergh was no fan of FDR and he resigned his commission in the United States Army Air Forces in 1941 after President Roosevelt publicly rebuked him for his views. FDR said privately that ” I am absolutely convinced Lindbergh is a Nazi.”
As in other novels, the setting is Roth’s hometown of Newark, New Jersey. I was also born in Newark and grew up nearby – a connection with Roth that started me reading his books.
This novel is also being adapted for a forthcoming mini-series on HBO that was filmed this year in New Jersey. I’ll read the book first. No audiobook, so give me some time and I’ll report back.