Time Travel, Pascal and Novel Synchronicities

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.

Pascal
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 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.

As I said, these what-if scenarios occur in both our own lives and in the lives of characters in fiction. What if America and the Allies had not won World War II? That is one that played out in Philip K. Dick’s novel (and a Netflix adaptation still running) The Man in the High Castle.

And on a far less serious journey, I was charmed by Michael J. Fox’s movie time traveling back and forth to the future.

One thing I observe is that both in fiction and science traveling to the future seems less possible than traveling to the past.

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.

Despite my interest in time travel, I have not been invited to a time travelers’ party.   The few purported “real”  tales of a “time traveler” that I have read are not very satisfying. I don’t believe that Yoda was a time traveler.

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?

Has all this reading and watching changed my beliefs about Time? Perhaps yesterday (or tomorrow) never was.

I just started reading Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America. The choice was not intentional. I had the book on reserve and it just became available. A coincidence. Unless there is no such thing as a coincidence.

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. In fact, Lindbergh was a fanatical rabid isolationist who wanted to avoid war and so negotiates an understanding with Adolf Hitler. His administration also embarks on an agenda of making America great gain 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.

Your Right to Be Forgotten

painting
   The Past (forgotten-swallowed) by Alfred Kubin, 1901, via wikiart.org, Public Domain

I don’t think the vast majority of us want to be forgotten.

We do a lot of things to try to be remembered: take photos; post things on the Internet; have a headstone with our name. But there is this idea that what we do online never goes away, and some people would like that part of their to be forgotten.

The Internet is forever. Maybe. Many people have posted things they regret. They delete it but somehow it still exists. Celebrities and politicians have learned that by the time you delete that stupid tweet he dame is done and other people have already copied and taken screenshots of it.

For younger people who have grown up with the internet and social media, the possibility of stupid/embarrassing/incriminating content is much higher since the filters in their brains had not matured.

A friend who deleted her Facebook profile recently discovered that friends were getting friend requests from her and that in a search her Facebook profile link still shows up.

Plus, there is “public information” about you online: phone numbers, addresses where you have lived and currently live, that DUI you got, and that political candidate donation you made.

Do we have a right to be forgotten online?

The “right to be forgotten” is something that is taken more seriously outside the U.S. It has been put into practice in the European Union.

It’s not an easy issue to decide. Your first thought might be that, of course, we should have the right to delete our own posts online. And what about content about us posted by others? There are immediate collisions between the right to freedom of expression and how it crosses with the right to privacy. Do you want politicians to be able to scrub their online history of things they said and regret,  or views they once had and have altered? Would a right to be forgotten diminish the quality of the Internet through censorship and a revisionist history?

That is the focus of a Radiolab episode that looks at a group of journalists who are experimenting with being forgotten. They are unpublishing content – articles, photographs, names, entire articles – on a monthly basis.

As the Radiolab website says, this is a story about “time and memory; mistakes and second chances; and society as we know it.”

Time Perception

Clock-pendulum
seconds ticking away

Where did the weekend go? I looked here and it was Sunday night. No posts on Friday or Saturday. No drafts. Nothing in the queue.

It was not a overly busy weekend, but I did go out Friday night, and Saturday was an all day film conference. And then today I fixed the pump on the dishwasher (just clogged), went with a friend to a movie, and then had dinner, sat on the couch and looked at my laptop. Here I am.

Something happened to my perception of time this weekend. I have read that fear can make time seem to slow down. Is that a defense mechanism or it just that a fearful situation makes each moment unbearably long.

So would positive emotions make time speed up? Maybe, but stress is a negative emotion and it can speed up our perception of time.

So, I looked for some research and it seems that humans have no actual sensory instrument for receiving information about time. I mean we our brain is able to process time, and we have some kind of internal body clock.

I found that research often looks at emotion and time perception, but one study I found  has been designed to study the time perception of emotional events. Participants watched three emotional films: one eliciting fear, another sadness, and a neutral control film.

This seems all very clinical. Not at all like what I felt this weekend, but I don’t doubt that time perception is dependent on a number of factors, psychological and external.

Einstein

The story is told that Albert Einstein’s secretary was often asked tt explain to reporters and others the meaning of his scientific work and Einstein devised the following explanation for her to give when asked to explain relativity: An hour sitting with a pretty girl on a park bench passes like a minute, but a minute sitting on a hot stove seems like an hour.

That feels like a better explanation, though it doesn’t explain the why of it.

Wikipedia says that “Time perception is a field of study within psychology, cognitive linguistics and neuroscience that refers to the subjective experience, or sense, of time, which is measured by someone’s own perception of the duration of the indefinite and unfolding of events. The perceived time interval between two successive events is referred to as perceived duration. Though directly experiencing or understanding another person’s perception of time is not possible, such a perception can be objectively studied and inferred through a number of scientific experiments. Time perception is a construction of the sapient brain, but one that is manipulable and distortable under certain circumstances.”

Ah yes, subjective time and objective time.

Maybe this is more like the question of “Where did the time go?” that hits middle-aged and older adults. Does time pass more quickly as we age? Of course not, but it seems that way and that is a time perception that can lead to regrets.

Another study that focused on this aspect concluded that our brain encodes new experiences, but not familiar ones, into memory, and our retrospective judgment of time is based on how many new memories we create over a certain period.

In simpler terms, the more new memories I built this weekend, the longer the weekend will seem in hindsight.

The author of the study dubbed this phenomenon the Holiday Paradox. Our childhoods and young adult years tend to be filled with more fresh experiences, but as we age our lives become more routine. There are fewer unfamiliar moments. This weekend went fast because it wasn’t filled with fresh experiences.

Is that it? I thought the film conference exposed me to new things. I have never taken apart a dishwasher pump before. Not fresh enough? Or was it that my Friday night to tonight was just crowded with one thing that went to another and I didn’t have time off to process the experiences?

My mother would have said when I was a kid that “Time flies when you’re having fun.” She and Einstein had that in common.

 

Time Is An Illusion

Despite the persistent ticking of clocks and our almost constant attention to time, quantum physics says it doesn’t even exist. Theoretical physicist  Carlo Rovelli writes that “There is no time variable in the fundamental equations that describe the world.” At the quantum level, durations are so short that they can’t be divided and there is no such thing as time.

And yet, he has spent most of his life studying time.

Rovelli’s book, The Order of Time, is about the way we experience the passage of time.

One of his premises is that chronology and continuity are stories we tell ourselves. We need these stories to make sense of our existence.

He asks tough – or maybe crazy – questions, such as “Why do we remember the past and not the future?”

These are questions for physicists and philosophers, but not ones most of us consider as we move through a time story from past to future that we think is uniform and universal.

His view is hard to grasp. His universe is made up of countless events. Things that happen and even physical “things” are in a continual state of transformation. No space nor time—only processes that transform physical quantities from one to another.

Time is our measure of change.

Rovelli’s short collection of essays, Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, was a bestseller and one of the fastest-selling science books ever.

If all this seems out there, remember that Einstein said that our clock time is an illusion. Time zones – a 20th Century invention – was a business decision, not a fact of the universe. Einstein said that time passes at different rates from place to place. It passes faster at the top of a mountain than at sea level. Perhaps imperceptibly to us, a clock on the floor will move ever so slightly slower than a clock on top of the fireplace mantle.

Time’s passage is a mental process, a story we tell ourselves in the present tense. It’s your own story. It’s our collective story.

But I have trouble accepting all this when explanations keep saying things like “Time runs slower wherever gravity is strongest, and this is because gravity warps or curves spacetime.”  I guess Rovelli has to use the term “time” to explain that there is no time in the way that atheists need to talk about god in order to explain why there is no God.

Benedict Cumberbatch reading the opening of The Order of Time

“I stop and do nothing. Nothing happens. I am thinking about nothing. I listen to the passing of time. This is time, familiar and intimate. We are taken by it.
The rush of seconds, hours, years that hurls us towards life then drags us towards nothingness …
We inhabit time as fish live in water. Our being is being in time.
Its solemn music nurtures us, opens the world to us, troubles us, frightens and lulls us.
The universe unfolds into the future, dragged by time, and exists according to the order of time.”

When Noon Is Noon

The sundial and clock agree four times a year, on or near April 15, June 15, September 1 and December 25. I haven’t found any special names for these dates. No equinox or solstice label to mark these days.

That surprises me because I imagine that ancient people who were so observant of the Sun and Moon that they built temples to their movements would have noted these days. If you were a priest or in the upper class, you could have a large or small temple or altar that marked the astronomical events in an earthly way. But for the average person, I am imagining that a simple sundial was your most likely way to mark the time and follow the Sun.

At this time of the year, when the midday sun is highest, your sundial should say it is noon and your clock should say 12 pm.

I have always had a sundial in the garden. My mother had one in the garden when I was a kid and I have one now. It probably is one of the reasons that I still am tuned in to the Sun and Moon.

As a kid, it annoyed me that the sundial was always wrong. It was “wrong” because when it said it was 1 pm, I knew it was 2 pm because I had a watch. And I have always adjusted my sundial so that it was close to clock time.

I don’t know exactly when I discovered the why of the Sun’s path that explained the sundial but I was certainly an adult.

I am tempted to install a more permanent sundial in the garden, one that is wrong most of the year, as a reminder to me that the Earth is changing its relationship to the Sun.

A sundial can be as simple as sa stick in the ground that casts a shadow. That shadow from the style falls onto a surface marked with lines indicating the hours of the day. The style is the time-telling edge of the gnomon, the straight edge. As the sun moves across the sky, the shadow-edge aligns with hour-lines. Sundials need to have that edge parallel to the axis of the Earth’s rotation to tell the correct time throughout the year.

Long ago, people thought the Sun was moving across the seasons. Most people today (not all, I have discovered) know it is the Earth tilting and moving that cause the sundial to change.

You should pay attention to all the cycles in your life. Some are natural and some we create ourselves. They affect us, whether we pass attention to them or not.

Maybe you should get yourself a sundial and tune in to the Earth and Sun.

Time Flies

I read that “time” is the most commonly used noun in the English language. I guess we are pretty obsessed with it past, present and future.

Albert Einstein said that time was relative and in the most general sense of that we can say that children experience it differently from adults do, and that it does slow down when we are bored. Does it ever really fly any faster?

A quote attributed to Albert (though many online attributed to him are not things he said) is “Put your hand on a hot stove for a minute, and it seems like an hour. Sit with a pretty girl for an hour, and it seems like a minute. That’s relativity.”

It is often said that time speeds up as we get older, though we know that is not possible. But sometimes, time indeed seem “to fly” by.

In Why Time Flies Alan Burdick looks to understand how a sense of time gets into our bodies and minds. Why do we perceive it the way we do?

Subtitled “A Mostly Scientific Investigation,” he visits scientists and considers the most accurate clock in the world (which is still just an idea) and the ways we measure time and its passing.

Burdick says “My interest in the human relationship to time grew partly out of my previous book, Out of Eden: An Odyssey of Ecological Invasion. In it, I came to the conclusion that one reason our species has such a fraught relationship to the natural world is because the timescales across which evolution unfolds and ecosystems develop — thousands to millions of years — are far beyond what we, with our measly eighty-or-so-year lifespan, can really wrap our minds around. Our ability to appreciate nature, and to appreciate what’s at stake, is greatly constrained by our limited perception of time. That left me wondering: What exactly is the difference physical time and biological time? What’s the difference between time “out there” and the time in our bodies and heads?”
Also, historically, I’ve had a terrible personal relationship to time — as in, being perpetually late. My hope was that if I learned a little more about what time actually is, I’d become less afraid of it and maybe on better terms with it. This turned out to be true, sort of.”

Along the way he discovers that “now” actually happened a split-second ago.  He finds a twenty-fifth hour in the day. He spends some time living in the Arctic where you can lose all sense of time.

And for a very brief time, in a neuroscientist’s lab, he gets to make time go backward.