Saturday, March 4, 2017

Time Travel: A History by James Gleick , 4th Estate.

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A survey that takes in HG Wells, Einstein and Doctor Who claims science is too heavily influenced by fiction

Guy Pearce in the 2002 film adaptation of HG Wells’s The TIme Machine. Photograph: Allstar/Dreamworks SKG

We all travel in time mentally when we think about the past or the future, and I for one close my eyes every night and travel instantaneously into tomorrow. But the idea of some kind of technology that allows us to literally transport ourselves to a different era is surprisingly recent. James Gleick’s historical survey of the concept concludes that, apart from a couple of vague anticipations in the 19th century, the idea really was invented in 1895, in HG Wells’s novel The Time Machine.

Cue more than a century of literary, philosophical and scientific investigations into the topic. There are logical knots aplenty, as when people travel back in time to kill their ancestors (the Grandfather Paradox). There are alt-history fantasies of killing Hitler. There is a flux capacitor powering a DeLorean time machine; there is a Time Lord zooming around in an old police phone box; and there is the head-spinning set of nested time loops in Shane Carruth’s extraordinary micro-budget first film, Primer.

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The last example is not mentioned in this book, but a lot else is, including more metaphorical forms of time travel: there is a fascinating, wry chapter, for example, on the craze for burying cultural objects inside “time capsules” in the hope that our descendants won’t think we were all complete idiots. (The time capsule, Gleick writes, is “a tragi-comic time machine. It lacks an engine, goes nowhere, sits and waits.”) From Jorge Luis Borges’s story “The Garden of Forking Paths” to TS Eliot, entropy and free will, the book is rich with associative detail.

At first, time travel seemed a harmless fantasy, until Kurt Gödel showed Albert Einstein that his equations of relativity allowed solutions in which time travel appeared to be possible, although no one yet knows exactly how. Mathematicians and physicists got to work, and they haven’t stopped yet. The best argument against the possibility of time travel is probably that supplied by Stephen Hawking, who has pointed out that we are not invaded by hordes of tourists from the future. (Hawking posits that somehow metaphysically embedded within the universe is a “Chronology Protection Principle”.) But that is not a knockdown argument, because many serious scientific hypotheses about time travel forbid travelling back to a time before the first time machine was invented. In that case, unfortunately, we will never be able to go back and see the dinosaurs. But also it means that we are not invaded by time travellers from the future simply because the first time machine has not yet been invented.

Einstein’s equations allowed solutions in which time travel appeared to be possible. Photograph: AP

Curiously, though, Gleick does not go into much detail about the scientific work on time travel of the last few decades, because he is convinced that physicists working on the subject have just read too much science fiction (they have, he condescendingly writes, been “unwittingly conditioned” by it), and are wasting their own and everyone else’s, um, time. There is, for example, no reference at all to one of the leading such researchers, the astrophysicist J Richard Gott. (Interested readers should consult his excellent book Time Travel in Einstein’s Universe.) On the other hand, the book expends very many pages on laborious plot summaries of more-or-less obscure time-travel fictions of the last century.

Nor, moreover, is Gleick much impressed by what he considers the “futile” philosophical writing on time that he has consulted. One example is the famous 1962 paper on fatalism by Richard Taylor, which begins: “A fatalist – if there is any such – thinks he cannot do anything about the future”, so it is “pointless for him to deliberate about what he is going to do”. This started a long and complicated argument in the philosophical literature, an unimportant footnote to which is that, after David Foster Wallace’s death, his undergraduate essay on the topic was published, along with Taylor’s original paper, as Fate, Time and Language, in order, or so a cynic might think, to cash in on DFW’s posthumous literary celebrity. Gleick here seems to have just swallowed the publisher’s claim that the future novelist managed to refute Taylor wholesale. At the end of another chapter, with the air of revealing a profound truth, Gleick writes: “What is time? Things change, and time is how we keep track.” A fair response would be to ask: “OK, what is change?”

It's intriguing that Gleick would choose to write a history of an idea that he deems not only impossible by ridiculous

What, then, is Gleick’s cultural diagnosis? He argues that the persistent dream of time travel is a cultural fantasy of escaping the worries of the present, and in particular of eluding death. This is perceptive and no doubt true, but it would still be true even if time travel were in fact theoretically possible. The author, however, seems too impatient to keep an open mind on the matter.

This is all rather baffling for any fan of Gleick’s earlier, brilliant works such as Genius, his biography of Richard Feynman, and Chaos: this writer, after all, more or less invented the modern style of mind-bending scientific non-fiction that does not talk down to its audience. Time Travel is written with his usual elegance, but there is something morose about it, as though, having embarked on the work, he now can’t believe he is obliged to put all these supposedly clever people right about their stupid fantasies. Indeed, one ends the book intrigued mostly by the quirk of authorial psychology by which someone would choose to write a history of an idea that he is convinced is not only impossible but ridiculous.

So I prefer the cheerier hypothesis that someone has already made the first time machine in their garage, and the widespread adoption of the technology is going to lead to utter disaster. Luckily, there is a hero who will stop this happening: future James Gleick, who has travelled back in time to smash the time machine he emerges from and write this book to convince everybody that there’s no point ever trying to build another one. Let’s hope it works.


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