Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Time Travel by James Gleick (kindle edition)

This mostly accessible book covers vast cultural, philosophic, and scientific terrain, under the premise of examining time travel -- a possibility, a paradox, a phenomenon? First, James Gleick is my favorite non-fiction author, bar none. So I'm a big fan. Second, the topic is of deep interest to me, not just because of my last name (Rip VW could be called a time traveller, sleeping for 20 years), but also because it is a fascinating trope in our culture that allows for some pretty fun storytelling. So, this is going to be a positive review, nicht wahr? Of course it is, but you don't have to skip to the end to know that.

The scientific worldview that Gleick comes from is a frame for examination of ideas. He takes the idea of time travel and traces its origins, beginning with the H.G. Wells novel The Time Traveller, but of course starting much earlier than that, in fits and starts, with let's say the industrial revolution. That's where we get our "modern" sense of time as something that can be synchronized and structured by things like time zones. In physics, time begins to be "measured" around the time of Sir Isaac Newton, but Newton used his heartbeat to time his experiments, I believe. The invention of mechanical clocks and the discovery of longitude are outside the scope of Gleick's book, but they are important scientific and technological achievements -- not the subject of the book, but related to it. Newton's laws of physics take time as an essential element (velocity = distance/time). But what is time?

Now we're really thinking. We discover through Gleick's analysis that time is both psychological and experiential, as well as paradoxical -- we know what it is until we try to describe it. Is it subjective or objective? Does it "flow" like a river? No, Gleick concludes, that is strictly a metaphor. And, I discovered by reading this novel, the Latin motto tempus fugit means not, as I had assumed, time flies, but rather, time flees. Time escapes rational characterization. And time travel turns out to be both a logical impossibility (causes lead to effects, after all) and a possibility in physics (time can run backward or forward, based on the sign in an equation -- just as the irrational number i, the square root of -1, is a logical impossibility that creates all kinds of interesting possibilities, so too is -t).

So, Gleick is having some fun with the idea of time travel, in a discursive, almost deconstructive way. He mentions an artist almost in passing, Chris Marker, who "may have been a time traveller," it appears, but created a work of art (film) named la jetee, about memory, remembrance, forgetfulness, and film, that I defy any modern filmmaker to beat. I haven't seen it, so I can't say with confidence that it is a good film, but it is interesting, to say the least. In any event, Gleick takes us through cultural and scientific ideas of time travel, ranging from time capsules (which he says are a somewhat foolish way to try to evade death) to novels like The Time Traveller, to Dr. Who (a hard-won favorite of mine, too), and aims at answering the question of whether time travel is possible or desirable, based on such cultural phenomena.

His answer is yes, but with some caveats. First, he believes time travel is an act of the imagination that is valuable, much as dreaming or fiction generally is valuable. He isn't interested in the paradoxes or "rules" of sci-fi time travel so much, though he does mention them. Instead, what he's interested in are the stories that break the rules -- the so-called "bootstrap paradox" gets a whole chapter, for example, based on Robert Heinlein's comic short story in which a character named Bob interacts with various versions of himself who have traveled through time. What he's after is what those stories reveal about the nature of time and life itself. Second, he doesn't think time travel is really possible, although it turns out the laws of physics don't contradict it necessarily, except maybe entropy. He talks about popular physicist Richard Hawking holding a dinner party for time travellers, invitations issued after the fact, to which no one came, as an example of the logical fallacy of cause coming after effect. He also mentions the Biblical account in Joshua where God stops the sun to create a longer day, but dismisses it as wishful thinking, "who hasn't wished for more hours in the day?" He doesn't dismiss the possibility of time travel outright, either in fiction or in real life, but he comes to a conclusion of sorts about the limitation of the scientific equations to really describe reality, in that what appears possible in some senses based on Einstein's space-time continuum and other physics equations, isn't possible in our experience, except in fiction.

Time travel is therefore essential to our culture. It is both possible and impossible. It is a paradox and a mystery, but also a cold hard fact, that time travel is not possible. Or is it? So much of our storytelling these days involves time travel that we've gotten used to it; it's part of the culture. In the end, Gleick's concluding chapter on our current times is a little disheartening. The future is dystopian these days, not just because that view of time travel has won out, whether from 1984 on or from the invention of the Internet, I'm not sure; but also because we have shorter memories and shorter futures than we thought we did in the 1960s, say. The Internet has a way of foreshortening both past and future -- after all, we have access to a wealth of knowledge there, but, as Gleick says, "who has time to think?" Books like Gleick's, though, give me some hope that we can rise above our current predicament and invent a future that is better than our present, still.


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