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Time Travel: A History

James Gleick

H.G. Wells basically invented Time Travel SF, but as a Futurist he was blinded by snobbery. He was particularly disappointed by radio, which he thought was doomed to fade away. like crossword puzzles; just another fad. "Instead of first rate came tenth rate music, played by the Winkle-Beach Pier Band. Instead of the wisest voices, Uncle Bray and Aunt Twaddle."

An interesting rebuttal came from Hugo Gernsback, who pointed out that although Wells hankered to listen to the great, there simply weren't enough to fill the stations' time. And he predicted that soon every radio would have a television attachment.

Gernsback had emigrated from Luxenburg when he was 19. He was an inventor, an entrepreneur, and above all, a bullshit artist. Around town he wore expensive suits and ran nimbly from his many creditors. He started a magazine Radio Times, mainly to publicize his mail order business selling radio parts to hobbyists. When one mag folded, two more would spring up in its place. The one that matters most to us was a pulp (bc of its cheap wood pulp paper) called Amazing Stories. He reprinted Jules Verne, Wells and Poe. He didn't bother paying for the reprints. He offered writers twenty-five dollars for original stories, but they usually had trouble collecting.

(New Scientist)

The idea of time travel has fundamentally changed how we think, finds William Flew

ON 28 June 2009, at 1200 UTC, Stephen Hawking hosted a party for time travellers at the University of Cambridge. Among the careful preparations, the most important was to invite guests only after the event had taken place. Much to Hawking°«s disappointment, nobody showed up.

Travelling through time may never be feasible, but it remains a perennially popular topic in science fiction, philosophy and theoretical physics. In Time Travel, James Gleick provides an absorbing history of the idea, eloquently elucidating the reasons for its enduring appeal.

The concept of time travel is surprisingly recent. °»Though the ancients imagined immortality and rebirth and lands of the dead,°… Gleick observes, °»time machines were beyond their ken.°… In fact, he traces the trope back to a single work of fiction: The Time Machine, written by H. G. Wells between 1888 and 1895.

It tells of an unnamed time traveller who rides into the future on an apparatus resembling a bicycle. His voyage is made possible by the fact °»there is no difference between Time and any of the three dimensions of Space except that our consciousness moves along it°… (as the Traveller helpfully explains to his temporally challenged friends).

His reasoning (and Wells°«s story) were inspired by the investigations of 19th-century mathematicians such as Bernhard Riemann. But as Gleick observes, Wells°«s vision was equally driven by technology: °»Time became vivid, concrete, and spatial to anyone who saw the railroad smashing across distances on a coordinated schedule.°…

If the literary roots of time travel are The Time Machine, then scientific interest originated with Einstein°«s special theory of relativity, published in 1905. In Gleick°«s account, these two foundations were mutually reinforcing. Science gave credibility to the fiction, which made the science more accessible. The combination was so potent, and expanded so quickly, that time travel began to seem like a truly timeless principle.

Gleick traces its literary pedigree, sometimes to the point of tedium, from Wells to writers such as Robert Heinlein and Jorge Luis Borges. He also delves into pop culture, ranging from Star Trek to Woody Allen.

Then there°«s the science. While Einstein remained sceptical of voyaging through the space-time continuum, his close friend Kurt GŹę”del mathematically described an alternate universe in which time warped to loop back on itself. GŹę”del gave the calculation to Einstein for his 70th birthday, often checking later whether his theory had been proven.

It wasn°«t, but GŹę”del°«s °»closed time-like curves°… continued to bedevil physics long after his death, ultimately inspiring a rebuttal by Hawking, who claimed that time loops violated established laws of physics. Hawking organised his Cambridge party as experimental evidence.

Whether or not Hawking has the final say, the concept of time travel has proven phenomenally productive. Within physics, Gleick captures some of the intellectual ferment in his account of the debate about whether time is an illusion. Within literature, he°«s particularly incisive in his account of alternative histories, which originated as an accident of time travel. °»Travel to the past begins as tourism in the extreme,°… he writes. But the sightseers °»start tinkering°…. Eventually they aim at history°«s greatest villains, and murder Hitler, or slay his mother.

Beyond the adrenaline, what makes this compelling is the chance to imagine what might have been. Counterfactual narratives let us examine the past more speculatively, and explore how things can go awry in the present. Is despotism a function of personal charisma or socioeconomic conditions? How do we prevent a holocaust? °»Nodal points must exist,°… says Gleick, °»just not... where we think.°…

Today the time machine is no longer obligatory. The game of altering the past has been so internalised that Gleick suggests the notion of time travel has fundamentally changed the way we think.

To illustrate, he cites our habit of burying time capsules. Only since the 20th century have we sought ways to communicate with the future. Now we tend to interpret any box of coins found under a cornerstone as an effort by ancestors to send us a message. In fact, those old cornerstone caches were votive offerings, not meant to be discovered.

In contrast to his enthusiasm for SF, Gleick finds a time capsule °»a tragicomic time machine°…, moving through time at a rate of one second per second. Few capsules survive, he notes, and why should the future care about us in the first place?

But here Gleick neglects the wisdom of his book, forgetting that time travel is experienced in the traveller°«s present. Time machines are instruments for exploring the past and future, to augment our current knowledge or enrich our lived experience. Placing items in a time capsule is an opportunity for self-appraisal. Considering how we would like to be perceived by the future is a way of examining what we most cherish.

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