Tuesday, June 4, 2013

It's About Time (Travel)

Today, Adjunct Proff is stepping outside his comfort zone of history (History: Basically Old News) and is plunging headfirst into the question of time travel: is it possible?  -is it practical?  -what are the traps and quantum quagmires of surfing the universe's 4th dimension? But most importantly, which time machine do you prefer: H.G. Wells' one with fan-shaped discs, Bill & Ted's phone booth with the umbrella skeleton on its roof, or Doctor Who's police-box Tardis?

But before we start this fascinating discussion, let me share with you a secret: we are all time-travellers!  Heck, I time-travelled today and it was easy.  I woke up, clomped to the bathroom, stumbled downstairs, stuffed some Special K and blueberries in my mouth, washed it down with some coffee that had gone cold, scratched myself, then sat down at my desk and started blogging.  That's right, from when I woke up to just now, I had travelled 2 hours, 43 minutes and seventeen seconds into the future!

Well, whoop-de-effing-doo, Adjunct Proff, I hear you cry, anybody can do that.  And it's true --anybody (and anything) can travel in time the normal way (past-present-future).  The really cool thing to do with time would be to travel into the past, or fast-forward into the future.  Can that be done?  The answer is maybe, quite possibly, under certain circumstances and subject to certain conditions, availability, blackout-periods and dealer participation.

Ok smartass, you're probably thinking, just answer the question and don't try to be so funny. Fine.  First, we must define our terms.  Time is a universal dimension, one of apparently 26 (it all has to do with the number of extra dimensions a bozon particle vibrates in --I asked a physicist about this one).  You and I are more familiar with the first three dimensions of length, width and height.  Einstein mathematically proved that time is the fourth dimension, and that it is a relative (changing) dimension rather than an absolute (fixed) dimension, all dependant on the observer's position relative to the speed and position of the thing being observed.  Einstein illustrated this concept of relativity with a train that was travelling as close to the speed of light as possible (for a train), but I like 20th century comedian Stephen Wright's explanation much better:

Time is relative.
Just like your mom.
I was in a job interview that wasn't going too well, so right in the middle of it, I pulled out a copy of  Playboy Magazine and started reading it.  The interviewer said, "Excuse me, but what are you doing?"  I said, "I've only got one question for you: suppose you're in your car and you're doing the speed of light.  You turn on your headlights.  Do they work?"  The interviewer said, "I don't have any idea."  I said, "In that case, I don't want to work for you."

Yes, the universe is a much funnier place than even Stephen Wright's comedy (but only slightly).  With every new subatomic particle that emerges from the wreckage of controlled particle crashes at the CERN Supercollider, it just gets funnier.  Electrons can be in more than one place at a time; quarks, neutrinos, photons and the aforementioned bozon particle litter the quantum landscape; time flies like an arrow, flows like a river, gets warped by massive objects and is pock-marked with more wormholes than a hunk of Swiss Cheese.
Time also just lays around all limp and flaccid, I guess
However, although subatomic particles can and do zip back and forth in time willy-nilly, can you or I do it too?  The answer to that one is NOT  YET, although maybe later.  First of all, you and I are a bit larger than your average subatomic particle (I especially!), so we just couldn't fit all of ourselves into one of those wormholes and hitch a ride on a bozon, so to speak.  Another problem with wormholes is that they are notoriously ephemeral, opening and closing all over the place and time way too randomly to be used as a time portal.  However, if we had a ton of energy, we theoretically could grab one, stabilize it, enlarge it, and step through it, ending up in a different time (although pretty much the same place).  The problem is that you'd need the amount of energy found in things like your average black hole, and those doohickeys present their own set of problems (like getting totally squished if you get too close to one).

Not a pair of ducks, you idiot, a paradox!
But let's say we did manage to solve the energy and stability problems and we did manage to time-travel.  What then?  Any time traveller would have to be very careful about creating a paradox that would totally screw things up.  Let me elaborate.  The most famous paradox is the murdered grandfather one.  Suppose you travelled back in time and killed your grandfather.  That would mean that you wouldn't have existed in the first place, so you couldn't have killed him, right?  But what if you did?  Would he die and you just wink-out of existence?  The answer is, nobody knows for certain, because as far as we know, it's never been done before.  But why kill Grandpa anyway --he's such a nice guy!

Reality is for people who don't like weed.
Then there is the matter of alternate and multiple universes.  Suppose you travel back in time and throttle Adolph Hitler in his cradle, then return to your own time.  Could you?  --return, that is.  You see, in your universe, Hitler existed, had tons of people killed and almost wrecked Western Civilization in the process.  In the "new universe," everybody that died during World War II survived (or at least were killed by something else); they might have had kids; those kids might have done something that fundamentally changed the world; all the negative and positive effects of World War II would disappear, fundamentally altering the time traveller's "new present."  While physicists are quite comfortable with the notion of multiple and even an infinite number of universes, time travel would create a ridiculous number of them.  How many until reality breaks?

As for me, I don't think that time travel is possible.  First of all, if time machines were invented in the future, wouldn't we be seeing a lot of time-travel-tourists around here today?  Although they are a bit odd, Lady Gaga and Dennis Rodman are probably not time-travelling-tourists.  But what really clinched it for me was this experiment performed by the smartest man in the whole world, Dr. Stephen Hawking.  He threw a party for time-travellers from the future and nobody showed up.  He printed up an invitation, specifying the exact time and place of the party, then had it prominently and permanently displayed at Cambridge University.  Go ahead and convince me that any future time-traveller would pass up a chance to party with Stephen effing-Hawking!
I'm a totally fun guy!  Really!
So for now, I guess we'll just have to content ourselves with experiencing time travel one second at a time.  That doesn't mean we can't have a good time doing it --just not quite as much fun as Bill and Ted, nor as exciting as Dr. Who.  One important thing, however: don't be late for class!

1 comment:

  1. My favorite part of Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure was Napoleon at Waterloo Water Park. That and Beethoven wailing away on the synthesizer at the mall.