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On the Net: Time Travel by James Patrick Kelly



I got this odd spam last year; maybe you did too. Apparently it showed up in a lot of inboxes, looking something like this:


I’m a time traveler stuck here in 2003. Upon arriving here my dimensional warp generator stopped working. I trusted a company here by the name of LLC Lasers to repair my Generation 3 52 4350A watch unit, and they fled on me. I am going to need a new DWG unit, preferably the rechargeable AMD wrist watch model with the GRC79 induction motor, four I80200 warp stabilizers, 512GB of SRAM and the menu driven GUI with front panel XID display.

The time traveler continues:

In terms of payment: I don’t have any Galactic Credits left. Payment can be made in platinum gold or 2003 currency upon safe delivery of unit.

At the time I thought this was a clever hoax and that its loopy specificity was a comment on the rubber science we skiffy writers so casually deploy. Alas, the truth is both sadder and darker. It seems, according to Wired News <http://www.wired.com/news/culture/0,1284,60141,00.html> that the perpetrator is a delusional twenty-two-year-old from Woburn, Massachusetts, who claims to have sent nearly a hundred million copies of this bizarre email.

But what if he really were from the future?


Fermi’s question

The great physicist Enrico Fermi <http://www.nobel.se/physics/laureates/1938/fermi-bio.html> gave his name to a paradox that continues to bedevil those involved in the search for extraterrestrial life. If advanced civilizations are common, as some believe, Fermi asked, "Where are they?" The fact that no ET has introduced itself to President Bush (that we know of) would seem to be a compelling argument for the proposition that we are alone in the universe. But maybe not. If, as we saw in the previous installment, faster than light travel is either impossible or incredibly difficult, then any number of civilizations could be flourishing in the distant reaches of our galaxy and we might never know. Of course, the Fermi Paradox also applies to time travel. If it were possible, then where are all the tourists from the future?

For reasons that escape me, the science of FTL has always been more respectable than the science of time travel. But when serious-minded people like physicist Kip Thorne <http://www.cco.caltech.edu/~kip> took a careful look at both possibilities, it turned out that they were very much related. Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity <http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/einstein/relativity> tells us that time is part of space, so that if we find some way to warp space, we will also have found a way to warp time.

For a primer on this, check out the website NOVA <http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova> put up as a companion to its episode Time Travel <http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/time>. Science writer John Gribben <http://www.biols.susx.ac.uk/home/John_Gribbin> sets out the issues in rather more detail in Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Time Travel <http://www.biols.susx.ac.uk/home/John_Gribbin/timetrav.htm>. He points out that the key to traveling through time as well as jumping through hyperspace is wormhole engineering. I won’t rehearse the difficulties inherent in creating such a transportation system other than to note that it would take the total energy output of many, many stars just to open the wormhole. String theory physicist and science writer Michio Kaku <http://www.mkaku.org/> gave an interview <http://www.sciam.com/article.cfm?chanID=sa004&articleID=0000AB94-4016-1FBE-801683414B7F0000> to Scientific American <http://www.sciam.com> last fall in which he offered the most up-to-date assessment of the plausibility of time travel. In addition to wormhole engineering, he mentioned quantum teleportation. "This is not science fiction anymore. Now, to be real, we’re not talking about sending Captain Kirk across space and time. But we are talking about sending individual photons across space. In a few decades, maybe we will teleport the first virus, if the virus consists of a few thousand molecules."

But by far the most comprehensive site about the science of time travel is Time Travel <http://freespace.virgin.net/steve.preston/Time.html> put up by two British professors, S. Preston and K.D. Hammonds. These scientists acknowledge the staggering technical difficulties involved in time travel, but are nonetheless true believers. As they write, "This web site is devoted to the explanation of why time travel is possible in both a forward and backward direction. We discuss many of the common objections to time travel and we show that these objections are without foundation."

One thing that comes clear from perusing all of these sites is that no lone genius is going to whip up a time machine in his private laboratory. If time travel is to be achieved, it will demand almost unimaginable expenditures of energy, material and, well, time.


Wells’s kids

Arguments could be made for Charles Dickens <http://www.lang.nagoya-u.ac.jp/~matsuoka/Dickens.html> having written the first time travel story in 1843 and calling it A Christmas Carol <http://www.bibliomania.com/0/0/19/frameset.html> or for Mark Twain <http://www.boondocksnet.com/twainwww> having written it in 1889 and calling it A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court <http://www.literature.org/authors/twain-mark/Connecticut>, but these would not be very convincing arguments, in my opinion. Pride of place goes to Herbert George Wells <http://www.hgwellsusa.50megs.com> for dreaming up The Time Machine <http://www.online-literature.com/wellshg/timemachine> in 1895. What makes this the first science fiction time travel story is that the Time Traveler actually builds his machine. He is not surprised to find himself scooting back and forth through time as in the Dickens or the Twain–he intends it. And he has a theory: "‘Clearly,’ the Time Traveller proceeded, ‘any real body must have extension in four directions: it must have Length, Breadth, Thickness, and–Duration. But through a natural infirmity of the flesh, which I will explain to you in a moment, we incline to overlook this fact. There are really four dimensions, three which we call the three planes of Space, and a fourth, Time. There is, however, a tendency to draw an unreal distinction between the former three dimensions and the latter, because it happens that our consciousness moves intermittently in one direction along the latter from the beginning to the end of our lives.’" Of course, Wells isn’t quite as interested in the conceit of the time machine as he is in restaging the clash between the Victorian working and ruling classes or in showing us humanity’s ultimate evanescence. But while readers today may be only mildly interested in his take on politics and the end of the world as we know it, they are still fascinated by Wells’s idea of traveling through time.

If you want to see just how much Wells has influenced our culture, stop by Andy’s Anachronisms <http://www.timetravelreviews.com>. I love both the ambition and simplicity of this personal site. There are no fancy graphics or streaming media here; Andy just writes–and writes perceptively. "This site has evolved out of my life long fascination with all things related to time and time travel. I hope that in sharing my collection of references and reviews that other like-minded souls will benefit from this site and that in turn you, the visitor may provide me with new references and insight." Although clearly a work in progress, this site is already the most complete listing of time travel fiction, film, television, and music on the web. He mentions about a hundred movies, thirty-odd TV series, maybe eighty short stories, and a clutch of novels. For all the fiction on his lists, he offers summaries and astute evaluations. Although he hasn’t reviewed all the media on his lists (a mercy, actually), he is usually spot on when he does comment. This site is full of wonderful factoids like this: "Produced as a filler segment for Jay Ward’s Rocky and Bullwinkle series beginning in 1959, Peabody’s Improbable History, to the best of my knowledge, qualifies as the first time travel series produced for television." I must say, however, that I’m not at all sure I agree with his exegesis of the Talking Heads <http://www.talking-heads.net> classic tune "Once in a Lifetime" <http://www.rollingstone.com/videos/playvideo.asp?sid=6722&cf=89>.

Part of our fascination with time travel has to do with the havoc it would seem to wreak with causality. The famous grandfather paradox <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grandfather_paradox> asks what would happen if a time traveler went into the past and killed his grandfather when Grandpa was just a boy? One of Robert A. Heinlein’s <http://www.heinleinsociety.org> most famous stories "All You Zombies" <http://www.heinleinsociety.org/rah/works/shortstories/allyouzombies.html> might best be described as the grandfather paradox on steroids. If this story doesn’t make your head spin, then you are reading the wrong magazine, my friend! Astronomer James Schombert has undertaken to diagram the main character’s family tree here <http://zebu.uoregon.edu/~js/glossary/grandfather_paradox.html>. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s Time Travel and Modern Physics <http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/time-travel-phys> is a learned and abstruse examination of the varieties of time travel paradoxes; much of it zinged over the head of this befuddled English major, alas. Time Travel Paradoxes <http://www.friesian.com/paradox.htm> offers a more accessible tour of possible solutions to causality violation, including the The Many-Worlds Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics <http://www.station1.net/DouglasJones/many.htm>.



Only about half the sites in the Time Travel Webring <http://m.webring.com/hub?ring=timetrav> are worth a click. There are a couple of Back to the Future <http://www.bttfmovie.com> homage sites and some personal sites that are only partially about time travel. And then there are the wackos! I must say that one of these took my breath away. The Time Travel FundÔ Your Ticket To The Future <http://www.timetravelfund.com> explains that although time travel may be possible, it is a long way off–no doubt centuries away. Next comes the pitch.

"Q: How does this help me?

A: The concept is that one day, it may be possible for people living far in the future to retrieve you from your current frame of reference (their past–your present) and bring you into the future (their present–your future.)

Q: Why would they want to?

A: That is the purpose of the fund. The simple answer is, we pay them to bring you into the future."

Yes folks, for a mere ten dollars you can invest in the Time Travel Fund and through the miracle of compound interest, your investment will be worth billions by the time your great50grandchildren lasso that wormhole and invent time travel. The custodians of the fund will then pay to have you snatched from the twenty-first century and carried off to live in 30,004.

Some may scoff, but hey, if you really want to visit the future someday, ten bucks is a heck of a lot cheaper than what it would cost to have your head cryogenically frozen <http://www.cryonics.org/expert.html>!

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"On the Net: Time Travel" by James Patrick Kelly, copyright © 2004 with permission of the author.

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