Site Archive: The "A" Files
About Face in Time and Space
A Column by Charles Miller
My first encounter with time travel took place in 1960. I was a reluctant, cynical child back then (how things change), and I didn't appreciate being carried by my parents into a darkened movie theatre to view "The Time Machine," starring Rod Taylor. The pseudo-scientific banter on screen didn't especially impress me, nor did the primitive stop-motion special effects. Only one scene in the film really interested me, as a matter of fact: It was that contrived moment (which H.G. Wells never penned) when Rod Taylor is buried in a lava floe, and the Time Machine's time-bubble-effect prevents him from being incinerated. Taylor waits for ages as natural processes erode the igneous material away from his time bubble, until daylight eventually falls upon him 800,000 years later. It was then, enamored with the Minoan murals of the walls and ceilings of the "El Capitan" theatre, that I experienced a childish revelation: "Space moves around a time traveler."
That was some 40 years ago, and I've been thinking about time travel in much the same way ever since--not that matter morphs around a human observer, but that the human perspective observes the universe moving past us. The inseparability of space and time is reinforced by Einsteinian theory--that what we call Space and Time are only perceptual facets of a continuum. When we traverse space, we also traverse time, within the limits of a light-speed-maximum universe. Relativistic space/time theory usually bounces off modern physics students as a "given." But the inverse must be true, as well: When we traverse time, we also traverse space. The Earth of 100 years ago is far removed spatially from our Earth of today. This revelation has colored my view to such an extent that I have to scoff at most popular representations of time travel, in both entertainment and science.
Let's put this into perspective. The typical human time travel scenario follows: A.) Human builds a Time Machine. B.) Human briefly deliberates on the possible consequences of time travel. C.) Against all logic, human hops into the Time Machine and takes a spin. D.) Human emerges in the future or past on Earth to find a radically different society, and so attempts to alter human outcome. Ho-hum. This is the basic outline for virtually every human time travel fantasy yet concocted.
The problem is, it can't happen that way. Here's why: Should we physically defy Time, we necessarily create a new miniature universe outside of this space/time continuum (an alternate-time-effect). This is essential if we are to retain any sense of continuity; otherwise, we would never know if our time traveling efforts were successful. However, in defying Time, we have also defied the rest of spatial physics--including gravity.
So, what force is causing our Time Machine to adhere to Earth's surface as we move forward or backward in time? How do we step into a Time Machine in 20th Century Topeka, Kansas, and emerge in Topeka, Kansas, 100 years in the past or future?
The answer is, we don't. Instead, the moment we activate our fiendishly complex Time Machine, we sidestep physical law, becoming a stationary non-entity relative to the rest of the cosmos. We are unaffected by macro-gravitation. When and if we finally re-enter normal space/time, the Earth is nowhere to be found, nor is the rest of our solar system. Depending on the intensity and duration of our "time warp," we may find ourselves deep in interstellar space--with no recognizable constellations to guide us home--or even outside of the Milky Way altogether, lost in the intergalactic void.
At this point, we come to fully appreciate the expanding universe theory, and we realize that time travel is not all it's cracked up to be. Whatever reasons we had for attempting this experiment in the first place are forgotten--We have pulled over to the shoulder on the superhighway of existence, and our entire universe has moved past us while we were parked. How is it that this dreadful pitfall is never addressed in the popular consideration of time travel?
Come to think of it, the only way a time traveler might emerge from the alternate-time-effect and find himself back on Earth, at some past or future date, would be if the Earth was indeed stationary, at the virtual center of the universe. Charles Fort would have fun with this concept, I can imagine.
In fact, Fort addressed a vaguely similar topic when considering repeated skyfalls on specific points of the Earth's surface. Likening the Earth to an apple tossed skyward, Fort envisioned a chaotic flock of birds zooming in and selectively pecking only one small spot on the apple's spinning skin. This seemed such an unlikelihood to Fort that he theorized the Earth is not spinning nor moving through the universe at all--it must be stationary, at the center of a shell-like universe, and that specific locations on Earth's surface were "targeted" for repeated skyfalls over long intervals. Fort may have rendered his notions tongue-in-cheek; however, many respected scientists today--and certainly all of our science fantasy authors--subscribe to the stationary earth theory (whether or not they realize it) when pondering time travel.
I've heard several notable mouthpieces of the scientific establishment, including Carl Sagan and Stephen Hawkings, comment on the plausibility of time travel--breaking it down so far as quantum gravity paradox and exploding time machines and so forth--yet they always seem to return to the high school drama of some hypothetical time traveler killing his hypothetical great-great-grandfather, thus altering linear time/space. Many of the greatest minds apparently make this leap of reasoning, without explaining how or why a time traveler would arrive back on Earth at all, but presupposing that that time-travelers always arrive back on Earth--which is an Earth-centric theory.
Just from a common sense perspective, a time traveler would never meet his distant ancestors or descendents, unless the time traveler was also exceptionally gifted in interstellar navigation and was in possession of the precise spatial coordinates of Earth, relative to the rest of the expanding universe, for a precise Earth date and time (in addition to possessing an interstellar propulsion system). That's one tall order. The much more difficult aspect of time travel is finding your way home.
According to more than a few theorists in the Quantum Gravity vision of Time, "particle" is our perceptual high-speed "snapshot" of where we are at any given point in Time. Being that apparent sub-atoms exist from the beginning of the universe to the end in one long, coiled, synchronously-conscious entity, they must pass through a diversity of incarnations, from slime-to-leaf-to-animate. So the molecules and atoms and sub-atoms that make up our bodies and brains, and which we perceive as "in existence at this point in time," are actually recycled through many different animates and inanimates over many ages.
In fact, the human body is cellularly recycled entirely every 7 years, meaning that our past and future atomic and subatomic components are out there in a compost heap beyond 7 years somewhere in the past or the future.
In short, and in defiance of the pop-logic of "Quantum Leap" (a television series in rerun), we cannot link back to our quantum past, because our quantum links were scattered around in elephant dung and cosmic dust about 7 years ago or 7 years in the future. If we are going to trace our quantum links back into the past, we must accept that our Time Traveler's atomic and subatomic components might end up scattered around in a pig farmer's field somewhere, or at the bottom of an ocean, or floating around in the halo of a comet.
I've read the Time Paradox theories wherein we can't go back before the creation of the Time Machine itself; but it's worse than that. Until such time as we accept that humans are molecularly and atomically and sub-atomically recycled on a regular basis, about every 7 years, the mechanical aspect of time travel is a moot point.
I recognize that I am, of course, as guilty of three-dimensional thinking in my approach to Time Travel as anyone in Entertainment and popular Science. This realization came home when I finally tried to define what Time Travel means to us, as a species obsessed with Time Travel. The definition at which I arrived was peculiar, to say the least: That Time Travel is a process of human thinking which defeats human intellectual growth and, ultimately, is an evolutionary dead-end for the human race.
To understand how I arrived at that definition, we need to step back momentarily, in time, as it were. Time Travel is Mankind's oldest fantasy (perhaps older than lechery, for we humans have a tendency to envision the consequences of our indiscretions before we act). For example, I can picture an injured Neanderthal male of 35,000 years ago, thinking in his own way: "If only I hadn't body-blocked that giant sloth..." Regret is, without a doubt, the source of our collective obsession with Time Travel. We dream of time travel in terms of bettering our present condition: "If I could turn back time.." or "If I had that to do over..." and "If only I'd known in advance..."
Indeed, regret is one reason for our survival as a species, as we consistently strive to correct our past blunders through systems of education and recording our blunders, as we will, for posterity. By and large, our dreams of traveling in time are necessarily focused dreams of regret, of altering the past, and sometimes of retrieving "inside information" of the future, thus bettering our present condition.
Except that instantaneous "bettering"--provided through forays into the past or future--could be the worst of mistakes. In everyday life, we can easily imagine better societies, better lives, and we regularly work towards the better goals; but to pursue an instantaneous Renaissance through Time Travel is a fatal endeavor. When we circumvent the human learning process, we short-circuit human nature and light the fuse of culture shock. Alvin Toffler commented on such "Future Shock" in a way, but he was commenting on a vertical technology curve far outpacing the human learning curve... As far as I can see, there's no such thing as human technology outpacing human learning. These concepts are mutually-balancing. When I speak of "culture shock," I refer to the collision of cultures, such as when Rockefellers smash into the Amazon, for instance, destroying whole unprepared aboriginal cultures in the pursuit of Rockefeller goals.
Fracturing and demolishing whole cultures through our physical and conceptual intrusion is no work of fiction. If anything, our fictional ventures into Time Travel are dangerous, in that modern audiences take this rather seriously and so model their behavior and popular understanding of physics aft er it. I shudder to think that, IF we humans ever manage a way to defy time, our representatives will have grown up on a diet of "Back to the Future," "The Terminator," "Sliders," "7 Days" and such fictional like. Somehow, it causes me to hold more dearly the simple premise of "The Time Machine," with Rod Taylor, wherein we only had to ponder "Which three books would you take with you?"
Copyright 1999 by The Anomalist