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[whitespace] The Original Frontier

Humankind's confusing relationship with the time machine

By Michael S. Gant

"'Then there is the future,' said the Very Young Man. 'Just think!' One might invest all one's money, leave it to accumulate at interest, and hurry on ahead!'"

IF I ONLY had a time machine, I wouldn't be as materialistic as the callow Very Young Man of H.G. Wells' famous novel. Instead, more modestly, I would set the dial for about a week ahead, zip into the near future, find a copy of Metro Santa Cruz, spirit it back to the present, plagiarize myself and meet my deadline without breaking into writer's flop sweat at the sight of a blank page.

Or maybe I would crank the regulator counterclockwise and scoot back to the early months of 1895 and beard the rotund English literary lion in his den and ask him point-blank: "If you knew that in a little more than a century your own great-grandson, Simon Wells, was going to make a bad movie based on your clever, prescient novel, would you still write it?"

I do have a time machine of sorts at home. Thanks to the miraculous engineering of the remote control, I can fast-forward through Guy Pearce in The Time Machine, stopping only long enough to note that the Morlocks of 800,000 years hence, led by Jeremy Irons in an albino wig, look like they are all descended from Edgar Winter. If only H.G. knew ...

Of all the promises made about the spectacular technology headed our way in this century, none has seemed more intriguing than the time machine (except perhaps for the bottomless stapler). With parts of "nickel, ivory and rock crystal," as Wells envisioned, the time machine would free us from the chains of the chronological. So, we got SUVs, but where's that time machine we were promised?

Actually, traveling into the future isn't so farfetched as it sounds. According to physicist Paul Davies, author of the new book How to Build a Time Machine (Viking Press), taking a temporal jump forward is just a matter of going fast enough--like that remote control.

It happens every time somebody flies across country for instance. Thanks to Einstein's special theory of relativity, air travelers (except perhaps those on United Airlines) leap into the future relative to stay-at-homes on Earth. Trouble is, the effect is measured in billionths of a second. Not much chance to make a killing in the stock market with that kind of margin.

Theoretically, however, if a rocket ship could be designed to accelerate to some significant percentage of the speed of light, real time travel would be possible. The hitch: as bodies approach the speed of light, they weigh more, a lot more--even more than a Baldwin brothers family reunion. The energy required escalates in a hurry as the speed and mass increase, and so this method is going to be really expensive.

More intriguing, although more problematic, is the notion of traveling into the past. Imagine being able to meet Cleopatra, to nip Nazism in the bud by assassinating Hitler, to redesign the butterfly ballot in Palm Beach, Fla.

Physicists at first shook their heads at the notion, but they haven't declared it out of the question. Davies and others speculate that there may be a cosmic shortcut known as a wormhole that can connect two points in the space-time continuum. Instant Stargate, so to speak. Of course, this method of time travel would involve an even more grandiose amount of cosmic engineering at a cost that would make California's budget deficit look like cappuccino change.

The real obstacle, however, may be as much philosophical as physical. As science fiction writers are fond of explaining, there is a paradox that intrudes upon fantasies of visiting the past. Suppose an inventor invents a time machine, travels back in time, meets his younger self and kills himself--and then returns to the future. But if the man dies before he can invent the time machine then there won't be a time machine in which he can travel back in time in the first place to commit the murder ... and round and round roll the wheels of contradiction. Go rent Twelve Monkeys for an example.

One way out of the puzzle of paradox is the notion of branching realities. You can travel to and affect the past, but that will set off a whole new set of possible futures.

In Ray Bradbury's story "A Sound of Thunder," Time Safari Inc. offers big-game hunters of the present a chance to stalk a carefully chosen Tyrannosaurus Rex that is due to die a natural death at a predetermined time. Too bad that one of the hunters strays off the proscribed path and accidentally crushes a butterfly. This seemingly innocent action sets in motion a chain of events that leaves the world a very, very different--and less pleasant--place when the hunters return to the present. The moral? Be careful what you wish for, futurists.

The Future, Conan?

More glimpses into the future from Metro Santa Cruz writers

Bring on the Robots: Some experts predict that we're entering the Robotic Age. Does that mean we don't have to pick out our own socks anymore? Not quite. (Traci Vogel)

Kill Your Computer: High-tech detectives can now find evidence you thought you deleted. (Najeeb Hasan)

When Cars Fly: No, really. Your Skycar is just around the corner, if one visionary Davis company has its say. (Allie Gottlieb)

Implanted for Life: Help! There's a chip in my body and I can't get it out. (Corinne Asturias)

Full Circle: When you graduate in 1984, the future is yesterday's news. (Todd Inoue)

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From the January 8-14, 2003 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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