Science as the language of time-travelers

16 04 2012

A note today on something that is implicit in many of the popular treatments of time travel that I’d like to make explicit.  Namely, I’d like to explore the answer to the question:

Presuming backward-and-forward time travel to be possible, how could we communicate with those from different times?

This is something that actually comes up quite frequently in science-fiction.  More often than not, the answer to the protagonist’s communication woes is simply: Science. 

More specifically, science is the means by which a character from a less-advanced culture is able to understand and quickly adapt to and utilize new concepts.  -And I think it’s spot on.

Allow me to illustrate what I mean.

The Time Traveler interacting with an artificial intelligence expert system at the future New York Public Library. (Credit: Warner Bros)

The Common Element

Take the recent film incarnation of “The Time Machine” as an example.  When the Time Traveler begins his journey into the future, he does so from the same spatial location – his house in early-twentieth-century New York city – to arrive in a futuristic New York City that looks to be mid-to-late 21st Century.

In attempting to answer his own question about the nature of causality in the universe, he is able to meaningfully interact with a computer system from the future to quickly digest advanced concepts.  (Further, on a related note, the backwards-compatibility of scientific concepts allows the computer to understand him.)

Take this exchange, for example, (bearing in mind it essentially occurs between two characters hypothetically separated by what could be nearly two centuries):

Time Traveler:  “What are you?”

Computer:  “I’m the 5th Avenue Public Information Unit, Vox Registration NY-114.  How may I help you?”

Time Traveler:  “You’re a stereopticon of some sort.”

Computer:  “Stereopticon?  Oh no, sir.  I am a third-generation, fusion powered photonic with verbal and visual link capabilities connected to every database on the planet.”

Time Traveler:  “A photonic?”

Computer:  “A compendium of all human knowledge.  Area of inquiry?”

Time Traveler:  “Know anything about physics?”

Computer:  “Ah.  Accessing physics.”

Time Traveler:  “Mechanical engineering.  Dimensional optics.  Chronography.  Temporal causality.  Temporal paradox.”

Computer:  “Time travel?”

Time Traveler:  “Yes!”

Very quickly, the Time Traveler is able to accurately communicate the advanced concept of technical time-travel to the point that the artificial intelligence from the future is able to anticipate his inquiry.  No small feat!

Crossing the Generation Gap

For another example, let’s take the more recent film “Tron: Legacy.” 

But wait, astute readers might say.  There’s no time travel in that film!  I beg to differ.

Programmer Kevin Flynn learns about the outside world from his son, Sam, in Tron: Legacy. (Credit: Disney)

In the story, programmer Kevin Flynn is marooned inside a computer system for nearly two decades.  Based on his technical background, he is easily able to digest the existence of technology twenty years ahead of the world he knows during a conversation with his son, Sam, (which is essentially like talking to someone from 20 years in the future).  He asks his son what the world he’s been separated from has changed:

Sam Flynn:  “I don’t know.  The rich are getting richer, poor getting poorer.  Cell phones.  Online dating.  Wi-fi.”

Kevin Flynn:  “What’s Wi-fi?”

Sam Flynn:  “Wireless… interlinking.”

Kevin Flynn:  “Of digital devices?”

Sam Flynn:  “Yeah.”

Kevin Flynn:  “Huh.  I thought of that in ’85.”

A Universal Language

And let’s not forget that this principle – the idea of science as a universal language – was essentially the basis of Carl Sagan‘s landmark book, Contact.

Dr. Ellie Arroway, moments from receiving an extraterrestrial signal using math and scientific principles to communicate engineering plans across space and time. (Credit: Warner Bros)

Being that it’s impossible to separate the distance of space from the passage of time, (and one of the reasons that my two passions – space exploration and time travel – are not too dissimilar,) any electromagnetic signal received from an extraterrestrial source comes from the past and must be able to communicate to future civilizations – whether technologically advanced or inferior.

This is why science is (or will be… or has been?) the language of time travel.

-Just a fun aside to keep in mind during your next millennial jaunt.


Time travel physics in flux

4 10 2011

Something is rotten with the state of time travel/lightspeed physics.

To “c” (the symbolic designation for the speed of light), or not to “c”? 

-That is the question plaguing physicists in a number of recent studies with apparently conflicting results.

The "Flux Capacitor," a fictional device enabling instantaneous, bi-directional time travel. (Credit: Universal)

Traditionally, the speed of light is viewed as a barrier to physical movement.  According to conventional interpretations of Special Relativity, due to the time-slowing effect physical matter experiences as the speed of light is approached, movement through time is believed to stop at the very moment something hits “c.” 

As a result, lightspeed appears to be a barrier to movement, (see: lightspeed barrier,) and many have come to speculate based on certain geometric and philosophical arguments that moving faster than light might equate to backwards travel through time.

So, here’s where things get interesting. 

This summer, scientists at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology announced that in a meticulous data transfer experiment, they verified that photons don’t break the lightspeed barrier, and their effects don’t appear to even slightly precede their cause.  Hence, lightspeed is a barrier and causality is confirmed, thus ruling out backwards time travel.  (On a side note, Stephen Hawking has also endorsed this view.)

However, research published just last month by researchers from the Gran Sasso National Laboratory in Italy appears to demonstrate that neutrinos do travel faster than light, throwing everything else into question.  In the study, scientists analyzed the speed of neutrinos being emitted from the particle accelerators at CERN and discovered them arriving faster than “c” by 60 nonoseconds(!) 

While fractionally small, this is a definitely measurable quantity of time with today’s instruments.

The Time Machine, from the movie of the same name. (Credit: Warner Bros/Dreamworks)

So, it appears that lightspeed might be traversable after all.  What is currently most unclear is whether or not these findings mean that backwards time travel is possible or simply that objects may continue to move faster through space than speed c.

(Note: I fall on the latter side of the fence, predicting allowable faster-than-light movement in my 2006 Kronoscope article.  This is due to what I believe is a Newtonian conceptual parasite infecting modern Relativity interpretations.)

In any case, it’s a very exciting time for time physics – the discovery of conflicting results at the margins often heralds the imminence of a new discovery!

Digital Time Capsule note from 2010

18 07 2011

With the ubiquity of our digital infrastructure, it occurs to me that one possible means of transmitting information across vast stretches of time may, in fact, be to simply schedule it for much-delayed delivery.

How far will this work in principle?  I feel confident I can trust WordPress’s existence for six months.  One year?  Still feels reasonable.  Ten years?  Fifty years?

So, with that in mind, I am writing this note on Sunday morning, July 18th, 2010 and sending it exactly one year into the future.  As for events occurring in my time, BP (formerly British Petroleum) has just put a new, advanced cap on the now-infamous leaking oil well in the Gulf of Mexico.  The polarizing topic of the day seems to be how to deal with illegal immigration on our country’s southern border.  Temperatures are high here in the Las Vegas desert, pushing into the “eleventy-hot” zone during the late afternoon.  Yesterday, I planted a new flowering fruitless plum tree in the front yard, which I hope will survive the heat.

Now, I have a few questions for you.  Does 2011 appear, like years before, not much different than 2010?  I suspect as much.  Does this message find me, my readers, and those I care about in good spirits and health?  I sincerely hope so.  Did the tree I just planted survive its first summer and winter?

Even if I can’t bodily travel through time, at least right now my information can.  Let’s see how many of these time capsules make it to the future.  =)

Remember, when in doubt, make the choice you’ll least regret.

This is Ben McGee, from July 18, 2010, signing off.

July 18, 2010; 09:32am local time.

Ultimately, Time Travel is essential for Space Travel

17 04 2011

Long-time readers may note that this blog bounces (veers?) between space-related content and time/temporal physics-related content.  Today, aside from admitting that (not surprisingly) the two topics are primary passions of mine, I’ll tell you why they’re related, and intimately so.

It’s all Einstein’s fault.

After an interstellar trip, a faulty suspended animation chamber reduces an astronaut to an ancient corpse. (From Planet of the Apes; Credit: 20th Century Fox)

Put very simply, according to Relativity: When dealing with events in the universe, it is impossible to separate the distance of space from the passage of time.

This is why astrophysicists and cosmologists speak of actions in the universe occurring and affecting “space-time.”  (Hence the “space-time continuum” that makes such a frequent appearance in sci-fi technobabble.)

What does this mean for us?  Well, in day-to-day experience, not much more than the odd reality that the moon we see is 1 second old.  Similarly, the sun we see is lagging 8 minutes behind us in time.

Why?  Well, it takes the light that bounces off of the surface of the Moon 1 second to cross the 230,000-mile distance between the Earth and Moon to strike the retina of your eye, and it takes 8 minutes for the light that leaves the sun to cross the 93-million mile orbital void to get to Earth and reach your eye.  As a result, we see the Moon and Sun as they appeared when the light left them, not when the light reaches us.

The same can be said of distant stars.  The farther away a star is, the older it is. (Even if it’s 200,000 light years away – then you’re seeing it the way it looked 200,000 years ago.)

So, quizzically, yes – this means that universe we see is actually a horrible garble of apparent objects from intermixed times.  Fortunately for us,  compared to the incredible speed of light, we’re close enough (distance) to everything we need to experience, (e.g., our limbs, food, loved ones, walls, etc.,) so that this time lag is unnoticeable.

But when we start peering out into the rest of the cosmos, this distortion really matters.  Many of the stars we’re studying may have already exploded… but if they exploded a few years ago, we won’t know it until light from the explosion reaches us, which could take millions of years if the star is far away.

Now, let’s take our time-distance thought exercises a step farther and ask what happens if we score the holy grail of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence.  What if, for the sake of argument, we receive and translate a friendly message from an incredibly advanced race of aliens?  And what if, by fortuitous happenstance, they (hoping to aid other, younger life-forms) offer unlimited knowledge to any beings that can meet them on their world, face-to-face?  Well, the offer doesn’t do us more than a hill of beans of good if it takes us 200 years for a multi-generational craft to get there, only to find that the benevolent race has gone extinct due to a problem with their parent star.  We want to reach them as soon as we translate the message.

We want to separate the distance of space from the passage of time.

So, if we can conceptually and technologically conquer time travel, we will have in essence conquered space travel.  If one can manipulate the passage of time, then the time taken to cross the distance of space with any type of propulsion system becomes an almost trivial tally – little more significant than the miles-per-gallon of a modern automobile.

Conventional propulsion systems will get us around in space for the foreseeable future, and more exotic systems will likely take us to the nearest stars.  However, I believe it will be the mastery of time that will transform our race from provincial planet-hoppers to truly savvy, galaxy-trotting, cosmic-colonial game-changers.

Something to think about.

Timestream Post: A Note from 10.21.2010

8 11 2010

Almost time...

-Just a short-range temporal pot-shot this evening, and one I imagine (won’t know for certain until we get there) will be the first of these digital time travel experiment messages to actually land in the future.

The date is October 21st, 2010.  Honestly, I’m really hoping to be where you are, intrepid reader: The future.

I’m just about to proctor a geology 101 practical midterm on mineral and rock identification at the community college, and this is only the beginning of what I expect will be one of the longest, most sleep-deprived weeks of my life so far.  Due to an unfortunate coincidence of schedule shifts, I now have three midterms of my own to take within the next week-and-a-half, in addition to two rather hefty papers to write, and a radiation physics problem set sprinkled on top to complete within the next week.  (This is in addition to finding time to grade and submit the midterms I’m going to be giving here in a few minutes.)  All after work, of course.

That, and I’m staring the final hours of my 20s in the face.  Daunting is the word of the hour.

So, I’m very curious and a bit apprehensive:  Will my 30s begin with a bang or a whimper?  Can I still pull college-style, all-nighter-cram-sessions?  Do these next weeks all pan out with positive results?  Let me know!

Hopeful about the future on 10/21/2010, 5:35pm

Time Experiment: Digital Time Travel

9 09 2010

Scientia in Posterus. (Credit: Ben McGee)

In the interest of exploring some of the more intriguing implications of our ubiquitous Cyberverse, I’ve decided to attempt to use WordPress as something of a digital time machine.

You see, there’s a “Schedule” feature for blog posts that I realized should work as long as WordPress and the Internet are around, and through it, we may be able to send information across immense spans of time.  (Sure, this feature is intended to make it easy to spread out posts over the course of days or weeks, but why not send messages a year, a decade, a century, or a millennium out?)

-So, presuming the digital infrastructure is going to exist for a while, I’m going to send messages from the present into the future at regular intervals, and each message will be sent to an exponentially-more-distant temporal location.  (E.g., one month, 6 months, 1 year, 10 years, etc.)

Then, when I receive a message from my past self, I’ll post an honest reply as though I were having a real-time conversation with myself in the past.  The conversation might be light or very revealing, depending on what mood it is that’s prompted me to talk to the future – and I’ll do my best to answer in kind.  In this way, we’ll see if I can’t engage in a bizarre, superchronistic conversation across the very fabric of linear time.

(For the interested, I’ve created a new post category called, “Digital Time Travel,” which will chronicle the experiment.)

…And, the kicker here is that to my surprise, I’ve already started the experiment.  As it would turn out, I had a similar idea months ago and already sent a message into the future.  However, at the time I thought it’d be a one-time deal – a single digital time capsule.  Now, I think it’d be better-suited as a long-term experiment; An exchange that breaks the timestream.

Anyway, I thought I’d put the experiment out there so that when messages from the past start showing up on my blog in the present, everyone won’t assume I’ve finally gone all the way around the bend.

(Man, in the spirit of the experiment, I can’t wait to tell my past self what he involuntarily started when that original “time capsule” message finally arrives…)

Time flies, and I hope to invoke some turbulence.

Temporal Mechanics (Time update part 2)

4 09 2010

Asilomar chapel where I gave my first Temporal Mechanics talk at the International Society for the Study of Time's triennial conference, 7/30/2007. (Credit: Ben McGee)

Things have been fairly one-sided here on the ol’ astrowright blog for a while.  What with beginning classes in UND’s space studies program and with upcoming coursework in radiophysics at Oregon State, (which I hope to integrate into orbital/lunar radiation work,) it’s no surprise that I’ve been a bit hyper-focused on space science.

However, today I wanted to take a step back and pick up where I left off regarding my other scientific passion, time research.

So, we last left our time discussion with an apparent contradiction: Most of theoretical physics leads us to consider that time is an illusion and does not physically exist.  The past versions of the universe are not “saved” somewhere for us to go back to, and the future does not yet exist.  There is only the now.   However,  Relativity shows us (in repeated experiments!) that the time experienced by something changes depending on its motion, (time slows as speed increases,) meaning that some part of time must physically exist, and furthermore, it must be related to physical motion.

That brings us to the crux of my theoretical, time-centered physics work.  Temporal Mechanics, as I have developed it as a functioning theoretical framework, relates to and is derived from a single question:

  • “What if there is more to the concept of time than we acknowledge or are aware?”

As hinted in my previous time post, Temporal Mechanics goes on to posit that the physical part of what we call time and what we call motion are actually two views of the same phenomenon.  -Namely, that the apparent 3D motion of an object is the result of it moving through time (4D) at a different rate than its frame of reference.  I called this the Fundamental Principle of Temporal Kinematics.

The exciting part is that when you take this kernel and start marching it through physics, many very, very interesting things happen.

For starters, you can start answering unanswerable questions, like digging into Newtonian mechanics staple “f = ma” (force equals mass times acceleration).  If one were to ask, “Why does the application of force to a mass cause acceleration?” in the Standard Model, this is a nonsense question.  It’s simply how acceleration is defined. It is by nature an unanswerable question.

And in science, at least for me, I find these sorts of conceptual impasses troubling.

However, if motion is now the result of a temporal rate differential, (as defined by the Fundamental Principle of Temporal Kinematics,) then an answer suddenly shows up:  The application of force to a mass causes a temporal acceleration which appears to a 3D observer as motion of the mass.

Voila.  An answer where there was none.

A trick of wordplay?  Perhaps.  But think Orwell’s 1984 – it is true that the words we use to define concepts limit the concepts we use to define a reality.  If there actually are deeper physical truths to the ideas of time and motion, right now we are linguistically incapable of describing them.  Perhaps just “opening up” our conceptual language can reveal truths idly sitting beneath our comprehension, waiting for us to get around our own mental roadblocks and see them.

The adventure continues, reaching all the way back to Aristotle’s work on time and motion.  It turns out that he came within mere inches of posing Temporal Mechanics’s fundamental principle more than two thousand years ago.  Basically, he noticed that we measure that time has occurred by measuring uniform motion, (e.g., a ticking watch,) and that we measure that motion has occurred by measuring uniform time, (e.g., using a stopwatch to measure how fast someone has run a lap.)  Clearly the two are inseparable.  It only took advanced astronomy and the idea of Relativity to break the concepts of time and motion out of their separate Newtonian prisons and back toward each other.

For a future post, the fundamental principle kernel continues its radical march through physics, linking and actually predicting both quantum indeterminism and the bizarre distortions at extreme speeds known as “relativistic effects,” and while using the same mathematics and data, the kernel leads to an alternate interpretation of the Twin Paradox that, (at least according to time,) would allow travel faster than light speed.

Stay tuned.

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