Jumping the Timestream: A Note from 07.20.2011

20 07 2012

I’m writing today one year into the future because I can’t stand not knowing what’s going to happen in the next few hours.  (Strange, I realize, but I can’t just publicly ask my future self in a few hours due to contract obligations relating to the answer… so I have to send this far enough out to not cause any legal troubles.)

In short – I’ve got a phone meeting in a few hours that may result in my getting offered to participate in a TV show, and I have no idea what will happen and/or what I should do(!).  The show relates to my paper on xenoarchaeology – it triggered interest in a show on investigating suspected UFO crash sites from an archaeological perspective…  If there is an offer, accepting might stretch my scientific credibility – not to mention that my pregnant wife may object to my leaving to perform fieldwork for weeks at a time with a newborn at home.

What to do?  What to do?

So, future self: What happened?  What the heck happened?  What did you do?  Was whatever you decided to do a good idea?

Out of my mind with anticipation,

Ben

July 20, 2011.

July 20, 2011. 12:54pm.

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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.





Forward Backward Thinking: Pipelines and Deep Time

22 11 2011

A bit of a long-winded digression today, but as a physical scientist at heart I can’t help myself.  I’m riled.  (Riled to the point of considering expanding the rant to follow into an article submission to the journal Ground Water or perhaps Arid Environments…)

Allow me to explain.

Industry vs. Academia

Me - seeking an elusive industry+academic science subculture balance.

First, for those who haven’t been long-time readers, I should mention that I’m something of an enigma as a scientist: I’m an academia-industry hybrid.  In my experience, this isn’t normal; We tend to be either-or.

Often, in one corner, there are career field scientists (with often nothing more than a bachelor’s degree) who have spent their professional lives out “in the field,” dealing with practical problems, earning the kind of experience and “sixth-sense” about their specialty that can only be earned with the expenditure of time, blood, sweat, and tears.  They tend to hold in disdain the highly-credentialed-and-published academic scientist, with little comparable field experience and much effort spent on apparently esoteric pursuits, who swoops down from a perch in the ivory tower to tell the field scientists “how it really works” because of research they’ve performed, etc., etc.  (They’re un-apologetically incorrect often enough, due to a real-world complexity or oversight, to really turn off the field guys.)

In the other corner is the committed academic, (often sporting graduate or doctoral degree[s],) having spent a career researching to understand the subtleties of process in natural systems and who has worked long years to improve scientific understanding or the powers of prediction.  They tend to hold in disdain the provincial field scientist, who sports a requisite chip on his shoulder (a growth resulting from years spent in the field,) who believes he already knows everything without having even attempted the more sophisticated understanding of process that comes with years of academic work.  (They often resist changes in instrumentation or methodology that might yield better data due to a “how we’ve always done it” mentality.)

In my view, both are right, and both are wrong.  Each has something supremely valuable to offer the other, but neither side wants to hear about it.  Usually when the two collide out in the field, head-butting ensues.  Sometimes spectacularly so.

The Long Now and the Long Then

In any case, this brings me to the subject at hand: a current clash between academic and practical views of the natural world, science’s role in it, and how few seem to be able or willing to see reality through the garble.

Northern Spring Valley, NV. (Credit: Ben McGee)

Specifically, the Las Vegas Review Journal recently reported that the Long Now Foundation, an organization aimed at promoting deep-time-style thinking to current and future human planning, has come out in opposition to the Southern Nevada Water Authority’s East-Central Groundwater Development Project, a freshwater pipeline venture intended to relieve for southern Nevada communities the effects of prolonged drought on the Colorado River system.

I’m torn because I’m a long-time supporter of both endeavors.

The Long Now Foundation, among other pursuits, has designed and is planning to build a 10,000 year clock.  Why?  Designer and inventor Danny Hills puts it directly:

I cannot imagine the future, but I care about it. I know I am a part of a story that starts long before I can remember and continues long beyond when anyone will remember me. I sense that I am alive at a time of important change, and I feel a responsibility to make sure that the change comes out well. I plant my acorns knowing that I will never live to harvest the oaks.

As a geologist and planetary scientist, an awareness of the depth of time that precedes us colors my view of the future.  I’m concerned about humankind’s ultimate fate on a geologic timescale, what with broader and potentially civilization-ending threats, such as impacts from space, supervolcanoes, and proximal supernovas.  I have an affinity for, well, us, and I want to make sure we make it in the long run.  That’s one of the reasons I’m such an advocate for human space exploration.

I wholeheartedly agree that we need to plan much, much farther out, and I believe projects like the 10,000-year clock will really help people start thinking about it.  However, that doesn’t mean that human lifespan-range planning should stop – Indeed, there is some reason to believe that long-range plans are rarely feasible because they are inevitably created “by committee,” and anyone who’s worked in a highly bureaucratic environment knows how that turns out…

Precautionary Principle vs. Real-World Problems

So, why do the Long Now folks oppose the pipeline?  Well, here is where I believe the classic “industry-versus-academia” problem begins to rear its head.  You see, I spent more than two years as a front-line hydrogeologist on the pipeline project.  I helped design and implement a sprawling, 1,400-square-mile precipitation monitoring network for the project in addition to installing gaging stations, flumes, and repeatedly measuring every stream, creek, spring, and groundwater well for nearly a 300-mile stretch along the proposed pipeline’s reach.  I performed data quality assurance checking and verification for the project’s central database, analyzed precipitation/surface-water/groundwater response mechanisms, and used satellite imagery to reconstruct the historical extents of ephemeral lakes in the region to calculate their water storage.

Spring Valley, NV, near the proposed pipeline reach. (Credit: Ben McGee)

In short, I was in this data, cradle to grave.  According to everything we collected, the groundwater system and water budget for each of the pipeline’s basin and range valleys could definitely handle the proposed pumping scheme.  Further, proposed pumping rates were highly conservative, and there were an array of biological vectors that required constant monitoring so that we’d detect an unlikely change in the ecosystem as soon as it happened and shut the pipeline down for evaluation.  (And then there’s something else**, which I’ll return to at the end of this post.)

Now, while I appreciate the severity of the drought affecting the region and the need to proactively prepare to secure a backup water supply for Southern Nevada, the academic perspective on engineering projects of this scale tends to be more aloof.  In stereotypical academia, the precautionary principle, (which I support in large part,) is always given top priority (apparently irrespective of what the field data supports,) which means that any major project should essentially never be attempted without many decades of preliminary research.  I’ve worked long enough off-campus to realize that idealized scenarios like this aren’t tenable in the real world, (primarily due to cost,) and we need to do something about the drought more decisively.  Hence the root of academia-industry tug-of-war at the onset of this particular issue.

The more “traditional” opposition to the water authority’s pipeline project takes the form of emotionally-charged but completely illogical concerns about  creating “the next Owens Valley,” despite the fact that there is no body of surface water to deplete a’ la Owens Valley, or about  “destroying the ecosystem,” despite the fact that groundwater tables are far beneath the depth of even the most invasive phreatophyte, several hundred to more than a thousand feet.  (This means should the groundwater table be lowered as a result of pumping, neither surface streams nor the ecosystem would have any way of knowing about it.  It’s akin to alleging that excavating beneath a waterfall will speed up the falling water = defies laws of physics = nonsense.

By contrast, I suspect that the Long Now Foundation opposition to be different and somewhat more sophisticated in that it they will likely oppose the project by alleging that it does not represent suitably “long term” planning.  Certainly, the pipeline is subject to multi-century-scale changes in regional climate should such changes occur.  However, this caution does not award the field data or the administrative controls their due credit, and it fails to take into account the human factor – that there are communities that will rely on this project’s timely execution.

**And Another Thing

Here’s the kicker.  For reasons that mystefyingly are never considered, the water authority’s precipitation estimates, (particularly concerning snow, the source of the water for any water budget in an arid mountainous environment,) are already conservative, even without working on limiting pumping impacts.  Why?  Because the precipitation gauges maintained by them, the National Weather Service, and the United States Geological Survey  fail to catch nearly 50-80% of the falling snow!

Unlike the rest of the developed world, for some reason, the United States fails to consistently include wind shields on their rain and snow gauges, resulting in an under-reporting condition of up to 80%.

This means that all national precipitation data is being under-reported to at best an unknown extent, and (ignoring the implications for apparent measurements of climate change) the data being used to determine watershed baselines for the pipeline project is automatically conservative, for there is more water in the system than is being accounted for.

Check it out for yourself.  Visit a weather station if you can find one nearby.

This is something I have yet to see considered in print, and it is high time, in my opinion.  (Stacking that on the “to-do” manuscript pile.)  Why is it that during the course of the conversation between opposing scientific factions doesn’t anyone either independently or together appear to recognize this as a problem?!

Last Words

We simply need more thoughtful scientific engagement by academic groups when it comes to automatically opposing human engineering where natural systems are concerned.  Forward thinkers shouldn’t automatically oppose human activity or progress, while industry scientists shouldn’t be so opposed to taking a step back and considering the Long Now.

It seems as though in most cases the data obtained and presented by the “industry” side of the fence isn’t even explored by those who oppose it on ideological grounds.  In far too many cases baseless accusations of data bias, manipulation or forgery are automatically assumed, which is a gross disservice to the scientists hard at work in industry – many of whom consider themselves shielded by the data against retribution.  (One can’t get fired for obtaining unfavorable data, and I dare a project manager to try and see how loudly an irked and disenfranchised scientist can blow a whistle.)

In any case, I suppose all I’m trying to say is this:

Can’t we all come to agree that we need both the higher-level, academic understanding of natural processes in addition to the wisdom of boots-on-the-ground experience in data collection and exposure to natural systems in order to make a smart, humane, conscientious, and successful civilization possible?

Can’t the Long Now Foundation recognize the practical (and urgent) utility of the pipeline and engage the Southern Nevada Water Authority to help them to improve their modeling efforts? Can’t the Water Authority recognize the wisdom in the Long Now Foundations considerations of long-term sustainability and invite them to take part?  Can’t both sides work together to help the collective improve the understanding of the field at large(unshielded rain gauges) while simultaneously working to benefit society?

Wishful thinking, I know…  But perhaps, someday, we’ll cross the divide in scientific culture and all be better for it.





Timestream Post: A note from 04.29.2011

2 11 2011

So, who are you?

I’m referring to you, my offspring, who as I type this is not yet half way toward growing into a self-sustaining future person.  Jordan (my wife) and I have decided to wait to see what you are, so I don’t know yet if I’m addressing my future son or daughter…  But I can’t wait to meet you!  (-And what more perfect vehicle is there to project my question into the future than my Timestream Project?)

Whose traits will you share?  Whose aptitudes?  Likes and dislikes?  -And I’m dying for an answer to the epic pregnancy question: Blue eyes like me or green eyes like Jordan?  (Or a different color entirely?)  There are so many things I can’t wait to share and explore with you – it’s been a long time coming, but I’m quite excited to be a dad. =)

We’ve got a couple of names at the top of the list, Rowan if you’re a girl and Grayson if you’re a boy.   Though these are top-secret at the present time and may not stay at the top of the list, I feel safe sending them into the future when the point will most likely be moot!  So, maybe-Rowan or maybe-Grayson, welcome to the McGee clan!  (I suppose that’s technically redundant, but whatever.)

I’m sending this forward only a few months, (I’m impatient,) to the projected date of your birth.   By this point, we think it’ll be about Election Day, 2011.  How was the pregnancy?  The delivery?  I can’t wait!

So, best wishes to Jordan for a speedy and uneventful pregnancy, and welcome to Earth, young McGee!

Writing anxiously from the past and with love,

Ben

April 29, 2011.

04_29_2011, 02:28pm.





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.








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