The Madness of Time Travel

Time travel is a staple in science fiction stories. Marty McFly traveled into the future and back into the past by means of a flux capacitor designed by the eminent Dr. Emmett Brown. Until he surrendered it to Thanos, Dr. Strange used the power of the time stone to control time. And Dr. Who cavorts merrily through time and space in his TARDIS with the simple flip of a lever. It all seems so easy. Humans have invented all manner of dazzling wonders, from pottery to ships to steel to microchips to orbiting telescopes. Surely it is just a matter of time before some genius working in a garage builds a variant of Dr. Brown’s flux capacitor and is thereby able to zap himself into the future, whether with the flip of a lever or by racing through a mall parking lot at 88 miles per hour.

But is time travel actually possible? Well, certainly it is. With no energy expenditure at all everything and everyone in the universe moves inexorably forward into the future. And it is certainly possible to move into the future at a faster rate than other observers. Special relativity says that two observers moving relative to one another experience the flow of time at different rates, and that difference depends on their relative velocity. This prediction of relativity has been confirmed in experiment many times. For relative velocities that are a small fraction of the speed of light, the difference is quite small. But even so, the Global Positioning Satellite System is so time dependent and so accurate that it had to be designed to account for this and other relativistic phenomena.

Just how extreme can the difference between the clocks of two observers get? Well, the most extreme case concerns one observer at rest and another moving at the speed of light (in their mutual reference frame). In this case the moving observer’s clock actually stops while the clock of the at rest observer continues at its usual pace. If the moving observer travels at the speed of light for a million years, then returns to the physical position of the at rest observer, the at rest observer would be long since dead though the traveling observer would not have aged a single second.

Okay, so travel into the future is certainly possible. What about travel into the past? For an answer to this question we must turn to an astounding result due to Kurt Godel. In 1949 he constructed a solution to the field equations of Einstein’s General Theory of General Relativity that allows an observer to travel to any point in space and time– present, future, or past! This particular solution of Einstein’s theory is a fascinating and instructive study in its own right, but it is decidedly not a solution that corresponds to our own universe. The universe of the Godel solution has an intrinsic rotation about an axis. Our universe has no such rotation. The following video demonstrates how the closed time-like paths of Godel’s solution would enable one to travel into one’s own past: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=078jOiaevAQ

Let us assume for the moment that such minor difficulties can be overcome in the grand cathedral of future human knowledge. Time travel still presents many practical difficulties that must be considered. Imagine that you are sitting in the driver’s seat of Dr. Brown’s DeLorean, and that you set the time control device for six months in the future. Now you stomp on the accelerator, get the car up to 88 miles per hour, and fzap! You reappear six months in the future, in precisely the same physical location where you disappeared.

But the Earth moves. The Earth is currently revolving around the Sun. In six months the Earth will be on the other side of the Sun. So the DeLorean cannot simply move in a straight line through time and space to reach the point where the future Earth will be in six months. It must move along an arc that exactly follows the path that the Earth will take.

And more than that, the Sun itself is moving. The entire solar system is revolving around the center of our galaxy at the rate of one complete revolution about every 225 million years. So six months in the future, the solar system would have moved a considerable distance around the galactic center from its present location. Dr. Brown had better make corrections for that, or the DeLorean will reappear in interstellar space.

There are other motions to consider as well. The Earth rotates on its axis, and the axis itself has a precession– that is, a wobble. Earth’s axis makes one complete revolution about every 26,000 years. So the position from which the DeLorean departed will have moved, irrespective of the other motions we have discussed.

There are other influences as well. Johannes Kepler showed that the paths of the planets are ellipses, not circles. But that is only to a first approximation. The moon and the other planets exert gravitational forces on the Earth. Those forces distort Earth’s orbit from that of a perfect ellipse. So to ensure that the DeLorean returns to the exact point from which it departed, every detail of Earth’s orbit will have to be considered– including all of the influences due to other gravitational objects in the solar system.

And there are more mundane considerations as well. What if someone builds a cement wall just a few feet beyond the point from which the DeLorean disappeared. When it reappears, the DeLorean will travel just a few feet before smashing into a cement wall. Not good. 😦

An earthquake might thrust up a chunk of the Earth’s crust right into the DeLorean’s path on return. A river might change course, causing the DeLorean to plunge into a torrent of water. Someone could park a car right in the DeLorean’s future path. Ouch.

Time travel as a literary device is pretty ridiculous. If its purpose is to get the reader to think about the possible future course of events, it may have some value. But I have never encountered any science fiction story that makes a full accounting of all of the many considerations we have discussed. There is in fact little or no “science” involved in the way time travel is generally portrayed. And therefore time travel will have to remain fully in the province of fantasy, rather than science fiction. Wave a wand, utter magical incantations, discover an ancient artifact that will open a doorway to a time portal. But please don’t pretend that time travel has any basis in science. It’s just not possible.

Copyright (c) 2022, David S. Moore

All rights reserved

Plot, Milieu, Poetry, and Character

Fiction writing spans a vast range of styles and structures. Some fiction concentrates on the plot. Just tell the story. Don’t distract me with useless details about scudding clouds, or a woman’s updo, or the sonorous music playing in an elevator. Just tell me what happened. That’s all I want to know.

Certainly there is an audience for such writing. The purpose of such a narrative style is to relate a sequence of events– that is, action. BANG– the story opens with a heist. WHAM– one of the robbers shoots and kills a guard. POW– police arrive at the scene and get in a gunfight with the thieves, who manage to escape by… Why should we care about the color of a thief’s hair, or his thoughts about cosmology unless it somehow leads to his arrest?

But we should ask– is a plot absolutely essential to the telling of a story? Must a story be a rapid fire sequence of BANG / WHAM / POW? Or is it possible to write a novel in which plot is subordinate to something else?

An important counterexample would be James Joyce’s Ulysses. The plot of the book is supremely ordinary. It focuses on the events in the day of a life of one man (Leopold Bloom), a resident of Dublin, on June 16, 1904. And why should we care about the life of this one man on one inconsequential day? Well, there are certainly lots of readers who have no interest whatsoever in Mr. Leopold Bloom, or in his reading material (“Sweets Of Sin”), or his dietary habits. (He ate the inner organs of beasts and small fowls. With relish. Or was it enthusiasm?) We learn everything about Leopold Bloom– where he lives, what foods he likes, what he understands about metempsychosis, what he thinks about the Irish politician Charles Stuart Parnell. No detail is too small, no thought too fleeting.

Ulysses is as much about heroic literature as it is about the life of one rather ordinary man on an ordinary day. As Leopold Bloom travels through the city of 20th century Dublin, his experiences mimic those of Odysseus in Homer’s Odyssey. It’s as if Homer’s narrative is a shadow following in the background throughout Mr. Bloom’s mundane day. This is not so much a plot element as it is an aspect of the story’s milieu. This is the author stretching the boundaries of storytelling and using the narrative itself to tell a story about storytelling. If you read Ulysses with that understanding I think you have to agree that Joyce achieved his objective, and that he did so in a very imaginative way. But if you’re looking for a story that could serve as the basis for the next Die Hard movie– forget it.

Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov takes the elements of fiction in a different direction– that of poetry. The book has two halves. The first half is an extended poem, itself titled “Pale Fire.” The second half consists of commentary on the poem by someone who, we eventually realize, is a murderer. The plot is subtle and subdued. The victim’s corpse isn’t hauled off to the morgue for a coroner’s investigation. Detectives don’t examine the crime scene searching for clues. The clues are to be found in the commentator’s writings, and then only by inference.

This is a book, more than most, that centers on character. The poem– written by a man named John Shade– is about the struggles of the author to understand and sort through his own sense of failure, his notions of art, his mortality. That is, John Shade is a man of moral character. The commentator is a man of shallow character. Yes, there is a plot. But the elements of poetry and character are in the foreground, and the plot is in the background. I regard Pale Fire as a wonderfully imaginative piece of fiction writing, though there’s little chance Marvel Studios will pick it up for a new installment of the adventures of Dr. Strange.

Picture a four dimensional space, the axes being Plot, Milieu, Poetry, and Character. Any novel can be positioned somewhere in this space. Is there an ideal location in this space that is most true to the notion of what a novel is? No. I would argue that a novel could be successful regardless of its location in this space. The task of the author is to make the choices of plot, milieu, poetry, and character work for the intended audience. And we should acknowledge that not all audiences will appreciate these elements of narrative in equal measure. Some are more drawn to plot, others to character. There is no true and correct answer to the question of how best to write a novel.

I therefore caution against the idea that by following certain rules an author can learn the method that is most likely to result in a successful novel. Ulysses and Pale Fire both succeeded, in my view, because they broke all the rules. Rules are for drudges. Imagination is for artists.

Copyright (c) 2022, David S. Moore

All rights reserved.

Writing as a tool

Writing is certainly one of the greatest tools humans have ever invented. Prior to the invention of writing, knowledge could only be passed from one generation to the next via word of mouth. Once writing became a part of everyday life, knowledge could be preserved across time.

There is an ongoing debate between the Egyptologists and the scholars of ancient Mesopotamia as to where and when the first writing system was devised. But the evidence shows that by no later than 2600 BCE the Sumerian writing system was capable of expressing the full range of the Sumerian language, including such nuances as meter and alliteration.

The Sumerians made writing a foundational part of their culture. Transactions such as the purchase of real estate, marriage, and divorce were recorded on cuneiform tablets. These tablets could actually be used by citizens in the Sumerian equivalent of a court of law. One tablet of a type known as a “ditilla” from ancient Sumer records a trial involving a woman whose uncle assumed ownership of her house and kicked her out. She took her case to a local magistrate, and a scribe recorded the proceedings. The woman and her uncle both appeared before the magistrate. Both were required to swear before a statue of the village god that they would tell the truth. Then both sides were allowed to present their cases. The woman presented a cuneiform tablet that recorded her purchase of the house, and it also recorded that the transaction was witnessed by two of her friends. The two friends accompanied her and testified that indeed they witnessed the sale. If the uncle had a defense, it isn’t recorded on the ditilla. So the magistrate awarded the house to the woman, and the uncle was forced to move out. This vignette played out hundreds of years before Hammurabi built the first Babylonian empire in the 18th century BCE.

None of that would have been possible without a writing system. The simple act of recording a real estate transaction– one that we now take for granted every day– transformed society by making it possible for ordinary people to seek and obtain a form of justice in a society that didn’t have lawyers, or laws, or a police force.

Writing enabled people of the ancient world to record their thoughts, their beliefs, and their achievements. The world of ancient Egypt would look far more mysterious to us if we didn’t have the pyramid texts and the coffin texts to tell us what the ancient Egyptians believed about life after death.

Today we have the marvelous treasures of ancient writings to help us understand how ancient people lived and thought. A man named Sin-leqi-unninni wrote an epic poem known as the Epic of Gilgamesh in Akkadian, in roughly 1200 BCE while he lived in Babylon. That epic includes a story of a great flood that would have wiped out all life on Earth had it not been for the defiance of a god, Ea, who warned a man named Ut-napishtim and advised him to build a boat. But long before the time of Sin-leqi-unninni, the story of the Flood was told in at least two previous versions, in Sumerian. This history shows that the story of the Flood in the Bible has antecedents in Mesopotamia that go back to a time probably 2000 years prior to that of the very earliest writings of the Bible.

Mathematics has also proven to be a powerful tool. We can frame the laws of physics as mathematical equations and then use those equations to deduce properties and behaviors of the world around us. For example, Newton’s Universal Law of Gravitation was used to deduce the location of the planet Neptune from an observed wobble in the orbit of the planet Uranus.

I would argue that mathematics is a type of language. It has a grammar and a syntax. An equation such as the following is one that follows the rules of the language of mathematics:

5X + Y = 0

whereas the following equation makes no sense:

= 5X / 2 – $

Mathematical equations can all be translated into natural language. The following equation:

5X + Y = 0

can be expressed in natural language as follows:

five times (the value of the variable X) plus (the value of the variable Y) equals zero

So is mathematics a language? Well, it clearly has linguistic elements. As I said above, it has both grammar and syntax. But though its symbols may bear a superficial resemblance to the letters of an alphabet, they don’t combine the way that letters combine into words. The rules for the use of mathematical symbols are much more strict than for the use of the letters of an alphabet, or for the words of a sentence.

And furthermore an equation can be transformed by the rules of mathematics to arrive at deductions. Here’s an example:

5X + 7 = 0

5X = -7

X = -(7/5)

The method for arriving at the above result can be described in natural language, as can be the underlying assumptions of the types of mathematical objects employed (i.e. the elements of a mathematical field). But the natural language formulation of such equations obscures the solution, whereas the mathematical form makes it easier to follow.

Yes, mathematics is a type of language– but it’s one with rules that are far more structured and strict than those of any natural language. So for that reason I think it’s best to think of mathematics as a symbolic system based purely on logic in which every component has a valid natural language transliteration.

Is language the greatest innovation in history? I don’t think that’s a question that requires an answer. The innovations of using fire for light, for defense against predators, and for cooking were certainly immensely transformational. As discussed above, mathematics has been immensely transformational. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that the space program would not have been possible without the innovation of mathematics.

But regardless of whether it’s the greatest innovation ever, writing is without question indispensable to modern society. Without writing we would have little insight into the past, and the task of passing on what we have learned to future generations would be vastly more difficult.

Copyright (c) David S. Moore, 2022

All rights reserved


The Science Fiction Genre

Is the genre of science fiction simply a form of titillating entertainment, unworthy of serious consideration? Or does it convey something of lasting value that can engage our interest and give us insight into ourselves and the world around us?

Before attempting to answer this question we should ask whether there is any such thing as a story of any kind that is of lasting value and which gives us insight into ourselves and the world around us. I would say that the answer to that question is unequivocally ‘Yes.’ As positive examples I would offer Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies: Macbeth, King Lear, Hamlet, Othello. Though these plays are more than four centuries old, they still captivate audiences today with their realistic portrayals of lives destroyed by greed, faithlessness, carelessness, and deceit.

And yet several of Shakespeare’s plays have anachronistic elements which do not align with present day understandings. The spirit of Hamlet’s father is one such example. Many of Shakespeare’s central characters represent a bygone era of kingship. Macbeth, Lear, and Hamlet are all royalty.

Shakespeare’s is a very different sort of tragedy than that of the ancient Greeks. In Sophocles’s King Oedipus, the protagonist (Oedipus) kills his own father and has sex with his own mother, exactly as an oracle had foretold. Characters in Greek dramas often went through their lives suffering at the whims of gods and goddesses who predetermined their fates. Shakespeare’s tragic characters are the victims of human designs rather than of preordained fate, and for that reason are far more believable than Greek tragic figures.

Science fiction writing has multiple purposes, often operating in conflict. One such purpose is to dazzle the audience with visions of wondrous technologies that have vanquished all social ills; another is to terrify the audience with visions of a technology run amok. Whether the goal is to instill wonder or fear, the result is often the sublimation of character and human motivation to a narrative that is focused on technology. When technology itself is either the protagonist or the antagonist, the result is certain to be a loss of human character, and consequently a loss of emotional impact.

On the other hand, any setting– however fantastic or imaginary– can serve as the backdrop for a compelling human drama, so long as the characters so positioned have realistic human emotions and reactions. But realistic characters must also be subject to credible risks. A race of immortal beings who meditate in a state of eternal bliss are subject to no risks and are therefore not a suitable source of relatable characters.

One of my favorite Star Trek movies is Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. The frequent allusions to Shakespeare are annoying, but the characters are well developed and believable. The subject of the movie is fear of the future, and futuristic technology is merely the backdrop against which a cold war morality tale is told.

A common trait of science fiction writing and movies is that science fiction stories are almost never developed as tragedies. They may have tragic figures– such as Darth Vader of the Star Wars series of movies– but the overall arc of a science fiction story is generally expected to result in the defeat of the forces of evil by those of the good. Is it possible for a science fiction writer to produce a true tragedy in the sense of one of Shakespeare’s great works? Perhaps, but such stories might never find an audience in today’s market.

And this poses what I consider to be the most interesting question about science fiction. Science fiction is inevitably about the future. The ‘science’ part of the term refers to technologies not presently available– but which might become available at some time in the future. People generally expect the future to be an improvement on the past. For that reason people tend to prefer stories about the future that are hopeful, not tragic. So is it even possible to write a truly tragic science fiction story?

The ‘science’ part of science fiction can too easily supplant the development of character. But it is equally possible to focus so exclusively on character development that all elements of science are so muted as to be irrelevant. At that point one may as well write about European kings.

In my view the great strength of science fiction is what it can tell us about our relationship to technology. Do we allow technology to rule our lives, to dictate our fates as did the gods and goddesses of ancient Greece? Or do we use technology for our own purposes, to our own ends, to the advantage of all? Shakespeare’s characters struggle with greed and guilt, confusion and uncertainty, indecision and indolence. Technology itself can elicit such struggles, and as an element of the story arc can serve to develop characters.

Science and technology have produced massive changes in human society. Technology will inevitably continue to shape our future. Science fiction can serve to give audiences a way to envision the impact that future technologies may have on the human psyche. When paired with strong character development in realistic human settings, such narratives can be very compelling. The challenge for the author is to balance character development against the narrative of technological influence. Too much in the direction of character development can dilute the technological aspects of the story arc; too much attention to technology can make the story sterile.

So is science fiction merely titillating entertainment of no serious value? Certainly it can be. Examples of shallow science fiction abound. But it can also challenge us to think about the directions our technologies are leading. If we want to be masters of our own fate, then we had best listen.

Copyright (c) 2022, David S. Moore

All rights reserved.

Your mixing you’re semaphores

Most struggling writers need to survive in a corporate world of hard working folks who may have talents in marketing or accounting or engineering or construction or management– but who, as a rule, wouldn’t know a pronoun from a preposition.  When I was working I often found that my inbox was cluttered with poorly written or grammatically meaningless e-mails, like this one:

I spoke to XXXX and is like you to present this document at the YYYY meeting.

Sentences lacking subjects or verbs are shockingly common, as are sentences in which the verb is of the wrong tense, like this one:

They are say the numbers are now at XXXX.

It’s generally not advisable to correct your boss’s grammar.  In fact it’s generally not advisable to correct the grammar of any of your coworkers– unless you don’t mind working with people who wish you would just die in a fiery car crash.  E-mails are often written in haste, so it’s understandable that some grammatical errors could slip by– even with spell-check and grammar highlighting. But when important business documents are written with preposterous word choices I often feel a teacher’s compulsion to make a polite suggestion.  Consider this excerpt, from an HR-written annual review document:

Demonstrates the necessary testing skills and knowledge commiserate with their role and level.

Apparently the author meant to use the word “commensurate,” meaning “in accordance with,” rather than a word which describes a form of empathy.  In my response I struck out “commiserate” and replaced it with “commensurate”, hoping that the author would realize the mistake and that the following year’s form would be corrected.  But when the next review came along, the questionnaire had the same bad wording as before.

Once I reported to the head of the marketing department that a major promotion to be displayed at 20,000 locations was written with the word “your” where it should have had “you’re.”  You just have to wonder if those who are very well paid to produce catchy advertising phrases ever took classes in which they were asked to write sentences commensurate with their roles.

So allow me to commiserate with the many thousands of struggling writers who have had to grit their teeth when reading e-mails or corporate missives that butcher our common tongue.  It’s difficult to be polite in a world in which a command of one’s language is considered an impediment to the duties of commerce. People in the corporate world are busy and are often more concerned with selling than with the proper conjugation of the verbs they employ to that end.  To those who have found themselves in this unwelcome position I would offer the simple observation that you are certainly not alone and that it really is OK– on occasion– to correct the grammar of those corporate documents that threaten to blemish your company’s public image.