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It's About Time

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When English novelist H.G. Wells published The Time Machine in 1895, the novel's plot device uncannily presaged Albert Einstein's 1905 Theory of Special Relativity. In Wells' yarn — since copied, adapted and butchered hundreds of times in books and movies — the unnamed Time Traveller simply adjusts the dials of his titular steampunk contraption to move to the future or past as effortlessly as walking up or down a road. Instead of thinking of time as fixed and immutable (per Isaac Newton), we are given to understand that time is "merely" another dimension like length, width and breadth. As the Time Traveller explains to his skeptical friends before disappearing into the future, "There is no difference between Time and any of the three dimensions of Space except that our consciousness moves along it." Einstein couldn't have put it better.

For Wells, "a thoroughly modern man, a believer in socialism, free love and bicycles," according to science writer James Gleick in his new book Time Travel, this was all smoke and mirrors. In a droll piece of self-mockery, Wells would later say of his creation: "The effect of reality is easily produced. One jerks in one or two unexpected gadgets or so, and the trick is done." But what a trick! For that ardent socialist, The Time Machine was a fable, a way of warning his late-19th century readers what might happen if the divide between capitalists and workers played out to its logical conclusion. In the novel, in the year 802,701 AD, the human race has splintered: The toffs have evolved into frail, surface-dwelling Eloi (beloved of vowel-starved crossword compilers), while working stiffs have become brutish underground dwellers, the Morlocks. Every night, hungry Morlocks emerge to dine on their Eloi livestock.

My own memory of the story, read as an impressionable pre-teen living in England not far from where it all takes place, centers on the protagonist's final temporal destination (after barely escaping the dystopian Morlock-Eloi arena), far, far in the future. Arriving during our planet's last days — silent, cold and gray, almost devoid of life, the sun now red-bloated and dim, he barely makes it out alive: "... a deadly nausea seized me ... But a terrible dread of lying helpless in that remote and awful twilight sustained me while I clambered upon the saddle."

What both Wells' "trick" and Einstein's theory fails to explain is "time's arrow." It's all very well to make time "just" another dimension, akin to our three spatial dimensions, but the analogy fails when set against the most unyielding fact of life: the Second Law of Thermodynamics, aka entropy. The egg will never unbreak, the campfire will never revert to logs, disorder will never spontaneously become order. We can move freely to and fro through space, and the fundamental laws of physics are completely reversible, yet one-way time moves irredeemably from past to future. As journalist John Lanchester tersely writes, "we experience time's arrow every moment of our conscious lives. Time is everywhere, except in the equations."

Despite Wells and many subsequent time-travel storytellers, we are prisoners living in Rudyard Kipling's "unforgiving minute." We've had more than a century of post-Newtonian relativity to inform us, yet here we are, just as stuck in the present moment as H.G. Wells' astonished readers of 1895.

And there went five minutes of your time. Gone forever.

Barry Evans (barryevans9@yahoo.com) has no desire to meet his future self, one self being plenty.

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