Caribbean Stories

The Day Time Machines Went Kaput

7. The Pit of the Pendulum

A COMPENDIUM OF STANDARD CHRONOPHYSICAL THEORY is not what the typical layperson would expect from a speaker presented as an experimentalist. Yet that is what this audience received and, judging by their rapturous applause, welcomed and truly appreciated. Which is understandable, for when you know that you are to be hurled into the fathomless pit of ultradeep time, you definitely want to know as much about the nature of the beast as you possibly can. That way if things go wrong and you fail to return, you at least have the dubious satisfaction of knowing a thing or two about where you got trapped for the rest of eternity. The consolation afforded by such knowledge may be meager, but it beats the hysteria and despair that could well overwhelm you because of creeping dread on realizing the hopelessness of your situation, marooned heaven knows when. It all depends on where the marooning takes place, but one must keep in mind that the Hadean aeon and the Jurassic and the galloping Asian hordes fiercely screaming towards you are not excluded from the range of possibilities for a defective machine. In fact, everything we find abominable in history, either cultural or natural, suddenly must be considered an eventuality. One must also keep in mind that history is not confined to planet Earth; asphyxiating on the voyage to Jupiter/Saturn is a distinct possibility. “I’m sorry, Frank, I’m afraid I had to do that.” At least that is the way I see things. I wonder what my fellow time traveler trainee would make of all this.

THE PROFESSOR GRACIOUSLY ACKNOWLEDGED THE ACCOLADE and shared honors with his fellow performer, who waved her hand high from her chair up front. They make a great pair. She’d be the ideal cohort for his brainy stand-up routine on the sci biz lecture circuit, playing straight man to his droll academician. Can’t be too dry when delivering facts, the ad people say. You’ve got to get your audience involved, emotionally even more than intellectually. That’s how winners get their message across. That, at any rate, is what publicity hucksters go around peddling. And after paying top dollar to take courses pushing that creed, I might as well take their advice. Yeah, I know, averting the sting of buyer’s remorse. Ah, but Plato, a man renowned for his rational integrity, surely had something to say about this, what with all the hoopla about Western ideas being mere footnotes to his comprehensive, penetrating thought… or something along those lines:
    «And without further ado, I leave you with that notorious perverter of young intellects and magisterial slayer of Sophists, our one and only, Socrates!»
    «Goooood morning, Athens! Thank you, fellow Atticans, thank you. Much obliged. Thank you all. Today we’ll be doing a bit of intellectual heavy lifting, so any visiting Romans out there are excused. Hey, just kidding! You’re welcome to stay. What the heck, you won’t understand beans anyway. That reminds me of the story about the origin of Pythagoras’ Rule: No beans in the commune. This guy walks into the Pythagoreans’ cave— »
    “You all right?”
    “Nanu nanu.”
    “What do you think of the lecture? Did you like it?”
    “Oh, yes, very much so. This guy’s a walking science encyclopedia.”
    “He sure is.”
    “There is one thing I didn’t catch, though: How does entropy fit in with the light cones?”
    “Umm, I don’t think there was anything to catch there.”
    “Say again?”
    “Entropy as a concept arises in thermodynamics. It is not a part of relativity theory and does not play a role there, as far as I know.”
    Is that so. The old compartmentalized science excuse, eh? Looks like it’s time to push some buttons. “Say what!? What about being a part of reality? Or is that pesky little detail too insignificant for theoretical physicists? ‘Vat, you expekt our elegant seories to aktually deal vis reality? Zee nerf of zis kid!’”
    “Come off it, kiddo! The most successful theories by far in all of science come from physics. Unlike economics —Ahem!— the dismal science.”
    There she goes, deploying her heavy artillery.
    “They still haven’t predicted a single recession after all these… centuries! What kind of a science is that?”
    She’s good, must admit. Heck, it takes half a year to retrodict a recession. “I’m from business, not econ.”
    “That’s not even a science, even nominally.”
    Ooh, I hate it when she’s right on the money, which is always. But on the other hand, she demolishes her opponents with such caring and tenderness, you can’t really get angry with her. Watch.
    “Theories in science are meant to be simplifications of reality. They are not intended to deal with everything under the sun all at once. Still, they explain basic principles exceptionally well. And they do predict future events.”
    “More like just about always in physics. Why do you think they call it an exact science?”
    Because it exacts pain and suffering from its students? You’d think she was a physics major. In math, her field, they do precisely what I’m criticizing: ignore the real world completely. Theorems are purely theoretical. Must admit it has no effect whatsoever on the applicability of their finished product. Strange discipline. Okay, enough of this. Retreat! Avoid unconditional humiliation. Throw her a sop to placate her. “Was Einstein aware of entropy when he came up with relativity?”
    “Oh, I’m sure he was. This was not an oversight on his part.”
    Let’s give them the benefit of doubt. “Well, if you say so.”
    “Look at it this way: There is still work to be done in physics. The field is a work in progress, like all of science. That’s good news for physics majors.”
    “Yeah, you’re right.” She’s always right. “You’re always right, Suzy.”
    “Aw, Chris, please. And you’re always the perfect gentleman. Which is why I like being with you.”
    Alright! Brownie points! Wonder if they are redeemable. Hey! With this fab anacronópete thing or whatever, I don’t have to wonder any more. I can go forth to the future and find out for myself. Guess where I’m soon heading off to, kiddo!

ANOTHER FINE THEORETICAL SYNOPSIS from a practical experimentalist. Many people don’t realize that to deliver the goods in praxis, one must have what it takes upstairs in the brain: a solid command of the underlying theory. In physics it boils down to this: no theory, no praxis. Or as Ludwig Boltzmann emphasized in a more positive tone, there is nothing more practical than a good theory. Now, that wisdom holds not only for physics but for practically everything else. Yet people insist on doing all manner of things they know very little about, especially when it comes to the consequences. “Just wing it and things will sort themselves out.” Fat chance, ignoramus. That attitude explains at least 80% of the world’s problems: know-it-all dorks messing with things they do not really understand. If at all.
    That percentage is Pareto’s* ballpark figure; actual numbers can well be far worse. Your mileage may vary, you know. The question arises: Do dorks make up 80% of humanity? Or would it be that the 20% who are dorks cause 80% of the trouble. This sounds more in line with the Pareto Principle. But if that is the case, why do the remaining 80% put up with the jerks? Perhaps the entire species should be renamed Homo dorkus. In honor of the 80%.
    Not that I subscribe to the notion. There is much to be said for the wisdom of vox populi. It’s the so-called ‘leaders of the populace’ that I’m worried about. Goddamn bastards. They deserve nothing less than what Augusto Pinochet did to the political opposition after toppling Salvador Allende (the democratically elected president of Chile, at the time Latin America’s oldest democracy), with the tacit consent and moral support of Tricky Dick & Co. Clueless? Pinochet sadistically dropped the desaparecidos from high-flying military aircraft into the Pacific, alive and quite conscious. The family jewels. Our family! What a heirloom. With love from the goddamn CIA.
    Be not anguished. According to the fundamental principles of symmetry and the laws of conservation, all these bastards are doomed to pay. Physically.
    Why is America into this wretched business of bringing horrible death and destruction to everybody else in the world? Correction, I should not say America but Washington. You don’t see these sickos on Main Street, USA. Well, for the most part. America does have its share of kooks, more than anybody else. But it’s the Washington Bastards, acting like grotesque demons risen from the swamps of the Deep South, who instigate the deadly international crises and execute the worst of atrocities on a continual basis, mostly against small nations. Bullies. What is it with these reptilian humanoids, these self-styled ‘representatives’ of good, decent Americans? Beginning with the head honcho himself. “I’m the head honcho here! Suck it up!” They sure as hell don’t represent me. My apologies to natural reptiles. No offense intended. The lifelong politikers are only part of the problem. Most of the troublemakers consist of wholly unelected and firmly entrenched bureaucrats, civilian and military, such as public administrators and juridical enforcers, who act as if they owned the government knowing full well they are not really accountable to the citizenry, along with amoral corporate fat cats, especially from the financial sector and the armaments industrial complex, and their hired-gun amoral lobbyists, who dictate to the political scalawags what it is they must enact. If they want to be reelected. Amerika: the best ‘democracy’ that money can buy.
    That is not what the New Englanders of colonial times envisioned for their incipient town-hall democracies. Folks back then were personally involved in the running and managing of their communities, responsibly. They aspired to a better society, to the development of the commonweal. That is why they forsook ye olde Englanders to begin with, to suffer the lords nevermore. Why do you think they call it a revolution? But see what these neo-lords who supplanted ye olde bastards have wrought. The settlers of New England are the authentic founding fathers of this nation, not the protobastards sitting in Philadelphia. (But what about Virginia? Get outta here.) The people’s nation, not the gilded monster fashioned by these wily, power-grabbing crooks. The crooks who stole the people’s hard-fought democracy. How could America have turned out so wrong?
    Got a chance to do something about it. Got me a goddamn time machine.

PROFESSOR STAUFFENBERG’S EXPOSITION reminded me of the rigorous approach to science that is the hallmark of the Indian Institutes of Technology, the Indian Institute of Science, and the University of Mumbai, among other prominent schools in India. My only regret in studying engineering at BU has been forgoing the experience of IIT, although not completely: I did take a summer camp offered by an IIT prior to my senior year in higher secondary. The calibre of those courses impressed me greatly. But I still jumped at the opportunity of attending BU: you get Boston the city as part of the deal. I can always take an advanced degree at IIT when I return home. Actually, I now have the option of travelling to the future to check on how things are working out for me then. If things are not up to snuff, then I can return and do something else in the present to reinvent my entire life. That’s pretty cool! Imagine that, being able to check out your future spouse, job, whatever, with a tour of your prospective life. And being able to talk to an older, more experienced yourself. Who else can provide better guidance? Oh, wait! That would open the floodgates to time travel paradoxes galore. Nature would not like that at all. What if I were to touch my alter ego. Would we annihilate ourselves in a burst of gamma rays? Alter Me will not be made of antimatter, but you never know what Nature has up her sleeve. You don’t want to antagonize Mother Nature. Must make sure I don’t get zapped into nothingness, especially if Alter Me survives the encounter. That would really screw up reality. Who knows, the universe might just grind to a halt. Well, at least the little piece that contains me.
    But there is a problem with this notion of being able to examine one’s future life, aside from the usual time travel paradoxes. If everyone had the opportunity to visit the future and return to the present to rearrange their upcoming life, the future would never arrive. For the moment one finds an agreeable state of affairs, billions others would make changes to their future as well, thus wiping out the futurity you thought you had assured for yourself. So you would try to arrange things again but so would the billions others, and so on. The “normal” flow of events would never have a chance to play itself out because people would keep returning to the present to try to pin down an elusive future that always would remain beyond reach. Time might even wind up running backwards due to ceaseless trips back to ever earlier presents in pursuit of an illusory situational advantage. So instead of grinding to a halt, the universe might actually regress.
    Nature will absolutely not tolerate this, that some lowly ephemeral species were to wreck the progression of Nature herself. Travelling to the future is out. This means that if one were sent to the past, then one will definitely remain in the past. Mother Nature will make sure of that. Alternatively, travelling to the future is allowed but no one can go back to the past. Lo! That in fact is how things work. Can’t outwit Mother Nature. She’s already outwitted us. Now then, do we bright young students with our entire shiny futures ahead of us really want to participate in this kamikaze research project? Think, Yogita. Think well before you act.

THAT WAS A PRETTY GOOD LECTURE, concise and to the point yet covering quite a bit of territory. It is evident that there are profound differences between the relativistic view of time and that derived from classical thermodynamics. I’m not sure those differences can be bridged. It would seem, if I understand this correctly, which may or may not be the case, that relativity theory leads us to conclude that the block universe view of spacetime is correct: past, present and future coexist all at once. But according to the rules of entropy, time must necessarily be tied to the present since it must follow the path carved by entropy in the very fabric of nature, nature being the currently existing, matter-energy constrained, spatio-temporally delimited reality we observe and frolic in right now. No one frolics in the past or in the future. Reality is all the nature there is, ever was, and ever will be. Reality is nature at this existential moment, the now. According to thermodynamics.
    But what about Minkowski spacetime, that essential component of relativity theory? Time there is basically another metrical space. Past and future are merely the extents of that particular dimension, the reach or expanse over which the entire temporal domain runs, corresponding to up and down, front and back, and left and right in the more familiar spatial domain. Physics needs this additional dimension to correctly represent phenomena, relativistic as well as classical. Can’t pinpoint an event without a time coordinate. So Minkowski’s conception of spacetime is nothing more than explicit recognition of a basic fact. It is a geometric construct that serves to map events that occur, that become manifest, in nature. That is to say, Minkowski spacetime exists not ‘out there’ but in your head.
    Now, does all of this theorizing make sense? Think, Gabo. Cogitate.
    I feel like a fish out of water. Let me run this through engineering. “Yogita, do you see an incompatibility between relativistic and thermodynamical time?”
    “I don’t know about that. But I’m not stepping into any time machine!”
    Boy, this looks much worse than I thought.

OH, ISN’T HE A DARLING! spreading out his arm towards me to include me in the applause. Wave briskly, Gretch. Way to go, Professor! A stellar performance! Had I had Herr Prof as my teacher in high school, I might have gone into physics. Instead, I got these tedious calculations involving masses with attached springs and what have you. Sheesh, with so much fascinating stuff, why nip one’s youthful curiosity in the bud? Physicists ought to take a hint from marketing. Then maybe they wouldn’t have to put up with the stupefying blather of the nincompoops: “It’s good science. But it’s not affordable science.” Afford this, vacuum-head. Sorry.
    Ever hear “It’s good military stuff. But it’s not affordable military stuff”? It seems such stuff is always affordable, whatever the staggering price. Or “It’s not needed military stuff.” “It’s too pork-barrelly military stuff.” “It’s totally useless military stuff.” Nowadays we’ve got a new snappy answer: “It’s the-terrorists-will-wind-up-with-this military stuff.” Why not ship it to them directly, FOB Baghdad? Think, bozos: budget priorities help shape the destiny of a country. No room for science is not the smart way to go. Duh! Didn’t you learn anything from Ike?
    History shows that no one ever learnt anything from history. Maybe they’ll learn something from this newfangled, student-operated, time machine project.
    I wonder what FOB stands for.

But what experience and history teach is this — that peoples and governments never have learned anything from history, or acted on principles deduced from it.
— Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel

Posted:   10 Mar 2015
Revised:   1 May 2015

Stuff from the Web

The Illusion of Time • The Fabric of the Cosmos - NOVA
Brian Greene, Columbia University • 55:40

Image credits:

"Mongol Dominions 1300-1405". The Mongol Empire's largest extent is outlined in red. Note the denotations for Golden, Blue, and White Hordes. Public domain. Source: William R. Shepherd. Historical Atlas. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1911. Obtained from Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection, The University of Texas at Austin. Also found at Wikimedia Commons.

"Sputnik 1". A replica of Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite in the world to be put into Earth orbit on 4 October 1957. The launch of Sputnik by the USSR prodded the Eisenhower administration into creating in 1958 the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Replica on display at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum, Washington, DC. Public domain. Photo sources: NASA, APOD, Wikimedia. For a beautiful artistic rendition of the Sputnik in orbit, see "Sputnik 1 Satellite" by Detlev Van Ravenswaay


* Vilfredo Pareto, the Italian engineer, economist, sociologist, political scientist and philosopher, discovered that in his home country approximately 80% of the land was owned by 20% of the population. Further investigations with economic data from other countries showed similar distributions. The distribution has also been observed to hold in many other situations besides economics. The finding is known as the Pareto Principle or the 80-20 Rule.

Einstein published several papers on thermodynamics before 1905, his annus mirabilis. See "What Einstein Thought About Thermodynamics" by John Schmitz, excerpted from his book, The Second Law of Life: Energy, Technology and the Future of Earth As We Know It. Preview at Google Books.

Jean-Louis Tane (2014) has explored the relationship between thermodynamics and relativity. See "An Extended Interpretation of the Concept of Entropy Opening a Link between Thermodynamics and Relativity", Natural Science, 6, 503-513, available at See also "How are Thermodynamics and Relativity Related?" for a summary and other references by Tane at Bright Hub Engineering.

Quote: G.W.F. Hegel, The Philosophy of History, Introduction; J. Sibree translation, 1991 Prometheus Books, p 19