Caribbean Stories

 The Day Time Machines Went Kaput

3. Time Is What the Clock Measures

FRANK MARTINELLI is a pretty cool guy. The youngest lecturer in the Physics Department, he could easily pass for a graduate student. A veritable Californian to the bone, Martinelli’s professorial wardrobe consists of faded jeans, black leather sneakers and T-shirts suffused with dazzling hues drawn from the electromagnetic spectrum. Colors are actually conjured by the brain, but since no one knows how its neurochemical circuitry manages to transform retinal signals into vivid visual representations, let’s go along with the EM spectrum. Needless to say, Martinelli’s eccentric if sporty apparel fails to make the grade in professional circles here in staid, buttoned-up Boston. He makes a concession, however, when deploying his rumbling, chrome-slathered cruiser, suitably attired in full leather jacket, harness strap boots and fingerless gloves that go so well with his retro, Kevlar Nazi helmet and polycarbonate Afrika Korps goggles. No political statement is implied. It’s simply that the Nazis were impeccably garbed, the finest exemplars of cycle-style troops in the twentieth century, especially those zealots from the SS. Granted, their showy uniforms proved useless in the Russian winter, but what the heck. Had it been a question of military fashion, Germany would have won World War II hands down. It goes without saying that the Allies committed a strategic blunder by not bombing back into the Stone Age the Reich’s leather factories at the outset.
     Presiding at the podium, Martinelli is acting as master of ceremonies for the orientation, part of his duties as research project manager. He’s been talking about «quantum chronoportation», a purely invented term especially created to avoid the problematic, science-fictional «time travel». No one would have taken this project seriously had they dared call their contraption a «time machine». But time machine is precisely what the thing is, or rather, what they intend to prove the thing is. The aim of the project is to demonstrate that their «chronogizmo» is indeed a genuine, physically engineered, fully operational, chronometric transport device capable of enabling time travel. With a catch. In quantum physics there is always a catch. But I should let Martinelli and his fellow academic researchers tell you what the catch is. They are much more qualified than I am to do so.
    Let me first summarize what he’s done so far, namely, introducing the staff of the research project. First came the project administration assistants, who work for Martinelli and are all seniors or grad students in physics. Their job is to assist us, the project research assistants sitting here in the auditorium, in conducting our project activities, these being planning, executing, documenting, evaluating, and reporting the time travel journeys we have been invited to propose and undertake. All twelve admin assistants have time-traveled already, so they should be of help to the rest of us, who are all novices. Martinelli then introduced Professor Ludwig Friedrich von Stauffenberg, a renowned experimentalist on extended leave from the Max Planck Institute for Blackbody Physics in Berlin. Stauffenberg is chief scientist in charge of building the quantum time machine. He’s got a number of talented engineers working for him, the ladies and gents who deliver the goods. He’s the no-nonsense kind of guy who accepts a mission, rolls up his sleeves and strives to get it accomplished, the emcee informed us. “It is a family tradition”, a grinning Stauffenberg added in his Bavarian accent. Finally, Martinelli presented Professor Robin Esch, a former professor of mine, the theoretician who came up with the ideas we are now in the process of testing empirically. Esch, an esteemed scholar and highly regarded educator at BU, is nearing retirement. This project is his swan song. We gave Esch a standing ovation, for he’s a remarkable gentleman who also happens to be a great physicist. You could tell he was touched by our expression of gratitude. Ahem! Let me turn it over to Martinelli.
    “Time travel, as you know, is the stuff of classic science fiction ever since H. G. Wells’s precursors, who did serious time traveling before Wells’s foray into the subject with —no, not The Time Machine— ‘The Chronic Argonauts’! The famous novel was the child of what thereupon became an eclipsed short story. Pop quiz: Wells christened the concept of a time machine with the title of his novel, but who first came up with the idea of inventing such a machine?” Martinelli pointed jerkily at his audience in fits and starts, goading students to answer his question.
    A young woman towards the center of the auditorium raised her hand and cried out at the top of her voice, just about, “Enrique Gaspar y Rimbau!”
    “Hey, alright, toots!” Martinelli still has these ancestral mannerisms running through his veins. Mediterranean idiosyncrasies, intrinsic to the Latin blood, one might suppose. “Gold stick-on star for you. Can you cite the work?”
    “El anacronópete, I believe.”
    “You’re going places, sweetheart. Boys, take notice.”
    I certainly did. Martinelli went on: “Wells, however, made an extraordinary contribution in his ‘Argonauts’ in 1888. He was the first to declare in a story that time is a fourth physical dimension. The concept had been tossed around in math and philosophy for some time, but no one had explored it as an actual property of nature in a work of popular literature. This was seventeen years before Einstein published his theory of special relativity and a full two decades prior to Hermann Minkowski’s rigorous interpretation of his former student’s theory as implying a mathematically self-consistent, four-dimensional spacetime continuum. Wells was surfing ahead of the times! Minkowski spacetime turned out to be a fundamental component of the theory of general relativity, which Einstein published eight years after Minkowski’s conception. The great ideas were falling into place in Wells’s wake. He was not a physicist, mind you. His presentation of time as in some sense equivalent to the other three spatial dimensions, in which one can indeed freely travel, generated a great deal of interest in science-inspired speculation.”

Minkowski spacetime illustrated with space reduced to two dimensions.
According to special relativity, events outside the light cones cannot be
said to lie either in the past or the present or the future of the observer.

    I glanced around the auditorium. Most of the students here are not all that fond of physics. Had Martinelli gone over their heads with his rapid-fire lecture? Interestingly enough, everyone seemed transfixed by his talk. He had not turned people off by broaching modern physics, which he had to do at some point in this orientation. Impressive. The trick was to weave daunting physics into the fabric of student-friendly science fiction. That and omitting the intimidating math. Clever.
    “But is time in reality equivalent, in some intuitive sense, to space, relativity theory notwithstanding? In particular, can one travel or move through time? ‘Yes’, many say, ‘for we are constantly moving from the present to the future. So moving to the past should in principle be possible as well.’ ‘No’, others claim, ‘for no one moves anywhere temporally; it is time itself that appears to flow onward, not us. The past is just a collection of memories and the future a motley of expectations. We, however, physically exist only in the present.’” Martinelli then paused to let the contrasting ideas sink in. That is one of the many teaching devices he routinely employs in his classes, instructional techniques that help make him an excellent teacher. I should know. I took Modern Physics with him last year. Aha! a physics major, you infer. Well, not the conventional kind. Note that I’m not with the admin assistants but with the newbies drawn from the general student population. And I, too, am a time travel tyro, although by choice. Hey, here comes Martinelli:
    “Note that in the first case, the «Yes, time travel is possible», the past is assumed to have real existence; otherwise you could not possibly travel back to it. The future, however, may or may not yet exist. If it does, we could then travel forward to it. If it doesn’t, we would have to wait till it arrives, so to speak. But regardless of the future’s preexistence, the past must physically coexist with the present, according to the «Yes» worldview.
    “With the other case, the «No, time travel is not possible», neither past nor future exists in actual physical reality. Only the present is real, goes the argument. While this may strike some folks as common sense —If the past is real, tell me how to get there— the «No» case has a fatally serious flaw: since past and future do not exist, the present must perforce be an instant, an infinitesimal point of no duration at all. The present would be dimensionless, having zero extension in time. Zilch! This means that the present vanishes from reality, since it would have no physically measurable manifestation. But no present in addition to no past and no future means no time whatsoever. Without time, the universe could not emerge, for the Big Bang could not ever happen. Nothing could possibly be. Poof!”
    You could almost see a whiff of pure nothing rise from Martinelli’s open hand. Great teachers are gifted performers. They may not reveal their magic wand when in the midst of the drama, but it’s there.
    “Many physicists abhor the «No» case because it annihilates time. But time, Einstein clearly showed, with a little help from Minkowski, must exist because the spacetime continuum demands it. No time, no universe. Simple as that. Do keep in mind that relativity theory has passed each and every experimental test with flying colors. It’s pretty hard to argue against it, although physicists keep trying to do just that. But if time exists, then so does the possibility of time travel, at least in theory. In fact, general relativity itself points to several possible ways to do time traveling: Gödelian rotating universes; Einstein-Rosen bridges, better known as wormholes; even powerful, mysterious black holes.”
    Don’t blow it, Frank!
    “A term commonly used to describe the «Yes» case is block universe. It is pictured as an enormous loaf of French bread, with the Big Bang in the beginning —where else— that flares open at the other end, the present. The brochure in your orientation packet has an illustration that serves our purposes. Everything that has come into existence since the Big Bang is held to exist throughout the life of the universe. Actually, it has always existed. We are only aware of the present, the thin slice opposite the Bang, but all previous slices are equally real. Just think of God looking at the thing in its entirety and you’ll get the picture. God, I love physics! Why would anyone study anything else?”
    Yeah, Martinelli’s a reincarnated pre-Socratic who just can’t resist ribbing college seniors.
    “Nevertheless, we will not be using relativistic means for any of our travels through time. We’ll be taking a different tack altogether. We shall follow the way of quantum mechanics…”
    Which doesn’t give a darn about relativity.
    “…which doesn’t give a hoot about relativity.”
    Close enough for undergraduate work. Kudos, Derek.

People like us, who believe in physics, know that the distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.
— Albert Einstein

Posted:  30 Sep 2014
Revised:   1 May 2015

Stuff from the Web

How to Build a Time Machine • SETI Talks
Paul Davies, Arizona State University • 1:07:05

Image credits:

"Wooden Hourglass 3", 1 hour measure, by S Sepp, 21 Oct 2007. Modified by Stevertigo, 12 Jul 2010. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license via Wikiedpia Commons.

Spacetime 3D image licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. SVG version: K. Aainsqatsi at Original PNG version: Stib at Subsequent version, "World line2.svg",  by MissMJ via Wikimedia Commons, 24 June 2008. This version slightly modified by Diego Azeta.

"Timeline of the Universe", by NASA/WMAP Science Team, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons and NASA.


In "The Clock That Went Backward," a short story by Edward Page Mitchell published in 1881 before Gaspar's (1887) and Wells's (1888, 1895) time machines had seen print, traveling backwards in time is made possible by means of a tall, longcase-like clock built in Holland in 1572. No explanation is given as to the mystifying nature of the mostly inoperable timepiece aside from its hands moving backward on rare occasions. Some observers are of the opinion that this clock is not, properly speaking, a true, engineered time machine in the manner of Gaspar's and Wells's modern technological conceptions. In fact, the clock is so antiquated it even lacks a pendulum, which was invented in 1656. Clearly, speculative technology is of no concern in this story. The clock seems more of a supernatural device of some sort. Other commentators disagree. Wikipedia contributors, for example, state (30 Sep 2014) that Mitchell's story "is the first instance of using a time machine for time travel, and the first instance of a temporal paradox in fiction."

Henri Poincaré, in "Sur la dynamique de l’électron" ("On the Dynamics of the Electron"), published in January 1906 but received in July 1905, two months before Einstein's special relativity paper was published in September, dealt with time as a fourth imaginary coordinate. Imaginary numbers are based on the square root of -1, which defines a mathematical space separate from that of the real numbers. Hermann Minkowski went beyond Poincaré, doing away with the imaginary plane and establishing (a completely real-valued) four-dimensional spacetime. It is widely believed that had Einstein not pursued relativity theory, Poincaré would have discovered it in due course.

Note the similarities between the hourglass timepiece and the Minkowski 3D spacetime illustration displaying the present and past light cones.

Einstein quote: March 1955 letter of condolence to the sister and son of Michele Besso, Einstein's recently deceased, close friend. Quoted in Disturbing the Universe by Freeman Dyson, 1979 Harper & Row, p 193. Einstein died four weeks later.

Further reading:

In 1916 Einstein published a very readable classic intended for a general audience: Relativity: The Special and General Theory. You can read the 1920 Robert W. Lawson translation online at You can also download a digital reprint of the same edition prepared by José Menéndez at Other repositories include:,, Wikisource, Project Gutenberg,, and The Open Library, among many others. The book also remains in print, of course. Two LibriVox audiobooks are available at YouTube: a complete version (3 hrs, 38 min) and another in two parts, Part 1 and Part 2.

For a formal discussion of the arguments presented in the story, see "Is There an Alternative to the Block Universe View?" by Vesselin Petkov (2005, 2012), available at PhilSci Archive at the University of Pittsburgh.

St Augustine of Hippo gave serious thought to the riddle of time and confessed that he knew what time was as long as no one asked him to explain it. Try to write down your own explanation and see yourself echoing Augustine. Still, he wrote an enormously influential treatise on the subject, which appears in Book XI of The Confessions. That exposition is posted at The entire Book XI is available at

How to build a time machine by Stephen Hawking is at Mail Online.

Gaspar's El anacronópete (in Spanish) is available in various formats for online reading as well as for downloading at

Gaspar's El Anacronópete (in Spanish) on scanned HTML format for any worthy web browser, from Universidad de Alicante in Spain.

Gaspar's El Anacronópete (in English), translated by Michael Main, University of Colorado Boulder, in PDF format, from

The Time Machine by H.G. Wells is widely available on the web in numerous formats. I would suggest because of the large variety of available formats, the options it offers for customizing PDF and HTML files to your desired specifications, and the general information it provides about the books on its database. Other e-book sites include: Project Gutenberg (various formats & online reading), (various formats & online reading), (online reading), Planet PDF, Feedbooks, FreeBooks, and Literature Project (HTML pages). The Open Library lists 149 editions with links for online reading, library borrowing and store purchasing. Wikisource has both the Heinemann and Holt texts of Wells's classic.

Wells's "The Chronic Argonauts" on HTML format by Project Gutenberg Australia.

Wells's "The Chronic Argonauts" on EPUB, PDF and Kindle formats at

H.G. Wells Complete Works, PDF format, 12MB, at

The Works of Herbert George Wells at The University of Adelaide.

The Works of Herbert George Wells at Wikisource.

Edgar Page Mitchell's "The Clock That Went Backward" is included in The Tachypomp and Other Stories, available at: Project Gutenberg Australia and Forgotten Futures. The story is also included in Sci-Fi and Fantasy Stories From 'The Sun', available at Feedbooks.

Encyclopedia articles:

Wikipedia has a summary article on the History of special relativity.

Wikipedia has a summary article on the History of general relativity.

Time - Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Time Supplement - Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Time - Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Time - Wikipedia

What Science Requires of Time - Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

The Experience and Perception of Time - Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Being and Becoming in Modern Physics - Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Time Travel - Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Time Travel - Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Time Travel - Wikipedia

Time Travel and Modern Physics - Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Time Machines - Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Light Cone - Wikipedia

Spacetime - Wikipedia

Philosophy of Space and Time - Wikipedia

Have a great time, folks!