Filmed on Monday June 5, 02017

James Gleick

Time Travel

James Gleick is a science historian focussed on the cultural effects of technology. His books include Chaos: Making a New Science; Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman; Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything; The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood; and Time Travel: A History.

The problem of the unknowable future is matched by the problem of the unchangeable past. Both are solved by the dream of time travel. The peculiarities and paradoxes of time travel are explored in imaginative detail in science fiction, even though it doesn’t exist, or maybe especially because it doesn’t exist. Grappling with the idea helps humans engage with a dimension of profound human powerlessness and also invites deeper thinking about what actually can be known about the past and what actually can be done about the future.

James Gleick’s meditation on time covers how time is experienced psychologically, how artists such as Borges, Proust, and Wells create with it, how religions conjure eternity, how cosmology probes forking universes, and how so much comes down to the nature of “now.”

Science historian Gleick is the author of Chaos (1987), Isaac Newton (2003), The Information (2011), and Time Travel: A History (2016).

Time travel is time research

Gleick began with H.G. Wells’s 1895 book The Time Machine, which created the idea of time travel. It soon became a hugely popular genre that shows no sign of abating more than a century later. “Science fiction is a way of working out ideas,” Gleick said. Wells thought of himself as a futurist, and like many at the end of the 19th century he was riveted by the idea of progress, so his fictional traveler headed toward the far future. Other authors soon explored travel to the past and countless paradoxes ranging from squashed butterflies that change later elections to advising one’s younger self.

Gleick invited audience members to query themselves: If you could travel in time, would you go to the future or to the past? When exactly, and where exactly? And why. And what is your second choice? (Try it, reader.)

“We’re still trying to figure out what time is,” Gleick said. Time travel stories apparently help us. The inventor of the time machine in Wells’s book explains archly that time is merely a fourth dimension. Ten years later in 1905 Albert Einstein made that statement real. In 1941 Jorge Luis Borges wrote the celebrated short story, “The Garden of Forking Paths.” In 1955 physicist Hugh Everett introduced the quantum-based idea of forking universes, which itself has become a staple of science fiction.

“Time,” Richard Feynman once joked, “is what happens when nothing else happens.” Gleick suggests, “Things change, and time is how we keep track.” Virginia Woolf wrote, “What more terrifying revelation can there be than that it is the present moment? That we survive the shock at all is only possible because the past shelters us on one side, the future on another.”

To answer the last question of the evening, about how his views about time changed during the course of writing Time Travel, Gleick said:

I thought I would conclude that the main thing to understand is: Enjoy the present. Don’t waste your brain cells agonizing about lost opportunities or worrying about what the future will bring. As I was working on the book I suddenly realized that that’s terrible advice. A potted plant lives in the now. The idea of the ‘long now’ embraces the past and the future and asks us to think about the whole stretch of time. That’s what I think time travel is good for. That’s what makes us human—the ability to live in the past and live in the future at the same time.

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