Wednesday, January 25, 2012

. . . Time

"Both young children and old people have a lot of time on their hands. That's probably why they get along so well. " -- Jonathan Carroll

Among his many talents Jonathan Carroll is a novelist and author who is perhaps best known for his treatment of the subjects of magic, slipstream, and modern fantasy.  He knows a thing or two about the problem presented by time, though to some degree we all do, right?

No writer -- at least no freelancer -- complains about not having time with any seriousness to the complaint, because not having time means that they are working -- that they are earning...  And that is not a subject that freelance writers joke about.

I just wish that there was a way to obtain more time...  Or swap the free time that is available in the middle of Summer with the times in the Winter when there is not enough time.

Time Travel Happens . . 

The idea of time travel has been a staple for science fiction and fantasy writers since the genres were invented -- and maybe even before that.  

The Time Machine by H. G. Wells is often the first story that comes to mind when the subject is raised, and it is a great story that arguably was created by a writer who was way before his time.  Then there is the classic novel Bid Time Return by Richard Matheson that was turned into a movie called Somewhere in Time (that starred Christopher Reeves) which was a good one.

My all time favorite time travel novels have to be Time and Again by Jack Finney, and Robert Heinlein's The Door Into Summer, a story whose protagonist, an engineer named Daniel Boone Davis, has a pet cat who is also his best friend (named Petronius the Arbiter) who features rather prominantly in both the plot and the endearing quality of the story.  In fact it is fair to say that the observation by Heinlein's wife Ginny that prompted him to write the story was, more or less, about that cat.

I cannot read that book without getting near tears at Heinlein's description of the emotional crisis that the cat, Pete, is thrown into when the protagonist is placed in a position beyond Pete's ability to either rationalize or deal with -- which leaves him with only the option to cry.

Heinlein belongs in a very exclusive group of writers whose ability to cause you to think without realizing you are doing so, while they take contemporary issues and wrap them in the thin veil of the story that they are telling, is so powerful a gift that we should consider ourselves fortunate that these men and women chose to tell stories as writers rather than to enter the field of politics, where their natural talents would have easily permitted them to manipulate not just the system, but each and every one of us as individuals.

. . . Just Ask the Experts
As the plot to a novel time travel is an interesting concept, but the idea that it could actually be possible strikes most intelligent people as not simply unlikely, but when the notion is being presented by another (presumably) smart person, a primary tip-off that the person doing the talking is trying to sell you something.

That being the case it is not really all that surprising to me that there is a decided reluctance on the part of some of the smartest people in the world alive today to admit that they believe time travel is possible.  In fact it happens all the time.  Every day.  Right now.  Says who?

How about Dr. Stephen Hawking?

While he is reluctant to discuss the matter because, as he points out, invariably the listener will grasp at much of the hypothesis and apply it to elements of the notion that for personal reasons they want to believe, that sort of conversation rarely ends well or heads in the direction that was intended.  That is an irrational but predictable given...

So what do people like Hawking mean when they say that time travel is possible?

If you apply the very strictest sense of what is and is not observable phenomenon, every time you look at a star you are traveling in time, because what you are seeing is an event that is thousands -- and in some cases perhaps millions -- of years old.  That it is happening right now but originally occurred all that time ago certainly meets with the generally accepted definitions of time travel, right?

If you got into a space ship (whose technology we do not at present possess) and headed out into space at, say, twice the speed of light, and you traveled for a good long time, if you then stopped and you tuned your television receiver to the right frequency, you could watch the live broadcast of Elvis Presley appearing on the Ed Sullivan Show.  Or you could perhaps tune your radio to the right frequency and listen as Adolf Hitler gave his opening address to the world while standing at the podium of the 1936 Summer Olympic Games in Berlin...  That would qualify as time travel wouldn't it?  After all, they are both live broadcasts...

. . . Observers and Participants . . .

Albert Einstein (14 March 1879 – 18 April 1955) hinted that time had many aspects, and that the passage of time and actual events were more relative to the observer rather than the participant, since the observer could see elements of a tableau that were concealed from the participant.  That is an over-simplification of what he actually said, the details of which include speed, the sun, the nature of the physics of time, and some very complicated mathematical formula I do not even pretend to understand because hey, I don't.

What I do understand is that there are things Einstein daydreamed about that are way out of reach for me even when I am focusing upon and concentrating upon an idea.  I am just saying...

One of the examples of how Einstein's daydreams often turn out to be realistic assessments of actual phenomenon is the International Space Station (commonly called the "ISS" by the smart people at NASA).  As part of my job as a newspaper columnist who writes about business and technology I have the occasion to learn things that most people do not.  For example when there was a problem with the ISS, I spent a few weeks learning about it as I followed the developments that, fortunately, turned out to be much ado about nothing.  

The disaster was not a disaster, nothing bad happened, and so there was really nothing to write about but -- and this I think of as the cool bit in all of this -- I walked away from the experience having been briefed by some of the smartest people in the world including NASA engineers whose business it is to operate and fix the ISS, and now know a lot about it.  Cool that.
For example I know that the COSPAR ID for the ISS is "1998-067A" -- and I know that a COSPAR ID is the International Designator -- also known as COSPAR designation -- which is the international naming convention that is used for satellites, the ISS being technically a satellite.  

Naming things is an important task, especially things that go up into space with the potential for coming back down to earth, since you have to fill out insurance forms when your roof is destroyed by an object falling out of the sky and insurance companies like it better when you can say "pieces from the object formerly known as 1998-067A re-entered the atmosphere and struck my roof,  destroying it," rather than "this big metallic thing that is I know not what came from I know not where and crushed my roof; and now I need you to fix it please, thank you!"

A working example -- in fact the very example that the NASA engineer used in explaining the convention to us at the briefing, is object "1990-037B," which translates to the Hubble Space Telescope.  That happened to be the 37th known successful launch world-wide in 1990, and you may be interested to know that actor and comedian Jack Black's mother is Dr. Judith Cohen-Black, is an engineer who worked extensively on the Hubble Space Telescope Project.  Isn't it a small world?

The official Radio Call Sign for the ISS is Alpha, and it has a maximum crew compliment of six people.  Its Operational Window is roughly the years 1998 to 2016 but it is possible according to the experts to extend that by affixing booster motors to the ISS changing its orbit to a higher one to correct the roughly 2km a month that it degrades (falls) which would have the effect of allowing it to stay up there longer.  Of course doing that would require dis-assembly of much of the external structure such as the solar power arrays and other stuff so it is not likely.  But they could do it if they wanted to...

The ISS has an approximated mass of around 450,000 kg (990,000 lb), a length of 72.8 m, and a width 108.5 m.  Its height c. 20 m (c. 66 ft), and its pressurised volume 837 m3 (29,600 cu ft), and it has an atmospheric pressure 101.3 kPa (29.91 inHg, 1 atm).  The most important fact for the purposes of this article is the fact that its average speed is  7,706.6 m/s (27,743.8 km/h, 17,239.2 mph) allows it to orbit the planet every 91 minutes.

This is important because it demonstrates another aspect of time travel Hawking talked about -- the fact that wristwatches worn by astronauts who spend time on the ISS lose time uniformly -- that is to say at the exact same and identical rate, which is proof that time for the people on the ISS passes slower than time on the surface of the planet, so you could say that the astronauts are traveling backwards in time every time they visit the ISS. 

I need to go now, I am out of time...

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