AWF17: Time Travel – James Gleick

Time Travel with James Gleick, chaired by Graeme Hill was at 6pm, Saturday 20 May at the Auckland Writers Festival.

Graeme Hill got the audience on side before James Gleick even managed to get on stage. The early arrival of the chair – or more correctly, the slightly delayed arrival of the writer – gave him the chance to pull out a few decent time travel cracks before things really got started. One wonders how carefully he had to practice his brief backwards sentence.

But then the man of the hour, James Gleick, stepped on stage, and both chaps took their seats. There was no mucking around, with Graeme going straight in with a statement-turned-question about Newton and the seeming impossibility of his intellect and ability.

james gleick.jpg

James Gleick

‘I feel the same way – that’s the central mystery of Isaac Newton,’ James replied. ‘And this may be a cheesy segue, but I wish I had a time machine.’

Cheesy it may have been, it served its purpose. And who doesn’t love a little morsel of a pun to kick off an evening session after a long day of being overwhelmed by wave after wave of literary talent and intrigue

James Gleick’s book Time Travel: A History weaves together literary history with physics and philosophy to present a thoroughly researched piece of work exploring this concept that has fed into so many different tales over the past century. But for many, the fact that the idea of time travel has only been around since HG Wells’  The Time Machine is bewildering – at least, according to the explanation made in James’ book. It’s so central to our understanding of science fiction and adventure. As James described it: ‘I know six-year-olds who talk about time travel paradoxes over breakfast’.

time travelBut it seems to hold true. James explained that upon looking into the first instance of “time travel” in the Oxford English Dictionary, it was a back-formation derived from Wells’ hero – the Time Traveller. So many of our pop culture references – Doctor Who, A Wrinkle In Time, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, heck, The Time-Traveller’s Wife, if we want to be really on the nose about it – all of these owe a debt to Well and his decision to have a nameless man travel through time on what amounts to – in James’ words – ‘a fancy bicycle’.

The pair discussed the relationship between science fiction and science fact – and the curious coincidence of Wells writing The Time Machine only about a decade before Albert Einstein put forward his idea of relativity.

Graeme was a very enthusiastic – if not always in a useful manner – interviewer, full of gestures and exclamations that certain concepts were blowing his mind. There was a discussion about the idea of time travel as it currently plausibly ‘exists’ – the idea that someone moving away from Earth very quickly, near the speed of light, will experience time more slowly than someone back home. But this is on such an tiny, tiny scale that the time gained would be in the realm of a fraction of a second. After Graeme went into great detail about this idea, James begrudgingly acknowledged the truth of it.

‘You can call that time travel… but it’s pretty disappointing.’

Graeme used his powers of gesture and outrage at the limits of physics to question, why time, when compared to the three spacial dimensions, could only go in one direction. James explained that in this situation, ‘the idiot’s answer’ is the one he tends to side with. ‘Before we got into time as a dimension, it didn’t matter – we just knew that the past is gone and the future is yet to come. All that is knowable is the present.’

They talked through Newton’s Laws of Motion, and how the work just as well backwards as forward – until they don’t. The example of snooker balls bouncing around on a table was put forward – play any one fragment of a video of them bouncing back or forward, and they are basically the same. But play that opening moment backwards, and the balls suddenly all join together in a perfect triangle – and that just doesn’t happen.

They talked multiverse theory, briefly, and brought in a few more pop culture references, and then wrapped up with questions. James may have been better served by a slightly less animated chair – maybe we ought to arrange a spot of time travel to make that happen ­– but the conversation still packed a whole lot of big thinking in to an hour.

Attended and reviewed by Briar Lawry for Booksellers NZ

Time Travel
by James Gleick
Published by Fourth Estate Ltd
ISBN 9780008207670

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