Time Travel: A History (2016)
Being young, I was skeptical of the future, and saw it as a matter of potential only, a state of things that might or might not arise and probably never would.
—John Banville (2012)
A MAN STANDS AT the end of a drafty corridor, a.k.a. the nineteenth century, and in the flickering light of an oil lamp examines a machine made of nickel and ivory, with brass rails and quartz rods—a squat, ugly contraption, somehow out of focus, not easy for the poor reader to visualize, despite the listing of parts and materials. Our hero fiddles with some screws, adds a drop of oil, and plants himself on the saddle. He grasps a lever with both hands. He is going on a journey. And by the way so are we. When he throws that lever, time breaks from its moorings.
The man is nondescript, almost devoid of features—“grey eyes” and a “pale face” and not much else. He lacks even a name. He is just the Time Traveller: “for so it will be convenient to speak of him.” Time and travel: no one had thought to join those words before now. And that machine? With its saddle and bars, it’s a fantasticated bicycle. The whole thing is the invention of a young enthusiast named Wells, who goes by his initials, H. G., because he thinks that sounds more serious than Herbert. His family calls him Bertie. He is trying to be a writer. He is a thoroughly modern man, a believer in socialism, free love, and bicycles.*1 A proud member of the Cyclists’ Touring Club, he rides up and down the Thames valley on a forty-pounder with tubular frame and pneumatic tires, savoring the thrill of riding his machine: “A memory of motion lingers in the muscles of your legs, and round and round they seem to go.” At some point he sees a printed advertisement for a contraption called Hacker’s Home Bicycle: a stationary stand with rubber wheels to let a person pedal for exercise without going anywhere. Anywhere through space, that is. The wheels go round and time goes by.
The turn of the twentieth century loomed—a calendar date with apocalyptic resonance. Albert Einstein was a boy at gymnasium in Munich. Not till 1908 would the Polish-German mathematician Hermann Minkowski announce his radical idea: “Henceforth space by itself, and time by itself, are doomed to fade away into mere shadows, and only a kind of union of the two will preserve an independent reality.” H. G. Wells was there first, but unlike Minkowski, Wells was not trying to explain the universe. He was just trying to gin up a plausible-sounding plot device for a piece of fantastic storytelling.
Nowadays we voyage through time so easily and so well, in our dreams and in our art. Time travel feels like an ancient tradition, rooted in old mythologies, old as gods and dragons. It isn’t. Though the ancients imagined immortality and rebirth and lands of the dead time machines were beyond their ken. Time travel is a fantasy of the modern era. When Wells in his lamp-lit room imagined a time machine, he also invented a new mode of thought.
Why not before? And why now?
THE TIME TRAVELLER BEGINS with a science lesson. Or is it just flummery? He gathers his friends around the drawing-room fire to explain that everything they know about time is wrong. They are stock characters from central casting: the Medical Man, the Psychologist, the Editor, the Journalist, the Silent Man, the Very Young Man, and the Provincial Mayor, plus everyone’s favorite straight man, “an argumentative person with red hair” named Filby.
“You must follow me carefully,” the Time Traveller instructs these stick figures. “I shall have to controvert one or two ideas that are almost universally accepted. The geometry, for instance, that they taught you at school is founded on a misconception.” School geometry—Euclid’s geometry—had three dimensions, the ones we can see: length, width, and height.
Naturally they are dubious. The Time Traveller proceeds Socratically. He batters them with logic. They put up feeble resistance.
“You know of course that a mathematical line, a line of thickness nil, has no real existence. They taught you that? Neither has a mathematical plane. These things are mere abstractions.”
“That is all right,” said the Psychologist.
“Nor, having only length, breadth, and thickness, can a cube have a real existence.”
“There I object,” said Filby. “Of course a solid body may exist. All real things—”
“So most people think. But wait a moment. Can an instantaneous cube exist?”
“Don’t follow you,” said Filby [the poor sap].
“Can a cube that does not last for any time at all, have a real existence?”
Filby became pensive. “Clearly,” the Time Traveller proceeded, “any real body must have extension in four directions: it must have Length, Breadth, Thickness, and—Duration.”
Aha! The fourth dimension. A few clever Continental mathematicians were already talking as though Euclid’s three dimensions were not the be-all and end-all. There was August Möbius, whose famous “strip” was a two-dimensional surface making a twist through the third dimension, and Felix Klein, whose loopy “bottle” implied a fourth; there were Gauss and Riemann and Lobachevsky, all thinking, as it were, outside the box. For geometers the fourth dimension was an unknown direction at right angles to all our known directions. Can anyone visualize that? What direction is it? Even in the seventeenth century, the English mathematician John Wallis, recognizing the algebraic possibility of higher dimensions, called them “a Monster in Nature, less possible than a Chimaera or Centaure.” More and more, though, mathematics found use for concepts that lacked physical meaning. They could play their parts in an abstract world without necessarily describing features of reality.
Under the influence of these geometers, a schoolmaster named Edwin Abbott Abbott published his whimsical little novel Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions in 1884, in which two-dimensional creatures try to wrap their minds around the possibility of a third; and in 1888 Charles Howard Hinton, a son-in-law of the logician George Boole, invented the word tesseract for the four-dimensional analogue of the cube. The four-dimensional space this object encloses he called hypervolume. He populated it with hypercones, hyperpyramids, and hyperspheres. Hinton titled his book, not very modestly, A New Era of Thought. He suggested that this mysterious, not-quite-visible fourth dimension might provide an answer to the mystery of consciousness. “We must be really four-dimensional creatures, or we could not think about four dimensions,” he reasoned. To make mental models of the world and of ourselves, we must have special brain molecules: “It may be that these brain molecules have the power of four-dimensional movement, and that they can go through four-dimensional movements and form four-dimensional structures.”
For a while in Victorian England the fourth dimension served as a catchall, a hideaway for the mysterious, the unseen, the spiritual—anything that seemed to be lurking just out of sight. Heaven might be in the fourth dimension; after all, astronomers with their telescopes were not finding it overhead. The fourth dimension was a secret compartment for fantasists and occultists. “We are on the eve of the Fourth Dimension; that is what it is!” declared William T. Stead, a muckraking journalist who had been editor of the Pall Mall Gazette, in 1893. He explained that this could be expressed by mathematical formulas and could be imagined (“if you have a vivid imagination”) but could not actually be seen—anyway not “by mortal man.” It was a place “of which we catch glimpses now and then in those phenomena which are entirely unaccountable for by any law of three-dimensional space.” For example, clairvoyance. Also telepathy. He submitted his report to the Psychical Research Society for their further investigation. Nineteen years later he embarked on the Titanic and drowned at sea.
By comparison Wells is so sober, so simple. No mysticism for him—the fourth dimension is not a ghost world. It is not heaven, nor is it hell. It is time.
What is time? Time is nothing but one more direction, orthogonal to the rest. As simple as that. It’s just that no one has been able to see it till now—till the Time Traveller. “Through a natural infirmity of the flesh…we incline to overlook this fact,” he coolly explains. “There is no difference between Time and any of the three dimensions of Space except that our consciousness moves along it.”
In surprisingly short order this notion would become part of the orthodoxy of theoretical physics.
WHERE DID THE IDEA come from? There was something in the air. Much later Wells tried to remember:
In the universe in which my brain was living in 1879, there was no nonsense about time being space or anything of that sort. There were three dimensions, up and down, fore and aft and right and left, and I never heard of a fourth dimension until 1884 or thereabout. Then I thought it was a witticism.
Very witty. People of the nineteenth century sometimes asked, as people will, “What is time?” The question arises in many different contexts. Say you want to explain the Bible to children. The Educational Magazine, 1835:
Ver. 1. In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.
What do you mean by the beginning? The beginning of time.—What is time? A measured portion of eternity.
But everyone knows what time is. It was true then and it’s true now. Also no one knows what time is. Augustine stated this pseudoparadox in the fourth century and people have been quoting him, wittingly and unwittingly, ever since:
What then is time? If no one asks me, I know. If I wish to explain it to one that asks, I know not.*2
Isaac Newton said at the outset of the Principia that everyone knew what time was, but he proceeded to alter what everyone knew. Sean Carroll, a modern physicist, says (tongue in cheek), “Everybody knows what time is. It’s what you find out by looking at a clock.” He also says, “Time is the label we stick on different moments in the life of the world.” Physicists like this bumper-sticker game. John Archibald Wheeler is supposed to have said, “Time is nature’s way to keep everything from happening all at once,” but Woody Allen said that, too, and Wheeler admitted having found it scrawled in a Texas men’s room.*3
Richard Feynman said, “Time is what happens when nothing else happens,” which he knew was a wisecrack. “Maybe it is just as well if we face the fact that time is one of the things we probably cannot define (in the dictionary sense), and just say that it is what we already know it to be: it is how long we wait.”
When Augustine contemplated time, one thing he knew was that it was not space—“and yet, Lord, we perceive intervals of times, and compare them, and say some are shorter, and others longer.” We measure time, he said, though he had no clocks. “We measure times as they are passing, by perceiving them; but past, which now are not, or the future, which are not yet, who can measure?” You cannot measure what does not yet exist, Augustine felt, nor what has passed away.
In many cultures—but not all—people speak of the past as being behind them, while the future lies ahead. They visualize it that way, too. “Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on,” says Paul. To imagine the future or the past as a “place” is already to engage in analogy. Are there “places” in time, as there are in space? To say so is to assert that time is like space. The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there. The future, too. If time is a fourth dimension, that is because it is like the first three: visualizable as a line; measurable in extent. Still, in other ways time is unlike space. The fourth dimension differs from the other three. They do things differently there.
It seems natural to sense time as a spacelike thing. Accidents of language encourage that. We have only so many words; before and after have to do double duty as prepositions of space as well as time. “Time is a phantasm of motion,” said Thomas Hobbes in 1655. To count time, to compute time, “we make use of some motion or other, as of the sun, of a clock, of the sand in an hourglass.” Newton considered time to be absolutely different from space—after all, space remains always immovable, whereas time flows equably without regard to anything external, and by another name is called duration—but his mathematics created an inevitable analogy between time and space. You could plot them as axes on a graph. By the nineteenth century German philosophers in particular were groping toward some amalgam of time and space. Arthur Schopenhauer wrote in 1813, “In mere Time, all things follow one another, and in mere Space all things are side by side; it is accordingly only by the combination of Time and Space that the representation of coexistence arises.” Time as a dimension begins to emerge from the mists. Mathematicians could see it. Technology helped in another way. Time became vivid, concrete, and spatial to anyone who saw the railroad smashing across distances on a coordinated schedule—coordinated by the electric telegraph, which was pinning time to the mat. “It may seem strange to ‘fuse’ time and space,” explained the Dublin Review, but look—here is a “quite ordinary” space-time diagram:
So Wells’s Time Traveller can speak with conviction: “Scientific people know very well that Time is only a kind of Space. Here is a popular scientific diagram, a weather record. This line I trace with my finger shows the movement of the barometer….Surely the mercury did not trace this line in any of the dimensions of Space…but certainly it traced such a line, and that line, therefore, we must conclude was along the Time-Dimension.”
In the new century everything felt new; physicists and philosophers gazed upon Time, so often capitalized, with new eyes. Twenty-five years after The Time Machine the “new realist” philosopher Samuel Alexander put it this way:
If I were asked to name the most characteristic feature of the thought of the last twenty-five years I should answer: the discovery of Time. I do not mean that we have waited till to-day to become familiar with Time. I mean that we have only just begun in our speculation to take Time seriously and to realize that in some way or other Time is an essential ingredient in the constitution of things.
What is time? Time machines may help us understand.
WELLS WAS NOT READING Schopenhauer, and philosophical introspection was not his style. His ideas about time were informed by Lyell and Darwin, who read the buried strata that frame the ages of the earth and the ages of life. He studied zoology and geology as a scholarship student at the Normal School of Science and Royal School of Mines, and these subjects encouraged him to view the world’s history as if from a great height—its lost epochs, a panorama unfolding, “the small-scale horse-foot, hand-industry civilizations that culminated in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, by the change of pace and scale due to mechanical invention.” Geological time, so vastly extended, disrupted the earlier sense of historical time, in which the world was plausibly considered to be six thousand years old. The scales were so different; human history was dwarfed.
“O earth, what changes has thou seen!” wrote Tennyson. “The hills are shadows, and they flow / From form to form, and nothing stands.” Lately, too, there was a science called archeology—grave robbers and treasure hunters in the service of knowledge. Archeologists, digging, were exposing buried history. At Nineveh, at Pompeii, at Troy, vaults were opened; past civilizations appeared, frozen in stone, but lifelike. Archeological digs exposed diagrams ready-made, with time a visible dimension.
Less obviously, people could see layers of time all around. Travelers riding in steam-driven railroad trains looked out their windows onto a landscape where oxen plowed the fields as they had done in medieval times, horses still hauled and harrowed, yet telegraph wires split the sky. This caused a new kind of confusion or dissociation. Call it temporal dissonance.
Above all, modern time was irreversible, inexorable, and unrepeatable. Progress marched onward—a good thing, if you were a technological optimist. Cyclical time, crosswinds of time, eternal return, the wheel of life: these were romantic notions now, for poets and nostalgic philosophers.
The Normal School, later renamed the Royal College of Science, was a lucky place for H. G., the youngest son of a shopkeeper and a former housemaid. As a teenager he had spent three unhappy years serving as a draper’s apprentice. Now, in the college’s new five-story elevator-equipped building, he studied elementary biology with (“under the shadow of”) Thomas H. Huxley, the famous Darwinian—a mighty intellectual liberator, Wells thought, bravely battling the priests and know-nothings, establishing the facts of evolution from painstakingly assembled fossil evidence and embryological material, filling up the “great jig-saw puzzle,” the confirmation of the tree of life. It was the most educational year of his life: “a grammar of form and a criticism of fact.” He had less use for the course in physics, of which he later remembered little but his own ineptitude in trying to contrive a barometer from some bits of brass and wood and glass tubing.
After finishing at the Normal School, he supported himself with some schoolteaching before “collapsing” (his word) into literary journalism. Here he found an outlet for the kind of high-flown scientific speculation he had enjoyed in the Debating Society. One essay for the Fortnightly Review, “The Rediscovery of the Unique,” grandly assessed “the series of dissolving views that we call the march of human thought.” His next, titled “The Universe Rigid,” was declared incomprehensible by the review’s formidable editor, Frank Harris, who summoned the twenty-four-year-old author to his office and tossed the manuscript into the trash bin. The Universe Rigid was a construct of four dimensions—like a block. It does not change over time, because time is already built in.
The four-dimensional frame led as if by iron necessity to the Universe Rigid. If you believed in the laws of physics in those days—and the students of the Normal School in the nation of Newton most assuredly did—then apparently the future must be a strict consequence of the past. Wells proposed to design a “Universal Diagram” by which all phenomena would be logically deduced.
One began with a uniformly distributed ether in the infinite space of those days and then displaced a particle. If there was a Universe rigid, and hitherto uniform, the character of the consequent world would depend entirely, I argued along strictly materialist lines, upon the velocity of this initial displacement.
And then? Chaos!
The disturbance would spread outward with ever increasing complication.
Edgar Allan Poe, similarly inspired by scientific speculation, wrote in 1845, “As no thought can perish, so no act is without infinite result.” In a story called “The Power of Words,” published in the Broadway Journal, he invents some angels who explain:
We moved our hands, for example, when we were dwellers on the earth, and, in so doing, we gave vibration to the atmosphere which engirdled it. This vibration was indefinitely extended, till it gave impulse to every particle of the earth’s air, which thenceforth, and for ever, was actuated by the one movement of the hand. This fact the mathematicians of our globe well knew.
The actual mathematician Poe had in mind was the arch-Newtonian Pierre-Simon, Marquis de Laplace, for whom the past and the future were nothing more or less than physical states, rigidly connected by the inexorable mechanics of the laws of physics. The present state of the universe (he wrote in 1814) is “the effect of its past and the cause of its future.” Here is the Universe Rigid:
Given for one instant an intelligence which could comprehend all the forces by which nature is animated and the respective positions of the beings which compose it, if moreover this intelligence were vast enough to submit these data to analysis, it would embrace in the same formula both the movements of the largest bodies in the universe and those of the lightest atom; to it nothing would be uncertain, and the future as the past would be present to its eyes.
Some people already believed in such an intelligence; they called it “God.” To Him nothing would be uncertain or unseen. Doubt is for us mortals. The future, as the past, would be present to His eyes. (Or would it? Perhaps God would be content to see creation unfold. Heaven’s virtues might include patience.)
This one sentence by Laplace has more enduring life than the rest of his work combined. It pops up again and again in the philosophizing of the next two centuries. Whenever anyone starts talking about fate or free will or determinism, there is the marquis again. Jorge Luis Borges mentions his “fantasies”: “that the present state of the universe is, in theory, reducible to a formula, from which Someone could deduce the entire future and the entire past.”
The Time Traveller invents “an omniscient observer”:
To an omniscient observer there would be no forgotten past—no piece of time as it were that had dropped out of existence—and no blank future of things yet to be revealed. Perceiving all the present, an omniscient observer would likewise perceive all the past and all the inevitable future at the same time. Indeed, present and past and future would be without meaning to such an observer: he would always perceive exactly the same thing. He would see, as it were, a Rigid Universe filling space and time—a Universe in which things were always the same.*4
“If ‘past’ meant anything,” he concludes, “it would mean looking in a certain direction; while ‘future’ meant looking the opposite way.”
The Universe Rigid is a prison. Only the Time Traveller can call himself free.
*1 He defined free love as “the liberation of individual sexual conduct from social reproach and from legal controls and penalties.” And he “practised it tirelessly,” as David Lodge wrote.
*2 Quid est ergo tempus? Si nemo ex me quaerat, scio; si quaerenti explicare velim, nescio.
*3 Predating them by several decades, a science-fiction writer named Ray Cummings put those words into the mouth of a character called the Big Business Man in his 1922 novel The Girl in the Golden Atom. Later, Susan Sontag said (quoting “an old riff I’ve always imagined to have been invented by some graduate student of philosophy”), “Time exists in order that everything doesn’t happen all at once, and space exists so that it doesn’t all happen to you.”
*4 This passage appears in an early serialized version in the New Review (volume 12, page 100) but not in the final book.