If I had a time machine, I have to be honest and admit I probably wouldn’t use it to do intellectual or admirable things like travel to old Vienna to watch Mozart compose or ancient Greece to watch democracy emerge from the primordial sludge of human endeavor.
No, most likely I’d only travel back twenty or so years…to the Hollywood of a younger, studlier Brad Pitt. There my journey would end, hopefully in his living room as we sipped dirty martinis.
Little did I know before picking up a copy of Jenny Randles inestimable 2005 book Breaking the Time Barrier: The Race to Build the First Time Machine that scientists are actually taking this desire of mine seriously.
Well, perhaps not my desire. But time travel has indeed transformed itself from the crackpot science of antisocial inventors to a true, global pursuit of the domination of humanity’s final frontier: not space, but time. And guess what? They aren’t as far off as you might think.
Randles explains that light – the mechanism by which all flow of information is controlled in our universe – is what really conveys to us a sense of time passing, and that if we were to overtake it, the overall effect of that would be that of time…stopping.
Of course, there’s more than one way to skin a cat. Though exceeding light’s 186,000 mph in a manmade device seems pretty daunting, if you just stop light instead, the problem is solved.
Luckily, the scientific community has been there, done that. A combination of effort from Dr. Lene Vestergaard Hau of Harvard University and Dr. Ronald L. Walsworth and Dr. Mikhail D. Lukin of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics produced an experiment in which light was stopped completely and “stored” in a gaseous medium.
Once this happens, Randles explains, the temporal landscape becomes essentially frozen – the past and future unable to transmit information and so start the flow of time once more. A worthy adventurer, therefore, could use the opportunity to – gasp! – move back and forth within it.
Naturally it’s not that simple. It’s never that simple if you’re a mere member of the plebian laity rather than one of the scientific Illuminati. Nevertheless, it does have profound implications for even the least members of our race. Of course, not everyone considers these developments so exciting or fortuitous.
The scientific community itself is strongly divided on the issue, mainly between those who see the enormous opportunity offered and those who fear the breaking of a multitude of formerly immutable physical laws (for instance, going back in time and killing your own grandfather. What happens then??)
Arguments aside, it is probably news to most people that building time machines is even a credible scientific endeavor at all. And whether it’s a credit to our species’ ingenuity or the most dangerous move we’ve ever made, the developments are not likely to stop soon.