Little Book of Secrets

Hello, friends!

So I recently saw a writing prompt on Fiction Can Be Fun.  It sounded like fun, so I decided to make some fiction based on it.

The prompt had to do with journals.  Specifically, the scenario involves somebody either losing a journal or finding a journal that belongs to somebody else.  My initial thought was what would happen if somebody found one of my journals, full of my weird Sci-Fi world building notes.  Then I thought of another idea that was even wackier than that.

I want to emphasize a few points: this story is 100% fiction.  Additionally, the fact that this story is set exactly twenty years ago today is pure coincidence, and I do not mean to make light of what happened exactly twenty years ago tomorrow.  And lastly, this story is not to be considered canon for the Tomorrow News Network universe.

LITTLE BOOK OF SECRETS

The Washington Monument stood tall and proud in the distance.  On the opposite end of the National Mall stood the Lincoln Memorial, less tall yet equally proud.  But neither the Washington nor the Lincoln would be included on this field trip.  Nor would the Air and Space Museum, nor the Natural History Museum, nor any of the other fun and exciting museums of the Smithsonian.  There wouldn’t even be a quick stop at Union Station to see all the trains.  The young man wandered away from the group, feeling morose about this trip to D.C.

That was the moment when the young man found, lying abandoned on a park bench, a travel-worn journal with the following words etched in gold on the cover:

Property of Talie Tappler
Reporter Extraordinaire
Tomorrow News Network

The young man picked up the journal, not entirely certain what he was meant to do with it or how he was going to return it to its rightful owner.  He thought perhaps there might be an address or phone number on the first page, but the instant he opened the journal the pages started flapping by impossibly fast—and there seemed to be an impossible number of pages, too—until they settled on a page marked with the current date: September 10, 2001.  There, scribbled in a loose and carefree handwriting, were the words: “interview with President Gore” with Gore’s name crossed out and replaced with “Bush” and a question mark.

Curious, the young man turned to the following day.  It just said “W.T.C., Pentagon” and “get lots of B-roll,” whatever that meant.  When the young man tried to flip forward to the day after, the pages started flipping ahead by themselves once more, as if propelled by a strong wind.  How many pages could there possibly be in this thin, little journal?  How many days—or years, rather—could they cover?  Many strange names and terms were penciled in for future dates: housing bubble, COVID-19, Thwaites Glacier, 99942 Apophis….  And further into the future: Galactic Inquisitor, Othniel’s Object, Reginald Zaphiro, Starship Virago….  The words “attack of the Planet Eaters” were surrounded by stars and hearts.  That was scheduled for a date in the mid-30th Century!

The young man snapped the journal shut, feeling confused and disoriented.

“Pailly?  Quit your lallygagging!  Let’s go!”

“Sorry, Mr. Chester!” the young man said, quickly stuffing the journal into his backpack.  He’d have to figure out what to do with the strange little book later.

Sciency Words: The Chronological Protection Conjecture

Hello, friends!  Welcome to Sciency Words, a special series here on Planet Pailly where we talk about all that weird terminology scientists like to use.  Today on Sciency Words, we’re talking about:

THE CHRONOLOGICAL PROTECTION CONJECTURE

English theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking had a lot to say about time travel.  There are plenty of Hawking quotes out there that seem to suggest that time travel is possible, or at least that it’s not totally impossible.  This seems odd to me, because when you read Hawking’s actual research, he is about as anti-time travel as a physicist can get.

As we discussed in last week’s episode of Sciency Words, Einstein’s theory of general relativity would apparently allow time travel to occur.  Relativity permits space-time to twist around itself into something called a “closed timelike curve.”  Hawking could not allow that to stand, and in 1991 he published this paper introducing something he named the “chronological protection conjecture.”

Hawking summarized his conjecture as follows: “The laws of physics do not allow the appearance of closed timelike curves.”  If a closed timelike curve ever did start to form, Hawking goes on to explain, then some other physical law—vacuum polarization, repulsive gravity, quantum effects—would get in the way, causing the closed timelike curve to die before it was ever truly born.

Based on my read of Hawking’s paper, it sounds like a closed timelike curve might (might!) still be possible inside a black hole.  But if you’re a time traveler trapped inside a black hole, you can’t do much to interfere with the course of history, can you?  Thus, regardless of what may or may not be happening inside black holes, the rest of the universe is still safe from time travel paradoxes.

So if Hawking’s physics is so adamantly against closed timelike curves, why did Hawking make so many public statements teasing us with the possibility of time travel?  Well, Hawking was a big fan of science fiction, and he seems to have loved many of the usual Sci-Fi tropes, including time travel.  The laws of physics may not allow for time travel, according to Hawking, but stories about time travel are still fun.  Maybe Hawking didn’t want to take that fun away from us.

Speaking of time travel, are you a fan of time travel adventure stories?  The kinds of stories you might see on Doctor Who or The Twilight Zone?  Then please check out my new book, The Medusa Effect: A Tomorrow News Network Novella, featuring time traveling news reporter Talie Tappler and her cyborg cameraman, Mr. Cognis.

Sciency Words: Closed Timelike Curves

Hello, friends!  Welcome to Sciency Words, a special series here on Planet Pailly where we talk about those weird words scientists like to use.  Today on Sciency Words, we’re talking about:

CLOSED TIMELIKE CURVES

Austrian-born logician and mathematician Kurt Gödel was one of Albert Einstein’s closest friends.  At Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study, the two were known to take long walks together, discussing all sorts of strange and wonderful things, no doubt.

As science historian James Gleick tells the story in his book Time Travel: A History, Gödel presented Einstein with a very special gift for Einstein’s 70th birthday.  It was the kind of gift only a person like Einstein would appreciate: a series of mathematical calculations.  Specifically, these were calculations based on Einstein’s own theory of general relativity which showed that yes, time travel is possible.

Gödel’s calculations were officially published in this 1949 paper.  Now I won’t try to explain Gödel’s math because a) I don’t really understand it and b) it’s not really important for the purposes of a Sciency Words post.  What is important for our purposes is that Gödel’s 1949 paper introduced a new concept called “closed timelike curves.”

Well, technically speaking, Gödel used the term “closed time-like lines,” not “closed timelike curves.”  But as Google ngrams shows us, the hyphen quickly dropped out of “time-like,” and by the 1990’s, “curves” beat out “lines.”  So today, closed timelike curves is the most broadly accepted way to say what Gödel was trying to say.  The term is also commonly abbreviated at C.T.C.

In short, a closed timelike curve is a path through space and time that circles back to its own beginning.  As I understand it, it would take a stupendous amount of force to twist space-time around itself in this way.  You’d need the extreme gravitational force of a black hole—or perhaps something even more extreme than that—in order to make a closed timelike curve happen.

But it could happen.  As Gödel demonstrated in 1949, general relativity would allow a closed timelike curve to exist, or at least relativity does not forbid such things from existing.

So time travel is possible.  It may not be anywhere near practical, but it is at least possible.

Speaking of time travel, are you a fan of time travel adventure stories?  The kinds of stories you might see on Doctor Who or The Twilight Zone?  Then please check out my new book, The Medusa Effect: A Tomorrow News Network Novella, featuring time traveling news reporter Talie Tappler and her cyborg cameraman, Mr. Cognis.

Sciency Words: Time’s Arrow

Hello, friends, and welcome back to Sciency Words!  Each week, we take a closer look at the definition and etymology of a science or science-related term.  Today’s Sciency Word is:

TIME’S ARROW

Which way is time going?  Prior to the 1890’s, no one would have asked such a silly question.  Time is time.  Everything about time is self-evident.  Why would anyone question it?

But then in 1895, H.G. Wells introduced the concept of time travel to the readers of adventure fiction.  And then in 1915, Albert Einstein started treating time as a variable, rather than a constant, as part of his general theory of relativity.  In his book Time Travel: A History, science historian James Gleick explains:

Millennia had gone by without scientists needing special shorthand like “time’s arrow” to state the obvious—the great thing about time is that it goes on.  Now, however, it was no longer obvious.  Physicists were writing laws of nature in a way that made time directionless, a mere change of sign separating +t from –t.

British astronomer Sir Arthur Eddington gets credit for introducing the “arrow of time” as a conceptual metaphor.  Eddington’s arrow points from the past toward the future.  Unless it doesn’t.  Depending on what sort of physics problem you’re trying to solve (or what sort of Sci-Fi story you’re trying to tell), it may be more convenient to imagine time’s arrow pointing from the future toward the past.

In 1927, in a series of lectures at the University of Edinburgh, and then later in a book titled The Nature of the Physical World, Eddington made three key points about time’s arrow, which I’ll paraphrase as:

  1. Gosh, time’s arrow sure does seem real to us humans.
  2. And common sense reasoning insists that time’s arrow must always point in the same direction.
  3. But when you do the math, you’ll find that none of the laws of physics actually require time’s arrow to exist, except one.

That one exception is the second law of thermodynamics, which tells us that the entropy of a closed thermodynamic system will inevitably increase with the passage of time.  So time’s arrow must always point in the direction of increasing entropy.

Of course a lot of people remain skeptical about time travel.  The Time Machine by H.G. Wells is a fine piece of fiction.  As for general relativity, treating time as a variable (rather than a constant) might help make the math work, but that doesn’t necessarily mean variable time is a real phenomenon.

Still, thanks in larger part to Arthur Eddington and his arrow metaphors, the question “which way is time going?” no longer sounds like total nonsense.

Next time on Planet Pailly: have we discovered a second planet orbiting Proxima Centauri?