In 2014, microbiologists began a study that they hope will continue long after they’re dead.
In the year 2514, some future scientist will arrive at the University of Edinburgh (assuming the university still exists), open a wooden box (assuming the box has not been lost), and break apart a set of glass vials in order to grow the 500-year-old dried bacteria inside. This all assumes the entire experiment has not been forgotten, the instructions have not been garbled, and science—or some version of it—still exists in 2514.
This is a biology experiment that’s planned to run for half a millenium. How does one even make such a thing possible?
Thinking about the difficulties in constructing a message that may be understood for generations into the future reminds me of the work done on a possible marking system for nuclear waste disposal (which would need to continue to carry the message that a place is dangerous for ten thousand years).
This kind of philosophical thinking may require further work, though, if we’re ever to send spacecraft on interstellar journeys: another kind of “long” experiment. How might we preserve the records of what we’ve done, so that our descendants have the opportunity to continue our work, in a way that promotes the iterative translation and preservation of the messages that are required to support it? For example: if an experiment is to be understandable if rediscovered after a hypothetical future dark age, what precautions do we need to take today?
You see: the thing that goldfish are famous for – except for their allegedly very short memory, which is actually a myth – is that they grow to fill the available space. That is: if you keep a goldfish in a smaller tank, it’ll grow to a full-size that is smaller than if you kept it in a larger tank or even a pond. I’m not certain that’s actually true either, and I’m sure that Kit will correct me pretty soon if it’s not, but it’s part of my analogy and I’m sticking with it.
A chronogoldfish, then, is somebody who grows to fill the available time. That is: the more free time you give them, the more they’ll work at filling it up. This is a mixed blessing, which is a euphemism for “usually pretty bad.” You’ll almost never catch me bored, for example – I’ve no idea how I’d find time to be bored! – but conversely it’s reasonably rare to find me with free time in which I don’t have something scheduled (or, at least: in which I don’t have something I ought to be doing).
Earlier this year, I started working for the Bodleian, and this – along with a couple of other changes going on in my life, suddenly thrust upon me several hours extra in each week than I’d had previously. It was like being transplanted from a tank… into a pond and – once I’d stopped checking for herons – I found myself sitting around, wondering what to do with my sudden surge of extra free time. But then, because I’m a chronogoldfish, I grew.
The activities that I already did became bigger – I took on more responsibilities in my voluntary work, took more opportunities to socialise with people I spend time with, and expanded my efforts to develop a variety of “side project” software projects. I’ve even lined myself up for a return to (part-time) education, later this year (more on that in another blog post, little doubt). And so, only a few months later, I’m a big, fat chronogoldfish, and I’ve once again got just about as little “free” time – unplanned time – as I had before.
But that’s not a bad thing. As Seth Godin says, wasting time (properly) is a good thing. And there’s little doubt that my growth into “new” timesinks is productive (education, voluntary work), experimental (side-projects, education), and joyful (socialising, everything else). I’d like to think I use time well, even if I do sometimes wonder: where did it all go?
I suppose the opposite of a chronogoldfish might be a chronomidget: somebody who doesn’t grow to consume any more time than they have to. The test, I suppose, would be to ask yourself: what would you do if there was an extra half-hour in the day? If your brain immediately rushes to fill that space with an answer (a genuine answer: something you’d actually do – there’s no point lying to yourself and saying you’d spend it at the gym if you wouldn’t!), you’re probably a goldfish. If not, you’re probably a midget.
I think I can name people among my friends who are goldfish, and people who are midgets. But I do wonder what type they would say that they are…
Just when you think you’ve got them figured out (and the application you’re working on is coping correctly with daylight saving time), something comes along and blows your little mind. Like this, for example:
Suppose you’re chilling out in Hawaii on some lazy Sunday. Cocktail in hand, you check your watch – it’s midday. Midday on Sunday – that means you’ve got a ‘plane to catch: you’re about to fly due South to the research station on Palmyra Atoll, part of the Line Islands. Palmyra Atoll, like Hawaii, is part of the United States, so you don’t even need your passport, but you pause for a moment to try to work out whether you need to adjust your watch…
When it’s midday on Sunday in Hawaii, what time is it in Palmyra Atoll (which is at essentially the same longitude)?
It’s midday… on Monday! The Line Islands are uniquely considered to be in the timezone UTC+14:00 (and Hawaii is in UTC-10:00), so despite the fact that the Line Islands are, on the whole, East of the Hawaiian islands, the whole cluster of them are an entire day ahead of Hawaii. Even those which are managed by the U.S. are closer to New Zealand (chronologically) than they are to any other U.S. terrirory (even though they’re more distant geographically). It’s no wonder people get confused by things like the International Date Line – Magellan was apparently so confused by the fact that his ship’s log was a day out upon his return from a round-the-world trip that he wrote a letter to the Pope about the oddity.
Similarly, when the sun rises on the Line Islands, it marks the beginning of the day after the date that it rises on Hawaii, ten minutes later.
I find this particular quirk even more interesting than the similar one on the Diomede Islands (a pair of islands in the Bering Strait), sometimes called “Tomorrow Island” and “Yesterday Island”. The Diomedes are clearly separated in an East-West configuration, whereas the Line Islands are clearly to the South (and North) of islands which are still stuck in “yesterday”.
In practice, apparently, the 4 – 20 scientists living at any given time on Palmyra Atoll work at UTC-11:00: only an hour from Hawaii – presumably so that they maximise the period that their work week lines up with that in the rest of the United States: but this only serves to exaggerate the phenomena: this means that you can hop from, say, Palmyra Atoll to nearby Teraina (population 1,155, about 150 miles away) and have to wind your watch forward by a massive 25 hours (or just one hour, I suppose).
By the time you’re living on a South Pacific island paradise, I suppose these things don’t matter so much.
There’s a film that I’m a huge fan of, called Primer. Since I first discovered it I’ve insisted on showing it at least twice at Troma Night (the second time just for the benefit of everybody who didn’t “get it” – i.e. everybody – the first time). If you haven’t already seen it, this post might be a little spoilery, so instead of reading it, you should warm up your time machine, go and watch the film, turn off the time machine, get into the time machine, come out again right now, and then read its Wikipedia page until you understand it. Then come back.
Still with me? Right.
Why Primer is awesome, and why you should care
In Primer, the protagonists accidentally stumble across the secret of time travel and use it to cheat the stock market. The film isn’t actually about time travel or science-fiction: it’s actually about the breakdown in the relationship between the protagonists, but it’s got some pretty awesome science-fiction in it, too, and that’s what I’d like to talk about. The mechanism of time travel in Primer, for example, is quite fascinating: the traveler turns on the machine using a timer switch (turning it on in person risks the possibility of meeting a future version of themselves coming out of the machine). They then wait for a set amount of time, then they turn off the machine, get into it, wait for the same amount of time again, and emerge from the time machine at the moment that it was turned on.
This is a lot weaker than many of the time travel devices featured in popular science fiction literature, films, and television. It’s not possible to travel forwards in time (except in the usual way with which we’re familiar). Travelling backwards in time takes as long as it took the machine to travel forwards through the same period, making long journeys impossible. The machine has to be strategically turned on at the point at which you want to travel back to, reducing spontaneity, and it can’t be used again in the meantime without resetting it. Oh, and the machine is dangerous and causes long-term damage to humans travelling in it, but that’s rather ancillary.
There’s a certain believability to the time travel mechanic in Primer that gives it a real charm. As far as it is explored in the film, it permits a deterministic universe (so long as one is willing to be reasonably unconventional with one’s interpretation of the linearity of time, as shown in the diagram above), provides severe limits to early time travel (which are great for post-film debate), and doesn’t resort to anything so tacky as, for example, Marty McFly gradually “fading out” after he inadvertently prevented his parents from getting together in Back to the Future.
Experiments in the Primer universe
I’ve recently been thinking about some of the experiments that I would be performing it I had been the inventor of the Primer time machine.
First and foremost, I’d build a second, smaller time machine of the same design. We know this to be possible because the first machine built by the protagonists is smaller than the ones they later construct. I want to be able to put one time machine inside another. Yes, yes, I know that this is what the protagonists do in the movie, but mine has a difference: mine is capable of being operated (power supply only needs to be a few car batteries, as we discover in the film) within the larger time machine. That’s right, I’m building a time machine inside my time machine.
Experiment One attempts to explore the relativism of time. Start the larger time machine and warm it up. Stop the larger time machine. Start the smaller time machine. Get into the larger time machine, carrying the smaller time machine, and travel back. Once back, turn off the larger time machine. Experiment with sending things forwards in time using the second time machine (which has traveled backwards in time but while running, from our frame of reference). If objects inserted into it come out in the future, before it is picked up, this implies that there might be a fixed frame of reference to chronology. It also indicates that it is possible to build a machine for the purpose of traveling forwards in time, too, although only – for now – at the usual rate.
Experiment Two attempts to accelerate the rate at which a traveler can move forwards or backwards through time. Based on the explanation given in the movie, the contents of the time machine oscillate backwards and forwards through the period of time between their being turned on and being turned off, for a number of repetitions, before settling. If we are able to synchronise the oscillations of two time machines, one inside the other (by turning them on and off simultaneously, using timers attached to each and their own distinct, internal, power supplies), might we be able to set up a scenario that, in X minutes, switches off, and we can get inside the inner machine and travel back to the switch-on time in X/2 minutes? If so, what happens if we send such a two-machine construction back in time as in Experiment One – do we then have a “time accelerator”?
Experiment Three takes advantage of the fact that for an object within the field, an extended period of time has passed (during the oscillations), while from the reference point of an external observer, a far shorter period of time has passed. Experiment with the use of an oscillating time period field to accelerate slow processes. Obvious ones to start with are the production of biologically-produced chemicals, as is done in the film (imagine being able to brew a 10-year-old whiskey in a day!), but there are more options. Processing time on complex computer tasks could be dramatically reduced, for example. Build a large enough time machine and put a particle accelerator in it, and you can bring masses up to relativistic speeds in milliseconds.
Experiment Four is on the implications on spacetime of sending mass back in time. As we know, flinging mass in a direction of space produces an equal and opposite acceleration in the opposite direction, as demonstrated by… well, everything, but let’s say “a rocket” and be done with it. Does flinging mass backwards through time produce an acceleration forwards through time? This could be tested by sending back a mass and a highly-accurate timepiece, removing the mass in the past, and letting the timepiece travel back to the future. The timepiece is checked when the experiment starts, when the mass is removed, and when the experiment ends. If the time taken for the second half of the experiment, from the perspective of the timepiece, is longer than the time taken for the first half, then this implies that Newtonian motion, or something equivalent, can be approximated to apply over time as well as space. If so, then one could perhaps build an inertia-generating drive for a vehicle by repeatedly taking a mass out of one end of a time machine, transporting it to the other, and sending it back in time to when you first picked it up.
The scientific possibilities for such a (theoretical) device are limitless.
But yeah, I’d probably just cheat the stock market, too. At least to begin with.
In a fleeting thought, as I passed the greengrocer hanging our mistletoe outside his shop this morning, I found myself thinking about the unusual situation I’m in, in that I’ll this year be spending New Year’s Eve with both of mygirlfriends.
Who do I kiss at midnight?
Thankfully, the solution is clear – this year at least – thanks to the fact that midnight will happen twice this year (there’s a leap second). With some careful orochestration of who kisses whom when, they can have a midnight each, and use each of their other midnight’s to kiss their respective other partners.
Like I said: a fleeting thought – I don’t lie awake worrying about this kind of thing. That would just be weird.