Two immediate thoughts upon reading the new Michael Crichton novel, "Timeline":
1. Crichton irresponsibly misleads the reader into thinking that there are multiple, parallel universes, creating the possibility that humans can engage in time travel by "faxing" themselves to one of these other realities.
2. Why didn't I think of that?
The book is great fun -- tt's got science, history and gore. A bunch of archaeologists studying the ruins of a French castle wind up getting beamed back in time to the 14th Century -- dat's the fax, Jack -- where they have to battle for their lives. The subtle joke is, all those years of studying boring books in dim carrels in graduate school are finally paying off.
The past turns out to have more technology, more examples of human ingenuity, than the archaeologists had anticipated. The toilets aren't so bad! On the other hand, the tendency to cut people's heads off seems rather medieval. There seem to be heads all over the place, unattached to bodies. Also there are panting vixens and a rakish abbot and gallant knights and a crazed giant and one secret bad guy who has been doing too much time travel and has "transcription errors," which means he basically wound up as a bad fax.
The book is most remarkable for its didactic interludes, such as the discussion of quantum mechanics and, later, the 14th century art of making gunpowder. In the middle of this adventure story you find yourself reading stuff like this: "The great discovery of the fourteenth century was that gunpowder exploded better when it was ground extremely fine. This process was called `incorporation,' and if properly done, it yielded gunpowder with the consistency of talcum powder." You learn something on almost every page, and if you get bored with the technical stuff, don't worry -- any second a flaming human head will be landing at your feet with a thud. ("The flesh burned, the fat popping. A passing soldier kicked it away like a soccer ball.")
"Timeline" is very much in the spirit of "Jurassic Park," another example of Crichton taking liberties with modern science (in that case genetic engineering). In theory, dinosaurs could be brought back to life if you could find their DNA and then come up with a good technique for planting it in an egg and growing a new critter. And there is, in fact, ancient dinosaur DNA preserved in amber. The problem is, it's damaged. It's all scrambled and disintegrated and decayed. But that's just the kind of detail a good novelist can work around.
With "Timeline," Crichton has taken advantage of the maverick "many worlds" explanation for the strange behavior of subatomic particles. None of us mere mortals understands quantum mechanics, but we do grasp the general notion that at the realm of the very small things don't happen as sensibly as they do up here at our level. For example, there are things that seem to be in many places simultaneously, until we decide to look at them. One interpretation of this situation -- and it's just that, an interpretation, not a fact -- is that there are many universes, each constantly splitting into yet more universes.
If so, then the number of actual universes is essentially infinite. There's no fixed reality. You can imagine that in some universe, Hitler won the war, Michael Jordan became a baseball player, and Bill Gates is a disgruntled middle-management executive at IBM.
Crichton, in an author's note, cites the work of (among others) David Deutsch, a physicist and the author of "The Fabric of Reality." Deutsch fully embraces the many-worlds view. He also contends that these other universes are every bit as "real" as ours. There's not one universe that has primacy or legitimacy. (For more on this, check out his debate with theorist Seth LLoyd.)
A few days back I asked Deutsch by e-mail if there was a universe in which I was not constantly falling behind in my work.
"Almost certainly," Deutsch replied.
So why am I stuck in this one? Why can't I be in the universe where I'm AHEAD?
He answered, "You are present in all of them. The copies that are ahead are not asking this question, however."
Deutsch believes that people will someday be teleported from one universe to another.
"One day it will be possible to teleport people (in the sense of scanning them, transmitting the information elsewhere and constructing a copy -- think of it as 3-D faxing)," he writes.
For the moment this is a theory that is in serious need of proof. It's hard to find physicists who agree with Deutsch's interpretation. I talked to several, including Carlo Rovelli, a physicist at the University of Pittsburgh, who said, "I don't think there's any evidence of a parallel universe of any sort . . . I think I will live in this particular dimension for the rest of my life, and I think my children and my grandchildren will."
An interpretation of quantum behavior isn't quite the same thing as discovering an alternate universe. Let's remember that Albert Einstein didn't become a global celebrity when he proposed the Special Theory of Relativity in 1905. Nor did his tremendous fame come from his development of the General Theory of Relativity a decade later. He became huge only in 1919, when, during an eclipse, scientists were able to confirm Einstein's contention that starlight is bent by the gravity of the sun.
So Deutsch will have to wait until one of these faxes goes through successfully.
(In a nearby parallel universe, Rough Draft wrote today about the Cuban boy, the stock market collapse, butt-covering Y2K gurus and the incredible Vick-Warrick show last night at the Sugar Bowl -- and filed it on time.)