Rosalind Williams, whose latest book is “The Triumph of Human Empire,” teaches in the Program in Science, Technology, and Society at MIT.
Among many other works, science writer James Gleick has written two acclaimed books about the discovery of concepts — “Chaos” and “The Information” — that are at once scientific and humanistic, startling and subtle. In his latest book, Gleick takes on another key event of consciousness: the invention of time travel.
This “new mode of thought” emerged in the context of many other inventions of the 19th century, both intellectual and material, that heightened time consciousness: new means of connection such as the railroad, steamship and telegraph; the proliferation of cheap, reliable timekeeping devices; the discovery of “deep time” in the earth sciences; and the unearthing of artifacts of human prehistory and antiquity.
Underlying all of this was a new consciousness of human history as progress over time. Instead of being a tale of cyclic repetition, history was redefined as a story with a direction, in which the passage of time brings accumulating achievement and gradual perfection of the human condition. To take one compelling example, by 1900, the “age of exploration” was reaching its climax. In the previous four centuries, humankind had mapped the entire globe. This was a stupendous achievement but also a reminder that humanity was reaching the limits of planetary space. Would time be the next frontier?
Time travel, this “fantasy of the modern era,” burst upon the Western cultural scene with the 1895 publication of “The Time Machine” by H.G. Wells. In this “scientific romance,” as Wells preferred to call such tales, a nameless Time Traveller builds a bicycle-like vehicle that allows him to spin through time. As he heads into the future, at his first rest stop he finds himself in a split-level society of effete, surface-dwelling consumers coexisting with exploited, hungry laborers living underground — an extreme, scary vision of class division. His next stop is the deep geological future, where he gazes upon the Earth in its last throes of the heat-death of universal entropy.
Wells’s tale was a hit, and since then stories based on similar imaginings of time travel have been familiar in books, comics, television and movies. Gleick gathers an engaging cast of characters who wrote these stories or otherwise explored the possibilities of time travel. His book resembles a salon where the guests include physicists (Richard Feynman and Albert Einstein), science-fiction writers (Robert Heinlein, Hugo Gernsback and the inevitable Isaac Asimov), philosophers (Richard Taylor), logicians (Kurt Gödel) and scientist-philosophers (Arthur Eddington), among many other articulate souls. Their discussions draw upon the theater (Tom Stoppard’s “Arcadia”), TV series (“Doctor Who”) and movies (“La Jetée”), as well as books of philosophy and works in theoretical physics.
These guests mix and mingle for lively conversations about the paradoxes of determinism, the possibilities of counterfactual history, the challenges of philosophical fatalism, the dangers of metaphors, the problem of finding words to communicate to the future and the limits to logic in understanding the human experience of time, among much else. In a salon, conversations may be stimulating but are usually brief. In this one, the rapid circulation of speakers and topics can be head-spinning at times. But “Time Travel” presents a great read — as well as a wide-ranging, rich list for further reading — for anyone intrigued by the scientific romance of time travel.
This salon is at once literary and scientific, mixing the two cultures as they should be more often. Gleick, as host, reminds the reader-guest that this conversation is not about silly pop notions of time travel being corrected by the sober rational discoveries of science. It is also about science itself becoming increasingly baffled by time. It could be put into equations as “t,” it could be described as a fourth dimension, but scientists have found the concept as elusive and difficult as anyone else has. From Wells’s day to ours, philosophical logic and scientific understanding have seemed to diverge from each other, and both of them from lived experience. Gleick reminds his readers that “the rules of time travel have been written not by scientists but by storytellers.” Wells’ invention, after all, was not a bicycle-like machine: His invention was a story featuring such a machine.
For the most part, Gleick’s book focuses on Wellsian derivatives of time-travel stories: that is, recent (post-1895) stories that depend on a gadget (usually a vehicle) that allows travel through time, usually into the future. As I read “Time Travel,” the limits of these tales made me increasingly impatient. Why do you need a vehicle to travel in time? Isn’t almost any book “like a time machine you can hold in your hands” (to quote a current ad for newspaper-based books offered by the New York Times)? Can’t a few notes from a beloved melody transport you immediately and convincingly into earlier years? Why so much emphasis on travel into the future? Is not the past just as worthy of exploration?
Soon enough, Gleick rescued me from this impatience. As his book progresses, and especially in the latter chapters, it opens up to include some well-known modern writers (such as T.S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf and Marcel Proust) who experimented with time in their poetry and prose. Gleick points out that Wells and Proust were contemporaries and that Proust invented machine-less time travel, which “we might call . . . mental time travel.” Proust’s great novel is titled (in English translation) “In Search of Lost Time.” Gleick explains, “The narrative itself is the time machine, and memory is the fuel.”
Far from being an invention of modernity, the quest for time travel is one of the oldest and deepest human longings. It arises from the aching awareness that all moments pass, that we are transient creatures in a transient world, and that we are haunted by loss and the prospect of loss. What is mourning but a desire to travel back to a time when the dead person was alive? Or a desire to travel forward to some moment of reunion? The modern era has introduced new ways of imagining time travel but not a new way of thinking. Time travel is not a fantasy of the modern era. It is a primal source of human culture.
In his last chapter, Gleick ponders the effects of advanced technologies that proliferate modes of instantaneous communication, creating a world of cyberspace where “time happens differently.” But this glimpse of time’s future leads not to enthusiasm but to elegy: “Futurity is done.” Gleick returns to the hard truth, of which he is all too keenly aware, that the human experience of time inevitably encompasses loss and sorrow. In the last few pages of the book, he gets to the point: “Why do we need time travel? All the answers come down to one. To elude death.” Yes. Most of this book offers a bracing swim in the waters of recent science, technology and fiction, but it ends with a view from the shore of immortality.
By James Gleick
Pantheon. 336 pp. $26.95