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Time Travel: A History

Air Date: Week of

Time Travel: A History is James Gleick’s ninth book. (Photo: Penguin Books) https://cdn.penguin.com.au/covers/1440/9780735285880.jpg

Physicists, mathematicians and philosophers have long sought adequate explanations of the nature of time. But one of the most important innovations in humanity’s exploration of time came from the writers of fiction: the concept of time travel. Author James Gleick, in his book Time Travel: A History, discusses with host Steve Curwood how the concept of time travel continues to influence the way we think about time and everything it touches.


CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth, I'm Steve Curwood. Time. Everybody knows what it is but few, if any of us, can elegantly define it. And with the concept of time comes the appeal of time travel in the world of fiction, as if showing that the river of time is navigable, and thus we might be able to control it or at least better understand it. We turn now to author James Gleick, who recently wrote "Time Travel: A History.” Welcome to Living on Earth.

GLEICK: Thank you, delighted to be here.

CURWOOD: Our pleasure. So first, I have to ask you what was your main inspiration for writing about time travel?

GLEICK: Well, I've always loved time travel stories. When I was a kid I read Science Fiction. In those days, it was mostly space travel, but once in a while there would be a time travel story and I recognized pretty quickly those were especially fun and they weren't all that easy to find. Anyway, that was a long time ago, and what really made me think, "Aha, this is a book," is when I discovered that time travel hasn't always existed, that is, it hasn't always existed as an idea in the culture. It is incredibly new, and it really starts with HG Wells in 1895 writing The Time Machine. At first I thought, "That's kind of impossible. It's an obvious idea. Why shouldn't everybody have all through history have imagined it," but really people didn't have those fantasies and so that's the initial motivation for writing a history of time travel, is to figure out why it didn't happen all through history and then what changed in the late 19th century to suddenly make this such an inspiring idea.

Science fiction writer H.G. Wells in 1890, shortly before the publication of The Time Machine (Photo: Frederick Hollyer, Wikimedia Commons public domain)

CURWOOD: Very early on in your book, you address the question of time. What is time, and share with us the answer that you offer in the book. What is time?

GLEICK: Well, now, I wouldn't want people to think that I'm going to give them a final answer to that question. That would be hubris, but I did realize somewhere as I went through this project that I wasn't just writing a book about time travel, I was writing a book about time because you can't really understand time travel unless you start to make up your own mind about what time it is, and it's a real puzzle. Is time something that we are moving forward through at our plodding pace of one day per day or is time a river that's carrying us forward – there's a favorite metaphor. Is time a quantity that we store up so that we can waste time and save time? And another part of the story I'm telling is that on the one hand you got these Science Fiction writers or literary writers who were exploring the nature of time with more and more enthusiasm in the 20th century, and on the other hand you have physicists like Einstein who are completely upending previous notions of time. Then, there are philosphers who are almost left by the wayside, who are the ones who thought that time was their business in the first place, but the physicists take over from them, and we're all in the same boat, that's what I finally conclude, is that there is no... nobody owns this question, even the physicists don't own it, and all of these people are learning from one another, and I do hope that by the end of my book there is a certain amount of clarity, a kind of illumination of how to look at time from different angles.

1960’s film adaptation of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine (Photo: Reynold Brown, Wikimedia Commons public domain)

CURWOOD: As well as scientists and physicists being affected by these concepts of time, what was going on in the literary world, beyond, of course, Mr. Wells himself?

GLEICK: That's a good question because when I started out, I thought a history of time travel was going to be about science fiction writing, but it turned out very quickly that you could see a huge watershed moment across the whole culture at the beginning of the 20th century when everybody was thinking about time in new ways. And even before the pulp magazines, all sorts of great writers were turning and twisting around ideas of time. I'm thinking about Marcel Proust who was almost a contemporary of H. G. Wells whose masterpiece "In Search of Lost Time" uses tricks of memory and is immediately a new kind of time travel, and James Joyce and Virginia Woolf twisting our ideas of time into knots and thinking about time in the most extraordinary and complex ways. All of these people reshape the way we think of space and time in the world we live in and they’re time travelers, too, as far as I'm concerned.

CURWOOD: I think one of the most interesting things you talk about in your new book is enormous impact that this concept of time travel had on culture at the turn of the century – culture and science – about the same time we really start working with electricity, which is still a more or less instantaneous. Why was time travel such a paradigm changing idea for these folks then?

A time travel experiment by a group known as the Krononauts meant to invite a visit by time travelers of the future (Photo: RichardTE, Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 3.0)

GLEICK: A lot of things were happening all at once at the end of the 19th century. During the 19th century, going back before that even to the industrial revolution, the pace of change was speeding up. You had railroad trains, steam engines, and you had the telegraph sending instantaneous messages from one place to another, and these developments interacted with one another so that the train needed to be on time when it got to the station 100 miles away and not only that, the sun was in a different place. So we had to develop time zones, we had to learn to synchronize our clocks and all of these things fed into a more complicated understanding of what time was. I mean, even now when we think about time zones or daylight savings time or the international dateline, I don't know about you, but it makes my head spin a little bit even now to think that there's a line on Earth where when you cross it the day goes from Tuesday back to Monday, and that's supposed to be logical. So it was natural for Science Fiction writers to have fun with that stuff, but it was also essential for scientists to help us come to grips with what we really we're learning about time. And so all these things were happening hand in hand.

Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time uses tricks of memory and was one of the first works to deal with time travel (Photo: Otto Wegener, Wikimedia Commons public domain)

CURWOOD: Time travel is, on that micro-level, so much fun. I mean, a number of years ago I was in Japan on a day that happened be my birthday flying back to the United States, and just the way that it worked – I mean it's 30 some odd hours flying – I got to have two birthday dinners complete with champagne in one some 30 hour period.

GLEICK: Well, lucky you. I hope it doesn't mean you're a year older though.

CURWOOD: Well I was thinking that, I was wondering just how old am I? So, we agree that when it comes to really trying to figure out what time is, we're really challenged here. You describe that that this new sense of futurism that H.G. Wells and then the other sci-fi authors helped to create. I'm wondering how our concept of future changed as a result of these writings?

GLEICK: That's something I'm still puzzling over and watching closely because I feel as though even now our concept of the future is changing yet again. A hundred and twenty years ago, when H.G. Wells was writing "The Time Machine," there was a fantastic up swell of interest in the future. There was this round number calendar date 1900 that was being called the turn-of-the-century and nobody really bothered, had bothered that much 100 years before that with the turn of the 19th century. Somehow, the turn of the 20th century was much more exciting. There were all these new technologies al these electrical things and dreams of future glories. People competed with each other to make predictions for what the year 2000 was going to be like 100 years down the road. There were science fiction writers like Jules Verne who were fantasizing about submarines and space travel. And people imagined flying cars, and now, of course, we've got all that stuff. And then, the new millennium arrived a few years ago and there was excitement and there was partying but there was also a much darker sense of the future. There was a lot of worry. You may remember about the Y2K crisis that never came, and now much more seriously we have grave concerns about what we're doing to the Earth's climate and when we think about what life is can be like for grandchildren, I have the feeling that instead of all sorts of optimistic predictions about great wonders what will come from the development technology instead were worrying about what kind of planet we're going to be leaving them. So we still have a sort of futurism, but it's a gray, darker kind of futurism than existed 100 years ago.

CURWOOD: Back then they would not so interested in Mad Max and the Thunderdome.

GLEICK: [LAUGHS] There is another example. These dystopian worlds that our great science fiction writers and moviemakers are conjuring up for us, these grim views of what the future will bring are old. You know, in the last century, we had "Brave New World" by Aldous Huxley and "1984" by George Orwell, and these are dark visions of the future and some of the best science fiction writers today are painting even darker pictures than that.

Virginia Woolf’s writing also introduced new ideas on time into the popular imagination (Photo: Author unknown, Wikimedia Commons public domain)

CURWOOD: Now, in your book you also talked about how our modern electronic media, the internet, play a large role now in our relationship with time. Expand on that for me, could you please?

GLEICK: That's another thing that I puzzled over quite a bit. What's our relationship with time now that we're spending so much of it engaging with the world through screens, through electronic devices. I think it's complicated and it's in some ways confusing and in other ways and enlightening. One thing is we feel more connected to the past than we did before. The past used to be something that vanished very quickly and it was really out of our reach but now that we have video cameras running everywhere, we can relive pieces of our own lives and you know, there are people who record themselves on every vacation and then enjoying them through a kind of virtual reality replay, and then we have the experience of having a sort of event horizon when we look back into the past, because the part of the past that predates recording is accessible to us in a different way with much lower quality, let’s say. We have to read about it instead of visualizing it. And then, meanwhile, back in the present, the past is mixed up with all kinds of live action that's coming to us from all around the globe on our video screens and through our camera phones. All in all, we're in kind of a fun house of mirrors, and it feels like, I think, as though we're kind of living in an eternal expanded presence where our sense of what's now just goes on and on. It's all quite disorienting.

CURWOOD: Indeed. And by the way, what are the cultural differences about time travel? We've talked obviously about American and English writers, but if we're to go to China and other places in Asia, how do they view and deal with this?

The advent of the locomotive during the Industrial Revolution and the possibility to travel across time zones in a shorter amount of time than ever before influenced our concept of time itself, says James Gleick. (Photo: Author unknown, Wikimedia Commons public domain)

GLEICK: I think as we become a more global society, our sense of time has become more global, too, but there are tremendous cultural differences and linguistic differences, and whatever culture we grow up in, we tend not to be conscious of the ways in which the language we use shapes our view of time. If you and I were asked to point to the future, we would both being Westerners speaking English point in front of us, and we would say the past lies behind us and not only would we say that, we would just assume that everybody thought that, right, but that's partly a phenomenon of language and it turns out that there are cultures around the world who point behind them when asked where the future is, and point ahead of them when asked where the past is, and that seems equally logical to them. They would say, well, of course, the past is in front of me, I can see the past, but I don't know anything about the future, it's behind me where I can't look. And there are other languages where the directions for past and future are up and down rather than front and back, and all these things are valid and shape the psychology of people who speak those languages and create a sense of the past and a sense of the future that's different from our own.

CURWOOD: Before you go, James Gleick, tell me, if you had your very own time machine and you could push the buttons on the control panel to take you any time period, to when would you go?

GLEICK: Oh, I wanted to ask you that question but you got there first.

James Gleick, author of Time Travel: A History (Photo: James Gleick)


GLEICK: When I started working on this book, it seemed the obvious that the answer with the future. I knew I wanted to go to the future and I sort of assumed that most people did. But I discovered that actually, no, a lot of people have no interest in arriving in the future or are scared of the future and are fascinated by the past. And I can see that, too. I've written biographies of people who lived in the past without ever having met them and wouldn't it be great now to go back and see how much I got wrong. So, I'm still going to say if you force me to choose that I'd like to go to the future, but it's a closer question for me now than it used to be.

CURWOOD: OK, the future is quite a wide range. When do you think you would want to go to?

GLEICK: Well that's another part of the problem. Who can possibly say? The world is changing so much faster than used to be that I'm tempted to think – you know – you might have said I'd like to see what the future is going to be like in 1,000 years. I sort of think in 1,000 years I wouldn't even be able to speak the same language as whatever will exist then, and 100 years from now it's almost unimaginable. So I think I'll just dial in 99 years and we'll see what happens.

CURWOOD: Ninety-nine years. And so, if you were writing that novel, what would happen in 99 years?

GLEICK: Oh no. I have no idea, and I hope we can all keep from messing things up so there's still people to talk to when we get there.

CURWOOD: So, what does it mean when I say, "It looks like we're out of time for this interview"?

GLEICK: [LAUGHS] It means that this quantity that we had all saved up has run out through our fingers or through the hourglass.

CURWOOD: James Gleick's new book is called "Time Travel: A History." Thanks for taking the time with me today.

GLEICK: It's been a pleasure, Steve.



James Gleick’s article in Nautilus: A Non-Linear History of Time Travel

The Wall Street Journal: James Gleick’s Exhilarating ‘Time Travel: A History’


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