Time travel convention a failure? Not for the reasons you think!
In a recent news bit, the journal Science reported on the apparent flop of the May 7 MIT time travel convention (Times up on Time Travel, Science 20 May 2005). Although Dorothy (of Wizard of Oz fame), Bill, and Ted were present, the travelers themselves failed to materialize. Theoretical physicists Alan Guth and Ed Farhi were on hand as pallbearers to speed time travel to its grave. Guth lectured that wormhole-mediated time travel could only occur at the quantum level, and cosmic strings (the other contender) "could take half the energy of the universe to create". I love how these bigheads are so quick to dismiss the endless scope of the future: as if technology 100 years from now will only be a refinement of present-day technology, and theoretical frameworks will only be tweaks on the mess we have today. Folks have ignored the most obvious reasons for the conference's failure. Curious? You'll have to sit through a story, first.
***As a twelve-year-old, I decided it takes humans two or three years to forget pain. Hence the usual spread between siblings, and hence the fact that our summer Voyages of the Damned happened at the same interval. My parents, Bostonians transplanted to California, regularly schlepped us across country to visit our cousins, great aunts, great uncles, and my Dad's mom. Throughout the 60s, my Dad dreamed of buying a motor home so we could make the trek with all the comforts of home. In 1974, he made it happen: he bought a great big green-and-white 25-foot Harvest. He taught math* at Roosevelt High School in East L.A., so when school wrapped up in June, we were on the road the very next day. We made it as far as Clinton, Oklahoma, before the beast broke down (for the first time). For the next two weeks, we holed up in a motel while the Harvest sat in someone's shop, waiting for parts. I'm not sure what my parents did to preserve their sanity (deep irony there, by the way), but all my brother Randy and I could do was hang out by the pool, play cards, and watch TV. Not much else to do. I think Randy was 19 going on 20 at the time, so whenever he walked, his hormones jangled. You could hear him from a hundred feet away. One day, two girls came to the hotel -- oh, they were maybe in their twenties. "Whores," my mother insisted. But Randy was on the make. He'd made it as far as their motel room when my thin tissue of lies fell apart. Mom: "Where's your brother?" Me: "Out by the pool." Mom (looking out the window): "I can see he's not out by the pool. Where did he go?" Me: "I don't know . . . oh, stop! Stop! The pressure is too much to bear. He's in Room 19 with those whores." That's a paraphrase, naturally. Mom called over to Room 19. Mom: "Helloooo? Is Randy there? This is his mother. Tell him his little brother has a high fever and we need him to run down to the store to get some aspirin." Poor Randy. I can imagine what followed. "Your mother? You told us you were transporting rattlesnakes to the Texas roundup, and that you'd stopped in Clinton to settle a score with those mob bosses who crossed you back in Vegas. Well, our boyfriends are gonna show up in ten minutes, and Clem, he wrestles alligators . . ." Randy and I used to play cards with a good ol' Southern boy, a forty-something fella named Dave. He was a dead ringer for Mac Davis, a country-western guy who had his own one-hour variety TV show back then. Remember, "I don't like spiders and snakes / But I got what it takes to love you"? Yup, that was Mac Davis. During a three-handed game of hearts down by the pool, Dave spied a forty-something gal with no ass and no boobs. But she was a loner, no band on her finger, no guy tagging along, and Dave had all the jangling hormones of my brother but another twenty years worth of finesse. Randy and I watched, slack-jawed, as Dave loped over to her poolside umbrella table, chatted her up for five minutes, and came back to announce success. "Room 22, seven o'clock," said Dave. "And forget foreplay. That pump's already primed." Those are my two best stories from that two-week dip into the bolgias. Aside from that, nothing to talk about but the usual pitched battles that were de rigeur for mi familia. But the boredom was the worst thing; I'd brought three SF novels with me (the only one I remember: Frank Herbert's Hellstrom's Hive) and had finished all three. And that's when, out of a mind-numbing not another game of Hearts or another rerun of Gilligan's Island panic, I conceived of something, a glimmer of hope that would tide me through the next few days. I would, three days hence, meet up with my future self. To achieve this, I'd have to remember the precise time and place of the meeting. This became my mantra. The irony of replacing one boring activity with an even more boring activity was, I'm sad to say, lost on my twelve-year-old self. You can guess the rest. I was a no show; my version of the MIT Time Travel Convention flopped every bit as badly as theirs. Only difference is, I understand why. Let's say I wake up tomorrow to discover I've inherited a time travel belt (anyone out there remember David Gerrold's The Man Who Folded Himself ?) Would I use that belt to go back in time and make that meeting? No way. Two reasons: 1) I've forgotten the precise time and place of the meeting. I can't even remember the approximate time and place of the meeting. I had to think mighty hard to come up with "1974, Clinton, Oklahoma", and I'm only 95% confident of that data. 2) I have no interest in meeting 12-year-0ld Doug. None whatsoever. In my opinion, those two reasons, writ large, account for the failure of the MIT convention. The conventioneers assumed that a bit of internet press would guarantee some sort of eternal memory of the time and place of the meeting. Does anyone doubt for a moment the fragility of the internet? Or the vulnerability of our knowledge to the crush of centuries? Besides: if a time traveler wanted to announce himself (herself, itself, themselves), why choose a convention of geeks dressed up like Bill and Ted and Dorothy? Which leads me to the next point: the conventioneers also assumed that our future selves would want to come visit us. This seems like one hell of a leap of faith. When I think about visiting mini-me, I feel apathetic and faintly nauseated. I suspect those future us's would feel the very same way. No, there's only one reason they'd come back. To steal Nazi gold. D. *British translation: maths