Time Travel with Galileo

by Leanne Ogasawara

Not all that long ago, I was at a dinner party with a group of astrophysicists, when the topic of time travel came up. Sitting up excitedly in my chair, I thought that things were taking a decidedly interesting turn. Actually, the evening had already taken an interesting turn; for our host–here on a visit to Caltech from the Marseille Astrophysics Laboratory– had decided to pass on the local hotels and instead booked a room up in the hills of Altadena, above Pasadena. And this wasn’t just any “room,” as we were all gathered outside a fully refurbished 1954 Prairie Schooner travel trailer.

The “retro retreat” was sleek and silvery like a rocket. I realized that not only was this an easy way to operate an Airbnb; but the schooner also happened to be the perfect size and shape for use as a time travel rocket.

My elation quickly turned to disappointment; for as the conversation progressed, it became clear that every single person sitting around that table–except for me– wanted to travel forward in time.


Who in the world wants to travel forward in time? Is there any evidence whatsoever that things are going to become more interesting in the future?

I would argue that every indication suggests that not only is our world going to get hotter, more barbaric and unjust–but as if that isn’t bad enough, conversations and romance will continue to decline precipitously. Evidence is surely on my side, right? Clinking my glass with my fork to get their attention, I patiently tried explaining what the future has in store:

“Temperatures will rise,” I said, as their eyes glazed over. “And as people begin to jostle for resources, the elite class (I looked at them accusingly) will begin hunkering down in comfortable enclaves, while the vast global majority suffers outside.”

I then painted a picture of what I imagined to be a dark version of today’s gated communities. “These enclaves for the wealthy will be like medieval castles. But whereas medieval castles served as a defense against 16th century artillery, the cities of the future will be fortresses for better control of scarce resources.”

I was picturing residents dwelling in stacked housing units around covered plazas, all under a large shared roof. The shared roofs would not only undermine drone attacks, but would –more importantly– create a seamless perimeter for the armed mercenaries to protect the elite dwellers within.

“But that is not even the worst part,” I told them, helping myself to more wine. “By then, we will be completely controlled by corporations. All people will talk about is the latest show on HBO –or the wonders of the latest Apple products,” I said glaring at them. “Entertainment masquerading as news will feature prominently and the politicians will come from corporate boards of directors. They won’t leave their corporate headquarters to rule– since why bother? Politics as theater, with musical theater ousting all other art forms for the elite. Conversations about books and philosophy will be but distant memories –and yet probably people will still look toward the future to solve our problems.” 

They sat there politely waiting for me to finish.

I kept talking:

“I can’t help but think of Rene Girard’s words that, History is a test. And Mankind is failing it. That about sums it up I guess…”

They all shook their heads, our host reminding me that life was hard for women in the past. Much harder than now.

“Only white men could consider a trip backward in time. That is how we know things are so much better now.” She looked me in the eyes as if to try and reason with me. No doubt she wondered if all Japanese translators were as naïve as I was.

I decided there and then that there are two kinds of people in the world. Those who want to travel forward and those who want to travel backwards. But are astrophysicists really so different from the rest of us? How could they all prefer to go forward in time? Out of the ten, only my husband answered that he didn’t care one way or another as long as it was with me. A few of them looked sorry for him when he said that, reminding him that there was no Novocain in the past.

It only dawned on me sometime later that, of course, all the astrophysicists had picked the future over the past; for in terms of fundamental physics, it was comparatively a piece of cake traveling forward in time. To travel into the future a time traveler only needs to harness relativistic speeds (or better, exploit extremely strong gravity). It is a matter of slowing our clocks down relative to the clocks around us –and presto!

Astrophysicist Richard Pogge in a fun online lecture describes just such a mission involving two people: Jane and Dick. Jane is twenty years old and is in charge of Mission Control on earth; while Dick, who is twenty-two years old flies to the galactic center 26,000 light years away. Utilizing an antimatter drive to achieve near-relativistic speeds, he travels there accelerating at 1g half way before decelerating 1g for the rest of the trip. It takes 20 years to get there. He spends a year researching the galactic center, and then returns to earth the same way he came. So, Dick is sixty-three years old on his return (22+40+1 year of research). How old do you think Jane is? Yep, she died around 55,000 years prior to his return.

In addition to exotic matter drives, Caltech physicist Kip Thorne, in the film Interstellar, utilizes shortcuts through space, called wormholes, to travel to the future. He even created a set of rules for time travel for use in writing the screenplay for the movie. And guess what the very first rule was? You guessed it: no going into the past.

So, is it really that much more difficult to travel back in time? Well, it appears to be so. According to my Time Travel Handbook, by David Hatcher Childress, traveling into the past necessitates much more complicated scenarios involving tears in four-dimensional space-time and extraordinary amounts of energy. The best possibility under our current understanding is wormholes. But wormholes don’t occur ordinarily even in the hyped-up world of the astrophysicists sitting around the table. Plus, they only stay open for nanoseconds. Kip Thorne states that the mere event of a time traveler entering a wormhole would itself cause the worm hole to immediately pinch off into two singularities, thereby shredding our haphazard traveler to pieces. This is known as “spaghettification,” and I don’t like the sound of it.

But this is not even the main objection to backward time travel, as many physicists declare it categorically impossible, because it requires speeds faster than light –and that is not possible ever. There are also unsolvable issues of causality to consider. A person cannot kill her own grandfather. But there are physicists who address paradoxes such as this by the banana peel mechanism, which basically argues that because the past and future of each distinct event in the universe is embedded into the event itself, before any time traveler could ever kill his or her grandfather they would slip on a banana peel. Causality must be kept intact. Traveling forward avoids all such causality paradoxes. Also, I have to concede that the allure of finding out how “dark matter” got sorted out would be a strong selling point as well for traveling into the future for the physicists at the table; not to mention being able to potentially answer questions about dark energy, the prevalence of matter over antimatter, what matter is made of and the direction of time inside atoms. Perhaps the future is a direction toward hope for them.

This brings me to Galileo, my ideal time travel companion on board the USS Prairie Schooner.

What with his formidable intellect and relentless curiosity, I think Galileo has all the “right stuff” for the job. We might like to think of the great Renaissance scientist as cutting-edge or forward-thinking, but in fact, his esteemed biographer J.L. Heilbronn says he was actually pretty old-fashioned in his predilections. “Preferring the geometry of the Greeks over the algebras of his contemporaries, he didn’t have much time for the more advanced planetary astronomy of Tycho and Kepler.” And we are told, he liked to wear clothes that were fifty years out of date.

I am most interested in this last piece of speculation; as I have a pet theory that all the greatest minds –one way or another—have engaged in time travel. And sometimes they let us know this by their choice in fashion. It is an obstinate resistance to doing things the way you are supposed to; listening to one’s own drummer and laughing in the face of convention. History loves him for that. I know I do! Maybe Galileo of all men would have chosen similarly to go back in time if given the choice? I am not so sure about that, but Kim Stanley Robinson, in his novel Galileo’s Dream, has him time traveling in both directions! By exploiting quantum entanglement and multiple worlds, future time travelers in the novel move easily back and forth in time –but they also move through a manifold of universes (and somehow the reader follows him from universe to universe!). Think about it like this: at the subatomic level if every instant when a particle is said to exist in two places at once in a superposition of position, that is an actual branching of time; such that everything not only happened once the way it happened but it happened in a myriad of possibilities across an infinite number of worlds. This is a Borgesian universe where, “Time forks perpetually toward innumerable futures.” And it could also perhaps explain our Renaissance mathematician’s penchant for clothing from days past. Fashion in the days of multiple worlds time travel?

Hope versus nostalgia; or is this the best possible world?

Wouldn’t you like to go back in time and kill Hitler? Or perhaps you would prefer to ensure that Christ is not crucified on the cross? Or maybe like the nun in Boris Akunin’s time travel mystery Sister Pelagia, you don’t want to stop the Passion but just want to go back and comfort him as he dies?

Physicist Paul Davies, in his wonderful book How to Build a Time Machine, suggests that if it was possible to go backward in time, we would already know, since time travelers from the future would have appeared to us and made their presence known. He says that crowds of them would have been standing there bearing witness at the foot of the crucified Christ. And wouldn’t one of them come back in time to prevent atrocities like the Holocaust?

I guess physicists just know too much about time for their own good. For philosophers, the concept of time is concerned primarily with human consciousness; while for physicists it is more about matter and light– but also about the truth of how the universe really is. A particle physicist might even tell you that time has no direction on the microscopic level since time’s arrow is a manifestation of entropy’s inexorable increase in the macroscopic world. (Isn’t that what Sean Carroll says?) That means that within an atom there is no past or future. On the macrocosmic level as well, we can’t even categorically claim that there is a universal “present” since simultaneity is booted out by Einstein’s special relativity.

The three ineffable zones of time, past, present, and future seem to be inventions of human consciousness, perhaps making them topics best left to philosophers. Literature about time travel is relatively new. H.G Well’s Time machine predated Einstein’s Theory of Special Relativity by only a decade. Newton (and Galileo) made time an actor in the drama of physics, but before him Augustinian time stretched in an eternal, immutable line. One could no more hop from one part to another than one could play God.

Anyway, maybe we what we really want is not to time travel but only to somehow master time– not be mastered by it.

Whether I am in the “here and now” or somewhere in a golden past, it’s important to be someone who “has” time, right?

There is a wonderful Japanese word: furyu 風流.

The characters are ‘wind’ and ‘flow.’ Originally meaning “good manners” or “deportment,” it is a concept that my man Galileo would have appreciated since he had declared that it was notions of “good taste” which guided his way of doing science more than anything. In Japanese tea ceremony, furyu has come to denote someone who has time to notice things that are beautiful or charming. That means someone with time to write a haiku, or time to stop and smell the roses; They are those rare people who have the time and space to be able to look up at the moon or the stars. By the simple act of rejecting modern notions of “productivity” or “time as money,” those capable of furyu choose to engage in cognitive time travel — back or forward?– to a world when people lived closer to the rhythms of nature; back in time, when people seemed to have more of it; or forward in time, to a day when we finally figure out what a good life means.

With Einstein, the river of time came to meander. There are dilations of time and wrinkles. There could even be forking paths. Einstein’s friend Kurt Godel produced equations that found the entire universe to be rotating. Can you imagine? If that were so, we could travel on time spirals across space and forward and backward comparatively easily. Sitting there in the garden that night in the moonlit glow of the silver prairie schooner, drinking wine and “spending time” with friends debating the impossible, I realized that “now” is not a bad place to start.


Awesome photo by super talented Mouser William. He called it “Like Something Victorian science fiction.” It is FIREBALL 2018 Flight # 690N (My husband is PI)

I collected just a few time travel recommendations (and don’t miss Jack Gilbert poem) here

And loved this 3 Quarks Daily post by Tim Sommers from last week: Would It Be Better If There Were More Of You?