Month: July 2012

Time Travelling Fiction

To describe in detail the full scope of special (and general) relativity requires careful and extensive mathematical examination, none of which I’m prepared to give here. You could really gain full appreciation the delights of relativity some by sitting in on some kooky physics lectures (or enrolling in them); you may even be able to string together some of the basics as explained in important movies and TV shows such as Back to the Future stringing together some of the basics as explained in some important films, like Back to the Future. Relativity is important because it suggests the exciting possibility of time travel (and perhaps the boring realities of it-sigh).

Relativity involve using frames of reference to describe motion of objects and the constancy of the speed of light. A frame of reference describes some position that encompasses a particular object or event we wish to measure – the frame may be the space I am sitting in now or it may describe me moving through a space described as a separate frame. Note that depending on whether I observe myself as I move, or whether I observe the frame I move through changes the viewpoint of what is moving and how it can be measured.

In my own frame, from my own observation, I am stationary and the frame moves relative to myself. From the point of view of the frame that I am moving through, the frame sees itself as stationary and sees me moving relative to it. Motion is observed between relative frames. This is relativity, and its consequences are grand. Getting your head around the idea of observation by relative viewpoints you are on the way to understanding the connections between space and time.

Oh and the other important thing is the speed of light – that is 300 000 000 metres per second (approximately) a reference point/number/ constant that seems to govern our universe as we learn in the study of physics. Relative observation lead to the notions of length contraction and time dilation, (in no way relating to pregnancy and giving birth) and provides us with the framework to consider ‘time travelling’.

In your frame of motion the time you experience moving relative to another frame is more than the time experienced in the frame that you are moving relative to (because you consider yourself stationary inside your own frame). This is time dilation. There is always that universal experience that time seems to pass us by when we are busy or enjoying ourselves and seems painfully slow when we are bored and idle. Having nothing to do equates to having more time to think about how time is passing.

Also moving faster than the speed of light (going through the maths) leads to the possibility of traveling forwards through time – by experiencing less time in your moving frame compared to everything around you. Generating speeds that exceed the speed of light is where the problem lies – Doctor Emmet Brown managed this with a plutonium fuel source in a Delorean traveling at 88 miles per hour.

The idea of traveling backwards through time as in the Back to the Future movies is rendered paradoxical – the paradox being explored in depth as follows:

if you go backwards in time and change one small thing it leads to a set of consequences, chain reactions that evolve into a different time that you seemingly traveled from. Marty Mcfly stops his dad getting hit by a car in 1956, incidentally it was getting hit by a car that led him to meet Lorraine, his mother who instead of falling for Marty’s father, falls for Marty…this alteration of chain of events means that in turn Marty will not exist because his parents never hooked up because of his mother’s newfound incestuous attraction to her own son.

If he doesn’t exist anymore in 1985, how did he travel from there to the situation he is in now? ‘Causality’ is this idea that everything that occurs follows some cause and effect relation – an event occurring results from some cause that occurred at an earlier time. Backwards time travel violates causality as explored in these movies.

The concept of time travel in fiction would have to be my favorite plot device. I think what makes it so successful is partly its ability to create pertinent social commentary by juxtaposing past and present. A comparatively quaint past reveals the grim outlook that a particular society is bound for some kind of downward spiral. The future may hold improvement and hope. It may also simply reveal that humanity does not change regardless of the moment in history in which people are placed.

We think about traveling backwards in time and changing things in our past and imagining what the memory of a different life experience would mean for the way we think in the present. Unfortunately, the feeling of REGRET about things you experienced in your past is fact of life for us all, an inevitable part of the human condition- part and parcel of cause and effect, and the laws of the universe as referred to earlier.

In the recent TV show, Life on Mars’s protagonist, Sam Tyler, thinks he has gone back in time to 1973 from 2007 and somehow resumes his job as a detective inspector for local policing authority. He is able to interact with his family and events that occurred in the past without having effect on himself (arriving from the future). The brilliance in this series was the concept of bringing policing techniques and technologies of the present (2006-2007) including forensics, education in psychology and very bureaucratic methods via Sam to a team of detectives in 1973 who use instinct, whims and brutal force to put the baddies behind bars.

In the recent bestseller, The Time Traveller’s Wife, the time traveler of the book- Henry, travels back and forth through time uncontrollably due to some pseudo scientific description of a disorder (‘chromo-genetic disorder’ they call it). Like the terminator, time travel is only possible in his birthday suit so for survival when entering a new ‘present’, Henry must run, steal, pick locks, i.e. become some sort of petty criminal to survive. Henry discovers somewhere along the way that the only activity allowing him to stay in the present for prolonged periods of time is with the comfort of romantic time spent with his wife.

It does sometimes disappoints me to see some bogus methods of time travel –like that time traveling scene in the 1978 Superman movie – we are encouraged to believe that Superman can reverse time by using his superhuman strength by flying around the earth with enough force to reverse the direction of spin on its axis.

There is so much time travel in books and films- the idea of time travelers existing way before the physical possibilities of it were considered. I think there is enough fodder in that for some PhD’s in literary studies (don’t steal my idea!). Forward and backward time travel unfortunately is incorrectly represented as though time were some linear chain you could pick any point along to go visit and observe.

I haven’t provided thorough reason as to why backwards time travel is impossible but offer the following ‘thought experiment’ – if there are backwards time travelers why do we know of none? Surely if there were time travelers from the future, somebody would know about them. Perhaps they simply don’t present themselves because of that whole paradox of stuffing up something in the past causing disastrous consequences in their own future. On May 7th, 2005, MIT held a ‘time travelers convention’ – time travelers were invited along to present themselves publicly. No time travelers however were confirmed in attendance- but may have attended incognito.

Youtube has some awesome stuff on time travel that I highly recommend you check out!


Ciaran Hinds and the audience get spooked in The Eclipse (2009)

Despite the title of this film, it is in NO way associated with anything Stephanie Meyer -and that Twilight series – although it does contain the element of the supernatural.  Its one of those movies that is released only briefly in Melbourne (~three weeks or less) and only at art-housy cinemas such as the Nova on Lygon St, Carlton.  After finding out that the film is an Irish film, taking place over the course of a literary festival – and had ghosts – I quickly decided that I had to see it, but missed my opportunity with its short release.

In the space of a mere month I have now watched it three times – there is something hauntingly beautiful about it.  Set in the small town of Cobh, County Cork, Ireland, Michael Farr (Ciaran Hinds) is an annual volunteer at the International Literary Festival in the town.  Recently widowed, Farr begins having dreams and hallucinations infused with the presence of his wife’s spirit and others who are close to him.  He meets Lina Morrel (Iben Hjejle), a supernatural fiction writer at the festival.  The festival takes place over a few days.  Farr and Morrel form a friendship during the festival over their experiences of contact with ghosts – when you encounter one for the first time, ” your brain splits in two –  one side of you is rejecting what you’re seeing because it doesn’t tally with the ordinary side of reality, and the other side is screaming ‘but this is real!”.  And so the viewer is reminded to deduce whether what Michael has experienced so far are real hauntings.

Notable elements of the movie include the visual setting and the musical score.  Cobh is a picturesque seaport town – quaint and pretty and typical of any image you see in the usual tourist guide brochures for Ireland.  We visit the small cemetary, see sunshine briefly, experience the rain (it is Ireland after all)  in limited but adequate measure to note that this is a film set in Ireland without showing off the usual cultural display.  The setting is breathtakingly picturesque – but the subtle control over imagery saves our breath for ghostly encounters.  Choral hymns – kyrie eleison interject at poignant moments of the film, and the melodic piano theme playing throughout many scenes works to evoke feelings of sadness and calm.  The performance of Ciaran Hinds is brilliant – we empathise with him through every moment of the film.

Part romance, part ghost-story and thriller – the film gently captivates  and haunts.

The Winner is ‘London’, London wins the Olympic Bid, followed by terrorist bombings

With the opening ceremony of the London Olympics merely a week away, I remember back to the year 2005 when I lived in London and the host city for the 2012 games was announced.  I purchased a copy of ‘The Guardian’ on the 7th July, the day after the announcement took place, the front page story .a great contrast to what would be shown on the cover of the 8th July edition.

I worked in (and lived in) a pub, The Greenman, 243 Euston Road, NW1  ( the centre of zone 1 London).  The news was announced and the city of London revelled in joy.  I rung the bell at closing time on the 6th July, and tried to kick out the remaining stragglers at the pub, a group of which were some Aussies, who picked up on my accent and attempted to appeal to my ‘shared homeland’ sympathy and give them some more time to finish their pints and carry on.   Being tired from my twelve hour shift, I wouldn’t have any of it, then one of them said “c’mon, let us stay, have a drink with us, we won the Olympics!”.  I acknowledged and agreed with this statement – ‘We won the Olympics!’, for about two seconds before I had to again politely ask them to finish their drinks and leave at last.

We’ claimed London as our home, because we fleetingly lived there on working holiday visas and gap years.  We worked in pubs and hotels, as Au pairs, and signed up to temping agencies when we were sick of the hospitality industry.    We met Brazilians, Italians, Spanish, French, Polish and Lithuanians – who were here in search of a better life or to learn English and improve their chances of a better life back home upon return.  We met Irish, and then hundreds of other Australians, New Zealanders and South Africans here doing the same things.  We took it for granted what we had back home.  The London we found was not the London we read about in Dickens or Sherlock Holmes; it was not just Piccadilly Circus, Hyde Park, the Thames, Hamleys, St Paul’s Cathedral.   It was this thriving international epicentre, where people from all over the world came to try to make a life for themselves, to pursue their dreams, to party, and to drink their nights away.

The morning of the 7th July 2012, I went for a walk down to Oxford St, bought the newspaper along the way and had been planning to walk up to Kings Cross St Pancras to purchase some National Rail tickets for a trip to Edinburgh, but first stopped back at the Greenman – where the bar staff immediately accosted me with ‘Where have you been? We were worried about you!  Stay in the building and do not leave!!’.

The London Underground had been bombed.  Three major locations were attacked: Kings Cross St. Pancras, Aldgate and Liverpool St Station.  A bomb was set off in a bus at Tavistock Square.

The pub was flooded with passers by the rest of the morning.  We watched the news on the small TV that we had in the pub, it was as crowded as the pub got when a football match was on. Public transport was suspended until 4 pm.  We waited for more news.  We were worried about more bombs.  The city was in shutdown.

I went out to Tesco’s next door later in the day, at about 4:30 pm but found a hand written sign saying ‘Due to the events of today we are closed’.   I wandered further to a Sainsbury’s in hope of finding something to eat and found the same sign.  As the end of the business day approached, workers began leaving their offices for the journey home, with rampant fear of public transport.

I walked up Tottenham Court Road at around 5:30 pm, pedestrian peak hour.  The people walked  in worry and fear.  It was a mass exodus from the city on foot, in silence.  What a day.  The next morning I purchased the Guardian, the front page news in great contrast to the excitement of winning the Olympic bid.

Two weeks after the incident, there were more attempts at bombing attacks.  Along Euston Road, bus stops were covered in missing person signs – I presume, of people whose whereabouts were unknown since that day, the unidentified injured or dead.  Fifty-two people were killed and over 700 injured on the 7th July.

I have read some chilling recollections from survivors of the blasts, and how everyone in London who was there that day recounts their choices about which tube train they were ‘meant to catch’ that morning but didn’t.  One of the survivors from the blasts lost her legs (her story is here).  She looks forward to the London Olympics, and will be competing as a paralympian.

I absolutely dread going through customs in the USA.  After September 11, the London Bombings and other terrorist incidents, those of us who journey across continents will all be treated indiscriminately as a security risk until rigorous body screening and inquisition has shown otherwise.

It saddens and angers me that our collective anticipation of international sporting events such as the Olympics and the World Cup now also come hand in hand with increased security, and a heightened fear of terrorist threats.  After coming home from London later in 2005, I immediately felt safe and secure back in Australia: World Wars have not been fought on our soil, multiculturalism is increasingly embraced, we are seemingly devoid of class tensions and are generally a tolerant lot.  I admit that these notions I hold are simply ideals – problems are brewing in our society.  The future is a global future.  Ideology will be attacked by those who vehemently disagree – history shows that this has always been the case through the millenia.  The threat of terrorism abounds, we can live on with awareness of terrorist threats but we can’t live on with fear.  Just as the people of London have lived on with awareness of terrorism and have moved on with their lives, they have now got the Olympic games in their home city to celebrate.