Time Travelling Tourists and Out of Place Artefacts – Time Travel 101

Sigh.

My original plan for this piece was to tackle two history and archaeology-specific aspects of time travel, but in the process of researching it, I’ve ended up writing a basic guide to ‘real’ (i.e. theoretical) time travel, for which, see below. Still, my main focus is to tackle what have become known as ‘Time-Travelling Tourists’ (TTT) and ‘Out-Of-Place-Artefacts’ (OOPArts) such as the c.80 BC Antikythera Mechanism. The former are mostly outside my remit, as such characters are invariably supposed to have originated from our own future, rarely seem to spend much time in our own past, and are coming back to warn of us something or other (the laughably fake ‘John Titor’ is the grandfather of them all). Having said that, we actually do have some strong pieces of evidence against the idea that time travellers have visited us from the future. Famously, theoretical physicists (notably Stephen Hawking) have held parties for time travellers (invitations going out only after the party has happened), and no-one turned up. Obviously there are lots of problems with that sort of stunt; plenty of reasons why people might not break cover. More compellingly, people have actually looked online for time travellers. No, not cranks like ‘John Titor’ (by the way; JOHN TITOR – JOHN connor from the film TermInaTOR, anyone?) but people typing things that they could not possibly have known at that time (using Google Trends and Twitter searches) and also (like Hawking) inviting time travellers to respond to them (from the future, creating anachronistic messages obviously, not just ‘yes, I am a time traveller!’). This had the advantage of only requiring the transmission of information back in time, not people (which would be more difficult). They came up completely empty on both counts (which, by the way, I can’t help being disappointed by). Finally, there’s a real show-stopper for TTTs that I deal with at the end of this article, one which applies to all forms of time travel that we have so far conceived of.

Let’s move on to OOPARTs, which are more firmly within my proverbial wheelhouse. As a jumping-off point, I took this article from Time Travel Nexus (who have some great material on TT fiction, but seem a little credulous when it comes to the ‘real thing’) as a case study of sorts. There is also this recent article at Ancient Origins, but it’s behind a paywall (I can’t be sure that it postulates time travel, but I’d be surprised if it doesn’t given the remit of the site and the track record of author Ashley Cowie). The big problem with TT claims surrounding these artefacts is that they are usually unfalsifiable. There’s no way to prove the negative, and the onus should be upon the claimant. However, having spent a LOT of time reading about TT theory, I don’t think people realise just how impossible it really is, despite periodical news headlines to the contrary.

Basically, time travel into the past is impossible. That might sound like a bold statement, but hear me out. There are hypothetical ways to achieve backwards time travel, but they are even less likely to happen than interstellar space travel. You should really watch this fantastic lecture by theoretical physicist Sean Carroll and/or read this short article, but to summarise the state of the time travel art, there are only a handful of ways that scientists can even conceive of achieving backwards time travel. These are (each with links to firstly a simple explanation, and then the original academic paper in brackets);

 

1). Tipler cylinders (Frank Tipler, 1974). Create a 100km+ long 10km wide cylinder of exotic matter, as dense as the sun, rotating extremely rapidly. You’d also have to find a way to even approach it without being killed in order to fly around it in a spacecraft to go back in time. There’s an interesting predecessor of these in Van Stockum’s 1937 version (covered in these Kip Thorne lecture notes) which differed in being made of ‘dust’ and being necessarily of infinite length (and therefore not physically possible). It’s the weakest of the three.

2). Cosmic strings (J. Richard Gott, 1991) – Find and somehow modify/relocate two of these equally hypothetical objects, 10 million billion tons per cm dense and stupidly long (infinitely so, if the universe is indeed infinite in size), and somehow get them moving past each other very, very quickly.

3). Wormholes (Kip Thorne et al, 1988). Find or create a wormhole and somehow stabilise it with more exotic matter (with ‘negative energy’). Move one end near a black hole or neutron star or accelerate near the speed of light for a period of time in order to get one end of the hole effectively into the future (by aging differentially). You’d then be able to go the other way through the wormhole to back in time. This seems to be our best hope, and yet achieving all of this would be no mean feat. Thorne himself lists the many reasons why Stephen Hawking was probably right about his ‘Chronology Protection Conjecture’ in this easy to read article (see here for Hawking’s original, less easy to read one). Spoiler alert – there’s a good chance that even attempting this solution would cause the wormhole to self-destruct; ‘…an explosive flow of gravitating fluctuational energy through the wormhole at precisely the moment when time travel is first possible — at the moment of time machine activation.’

 

All three of these are theorised to produce ‘Closed Time-Like Curves’, the only agreed upon mechanism in theoretical physics for time travel, but a mechanism that is still not proven to even exist. To quote one paper, ‘it is Aside from this issue, and those already listed above, there are some pretty serious drawbacks to all three.

A quick aside – there’s also another theoretical method that you don’t often come across in fiction, which is just going really, really fast. Although more straightforward than the above three, it’s still very confusing. You can read about it here, along with a good explanation of what ‘tachyons’ actually are (beyond being a go-to SF technobabble word). There is apparently a maximum backward time travel limit of just one year, and that’s if you can achieve a speed of 10 times the speed of light. Unfortunately, it is quite simply impossible to travel faster than light, hence the mental gymnastics that physicists have had to resort to in order to come up with the ‘big three’ above. However, I’d love to see it done in fiction, partly because of the bizarre visual effects that would result in showing multiple (not just present and future versions) of the time machine visible at the same time.

So, back to those ‘big three’. Firstly, none of them has ever been even proven to exist, let alone observed in nature. They would have to be discovered and manipulated or made from scratch, and then exploited. That’s the first hurdle. To do this would then require infinite amounts of energy or ‘negative energy’. Not ‘lots’, not ‘more energy than we’ve ever generated previously’, not ‘energy levels requiring cold fusion’ but literally infinite amounts of energy. In other words, an impossible amount. Physicist Ken Olum says that all known hypothetical methods would require the use of negative matter or matter with negative energy which, if it even/ever existed in sufficient quantities, would blow up the universe.

You’d then have to work out how to safely navigate the wormhole or other gravitic anomaly without being “spaghettified” by the tremendous forces involved. Let’s throw this into the overall unimaginable engineering challenge of finding or making these theoretical features in the first place, manipulating them into position and, in the case of wormholes, enlarging and stabilising them such that they can be traversed. Not to mention engineering and building the spacecraft and equipment to attempt all of this, and of course to convey passengers to the finished ‘time machine’ (also known as ‘the easy bit’).

 

To quote Carroll;

‘We can imagine making time machines by bending spacetime, but we don’t actually know a foolproof way of doing it.

Nor do we have a proof that it can’t be done.

The smart money would bet that the ultimate laws of nature simply don’t permit travel backwards in time.’

 

Carroll, Olum, Thorne and Hawking’s pessimistic views are further supported by another proof by Kay, Radzikowski and Wald (1996) that says essentially that the laws of physics will break down as soon as the time machine is activated. Here’s another quote from Kip Thorne, champion of the wormhole time machine;

‘When we physicists have mastered the laws of quantum gravity (Hawking and I agree), we will very likely discover that chronology is protected: the explosion always does destroy any time machine, when it is first activated.’

 

Hawking himself puts it best when he states his ‘chronology protection conjecture’ at the end of the original article;

‘The laws of physics prevent the appearance of closed time like curves.’

The final kicker is that, even if we can engineer one of these machines, *and* power it, *and* if it actually works, we would only ever be able travel back as far as the moment that the time machine was activated. The movie ‘Primer’ (which is excellent, but rather flawed), gets this right, as does my personal favourite ‘Cronocrimines’, but precious few others do because of the narrative limits that this choice places on events. Ironically perhaps, our single best bet for time travel would be some ‘arbitrarily advanced civilisation’ (as the theoretical physics and philosophy literature tends to call it) having created a time machine for us that we can use. Of course, if they had done so, it would be a long, long way from us, requiring a long, long journey and super-advanced spacecraft of our own to even begin to think about making use of it.

All of this (especially that last point) rules out the Antikythera mechanism as an out-of-place artefact, and in fact all other ‘OOPArts’ and indeed all time-travelling tourists into the bargain. It is all, frankly, bollocks – and makes a mockery of real history. Why is it so hard for us to accept that one person could have achieved something that was within their theoretical ability to produce, and yet so easy to accept something (time travel) that may not even have a theoretical basis? It’s pretty depressing. We even have other evidence for advanced technology of this sort from the period, notably that made by Archimedes. It’s not as though this thing was beyond the ancients either conceptually or technically. Even the superficially modern-looking gears have been shown to be made using hand tools. Although I suppose that wouldn’t rule out a ‘time traveller’ teaching ancient people how to make geared mechanisms, without having access to steam or electrical power. But why not foot or animal-powered machinery? For that matter, why no future metallurgy (the mechanism is wholly copper alloy and wood)? Why no actual (say) 19th century clock buried in some ancient stratigraphy? Why is the mechanism manually operated and not spring-powered? Why not teach them how to make screws? Why are there no out of place personal effects from whoever taught them? There’s no actual evidence of time travel here, just a piece of technology that they COULD, in fact, have made without any future knowledge? To quote from the article linked above; ‘The surviving features of the Antikythera Mechanism, particularly the lunar anomaly mechanism, support the idea that our proposed planetary mechanisms were within the engineering capacity of the makers of the Antikythera Mechanism—but only just.’ That article does a great job of explaining the astronomical/astrological functions of the mechanism, as does this superb lecture from former Science Museum curator Michael Wright (there’s a short explanation from him here, although it’s very low res). See also this Skeptoid podcast. In another blow to the idea that it could only have been made with future knowledge, all of it is also consistent with what we know of ancient Greek knowledge – there is nothing there that we didn’t already know that they knew. The mechanism has been thoroughly studied by actual academics since the 1950s, initially culminating in the article ‘Gears from the Greeks. The Antikythera Mechanism: A Calendar Computer from ca. 80 B. C.’ by Derek de Solla Price (Transactions of the American Philosophical Society Vol. 64, No. 7 (1974), pp. 1-70). Needless to say, none of the many people who have seriously studied the thing think that it is beyond the capabilities of the ancient Greeks.

Regardless, the mechanism remains an absolutely wonderful feat of engineering and craftsmanship. No doubt something similar will come to light in the future, only to be dismissed by cretins as proof of time travel rather than of the long tradition of human ingenuity.

So there you are – Doc Brown was, unfortunately, a quack.

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Where’s She Hiding the Flux Capacitor?

Must be a Roman’ SIM card…amirite?

This has to be the weakest attempt at viral self-promotion I have ever seen (if you’re using Chrome the embedding doesn’t work – see the Youtube video itself instead). The daftie narrating the video (complete with full name and plenty of face-time) shows a clip from a 1928 Charlie Chaplin movie showing a woman walking in the background with her hand held up to the side of her head. She also appears to speak at one point.

It’s a textbook argument from incredulity. Because “nobody can give [him] an explanation”, he’s decided that the woman (or is it a man – nothing like insulting long-dead strangers) is a time traveller. Here’s his intro to the video;

“This short film is about a piece of footage I (George Clarke) found behind the scenes in Charlie Chaplins film ‘The Circus’. Attending the premiere at Manns Chinese Theatre in Hollywood, CA – the scene shows a large woman dressed in black with a hat hiding most of her face, with what can only be described as a mobile phone device – talking as she walks alone.

I have studied this film for over a year now – showing it to over 100 people and at a film festival, yet no-one can give any explanation as to what she is doing.

My only theory – as well as many others – is simple… a time traveler on a mobile phone. See for yourself and feel free to leave a comment on your own explanation or thoughts about it.”

Leaving aside that by his own admission, this was a DVD special feature – not some lost piece of film he “found”, there is so much wrong with this conclusion that I barely know where to start. The sheer stupidity of the claim, plus the fact that he has short films to promote, makes me hope that this really is just a cynical piece of marketing. I do wonder though that he hasn’t convinced himself on some level that he really believes it. The phrase on the header of the page;

‘Imagination is more important than knowledge.’

…is pretty frightening. Imagination is vital in my opinion, but knowledge is sacred.

I’ll just list a few of the reasons why this video is BS:

  • How would a mobile or any other type of wireless communications device FUNCTION in a past where no network infrastructure (or orbiting satellite) exists?
  • Why would an otherwise flawlessly period-clad ‘time traveller’ draw attention to his/her self by speaking into an obviously out-of-place device?
  • Why does the gentleman in front of her not react to this behaviour?
  • If we assume from the woman’s dress that she’s intending to blend in, why would she make her anachronistic phonecall whilst walking down a street, oblivious to the bloody great old school film crew across the way? Why walk though the middle of a movie premiere?
  • Why would they make use of a hand-held phone? Why not a hands-free set or Bluetooth headset?
  • The mobile phone he describes is an object of the first decade of the 21st century. As time travel has yet to be invented or even theorised, we have to assume that a time traveller is from the far future. Why the hell would they be using a device like that? There is no reason to suspect that communications devices will remain in the format, size, and mode of operation of an iPhone. If anything we’ve seen them grow in size in the last five years.

So, if it’s not a cellphone, why would an old woman be holding any palm-sized device to her head (if, indeed, she’s holding anything)? One excellent suggestion from the Youtube comments is this little beauty. Exactly the sort of item that this guy discounted out of hand in his video – an ear trumpet. But not the stereotypical ‘Allo Allo’ musical-instrument shaped ear trumpet, but a more high-tech and portable device. There are many other possibilities, but this is the most elegant solution. And it doesn’t necessitate the abandonment of science as we know it.

Some commenters on Youtube have objected that one would not talk into what is effectively a hearing aid. One obvious, obvious answer, You Tubes, is that she’s talking to someone out of shot. The very fact that she’s using the aid suggests that she’s trying to hear something further away. Or perhaps she’s just mumbling to herself? Or, since we’ve already accused her of looking like a man, could she not be a bit of a mentalist?

Even if this really were ‘unexplainable’ – why on earth jump to the conclusion that we’re watching a time traveller? It’s utterly unsupportable and runs counter to everything we know about history and science. But it does get you a lot of hits on your Youtube channel, and a lot of visits to your website where you are coincidentally pimping your own filmmaking efforts.

There but for the grace of God(dard)…

People who subscribe to alternative views of history, or for that matter anything generally thought of as “paranormal”, are often regarded as gullible or stupid. In fact the human mind and senses are highly fallible, and without critical thinking skills literally anyone can end up “drinking the kool-aid“. Teachers, academics, presidents, the CIA and British Intelligence have all bought into baseless ideas that are no more valid than the bloke down the pub who swears that dogs can’t look up, yet seem to make perfect sense to them at the time.

And the rest of us in turn, because of our respect and admiration for authority figures and professional people in general, are more likely to sit up and take notice. But this is fallacious reasoning, and to argue that something contrary to established knowledge might be genuine solely on this basis is to appeal to false authority. We should be just as sceptical about claims made by authority figures, and this does not require that we belittle their recognised achievements in their respective fields.

Flight into the Future!
With this in mind, let me relate the story of Air Marshal Sir Robert Victor Goddard, Royal Air Force. With a distinguished military career and a knighthood behind him, it will have come as a surprise to many in 1951 when he claimed in a Saturday Evening Post newspaper article to have physically travelled through time. He reprised the tale in his 1975 book “Flight Towards Reality” and it has occasionally resurfaced ever since. The story goes that in 1935, his Hawker Hart light bomber encountered a storm somewhere above an abandoned RAF airfield near Edinburgh, later re-activated as Drem. Goddard saw yellow-painted aircraft and a modern monoplane; neither of which were then in RAF service. The mechanics he could see were wearing blue coveralls instead of the RAF brown de rigeur in 1935. The dilapidated buildings had been renovated and more constructed. The implication of these apparent discrepancies is that Goddard had been propelled forward in time by around four year, as by 1939 the airfield would have been populated with the yellow-painted Hawker Harts (by now relegated to training duties) and Airspeed Oxford monoplanes of 13 Flying Training School.

The Evidence
This, like many paranormal claims, is rather difficult to explain if taken on face value. We have no idea how closely this version of events corresponds with what actually happened that day, and not because of any deceit on Goddard’s part. Without doubt he believed what he was writing; it was completely real to him, and he lived through the events in question. Why even question the word of an honourable military professional? Well, like all of us, he was fallible, and his impeccable credentials did not qualify or prepare him to deal with paranormal experiences. In addition, the stakes here are high, and so must our standard of evidence be. If what’s described really happened, it has earth-shattering implications for the way we understand the universe. No evidence of time-travel, nor even a theoretical basis for it has been found.

Unfortunately, no corroborating reports were made of a swirling vortex appearing in the Firth of Forth, and no physical evidence generated. We have only Goddard’s anecdotal account to go on, and I have to note that this was written sixteen and then forty years after the fact (the article, then the book). The possible (but more boring) explanations are myriad; he may have misremembered the year of the incident or aspects of what he saw on the ground at the time. Both seem unlikely for a trained military pilot, but the post hoc construction or modification of memories is a very real issue for psychologists and oral historians. Rather more likely, given the elapsed time between incident and report is that he misinterpreted what he saw on the ground.

The three Avro 504N trainers Goddard specifies had ironically been replaced in RAF service by 1935; 13 FTS certainly didn’t operate them, yellow or no. The other aircraft, the “high-tech” monoplane, was a configuration as old as the biplane. Flight testing of the new breed, including the famous Hawker Hurricane was underway that very year. Goddard later supposed that he saw a Miles Magister trainer, which first flew in 1937, but the first Miles monoplane was airborne in 1933. Nonetheless, it is admittedly unlikely that any of these aircraft, anachronistic or not, could have been parked at Gullane/Drem in 1935; though not “completely useless as an airfield” as one source puts it, it was essentially disused.

A Rational Explanation
My own offered scenario is that after the blind-flying and violent manoeuvring brought on by he storm, Goddard was seriously disorientated and ended up above a completely different aerodrome. Air navigation in the 1930s was still achieved by dead reckoning; map and compass, and required that landmarks were a) visible, and b) correctly identified. Otherwise one could very quickly end up way off course. If Goddard wasn’t over Drem, where was he? The most likely candidate for me is Renfrew Aerodrome, then home to the Scottish Flying Club. Not only did the club make use of Avro 504s, but other civil aircraft were regular visitors. Many of these would have been brightly coloured, and monoplanes were in common use. In fact an antecedent of the Magister Goddard thought he saw was photographed at Renfrew that very year. From the air they would have been indistinguishable. And as maintenance staff were civilians, the objection to prematurely blue RAF overalls would no longer apply. Although Renfrew is on the wrong side of the country (70 miles away from Drem), such a deviation in course is far from impossible in a 400-mile cross-country journey like Goddard’s. Though somewhat unlikely in ordinary circumstances, I would venture that this version of events is nonetheless rather more likely than the physics-defying mid-air appearance of a door into the future.Because of the credibility lent to Goddard’s story by his service history and status, it continues to be occasionally and uncritically reported, most recently in a wholly credulous article in the Scottish local magazine “East Lothian Life”. The events even made it onto the big screen in a 1955 film starring Michael Redgrave and Denholm Elliott, and just might have inspired the fantastically poor 1980s time-travel film, “The Final Countdown“. (Worth a look to see F-14 Tomcat jets dogfighting with Second World War aeroplanes).

A bonus ghost story…
After leaving the RAF and writing about his hair-raising flight, Goddard went on to be a noted figure in the UFO community, coining the term “Ufology“. He’s also supposed to have taken a photograph of a ghost. Given the obvious similarity to the chap next to him save for the service cap, the most likely explanation for this is a simple double exposure on a relatively primitive camera. Having realised he was not wearing his cap (the “ghost” is bare-headed), he replaced his cap after the photographer had already opened his shutter and before the plate was fully exposed (several seconds). The effect was fully understood, and used to create amusing images.

What can we learn from the experiences of people like Goddard? That even the most intelligent, professional, reliable, capable and rational people can in the right circumstances lapse into magical thinking. By learning about critical thought and scepticism we can strive to avoid this, whatever our professional and personal backgrounds.