The Daily Bongo

Michael Crichton's Timeline

Have you ever wished that you could go back in time? Perhaps there is a particular time period that is of interest to you. For example, the beginning of the twentieth century appeals to me. Science was taking large leaps, and human flight was soon to become possible. Perhaps instead you would rather go back to a time in your personal past, to influence your choice of paths. Well, there is no need for a flux capacitor. All you need is a understanding of quantum mechanics, or so we find from Timeline by Michael Crichton. Crichton did his usual amount of heavy research for this book, and transports the reader into the fourteenth century with the simple written word. Not only do we get a glimpse of this world, but we are given a lesson in quantum mechanics so we can learn how the travel was possible. Only Crichton could write popular fiction that uses quantum mechanics as a plot device.

Robert Doniger was a brilliant physicist who became an entrepeneur, starting up various technology companies, and getting voted as one of the 50 people under 25 years of age who would "change the world". However by his late thirties, Doniger was no longer thought of as a shaker and mover. At this point, he owned ITC, a mysterious company that was involved in quantum computing endeavors. ITC also provided funding to a restoration project that was taking place in southwestern France at Dordogne. The group of historians at the site, led by Dr. Edward Johnston, becomes suspicious about the funding especially when a blueprint of the monastary that they are restoring is faxed to them from an Arizona police officer. The officer is investigating a death of someone who mysteriously appeared on a deserted road in the desert wearing a monk's robe, repeating the words "quantum foam", and suffering from physical disorders from misalignment of body parts. The group is stunned because the blueprint is more detailed and accurate than they have found through their excavations. Dr. Johnston, is called back to ITC, and then the rest of his workers find a mysterious written message asking for help from him that appears to come from the 14th century. Four of the helpers are called back from France, and find that ITC has developed a time travelling machine. How is this possible? In comes a lesson about quantum mechanics and computing. There is a problem though. They learn that Dr. Johnston is stuck back in the 14th century, and Doniger wants to send his assistants, Andre Marek, Chris Hughes, Kate Erickson, and David Stern back in time to get him--with the help of two ITC time travelers. David (the only physicist in the group) stays behing, but Andre, Chris, and Kate go back. The two time travelling assistants with them get murdered shortly afterward, and the room from which the time machines are launched is destroyed. Now starts the race against time with Stern and a helpful lead technician, Gordon, trying to repair the launch room so Johnston and company can return, and our group in the fourteenth century trying to find Johnston so they can call the time machine that will take them back to the present time. They have to recall the time machine in 37 hours or it will not return. Will the launch room be rebuilt in time? Will our heroes manage to survive the harsh and dangerous time period and group together? Will Doniger be able to realize his plan of using the time machines to make the past an amusement park for the bored rich?

The story is a thrilling one, and the basic concept similar to Crichton's earlier book, Jurassic Park. Both have a character who has the resources to create an out of this world amusement park. What we learn is that the past is as dangerous as a dinosaur. Neither situtation is something that can be controlled to the degree necessary to assure the safety of the partcipants. Should the plans be allowed to proceed, or should reason prevail? Both John Hammond and Robert Doniger have used scientific means to create their parks, and both seem blind to or uncaring about the consequences of their plan. The similarities between the two books doesn't detract from excitement that you feel as you read Timelime. Crichton uses a nice device by having the chapter titles alert you to the passing time which adds to the tension. Some of the action is incredible and stretched my sense of belief, but it was still an exciting read.

Crichton obviously did his research because there is a group of scientists who believe that quantum mechanics is the answer to time travel. It came about because of the discovery that a single particle or photon of light has the same properties that a wave has. For example when a light source is shone on a wall that has two parallel slits of equal size, it will display a series of dark and light bands on the wall behind it. The reason for the alternating bands of light is due to interference of photons with each other. This experiment is called Young's Double Slit Experiment. The thought was that if you could just send one photon at a time, the wave effect would disappear because there would be nothing to interfer with the one particle. However, that's not what happened. One photon will also display an interference pattern on the wall. How is that possible? Could the photon go through both slits at the same time? The accepted theory is that photons display particle and wave characteristics at the same time. Well, according to David Deutsch the answer could be due to multiple parallel universes or multiverses. Although it might sound like something out of science fiction, since we really don't understand quantum mechanics as completely as we would like, it doesn't mean that the multiple universe theory isn't true. The multiverse theory is that while the photon that we observe in our universe goes through slit A, the photon in a parallel universe goes through slit B. This is what causes the interference.

The way the parallel universes work (in theory) is that while you are doing something in this universe, your parallel self may be doing the opposite. While you make a left turn, the parallel you makes a right turn. When you narrowly avoid an accident, parallel you has the accident. Now that may be confusing, but keep on multiplying the options because there isn't just one parallel universe, but many. What about all the time travel paradoxes? The two most often mentioned are the grandfather paradox and the artist paradox. In the first, you go back in time, and kill your grandfather or prevent him from marrying your grandmother. If that is the case, then you would not be born, and therefore would not be able to go back in time to kill or change your grandfather's mind. That really puts a monkey wrench into things, doesn't it? With a parallel universe theory, that would not be a problem because you would not be going back in time in your universe, but in another where you will not be born. The artist paradox is that a traveller from the future goes back in time to an artist with a copy of the collection of the artist's works. The time traveller may think the artist isn't that good, and wonder how the artist manages to make the magnificent paintings in the book. Well, the artist steals the book, and uses it to create what become known as his works. So the question is who created the work? The artist created it from the material that the time traveller brought. So you have a copy of the paintings from the book becoming the actual works themselves? confusing because does that mean that the works ever existed? Again, this isn't a problem in the multiverse scenario. They are indeed created by the artist in a parallel universe.

If you are interested in reading more about quantum mechanics and the theory of time travel, two resources to check out are The Fabric of Reality by David Deutsch and The Quantum Physics of Time Travel by David Deutsch and Michael Lockwood which was printed in Scientific American in March 1994 on pages 68-74. You won't need to read these resources to enjoy Timeline. JUst sit back and enjoy the ride.

Sunday, March 6, 2005