Jenny Colgan

Cheating death

Have Superman and Doctor Who supplanted belief in the afterlife?

2016 was probably the year even the most optimistic of us — those who can genuinely square the new populist politics with a bright future for truth-seekers, scientists and rational thinkers — gave up on the possibility of time travel.

Surely, on every rally stage there should have been at least one white man from the future (it’s generally a white man for the simple statistical reason that if you’re a woman or a non-white man and go travelling in time, there’s only about 0.2 per cent of recorded history where you won’t materialise to immediate shouts of, ‘Quick, Paw, fetch the best whupping switch — and a cage’), wild-eyed, oddly dressed, raising up his ray gun to erase the crazed possibility of the Leader of the Free World… well, you know the rest.

So. Either time travel can’t happen or we’re all going up in a nuclear holocaust before we get round to inventing it. Famously, Stephen Hawking once held a time-travellers’ party. He sent the invitations out after the date, having sat there all afternoon (no one showed).

Regardless, James Gleick’s book on the subject is endlessly fascinating and as thorough as you like, but written with his customary grace and wit.

He is good on the history of what time actually is (spoiler alert: nobody has much of a Scooby Doo, and the problem gets punted back and forth between physicists and philosophers throughout history). He looks at multiworld theorists (‘the cool kids at the back of the class’) and Gödel’s closed time-like curves, and is particularly good on why the only thing anyone agrees on in the field is how time is not at all like a river. (Although he omits my own favourite definition, from Carlo Rovelli’s sublime little book Seven Brief Lessons in Physics — ‘the fundamental phenomenon that distinguishes the future from the past is the fact that heat passes from things that are hotter to things that are colder’ — the direction is ‘sheer chance’.)

As well as the science, and possibly of more interest to the casual reader, he offers a thorough examination of time travel in fiction, and all its paradoxes and joys.

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