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Review - Breaking the Time Barrier - Jenny Randles


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Few concepts are as exciting, or as scientifically challenging as the possibility of time travel. It's one that has fascinated fiction writers over the years, with its rich combination of the potential to witness historical events, and to look forward and see how the human race develops, plus all the confusions and paradoxes generated by the ability to travel through time. (Simplest case: imagine a radio transmitter that can send a signal back 1 second in time. The signal is used to switch the transmitter off. So once the signal is sent, the transmitter switches off one second ago. So it was never on to send back the signal. So it's still switched on. So...)

Jenny Randles does a good job of mixing all the batty ideas for time travel that have sprung up over the years with the real (and much more tentative) possibilities for breaking the time barrier. In a sense, she points out, anything that moves is time travelling, in that thanks to relativity, its time isn't the same as a "fixed" observer - though this is just a modified version of the time travel into the future we all do at the rate of a second per second. And she also introduces all the confusing complexity of quantum theory and general relativity that have opened up the possibilities for real time travel. Her prose is always accessible and really brings all this material to light very effectively.

So it would seem this is an ideal popular science book. But there are significant concerns. Randles' is sometimes so taken with being dramatic that what she says isn't really true. For instance she comments on Hau's experiments that slow light to a virtual standstill, "A ray of light had been stopped dead in a laboratory, and along with it any doubt that we could smash [the time barrier]." Well, no. If you could stop all light dead then time might well be in trouble (we certainly would cease to exist) - but it's hard to see how a few photons dallying in a Bose Einstein condensate shake the foundations of time. The speed of light in a vacuum had not changed. Nothing had changed. Even more drastically wrong is her assertion that teleportation using quantum entanglement is instantaneous, hence involves time travel (because anything moving faster than light goes backwards in time). In fact, quantum teleportation has to include a light speed transmission of data. It can't work faster than light, so can't provide a mechanism for time travel.

The other problem is a less than scientific fuzziness sometimes. "We have grown up," she says "with one version of reality but there are other, equally valid interpretations." She goes on to give the example of the Australian Aboriginal concept of dreamtime as an alternative view of time. I'm sorry, but this is classic woolly thinking. Dreamtime is an interesting sociological concept, but it not a scientific concept on a par with physics. You can't set your watch by dreamtime, and if you consider other interpretations of reality "equally valid" then you should be as happy stepping off a building relying on a "flying charm" or a broomstick as you would being kept up by our boring old scientific version of reality in a 747. There are other mental constructions that can be applied, but very few of them are useful interpretations of reality - and to suggest that they are equally valid is the worst sort of wishy-washy thinking.

At the heart of the problem with this book is that it's like TV popular science, with its much looser standards and urge to thrill and excite all the time, rather than the real thing. So, for instance, when describing H. G. Wells' attempt to build a theme park style time machine simulator, Randles several times says that Wells "did indeed try to build one of the first actual time machines," and similar breathless prose. No he didn't - he tried to build an entertainment. You might as well say Peter Jackson tried to produce a giant gorilla called King Kong. (Shock, horror, genetic engineering scandal.) Oh, no, it was just a movie. Phew.

Once you realize this, you can start to like this book. Think of over-excited TV presenters voicing the lines in dramatic tones and it all makes sense. It really is very good TV pop sci - it's just we have rather more exacting standards in the the written world. Don't dismiss it entirely, though. It brings out a good range of key developments that give hints of the possibility of time travel. It just needs to be viewed through spectacles that are decidedly free of rose tints.

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Reviewed by Brian Clegg


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Last update 05 June 2007