On Physics Tests and Roses

September 24, 2015 § Leave a comment

I was miffed.

“The names of the scientists are going to be on the test?”

My honors physics teacher, who I regarded as a generally reasonable man, had lost touch with reality and was resorting to the lowest of low testing methods: rote memorization without purpose.

Memorizing formulas was one thing–those were tools, mental shortcuts we employed to cut through a problem in a timely manner. P=mv, F=ma, W=mg–these facts were full, bloated with the theorems my teacher wrote out on the board when introducing the concepts to us.

But Rutherford, Hooke, Bernoulli–these were empty signifiers, a collection of letters that did no more to better my understanding of how things move about in space than watching Jeopardy did. In my mind, these names were trivia, and nothing more.

Rutherford, Hooke, and Bernoulli may have lived rich lives–to their contemporaries, peers, family, and friends, their names must have been loaded with connotation, each utterance of “Rutherford”–or perhaps, “Ernest”–conjuring up memories and feelings. But to the high school science student, “Rutherford” was associated with one thing: the discovery of the nucleus. We did not have the privilege of knowing Rutherford as a person, only the privilege of knowing his discovery.

And if that was all “Rutherford” boiled down to in our heads, what was the use of knowing that name? His life could have been interesting, but to feign the resurrection of his existence, to pretend that we were paying homage to him by remembering those empty letters when all we understood of them was the discovery, not man, attributed to them, seemed superfluous, almost irreverent. I had a deep appreciation for Rutherford’s gold foil experiment, not for him. I couldn’t have. I didn’t know the guy. I had a lot to thank the guy for–we all did, as students standing on this giant’s shoulders–but the rote memorization of his name didn’t do anything for him.

“These men devoted their lives to these discoveries,” formerly-reasonable physics teacher droned on. “We owe it to them to remember their names.”

But did we? The man was long gone–what did it matter to him if, 75-odd years after his death, students drew a line from his name to the gold-foil experiment on the page of a test?

Hypothetical #1: Suppose Rutherford’s last wish was to have his name go down in history for making a meaningful contribution to science–which element of that wish, the remembrance of his name or of his contribution to science, really matters?

History is important in that it allows us to learn from past mistakes, to build on the knowledge gathered by our predecessors.  We learn nothing from the man’s name.

Hypothetical #2: Suppose Rutherford made his meaningful contribution to science in order for his name to remembered, and that was his true last wish.

As unlikely as this scenario is, it begs the question: why do last wishes matter?

Last wishes matter only insomuch that some actor in the present derives utility from them. That actor may be the person making the last wish, comforted by a notion that they have the power to make an impact after they expire. It may be a relative or close confidant of the deceased, comforted by the notion that by honoring the last wish of their loved one, they’re salvaging a part of them by keeping a bit of their corporeal desires alive.

Or it might be a high school science teacher, seven decades after the last wish was made by a man he never met, comforted by the notion that it is important to remember the name of the deceased. He draws reassurance from this via a loosely-drawn syllogism, buried within the depths of his subconscious: if people considered remembering names important, then people might remember his name–and through every utterance of his name that occurs after his death, he might live a little longer.

This syllogism is buried in the back of most brains.

When I was thirteen, someone asked me the name of my great grandfather. With a shock, I realized that I didn’t know it–and I was terrified. Had he lived 80 years to only be forgotten by his great granddaughter, his existence fading into nothingness? Would I be doomed to a similar fate, forgotten by descendants, my life fading into

meaninglessness?

For that is the most grim notion of all–the notion that the sum of our actions, struggles, relationships, passions, and toil could amount to nothing. Welcome to life, the zero-sum game. Prepare to be overtaken by suffocating depression.

So we erect monuments to individuals, we pepper college campuses with statues, we catalogue gratuitous details of our fellow humans’ lives that far exceed the amount needed to learn anything significant from their experiences. We honor last wishes and memorize Rutherford’s name. We fight the idea, voiced by Andres in Mayflower II, that we exist merely to produce replacements: we strive to prove that we, as individuals, matter–to exert some semblance of control over that great leveling force, the eraser of our identities, the zero-sum despot known as death.

Because when death strikes, our voices are silenced. We can no longer fight to preserve our individuality. Thus, we preserve the individuality of others, rewarding innovation, breakthroughs and fame–and, in turn, striving to accomplish something notable enough that our successors will do the same for us.

Tooth and nail, blood and sweat, we claw our way to meaning.

But this  logic is flawed. It’s driven by a desire to be more than just a blink in the timespan world–to last beyond the 80-odd years granted to us by nature. But even if we accomplish something notable enough to warrant a statue, that statue is just a pebble thrown into a canyon. After thousands of years, stone erodes. Names are forgotten. And thousands of years are mere blinks in the timeline of the universe.

Ultimately, we all fade.

But not to meaninglessness.

Our lifespans may be naught but flashes in the perspective of the universe, but in our perspective, they are everything. They are our own universes. They matter, if only to us and our contemporaries. And they will leave legacies, if only ones that are accepted as assumed, attributeless characteristic of the future world. Our very state of existence implies this.

Those who do not know Rutherford’s name still benefit from his breakthrough. Perhaps more significantly, they benefit from all of the miniscule steps taken by nameless shadows of the past that enabled Rutherford to make his breakthrough. The tiniest fraction is still part of the sum–and, as Bradbury notes in A Sound of Thunder–the smallest butterfly a factor in the future of the world.

And it’s okay that we are ultimately all fameless fractions, our limits approaching zero. Long after we die, we’ll–you know–still be dead. And it won’t matter if there’s a hunk of rock out there with your name on it, or a group of students reciting your name to their teacher. With the eclipse of our personal universes comes the snuffling out of our pride and vanity. We’re gone. Dust in the wind.

And that thought is empowering.

If we narrow our perspective to the timeline of our own lives, instead of trying to grasp the strands of infinity, every action becomes more meaningful. With the recalibration of our viewpoints comes the revitalization of the “small things.” Stop and smell the roses. Appreciate the feeling of the sun on your face. Write a thank-you card. Hug someone.

Accept that all of these actions will inevitably be forgotten. But in the present moment, they are
everything.


Celeste Graves

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It Must Be Done.

September 9, 2015 § 2 Comments

It must be done. I nervously glanced down at my watch, calibrated to detect the precise instant in time I had entered as well as to keep track of the relative time that had passed since I had begun my travels. It was 6:43 pm, September 18, 2139. Ten minutes until show time.

I discovered the mechanism for time travel approximately five days prior to now; or, rather, I have lived five days since I began traveling in time. The mechanism of my travels is rather simple, yet it took me years to create. Any child past 7th grade (or is it 6th grade curriculum now?) knows that the space-time continuum of Minkowski Space may be manipulated by an extremely strong gravitational well.  It is also known that it is possible for this well to bend the plane of space-time so much it that it doubles back upon itself, creating a kind of “hole” where the two points in the plane intersect that connects one part of the plane to another and therefore connects two instances in time. Most believe that this kind of hole only occurs within the vacuum of space and would be impossible to create here on Earth. I, however, managed to achieve this feat, an accomplishment I now regret with the deepest passion. I created a machine that uses gravitons, the boson particle that carries the force of gravity, to create a strong enough gravitational well to bend space-time and create a doorway that remains contained and closable through the use of counteracting anti-gravitons that act as a kind of “push to the pull,” per say. It took a lot of calculating, but I managed to figure out how to calibrate the machine so that I can control what instance in time that the door opens into down to the second. The machine is a masterpiece. And now I hope to make it so that the masterpiece never comes into existence.

7 minutes until I complete my mission. When I created the machine, I never thought of any negative implications. I understood the hypothesis of the ripple effect, that a small change in the past could greatly alter the future, but I was a stark believer in my own hypothesis, that the ripples would have negligible effects on human life and that so long as you mapped out the effects precisely, you could travel freely into the past, altering it in whatever which way you want. I believed this earnestly, and spent five days mapping out paths, planning a test, a simple test, to see if my hypothesis was true. All I did was pick some flowers, five to be precise, a simple week before my own time. I brought these flowers back to my original time (creating a pretty decoration), and checked to see if my simple action had any effect at all. It had.

After studying the incident my action had altered, I concluded the following had occurred: the flowers I had picked were to be admired by a young three-year-old girl precisely two days after I had picked them; her stopping to simply smell the flowers had allowed the girl’s mother time to grab her before she mindlessly ran out into the middle of the road; without the flowers, she did not stop, and was hit and killed immediately. I had removed the flowers; I had killed a three-year-old girl.

Two minutes left. I wait patiently for my past self to leave the lab; it is the day before my inspiration, the day before the invention of the time machine. I know what I have to do, but still fear and doubt creep into my mind as I prepare to destroy my life’s work. It is not just the years spent conceiving and designing the machine that I will be losing; when I destroy the machine, I am consciously destroying any version of myself (and truly any version of the world) that had contact with and was affected by the machine. In that way, this mission is suicide. I am destroying the version of “me” that I know as me. I feel like I am facing death, but at the same time this “me” will actually never have come into existence, so is it really death at all? These questions make my head reel; I cannot think about them now. I must complete my mission. The experiment that led to the death of the little girl is only an incident that will repeat and be amplified a million fold if the machine is allowed to come into existence, for if not I then others using my work will create such machines and affect many futures. One small ripple can combine with many ripples to form a tidal wave, and I cannot allow that to happen.

One minute. I walk into my lab seconds after my past self walks out. I leave the note I have written outside the lab, explaining everything about what happened, why I must do this, and why I, or the past me, should discontinue all research on time travel. I am not sure whether or not the note will cease to exist with my own existence terminating, but no matter; I mustn’t bother with the petty details and just do what I have to do.

I insert the drive into my computer, implanting a virus I created specifically to wipe out any electronic trace of my work, deleting everything. Smiling softly, I turn on the gas nozzle of an old burner, letting the smell of rotten eggs fill the room. I know once I light my match the room will go up in flames, but I do not worry about burning. I will cease to exist, never having existed in the first place. I know what I have to do. It must be done.

-CRW

A wormhole connecting two sides of space-time By Panzi (English Wikipedia) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/7/7b/Wormhole-demo.png

A wormhole connecting two sides of space-time
By Panzi (English Wikipedia) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/7/7b/Wormhole-demo.png

Dear colonial Kevin who hates tomatoes

October 9, 2012 § Leave a comment

Kevin,

It’s Kevin.  No, not the redhead Kevin that lives next door, but you, ten years down the road.

You want proof?  Well oddly enough I remember where you were this week in 2002.  You are currently in Glens Falls, New York visiting Mom’s family.  But be careful, because you fall out of a bunk bed and get a mean black eye.  Keep strong though, you’ll look tough.  Grandme will be furious, but you can’t avoid that.

More proof?  Gosh, you are a toughie, here’s the picture of you at Disney not that long ago.

Ah… now it all clicks.

Well, I won’t spoil what happens for you, but I might as well give you some tidbits that I wish I had realized sooner:

I know you just moved back to Williamsburg, Virginia and you’re already weirded out by colonial people on cell phones (too early?) and driving cars, but don’t make fun of it too much.  You’ll come to miss it when you leave (Won’t tell you where, but it’s not too shabby).  The history is corny, and all the tourists are nuisances (wait until you drive behind them, you do pass driving test with Coach Caccetta).  But the quaint little town is your awkward little hometown.  You live on the first American river in the first district of the United States.  It’s a conversation piece, as you will always have someone ask, “is your father a blacksmith?”  And I mean, you can hear Busch Gardens and Water Country from your house, come on!

Historical anachronism in Wiliamsburg?

Next up, your sisters… you’re the youngest, so you’ve got it made.  They’re jealous you get to stay at home the longest.  And while I should tell you to be nice to them, don’t.  Pick on them all you can.  Annoy the hell out of them.  Be the obnoxious little Kevin I know you can be cause it makes you all the more close later on.  And I think it’s our responsibility at some point to be the squirrely little bro, and you’re at the stage where it’s not so frowned upon. Also:

Read Harry Potter, trust me.

Tennis isn’t as bad as you think.

You like tomatoes.

And avocado.

Love,

Kev

P.S. Don’t let Grandme put a steak on the eye.

 

 

 

 

The God Machine

October 14, 2011 § 2 Comments

“So when I sit in this chair, what really happens?”

“Well, what do you think happens?”

“By the sound of it, I become god.  But if that were true, then why on earth do you need me?”  Josh stared at his employer, trying to make her see that he just wasn’t buying it.  After all, they had sought him.  They were the ones that promised all this fame and glory and power.  They must have good reasons, and until Josh knew what they were, he wasn’t going to budge.

“If you really want to know, we wire your mind to the chronostream one bit at a time, exponentially increasing the flow of data to its optimal capacity.”

“Okay, but what does that actually mean?  What will happen to me?”

His employer sighed.  “Let’s try this from a different angle.”  Josh nodded.  “What is it that makes a being something which we call ‘god’?”

“Power of course,” Josh said.  “The ability to do whatever you want whenever you want and have no one be able to stop you.”

“Wrong.  Imagine you have infinite power, what would be the first thing you would do?”

Josh rubbed his hands together.  “Well now, I haven’t really thought of that yet.  I suppose I can do things in any order I want, so my first order of business isn’t all too important.  There’s time enough to get to everything.”  He felt a rumble in his stomach.  “If it were to happen right this instant, the first thing I’d do is to make a great feast in celebration and bring all my friends.”  His employer smirked.  Josh jumped as a loud bang went off and something whizzed past his face.

“You’d be dead,” she said.  “No one would let you live with all that power.”

Josh scoffed.  “If I was all powerful, I would’ve known and prevented you from trying to kill me.”

“That’s where your wrong.  Power is not the same thing as knowledge.  What good is a god who has all power but cannot simultaneously control it?  So what if you can make planets, you’ll have no idea what goes within them.  Your mind is too small to comprehend such things even if you were in a room with a million screens watching what happens in a million places.  You’d go insane wondering what other people are doing to try and kill you, wondering if you were any good at this whole creation thing, wondering what’s going to happen next.  No, the first and most important characteristic of a god is not omnipotence.  It’s omnipresence—being everywhere, and every-when.  Knowing every moment of time inside out.  Then you can manipulate reality and know what you’re doing.  Then you can truly find power.”

“So then this ‘god machine’ simply lets me see all of space and time?” Josh concluded.

“Well, if you want to call that simple, then yes.  But no one’s succeeded yet.  The highest we’ve every gotten is four bits before our subject has ceased functioning in any meaningful way.”

Josh felt like a giant fist had just punched him in the chest.  “And you think I’ll succeed?”

“Oh yes,” she replied.  “We’ve taken many steps to find the right candidate, and we’re not going to let you die without some results.”

His mind was still reeling.  “That thing you said back there about bits, what did you mean?”

“Ah,” his employer replied.  “Perhaps you can understand that as well.  We know that we can’t simply connect you to the chronostream.  We tried it with rats and they vanished then and there.  So we devised the idea that you should be connected one bit at a time.  Each bit doubles the number of time frames that you see.  Currently you only see one frame, you see your present.  We’ll first connect you with one bit so that you’ll see the present and two hundred years ago.  The two hundred years is so that you can get used to two radically different points of time without the illusion of constancy created by portions of the chronostream only nanoseconds apart.  You’ll be physically here of course, but we have theorized that awareness is equivalent to the way in which we expect a god to be present.  When you’ve gotten used to that, we’ll add another wire, doubling it again.  Shall we get started?”

Rivus

Safari to 1946

September 9, 2011 § Leave a comment

Time Machines are a tricky business.  They conjure up possibilities of vast fortunes, limitless power, and the unimaginable possibility of changing the course of history itself.  Or if you’d rather, the ability to escape the shackles of our time entirely, and venture off into the unknowable realm of the future.  The excitement that such an idea brings to mind is almost universal among us, however I would argue that fewer people would choose this escape than one might estimate;  I know I wouldn’t.  The present is an unbelievably beautiful place;  a beauty which people never fail to take for granted.  Every single connection with the people around us, which we cherish so deeply, are inevitably chained to the present with a metal stronger than any mithril Tolkien could dream of.

Maybe I just don’t fancy myself as a Time Traveller, but this present age is the one in which I belong.  If I could use the machine to acquire anything, it would be a single photograph in a simple wooden frame, which I would keep on my desk.  So I believe I would set out on one adventure through time before destroying the machine myself.  In this Bradburian Safari, I choose to make one stop in the past, armed not with a rifle, but with a camera to forever embed the history I seek in stone.  Let it begin…

First stop, 1946.  A turbulent time for not only America, but the entire continent of Europe.  However, my business is in Vermont, where I seek a young 21 year old navy pilot by the name of William Kimball.  I find my target at a local bar, surrounded by several of his friends from the navy and from his high school.  I approach the heavy oak table, introduce myself, and offer to buy the next round.

An hour later, having heads thoroughly filled with jovial conversation and bellies equally full of drink, most of his friends departed and the young woman sitting next to him (who I had learned was his wife of 3 years) kissed Bill and retired as well.  I congratulated him as the brunette exited the room, and he asked me if there was anyone special in my life, to which I replied “Well, yes, but she doesn’t exactly know it yet.”  “Haha, well then you need to do something about that!” he shouted across the table, the level of his voice elevated by the empty pitcher of beer between the two of us.  Bill laughed hysterically as I joked I would get around to it in around 60 years or so.

Around one o’clock in the morning, Bill and I stumbled rather clumsily out of the bar and began walking to his home, which he had generously offered to me as a place to spend the night.  I stop him at a lamppost and ask if he would mind taking a picture.  “Good friends are worth remembering,” I said.  I set my camera on a nearby stone wall, and upon my return to the lamppost Bill throws his arm on my shoulder.  The cold Vermont wind picks up and Bill quickly turns to button his jacket.  “I haven’t seen a camera like that one before,” he said lightly, “where did you come across it?”  He turned around to receive his answer but found himself alone under the light of the lamppost.

My grandfather died of lung cancer a day after my first birthday.  I never got the chance to meet him until now.

-AMA

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