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This article by Phyllis Maguire was prepared for the December 11, 2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Princeton’s Time Traveler
The bad news is that no one is close to building a
working time machine. All of those tantalizing fantasies about souped-up
DeLorean cars and history-hopping phone booths must remain, for now,
in the realm of science fiction instead of science fact.
But the good news is that for years, physicists have been playing
with ideas about how time travel might be possible. One scientist
at the forefront of those conjectures is Princeton University astrophysicist
and professor J. Richard Gott III. His most recent book, "Time
Travel in Einstein’s Universe: The Physical Possibilities of Travel
through Time," was published this fall in paperback by Houghton
Mifflin. On Wednesday, December 18, Gott will be at the Hayden Planetarium
Space Theater of the American Museum of Natural History in New York
with an illustrated talk on "Time Travel: Fantasy or Reality?"
Time travel has been one of science fiction’s most captivating and
enduring themes, at least since 1895 and H.G. Wells’s groundbreaking
"The Time Machine."
"In that novel, Wells treated time as a fourth dimension, which
was extraordinarily prescient," says Gott in a telephone interview
from his university office. "When he wrote it, Newton’s laws of
physics — which held that time was universal, making it impossible
to go to the future or the past — were the only ones people knew."
That all changed in 1905 when a Swiss patent office worker and future
Princeton resident, Albert Einstein, posited his theory of special
relativity. Among other provisions, the theory claimed that space
and time, far from being absolute, actually depend on relative motion.
"Einstein showed that moving clocks tick more slowly, making time
travel to the future possible," Gott says. All you have to do,
his book makes clear, is zoom off into space at a speed that is some
significant percentage of the speed of light, then zoom back. Depending
on how fast you were going, 1,000 years may have passed here on Earth
while you would be only 10 years older than when you left. Already,
Gott writes in "Time Travel," astronauts who log many months
on the Mir space station return to Earth a tiny bit younger than if
they had never left — even if by only a fraction of a second.
Einstein’s theory of general relativity, which appeared
in 1916, held that the space-time continuum was actually curved by
the force of gravity. For the first time, that theory held out to
scientists the possibility of traveling to the past. Mathematician
Kurt Goedel, who was a colleague of Einstein’s at the Institute for
Advanced Study in Princeton, advanced one solution in 1949 for time
travel to the past. (The solution involved a rotating, non-expanding
universe, a model that has since been debunked.)
CalTech’s Kip Thorne followed that in 1988 with a time travel solution
involving "wormholes," space-time shortcuts used to glorious
effect in Carl Sagan’s novel "Contact," widely seen in the
movie based on his story. And in 1991, Gott himself used Einstein’s
general relativity theory to pose a time-travel-to-the-past solution
that involved moving cosmic strings, "high-density material,"
he writes, "left over from the early universe."
Wormholes and cosmic strings? Parallel universes? It’s not known if
these dimensions even exist, let alone — as Gott wryly notes —
have been written into "NASA’s current budget." But while
the time travel solutions sound fantastical, "scientists want
to know whether these things are possible in principle," Gott
says. "We want to understand how the laws of physics work in extreme
Delving into the concept of time travel also makes it possible to
explore the rules and possible origins of the universe, as Gott dicusses
in his book. And time travel "gives people a window to look at
Einstein’s theories" — ideas Gott calls "some of the most
important developments in science in the 20th century."
Einstein’s theories have special significance for the Princeton community,
Gott continues, since Einstein lived on Mercer Street, strolled down
Nassau, and lunched at Lahieres. (Einstein, a Jew, came to Princeton
in the early 1930s to escape Germany’s Nazis and died here in 1955.)
For Gott, illuminating Einstein’s ideas has been a hallmark of his
own long Princeton career.
Gott, who is 55, was born in Kentucky, where his father was chief
of medicine at the Veterans Administration hospital in Louisville
and his mother was president of the Kentucky garden club. He arrived
in Princeton in 1969 to get his PhD and — after post-doctoral
work at CalTech and Cambridge — returned here to teach in 1976.
He received the Princeton President’s Distinguished Teaching Award
Gott’s current teaching includes an undergraduate course for science
majors on general relativity; he also shares teaching duties for a
popular course on the universe for non-science majors. According to
Gott, an undergraduate course on Einstein’s general relativity theory
should be part of every undergraduate curriculum across the country.
"People should appreciate Einstein’s ideas just as they appreciate
Mozart’s or Picasso’s, as part of what human beings have been able
to accomplish," he says. "If non-English majors can be thrilled
by Shakespeare’s plays, then non-science majors can be captivated
by Einstein’s theories." To help make those theories even more
accessible, Gott has not only filled his book with humor, but also
with paper cut-outs that help convey the geometry of certain time
travel solutions in concrete terms.
Besides exploring the theoretical universe that Einstein made possible,
Gott is highly interested in galaxies’ clustering patterns. He has
theorized that galaxy clusters are like sponges. "Clusters may
be connected by filaments and walls, while the voids between them
may be connected by tunnels," he explains. To help test that hypothesis,
he has become very involved in analyzing data from the Sloan Digital
Sky Survey, a joint project of several powerhouse academic centers,
including Princeton, and observatories around the country that will
provide a three-dimensional map of 1 million galaxies in the northern
Back here on Earth, Gott also wants to see the space program maintained,
seeing it as essential for human survival. "We live on a tiny
planet full of the bones of extinct species," he says. With the
geological record teaching us that the Earth is an extremely dangerous
place to be, "it behooves us to make copies of ourselves and put
With the right amount of funding, establishing a small colony on Mars
sometime this century is perfectly doable, Gott claims — but as
far as travelling back in time to change what you had for breakfast
this morning? That won’t be happening any time soon.
— Phyllis Maguire
Museum of Natural History, Central Park West at 79 Street, New York
City, 212-769-5200. "Time Travel: Fantasy or Reality?" Illustrated
talk with clips from now-classic films. Booksigning for "Time
Travel in Einstein’s Universe" follows. Program Code EL121802;
$15 adult; discount for students & seniors. Wednesday, December
18, 7 p.m.
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