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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

situations."

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

in 1998.

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

sky.

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

colonies elsewhere."

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

J. Richard Gott, Hayden Planetarium Space Theater, American

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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