Time Travel and Eclipses

Caution! Before reading further, please review the definition of ‘tongue in cheek’.

Time travel is a staple of science fiction, and with good reason. The paradoxes are delicious to contemplate.

And somewhat related, already there is quite a lot of interest building about the total eclipse of the sun that is due to be visible over a wide swath of the United States on August 21, 2017. I will be in Oregon and already have my fingers crossed that there will be no clouds.

Time Travel

Is such a thing possible? The answer depends on which way you are going—forward or back.

If you go forward, yes, time travel is possible. According to special relativity, we observe the clocks of someone moving relative to us as running more slowly. This fact leads to what is called the twin paradox. One brother blasts off into space while the other remains behind. Each sees the clock of the other running slower. After, say, may years, the spacefarer returns to visit his earth-borne sibling. So, which is now the younger?

It is the traveler who is younger. Among other places, the reason is explained here. In the reference, the stay-at-home twin ages twenty years while the traveler ages sixteen. Effectively the traveler has traveled four years into the future.

Going backwards presents paradoxes too. The classic is to figure out what happens when someone goes back in time and kills his own father before he is born. Physicists say that backwards time travel clearly is impossible. It allows things like the death of a father to happen before they can be caused—by among other things the birth of the murderer. A more folksy argument is ‘If backward time travel is possible, then how come we don’t meet any of the travelers?’

Well, think about it for a moment. Maybe, just maybe, an effect does not always have a cause occurring first and we just have not figured this out yet. And backwards time travelers certainly would be briefed not to do anything stupid. If they were really careful, everything would be OK.

But being careful can be a hard thing to do. Consider fashion, for example. It is changing all the time. Even with the internet, keeping track of the coming and going of fads is not easy. And maybe the time travel machines are not very precise. One might want to visit the sixties but arrive in the twenties instead. As soon as the traveler stepped outside of his machine, he would be immediately spotted as being very much out of place.

For women time travels this is indeed a problem, but for men there is a work around—tuxedos. Yes, men’s fashion does change too, but much more slowly than it does for women. A tux from the twenties might well pass in the sixties with little or no comment.

This means that if you indeed are looking for evidence of time travelers, going to the opera or Nobel Prize ceremonies would be a good thing to do.

Eclipses

There can be other visitors among us as well. Consider the phenomenon of a solar eclipse.

First of all, for such a tiny planet as our Earth, our moon is relatively enormous. From anywhere on the surface, it is one of the two biggest sights in the solar system. That alone is worth the visit of alien tourists.

But the fanstasic thing is that, in addition, the moon is precisely the right distance away from the sun so that a total eclipse can occur. No mere transit across the blazing solar disk, no overlap that is wasted. The moon is blocks out all of the sunlight except for a tiny ring around the edge.

This has got to be an astronomical rarity. What are the odds of such a thing happening? There very well may be no other instance in our entire galaxy. Visiting the Earth during a solar eclipse has got to be on the alien top ten list of things to do.

So, If you have a change to be in the path of totally, please follow up on it. You might see the best of all. There right before your eyes, dressed in a tuxedo, a time traveling alien.

© 2016 Lyndon M. Hardy

Skylark Three

What? You say. You’re not going to devote any attention to an out-of-date, poorly written, politically incorrect novel, are you? The protagonist even commits genocide!

Well, yes I am – with a focus on what it has meant to me rather than its flaws. You can find out what others think of the book by looking at the reviews in Goodreads.

First, some background on the story. What you will read here is not even slightly accurate, even more over the top than the original, but it is the way that I choose to remember things.

Skylark Three is the second volume in the Skylark trilogy by E.E. ‘Doc’ Smith, first published in 1930. It features as the hero, Richard Seaton, earth’s most intelligent man — and fastest draw. The villlian of the series, Blackie Duquesne, is as fast as Seaton with his right, but a shade slower with his left, and that made all the difference.

Seaton, being earth’s most intelligent man, uses 1920’s technology to build the Skylark, a spaceship in which he zooms all about the galaxy. In Skylark Three, he discovers the bad news. The Fenachrone are coming! These guys are so evil they even blow up entire planets just for target practice.

Being earth’s most intelligent man, Seaton realizes that our technology infrastructure of the 1920’s is not sophisticated enough to produce a weapon to stop the Fenachrone. So, for roughly the first two-thirds of the novel, as I hazily recall, he visits planet after planet, searching for the advanced technology base that he needs.

Finally, he arrives at what looks like a promising one. The inhabitants are ecstatic. Richard Seaton has come to save them! They give him a lab to work in. Early in the morning of the first day everyone watches on TV Seaton enter the lab to start.

They stay glued to their sets the entire day, seeing the exterior of the lab and nothing on the inside. Finally, around 5PM, Seaton emerges. The entire planet goes wild in celebration. They knew that Seaton was good, but to build the weapon to defeat the Fenacrone in only a single day — unbelievable!

The reporters swam him. “What is the weapon?” they ask? “A brain liquefier?” “A transmorgrifier?” “An incredible shrinking ray?”

“It has only been one day,” Seaton says. “I don’t have the answer yet.”

“What, are you crazy?” “What are you doing out here?” “The Fenachrone are coming! The Fenachrone are coming! They blow up entire planets for target practice!” “You should be back in the lab working harder. What are you doing out here?”

“Well, first of all I am going to relax with a few cocktails while my wife serenades me with a violin concerto or two. She is quite accomplished, you know. Then, a quiet dinner with her, and after that, off to bed for a good night’s sleep. I will be back in the lab the first thing tomorrow morning.”

“But the Fenacrone are coming!”

Seaton paused for a second.  “You just have to pace yourself,” he said.

[Spoiler alert] Surprisingly (?) Seaton does come up with a weapon and almost single-handedly blasts into atoms every last Fenacrone, man, woman, and child.

Anyway, that is how I choose to remember the book. I don’t dare reread it because I know I will be disappointed.

###

So what does this book mean to me personally? Well, for thirty years I worked at an aerospace company, helping to build data processing software for some of our national assets. These systems were one-of-a-kind, doing things that had never been done before. As such, there seldom were models to copy. Everything was new from the ground up.

The process started with a Request for Proposal (RFQ) sent out by the government to companies that seemed to be qualified to build a brain liquefier or transmorgrifier, or whatever.

To respond, each competitor assembled a team of engineers whose specialties covered one of the technologies possibly needed for a solution. Nobody had a Richard Seaton on their staff.

Each of the engineers wrote a first draft of what he thought would contribute to a final solution. Everyone’s writings were posted on the wall for everyone else to read. (This was decades ago. Personal computers and networks had not been invented yet).

Then, armed with the knowledge of what others were doing, each engineer wrote a second draft that attempted to make the whole proposal more coherent.

“Oh, I see you are using two-step logon verification in your section on the operating system. I will mention that in my write up of the Operational Concept.”

This process was iterated, gradually improving the proposal document towards the goal of being understandable and making sense. The writing staff shrunk with each cycle; fewer and fewer engineers took over what they now understood from less able ones who had good ideas but could not convey them clearly.

Eventually, the time was up. The proposal had to be in the government’s hands by a deadline or the contractor could be disqualified from even being evaluated at all.

Most of the time, more or less, this process worked. The final submittal was good enough that the contractor, at the least, would not be embarrassed by what he was handing in. And who knew? What was submitted just might be good enough to win. After all, all of the competitors had the same challenge.

On a few occasions, however, the iterations did not work. There were many cycles, of course, but as the deadline approached, somehow, the words became no better integrated than they had been at the start.

On a few (thankfully) such occasions, with only, say, seventy-two, hours left, I had been the last engineer remaining, and the proposal was a complete mess. It would be an embarrassment to submit. And not handing one in at all was not an option. Both of these choices ran the risk of being dropped from the bidder’s list for the next RFP.

Then, with fewer chances to bid, work would eventually dry up. The more qualified engineers would leave for other companies. The less talented ones that remained would be even less able to respond adequately to whatever RFPs did come in.

In my over-active imagination, over a span of a few years a death spiral resulting in complete collapse of the company was a distinct possibility. The weight of the world was on my shoulders. The needle on my stress meter pinned itself on the right, deep into the red.

And in those situations, I recalled Skylark Three.

What I had to do was a mere pimple on the face of the adversity that was handled by Richard Seaton, I realized. He stopped the Fenachrone, for crying out loud. They were the ones that blew up entire planets for target practice!

And how did he do it? Put in an honest full day’s work, have a calming dinner, a good night’s sleep, and start again fresh the next day. If he could save the entire galaxy from the Fenachrone, the guys who blew up entire planets for target practice, then certainly I should be able to handle my petty problem as well.

I did knock off at 5 PM even though there was only three days left, got my sleep and continued to work through what had to be done the next day.

Self-delusion? Sure it was? But remembering about Skylark Three was what got my stress meter back into the green.

© 2016 Lyndon M. Hardy