Is time travel the new porn?

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The Daily Mail’s Science Editor Michael Hanlon has a pop at the trend in physics towards ever more outlandish theories in the New Scientist this week:

Fun yes, but is it harmless? Scientists, and people like me who stick up for science, are happy to pour scorn on astrologers, homeopaths, UFO-nutters, crop-circlers and indeed the Adam-and-Eve brigade, who all happily believe in six impossible things before breakfast with no evidence at all. Show us the data, we say to these deluded souls. Where are your trials? What about Occam’s razor – the principle that any explanation should be as simple as possible? The garden is surely beautiful enough, we say, without having to populate it with fairies.

The danger is that on the wilder shores of physics these standards are often not met either. There is as yet no observational evidence for cosmic strings. It’s hard to test for a multiverse. In this sense, some of these ideas are not so far, conceptually, from UFOs and homeopathy. If we are prepared to dismiss ghosts, say, as ludicrous on the grounds that firstly we have no proper observational evidence for them and secondly that their existence would force us to rethink everything, doesn’t the same argument apply to simulated universes and time machines? Are we not guilty of prejudice against some kinds of very unlikely ideas in favour of others?

Coming from a Daily Mail man, this sounds like fightin’ talk (to be fair to him, I haven’t read anything by Hanlon that I would characterise as scare-mongering anti-science, but as the Science Editor you’d have thought he’d have some say in the sillier stories that do follow this trend in his paper). He has a point though. New Scientist’s cover story this week is about a scientific theory that the new Large Hadron Collider at CERN could be made into the world’s first time machine. When you get into the detail though, it turns out that this whole theory depends on “dark energy” of which we know very little, being used to “stretch” open the mouth of the resulting wormhole in space-time to allow us to communicate – let alone walk – through it. That’s a whole heap of speculation.

It sells copies of the New Scientist, but somehow I doubt we are on the brink of a major new discovery of this kind any time soon. And if we were it will probably not be anything like the future we imagined. Just as we have been denied the jetpacks we were promised, this new time travel technology will probably end up so boringly mundane that we don’t even notice when they start churning it out. Instead of people in jumpsuits from 10,000 years in the future coming back to murder their ancestors, my guess is the first time we see this technology being used is when some bozo introduces the mobile phone that allows you to text yourself messages in the past to make sure you remember to pick up the milk on the way home.

Like picture messaging, no-one will see the point of it at first, but then suddenly everyone will be at it. Within weeks, the lottery will become utterly pointless as the jackpot is won on a weekly basis by 60 million people and thus pays out 5p each. On the other hand, the stock exchange will become even more chaotic as people tip themselves off on a massive scale, only to discover that if everyone’s at it such information becomes utterly redundant. Eventually a member of Parliament hits upon a wheeze to claim their additional costs allowance an infinite number of times and the universe will implode in a puff of contradiction and self-important venality.

How annoying will that be? Even if it doesn’t happen, I can just imagine my future self texting me lies just to screw me over. Bastard.

3 thoughts on “Is time travel the new porn?

  1. Well that post ended up in a place I didn’t expect. But yes, New Scientist can hardly escape blame for sillyness in science reporting. I can’t really be arsed to read popular science magazines, but those of my uni friends who can almost universally agree that Scientific American is better (although I can’t vouch for this myself).

  2. I should add that I’m very fond of New Scientist – the good outweighs the fluff and it is honest enough to be having this debate internally.

  3. Well, in all fairness they weren’t so much saying that it is even likely to be a time machine, more than if popular theory is right no-one should actually be able to travel further back in time than 2008.

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