James Gleick at WORD Christchurch: No spoilers for Time Travellers

James Gleick does not want to offend anyone.

The author of numerous books of a scientific bent is careful with his words and keen not to ruffle any feathers. It’s speculation on my part, but I wonder if his experience is that, on the topic of Time Travel, passions might sometimes become inflamed?

A curious full house gather at the Piano for this WORD Christchurch session featuring Gleick and fellow New Yorker Daniel Bernardi (erskine fellow, film and media studies scholar, science fiction expert and documentary filmmaker). They discuss the ins and outs, twists, turns and paradoxes of Time Travel. Before long there is, as is the new tradition when two educated Americans speak in the presence of non-Americans… a jocular swipe at the current US president.

James Gleick and Professor Daniel Bernardi
James Gleick and Professor Daniel Bernardi, Flickr File Reference: 2017-05-16-IMG_0194

Fortunately this science-loving audience is not in the least offended by the joke.

Cover of Time Travel by James GleickGleick’s book Time Travel: A history is an exploration of the literature, science and zeitgeist of Time Travel. It’s far-ranging, smart and brain-expanding.

But what made him want to write on that topic in the first place?

I discovered this weird fact – that Time Travel is a new idea. That didn’t make any sense to me.

Why did it take until H. G. Wells’s novel The Time Machine for people to explore that as an idea? It seems a few things came together: photography and cinema were showing people a slice of the past in the present; instantaneous communication was suddenly possible making the lack of temporal alignment in different places more obvious; and time standards became a thing for the first time. As Gleick puts it, “the way people thought about Time was up for grabs”.

Then Einstein came along and things got really interesting.

Though Einstein’s theories allowed for the possibility of a sort of Time Travel, Gleick is quick to point out that it’s not the punching-a-date-on-a-machine or opening-a-portal-to-another-era kind. It’s really just the acknowledgement that there is no universal time. Everyone’s experience of time is personal and given the right set of circumstances (speedlight travel, for instance) your version of time can slow down relative to everyone else’s. This means that the Time Travel stories of the “Rip Van Winkle” (or Futurama) kind become technically possible. But Gleick doesn’t believe the imaginary, sci-fi type Time Travel that continues to excite our imaginations exists, or that it will. Though he seems apologetic about it, as if he’s mindful of deflating the aspirations of wannabe Time Travellers in the audience.

On the enduring appeal of Time Travel in literature and popular culture, Gleick feels that it lets people explore many things about families and relationships – it gives you the ability for “a do-over”. Like the movie Groundhog Day. He points out that a lot of Time Travel stories are about fathers and mothers, families and parents.

Take Back to the Future – isn’t this really just a movie about looking at your parents and realising they were once young like me, and wondering “what was that like?”

This is far from the only reference to Time Travel in popular culture, and many in the audience probably come away from this talk with a reading/watching list that includes:

  • A Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood – indicative of pessimism about the future of “our benighted country”.
  • Doomsday book – H. G. Wells never wrote about going into the past but Connie Willis does.
  • “All you zombies” by Robert Heinlein – An early short story that became the movie Predestination and is an interesting example of The Grandfather Paradox.
  • Looper – Movie that nicely skirts over the paradoxical plot difficulties by having Bruce Willis tell his younger self “If we’re going to talk about Time Travel sh*t we’re gonna be sitting here making diagrams with straws all day”.
  • Interstellar – Bernardi’s pick as the film that best visualises the science of Time Travel.
  • The Planet of the Apes series – Bernardi’s favourite for its use of Time Travel to address issues of gender and race.
  • Arrival – A film that Gleick feels works very well in performing a “subtle trick” on the audience. All Time Travel stories have to do this but in this film you barely notice it happening.
  • Twelve Monkeys – Another Bruce Willis film that deals with a Time Travel loop and deals with a death.
  • “Blink” – Gleick’s favourite episode of Doctor Who, in particular a scene set in a spooky old house, “old houses are great time travel machines”. It’s also the first episode in which the phrase “timey-wimey” is used.
James Gleick
James Gleick: a man in want of some straws. Flickr File Reference: 2017-05-16-IMG_0198

Gleick is at great pains to try and describe these stories in a way that does not reveal any important plot twists. In the case of Planet of the Apes this is… is adorable the right word? The movie came out in 1968. But no spoilers!

Another appealing aspect to Time Travel is that it’s a way of escaping death. After all, (spoiler alert!) Time will kill us all in the end.

When we hear Time’s winged chariot it’s not delivering good news.

But what is Time (other than universally deadly)? Scientists may tell you that Time is the 4th dimension and that it’s similar to the other physical dimensions in that we inhabit one spot and the rest stretches out away from us, both backward and forward. This rather flies in the face of what Gleick says we know “in our guts” about Time i.e. that the past has happened and the future hasn’t.

It seems an oddly obvious statement to have to make, and Gleick says it’s not a scientific one but a religious one.

Some of the audience questions delve into this idea of religious thought versus Time Travel and at this point I get lost, draw a spiral in my notebook and label it “loop of confusion”. Questions like “is God in Time with us?” and “doesn’t an interventionist God imply that the future isn’t set?” do somewhat “screw my noodle”. Given the heady topic, it seems inevitable that I lose the thread of the discussion at some point in proceedings. Perhaps it always has, and always did happen?

Other questions posed include one from my colleague Fee (who wrote her own post about James Gleick) and wonders if the future is set, then what about premonition? Which Gleick says (gently) that he does not believe in, though it’s a powerful idea.

Another question asks how it is that Gleick can explain such scientifically complex stuff in ways that non-scientist folk can understand. He says simply that he’s a journalist so he asks lots of questions and that a big part of it is just getting scientists to talk you as they sometimes “live in their own abstruse world”.

I am lucky enough to get the last mic grab of the night and ask my own question (which if I could have a Time Travel do-over for, I would make slightly less waffley). It’s with reference to the way we think about Time in terms of spatial metaphor. In the Western world we conceive of the past as being behind us and the future in front of us but in Māori culture this is flipped around – the past is known and therefore visible before you and it’s the future that approaches you from behind. In the course of researching had he found any other cultures that view Time this way? Gleick replies that the language we use, the words that we use to describe Time really shape how we think about it and that in some Asian languages Time travels on an “up and down” axis or “right to left”.

And if I thought my noodle was screwed before it definitely is now. As I exit the theatre along with the rest of the audience I concentrate on travelling forward through space and backwards/forwards/vertically through time.

More information

The WORD on Time Travel with James Gleick

“Quid est ergo tempus?” “What then is time?” (Augustine)

When did Time begin? Was it the Creation, or Big Bang? Is it just an Illusion, a construct of man? Who coined the phrase “Time Travel?”

Cover of Time Travel by James GleickFor the answers to these and many other questions on Time Travel, James Gleick is your man. Come along to his WORD Christchurch session at the Piano on Tuesday 16 May, 6pm to hear him talk about his book, Time Travel: A history.

I’m so excited. I’ve always wanted to find out how to Time Travel. I could get so much more done.

My first memory of a Time Travel story would have to be the Time Tunnel. Yet as I look back it’s an element in so many stories – the Pevensies always came back to the same moment they left (The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe), The guys in Land of the Lost travelled, and then I read The Time Machine.

H.G. Wells is arguably the master, although he was no Newton. Yet he raises a theory (mirrored by Ben Elton in Time and Time Again) that Time exists only in the memory: “There is no difference between Time and any of the three dimensions of Space except that our consciousness moves along it.” (p.8).

Susan’s student, Penelope, in Terry Pratchett’s The Thief of Time, asserts that “Its always now everywhere, Miss.”

Cover of Isaac NewtonGleick, a Harvard graduate, explores not just story in his book, but scientific theory also, from the concept of Time to the idea of travelling at will through it. He has also written a book on Isaac Newton.

Time Travel: A history, has a formidable index, and an indispensable book list of stories, anthologies and scientific works on the nature of time and travel.

After a small survey of colleagues and friends I’ve come up with some questions for Mr Gleick. Feel free to ask one at the event. (They won’t let me ask them all!)

  1. Can you meet yourself in Time and not cause a temporal reaction?
  2. Can you move through Space as well as Time?
  3. Did the Time Tunnel guys EVER make it home?
  4. What was the outcome of Predestination?
  5. If you kill yourself in time will you cease to exist in other dimensions?
  6. Can you kill your mother/father yourself and not cause 1.
  7. Why can’t Dr Who fall in love?
  8. If the future hasn’t happened yet, can you only travel backwards?
  9. Can you travel back/forward to wipe someone out and change the future?
  10. If light can split into particles and waves, can a person be at two places in Time?

Time travel fans will want to check out my lists of –

Researching Aurora Australis

I have been out trying to catch a glimpse of Aurora Australis or the Southern Lights. I spent last evening out on the port hills star gazing, I was unsuccessful again.

My first attempt to see the polar lights was when I was living in the UK and wanted to see the Northern Lights or Aurora Borealis. I booked a weekend in Iceland, which is supposed to have excellent viewing of the northern lights. Alas the weather in Iceland was cloudy, so no Aurora Borealis for me.

My children are now are asking lots of questions so I decided to do some research on the Auroras. My starting place is eDS, the libraries eResources Discovery Search which searches across heaps of eResources all at once. First result was the Research Starter on the Auroras which gives you a really good starting point for information, explaining how phenomena is caused by the interaction of solar radiation with the earth’s atmosphere and magnetic field. Other results include news stories, and articles from magazines such as Australian Geographic.

This got me thinking about another great eResource we have at Christchurch City Libraries, New Zealand Geographic Archive. NZ Geographic always has such great photos and didn’t let me down with this great article Nature’s Neon.

Now I armed with more knowledge about the Auroras will I go stargazing again and try to view the southern lights? Yes, I probably will.

Screen shot of NZ Geographic
A screen shot from New Zealand Geographic Archive – an eResource accessible with your Christchurch City Libraries membership.

Find out more

Primary science week : Stay safe on our roads with science

This year, Primary Science Week will be on 15th to 19th May. The theme is ‘Stay safe on our roads with science’.

The New Zealand Association of Science Educators is asking our young scientists to participate in this year’s national experiment. The aim this year is for classes to carry out road safety related experiments and share their experiments and results with other classes around the country. The students will see how the science community work together to find solutions to problems.

Are you a primary school teacher or a keen young scientist? Then check out NZASE’s Primary Science Week website. You will find some great road safety experiments. Some are suitable for younger children, others are more suitable for older primary children. You never know, you might just be the one that makes an interesting discovery or observation that makes our roads a wee bit safer.

Science Alive Under 5 Fest – Hands-on science fun for kids

Science Alive’s annual Under 5 Fest gives kids under the age of 5 (and their parents and caregivers and educators) a heap of hands-on science fun. It’s on from Tuesday 21 to Sunday 26 March, 9.30am to 4.30pm at Table Tennis Canterbury stadium, 294 Blenheim Road, Riccarton. Library staff will be there from 11am to 12pm daily, doing a 20 to 30 minute Storytimes / Wā Kōrero at 11am, sharing stories, rhymes, music and play.

Science Alive Under 5 Festival

The Science Alive team say there will be some cool new exhibits as well as old favourites. Entry is $6 for all ages, except under 2s get in for free. Make sure you bring some coins, there’s a balloon creator and face-painter on site. If you are there and want to share your pics and vids, use the hashtag #U5FEST

Visit the Science Alive website to find out all you need to know about parking, food (and coffee) etc. You can also subscribe to the Under 5 Fest Facebook event to get the latest info.

Science Alive Under 5

Science Alive at libraries

For older kids, Science Alive also offer Science Snippets, an after school science programme at five libraries across Christchurch.

Science resources for kids

Last year we interviewed Geni McCallum of Science Alive! about the Under 5 fest and kids and science: “Science is about doing”.

Libraries have plenty of science-themed fun for kids:

(Images in this post supplied by Science Alive)

Christchurch – Our underground story

Christchurch: Our underground story is a “lift-the-flaps” picture book with a difference. It has the sturdy thick board pages and colourful illustrations you’d expect to find in other books of this kind but the topic is a bit less straightforward than teaching simple colours or counting.

It’s about infrastructure, which is not a particularly thrilling word to most kids (or adults). But the ongoing maintenance and repair of quake-damaged infrastructure has a daily impact on Cantabrians, so thrilling or not, it’s probably something we should all pay a bit of attention to.

This is one of the reasons for the book as it attempts to open our eyes to exactly what all those coned-off holes in the ground, detours and diggers are in aid of.

It’s a challenging topic but SCIRT Civil Structural Engineer Phil Wilkins and Chemical Engineer/illustrator Martin Coates have brought their considerable experience to bear in producing a really unique and distinctly Cantabrian book.

Cover of Christchurch: Our underground story

Christchurch: Our underground story is sort of a “How Stuff Works” for infrastructure, filled as it is with diagrammatic drawings of how this pipe connects to that one connects to the next one, and the methods by which they’re maintained and repaired. By lifting the flaps you can see the processes and equipment underneath, and it’s all accompanied by explanations of what things are called and what their purpose is. It’s the kind of book that invites inquisitive kids to spend a lot of time absorbed on each page… and it’s pretty educational for adults too.

Christchurch: Our underground story spread
A look inside Christchurch: Our underground story by Phil Wilkins and Martin Coates

The illustrations make it clear that this book is about Christchurch with local landmarks and little touches like flowers poking out of road cones that place it very much in the Garden City.

Proceeds from the sale of the book go to Ronald McDonald House which provides accommodation for families who, because they have a sick child in hospital, have to travel from out of town.

The book can be ordered now with purchased copies able to be picked up at a book launch event at the Margaret Mahy Family Playground on Saturday 25 February. You can also place a hold on a library copy.

Further reading

Mask Making at the Makerspace Workshop

Come and check out our mask display at the South Learning Centre. Students at the Marker Space Workshop afterschool programme investigated the meaning behind masks and why people wear masks. They then researched and drafted their own mask ideas. Their brief was to incorporate an accessory that could be 3D printed.

masks

Marker Space Workshop afterschool programme delved into the World of Wearable Arts (WOW). But it was more than just costume making – it involved a trip to Creative Junk and sewing lessons with a sewing machine – but also circuit making with LEDs and Arduino chips.

Students were asked to create an Kiwiana outfit which included an electronic circuit with flashing LEDs.

IMG_0148

Booking and enquiries

To book a place on one of our courses please phone (03) 941 5140 or email: learningcentre@ccc.govt.nz.

Podcast – Antarctica

Speak Up Kōrerotia logoChristchurch City Libraries blog hosts a series of regular podcasts from New Zealand’s only specialist human rights radio show Speak up – Kōrerotia. This show is created by Sally Carlton.

The latest episode deals with issues relating to Antarctica:

  • Ice melt
  • Climate science and climate change – ice core research
  • Antarctic Treaty and international cooperation
  • Antarctica as a place – vistas, cold etc
  • The role of New Zealand and Christchurch in Antarctic exploration

This show was recorded at the Centre of Contemporary Art and includes discussion with Bryan Storey of Gateway Antarctica, University of Canterbury, Dan Price (Pole to Paris) and Karen Scott from University of Canterbury Law School.

Transcript of audio file

Find out more in our collection

Cover of Dispatches from Continent Seven Cover of Antarctica An Encyclopedia Cover of Antarctica in International Law  Cover of Dogs of the vastness Cover of Our far south

More about Speak up – Kōrerotia

The show is also available on the following platforms:

The Atomic Weight of Love

Book cover of The Atomic Weight of Love by Elizabeth J ChurchThe Atomic Weight of Love is the debut novel of Elizabeth J. Church and I hope we see a lot more books from her. This book is an ideal Christmas present. It appeals to a wide audience and will make a great holiday read and is not without a little racy love interest.

Meridian has won a place at the University of Chicago where she studies ornithology working towards a graduate degree and eventual doctorate. Just as her wings are opening and she starts to glimpse new horizons she falls in love with a college professor two decades older than herself and her wings are clipped.

It is written in a memoir style following Meridian as a woman growing up in the 1940s through the fifties and sixties into the seventies and the emergence of women’s liberation. You will find yourself reflecting at times how so much has changed yet still remains the same.

Meri marries Alden and follows him to Los Alamos where she attempts to fit into the group of ex-academic wives she meets there. It is the era when a wife is expected to follow their husband and make the best of it. She struggles to be a good wife while salvaging something of her studies by continuing to study Crows, having left her graduate study dreams behind her.

The novel’s dual strands, the place of women with the emergence of the women’s liberation movement, and the atomic bomb with its resulting anti-war Vietnam and Korean war movements, almost splits it characters by gender over its two themes.

Some of the characters could do with more development – they feel a little clichéd. It seems women have little to say on war in this novel and men little say on the home front. Even for the times this feels a little stretched. She skims over the women who Meridian meets in Los Alamos except her best friend Belle, a strong woman who urges her not to minimise herself yet when it comes to the crunch still tells her to stay in her marriage and try to make it work.

That being said bird studies draw amusing parallels between human and bird society. Each section of the novel starts with an ornithological reference “A Parliament of Owls”, “A Deceit of Lapwings, “A Murder of Crows”. When Meridian meets Clay, a young hippie ex-marine about two decades younger than her, it seems they are about to repeat past mistakes. Her husband seems not to understand her sacrifice while her lover urges her to soar again.

Read the novel to find out if she does.

It is an enjoyable debut novel with a poetical style and reminds me of The Guernsey Potato Peel Literary Society, The Light between Oceans and The Shipping news. If you like nature and have a slightly scientific bent you will enjoy it and even learn a little physics on the way.

The Atomic Weight of Love
by Elizabeth J. Church
Published by HarperCollins New Zealand
ISBN: 9780008209292

Nanogirl in Christchurch: Quick questions

nanogirl-2016-250x250Nanogirl is coming to Christchurch with a bang! She is putting on two shows on 5th December at the Isaac Theatre Royal. Expect explosions and excitement at Little Bang, Big Bang – the Live Science Show. One hour of science where Nanogirl blows things up, blows things over and blows your mind!

Covering Bernoulli’s principle, firing a massive air vortex cannon, holding fire in her hands and exploding thousands of ping pong balls, this show has science like you’ve never seen it before!  Safe for all ages, this family friendly show shows you simple experiments you can do at  home.

We asked Nanogirl – aka scientist Michelle Dickinson – a few questions ahead of her upcoming visit

CoverWhat resources would you recommend for kids interested in science?

Actually my favourite place to go is online to places like the Science Learning Hub as they have great New Zealand content for all ages and for teachers that includes local content.

I also love Rosie Revere, engineer as an engineer myself, it’s so great to read a book with such a strong female engineer lead character to get girls and boys interested in and familiar with the word ‘engineering’.

What did you read as a child that you enjoyed? What books inspired you?

I read a lot of science fiction books which I loved as they helped me to think about what a future world could look like which helped me to think big about working on solutions that could help our future by helping to create technologies and materials that don’t exist yet.

What do you enjoy reading these days?

Now I’m a total non-fiction biography addict as I follow influential leaders that I admire as I try to piece together how others have overcome challenges in their lives to create the successes they were aiming for.

What role do libraries play in your life?

Libraries used to be the place that I went to borrow books when I was younger but now they are spaces of technology for me as I help libraries who have 3D printers and robotics centres in them and instead of the hardback books I used to borrow, I’m now an avid audiobook borrower from my local library.

 

Fun Palaces at Central Library Peterborough - 3d Printing
Fun Palaces at Central Library Peterborough – 3d Printing. Flickr CCLFunPalaces-2015-10-3-Fun Places – 41 – Fun Times – 41 – 1912

What advice can you give young people wanting to pursue a career in science?

The best scientists and engineers are always asking questions and always testing their theories through creating experiments and researching their ideas, so my advice is to never stop being curious.

More Nanogirl

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Science and technology at the library

See also our post: Inspiring girls to work in STEM – Ada Lovelace Day 2016