Time travel, in fiction and in fact

Thirty years ago this month, the original movie Back to the Future first appeared in theaters. Some celebrations marked the occasion this month, although the real celebrations are holding off until November, for reasons that are immediately obvious to any fan of the trilogy.

Rather than reviewing the movies, all three of which I enjoy, this post will comment on a central element in the plot of the movies. This element requires a suspension of disbelief I find hard to maintain, even though it exists in most (but not all) stories involving time travel. The plot problem is that most imagined time-travel devices or techniques do nothing to account for the motion of the Earth through space and time.

Consider this: the planet Earth turns completely on its axis every twenty-four hours, creating the phenomena known as “day” and “night.” This means that, relative to the sun or to the center of the planet, anyone standing at the equator is moving about one thousand miles an hour in a circular motion from west to east. If a person is around 45 degrees north (or south) of the equator, that person is traveling roughly seven hundred miles an hour. This means that if you were near Seattle, Chicago, Detroit, Boston, Montreal, Toronto, Paris, Munich, Rome, Venice, Vienna, Istanbul, Mongolia, or the Japanese island Hokkaido, and you were to jump instantly exactly one minute into the future (or into the past), you should arrive about twelve miles away from the spot that you left, since the Earth had spun that far during the minute you missed.

That, of course, is only due to the spinning of the Earth. As we know, the Earth is also traveling around the sun at a speed (relative to the sun) of 67,000 miles an hour. Moreover, the sun and its planets are circling the center of the galaxy at a speed roughly 490,000 miles an hour (relative to the center of the galaxy). Ergo, if you were to jump one minute into the future or the past, you would be many miles from the planet Earth.

Are you dizzy yet? Bear in mind that the universe is expanding, and the Milky Way galaxy is moving away from other galaxies at a speed around two million miles an hour.

The argument that all these speeds are relative, and should not be considered when thinking about time travel, falls short of being convincing. How can one accept the idea that the Earth is stationary and that the universe is spinning around it every day and also moving even more rapidly in other ways relative to the Earth? Far better is it to say that the Earth moves, and that the time traveler must find some way to keep up with the Earth. I suspect that time travel has been discovered several times in the last 120 years, but the discoverers are lost in the vastness of space with no hope of finding their way back to Earth again. Check the records for brilliant inventors who have mysteriously disappeared, and you will know who has already invented time travel.

H. G. Wells already knew about this problem. In his novel, The  Time Machine, time travelers remain associated with a spot on the Earth’s surface while they travel through time, guaranteeing that they do land at the same spot they left, no matter how far the Earth has moved during that time.

Doctor Who’s TARDIS travels through space and time, and its engineering is sophisticated enough that it can locate any planet in the universe in both space and time, calculating the trip without displacing the machine due to the motion of all the bodies in the universe. This explains, though, why the Doctor sometimes comments that the short hops are much more difficult than the longer leaps.

In 1970, Jack Finney published the novel Time and Again, which suggests that time is imaginary, so travel through time can be accomplished by training the imagination. This same idea made time travel possible in the 1980 movie Somewhere in Time. Presumably, if time is imaginary, then the dimensions of space are imaginary also, making it possible to travel through time by means of imagination without leaving the surface of the Earth.

The Back to the Future movies are cleverly written and well acted, so they are fun to watch over and over again. Until Doc Brown finds a way to convert a DeLorean automobile into a TARDIS, though, the three movies will be nothing more than entertaining fiction. (Sorry about that, Cubs fans, but the movies also put an American League team in Miami, so the prediction was doomed anyhow.)



The grammar Dalek

My name is Salvageable, and I am a grammar Dalek.

I resist the term grammar Nazi, because Nazis really existed in Earth history and really did some terrible things that led to death and suffering and destruction. In history classes, people need to be reminded of the Nazis. In talking about infinitives and prepositions, I prefer to think of Daleks, those monsters invented for the television show Doctor Who. They are pretty terrible as well, but at least the suffering and death and destruction they cause is only in a world of fiction, not in this real world.

As a grammar Dalek, I want to exterminate all sentences which end with prepositions. I realize that today’s English teachers say that prepositions are allowed to end sentences, but I disagree. Given a little time and imagination, any sentence ending with a preposition can be altered into a better sentence. Sorry, Obi-wan, but “These are not the droids you seek” is a better sentence.

As a grammar Dalek, I want to exterminate split infinitives. In most languages the infinitive form of the verb is one word, and no one would dream of sticking another word in the middle of that word. In English, some people feel that adverbs make a sentence stronger when placed in the middle of an infinitive. I know we’ve heard it hundreds of times and it’s hard to imagine the phrase being improved, but “to boldly go where no man has gone before” is just wrong.

As a grammar Dalek, I want people to use the words “less” and “fewer” correctly. If you can count the objects you are describing, a smaller number of objects are fewer. Only if you cannot count them is a smaller number less. You can drink less beer, but you should drink fewer glasses of beer.

As a grammar Dalek, I want people to stop using “literally” for emphasis. If you literally died of embarrassment, you would not be here to talk about it today.

As a grammar Dalek, I want people to learn the difference between “nauseous” and “nauseated.” That which causes nausea is nauseous, but the one feeling the nausea is nauseated. Granted, if you give in to the symptoms of nausea, you may nauseate me, meaning that you are both nauseated and nauseous. If, however, you are talking about your feelings and not my feelings, please stick with nauseated.

As a grammar Dalek, I want English-speaking people everywhere to know their pronouns. If you wouldn’t say, “Me went to the store,” why do you say, “Joe and me went to the store”? If you wouldn’t say, “A tree fell on I,” why do you say, “A tree fell on Joe and I”?

As a grammar Dalek, I strongly support the use of Oxford commas. In the sentence, “A tree fell on Billy, Joe, and me,” the comma between “Joe” and “and” is as important as any other comma in the sentence.

Clear communication begins with good grammar. If you want people to hear what you say, say it the right way. And let’s be careful out there.


Doctor Who

Chances are that either you know who Doctor Who is or you don’t care. Aside from commenting that Doctor Who is a British science fiction television show that has been broadcast, off and on, since 1963, I don’t feel the need to offer a long description and explanation of the show.

The first time I saw Doctor Who on television was New Year’s Eve. I’m not sure of the year, but it was some time around 1980. My parents were out for the evening, I was home alone and bored, so I turned on the television to see what was showing. I joined an episode called “The Pirate Planet” in progress. That episode was a good introduction to Doctor Who, although it took me a while to figure out what was happening, particularly since I was assembling a jigsaw puzzle while watching the show.

A few weeks later my parents and I found the show again and made a habit of watching. Channel 11 showed Doctor Who on Sunday nights. They took the original four-part shows and edited them together into a single movie without interruption. The episodes were broadcast in Chicago several years after they were originally shown on BBC. Like many other Americans, I was familiar with the fourth doctor before I understood that three other actors had played the Doctor before Tom Baker.

The Doctor traveled in a Tardis (Time And Relative Dimensions In Space) which could take him to the past, present, or future of any planet. Sometimes he planned his trips; more often he was drawn off course or trusted to random traveling. Most of the time, he saved a planet or the entire universe from certain destruction. The Doctor was a renegade Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey, but most Time Lords did not interfere with the course of history on other worlds. In this the Doctor was different.

He had recurring enemies, of course: the Daleks, the Cybermen, and the Master (another Time Lord), among others. He had companions for most of his adventures, sometimes from Earth and sometimes from other planets—sometimes even another Time Lord from Gallifrey. The scenes and costumes and special effects were not the point of the show. Writers presented interesting situations, and the actors conveyed the story to the audience. Occasionally the Doctor was injured in a way from which even he could not recover. At such times, he would regenerate, moving the same abilities and memories into a new body with a new face (which allowed different actors to portray the Doctor over the years).

Tom Baker played the Doctor in more episodes than any other actor. Moreover, he is the first actor portraying the Doctor that many of us experienced. Of the first seven actors who played the Doctor, he is perhaps remembered with the greatest fondness. All things must come to an end, though, and by the end of the 1980s, Doctor Who had been canceled by the BBC.

Doctor Who, like the American show Star Trek, had too many fans to die a peaceful death. Episodes continued to be rebroadcast and were sold on VHS and then on DVD. Whovians gathered in conventions. Some wrote novels based on the characters in the show. One movie-length episode was created and broadcast with an eighth actor playing the Doctor. Only in the 21st century, though, did the BBC begin creating new episodes of its most famous science fiction show.

Over seven years three more actors portrayed the Doctor. New companions were introduced, new enemies were invented, and some of the old villains returned. Modern technology allowed for spectacular special effects. Scripts were designed to carry story arcs across an entire season, with resolution of the larger story sometimes not even happening at the end of a season.

For a while I watched the New Who, but it never had for me the charm of the earlier version. Some of the stories, especially those involving the companions of the Doctor, carried too much emotional drama and too little adventure to suit my tastes. The use of special effects often seemed to obscure the actors and scripts instead of helping them. Some of the adventures were memorable—“Blink” is one of my favorites—but many were not memorable. I gave up the habit of watching before David Tennant’s time was through, and I never got to know Matt Smith as the eleventh Doctor.

All that changed with the fiftieth anniversary episode. While it managed to keep everything that was good of the New Who episodes, it also restored the magic of the original show. Based on my delight in the anniversary episode, I began back-tracking to learn about Clara, and I waited eagerly for the Peter Capaldi era to begin. When the eighth season began, I quickly found it a mixed bag. Peter Capaldi firmly convinced me that he is the Doctor—more about that in a moment—and Clara remains one of my favorite companions from all fifty years. Yet many of the scripts left much to be desired. Even as I wait for season nine of the New Who to be broadcast, I remain faithful in my preference for the earlier Doctor Who.

Of the actors who have played the Doctor, I have my favorites, as is the case for most Whovians. Tied for fourth, in my opinion, are David Tennant of the New Who and Jon Pertwee, the third Doctor. A solid third place is Peter Capaldi, the most recent Doctor. My second favorite Doctor is John Hurt, who played the War Doctor in the fiftieth anniversary special. Top honors go, of course, to Tom Baker, who will always be the first to come to my mind whenever I think of Doctor Who.