National labs, UChicago scientists and scholars engage in ‘Playing with Time’

Lisa La Vallee
Director of CommunicationsOffice of the Vice President for Research and for National Laboratories

Ubiquitous but elusive, time can be defined and discussed but also measured and manipulated; valued or ignored; constructed and interpreted; even warped and traveled. Who knew that playing with time could be such fun?

That’s what a multidisciplinary panel concluded at “Playing with Time,” the sixth in a series of Joint Speaker Events featuring University of Chicago faculty and Argonne National Laboratory and Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory scientists, researchers and engineers. Organized by the Office of the Vice President for Research and for National Laboratories, the event was held on Nov. 7 at the Field Museum.

“I can’t imagine a more important yet more misunderstood topic than time,” said Neil Shubin, professor of organismal and evolutionary biology at the University. “How much do we know about it? Can we imagine worlds where time has stopped? What happens when the Arrow of Time is not one-directional?”

Other tantalizing questions raised include: Did humans invent time to help explain everything around us? Was there time before the origin of the universe? How does a virus experience time?

Shubin pointed out that how we parse time affects how we view and experience life itself: “Having days divided into seconds would have been as alien to our distant ancestors as seeing a jet fly overhead.”

Panelist Adrian Johns, professor of history at the University, discussed the field of chronology, which was a basic part of intellectual inquiry for a thousand years. Chronology was an attempt to transpose time into space by displaying it graphically. “Not just a charting exercise, it was a way to put people in providence, illustrate progress and suggest ‘proper’ ways to act,” Johns said. Chronology died out in the 19th century with the advent of specialty sciences, which led to new ways of envisioning time, some of them “mind-bending,” he added.

Panelist Joseph Lykken, a particle theorist at Fermilab, suggested that time does not require a unique definition. “The physical time that we know may be appropriate for our universe, but before the Big Bang a different concept of time might have been appropriate.”

Panelist Patrick Jagoda, professor of English, picked up on the theme of multiple time schemes, discussing how literature and digital games tinker with the notion of time.

For example, the novel Einstein’s Dreams presents a series of thought experiments about various temporal orders. “Clock time makes ordered schedules possible, but bodily time is shaped by moods, desires and whims,” he said. “Another scheme imagines time as a current of water occasionally displaced by passing breezes.” Einstein’s Dreams inspired, “Braid,” a video game that allows users to manipulate time in myriad ways. Looking ahead, a colleague of Jagoda’s is developing theatrical spaces with different temporal schemes. “This allows you to feel and experience time twists rather than just thinking about them.”

Panelist Linda Young, director of Argonne’s X-Ray Science Division, compared her work at Argonne’s Advanced Photon Source to pioneering photographer Eadweard Muybridge, who created photographic studies of motion, including the famous 1878 “Horse in Motion” series of photographs, demonstrating a horse’s gait. “We freeze time with snapshots at the molecular and atomic level.”

Time travel fascinates everyone

Time travel was one of the more compelling topics discussed. Scientifically, traveling to the past is “speculative,” but traveling to the future is “easy,” Lykken said. “We see it all the time with particle accelerators.” As particles approach the speed of light, their clock slows down, Lykken explained. “Muons (subatomic particles), for example, usually survive for a microsecond, but when we speed them up they can survive a thousand times as long. They have traveled to the future.”

Regarding the social sciences, scholars once considered taking a ship to some distant, “primitive” society as equivalent to traveling in a time machine. Other notions of time travel are more imaginative. Reading an old book or playing a video game is a way to put oneself in another time, Jagoda said.

Inspired by H.G. Wells’ novella The Time Machine, Robert Paul filed a patent application in 1895 for a device that would give people the sensation of traveling through time. His idea involved projecting moving images on a screen, which is considered a precursor to cinema. “If you want to time travel, just go to the movies,” Johns quipped.

Xavier Barnes, a first-year economics major, asked whether freewill could be considered a form of time travel because “With freewill, we decide where to go in the future based on what we know from the past.”

But Johns settled the argument by recounting that scientists once threw a party for time travelers on the grounds that if there were any out there they would surely attend. “Nobody came, which proved conclusively that time travel isn’t possible,” he joked.