Once I had this crazy dream. I hijacked a time machine and landed in Elizabethan London. It was a sweet April morning of 1578. I remember the ladies with the white faces and the others with the tight corsets and the ruffles on their skirts; and the gentlemen with goose feather hats and their clumsy ‘good morning’ gestures. Hordes of flâneurs were strolling up and down the tangled streets: Shakespearean actors, leather-faced Spanish seamen, timid nurses with their flowing virgin hair, drunken pub patrons, hurried messenger on proud horses, Catholic pastors, and noble letter-men with a piece of parchment in hand. The streets were blatant and grimy and, in lack of sewage system, the Thames was contaminated with public waste. The people, perky and pleasantly impudent, their teeth yellow from the regular consumption of hard stale bread, clustered frantically in the market. I wandered in the city all morning. I even watched a play at the Globe theatre, in the presence of her Majesty, seated on her velvet throne, her face still and imperious, her eyes small like almonds, accompanied by the dignified ladies of the Court, their white collars coming all the way up to their chin. I had parked my time machine on the riverbank behind a grove of sugar maple trees. As far as I can recall, I never made it back for it. In a sudden, feeling as if I had just separated from my own skin, I found myself back on my soft, twenty-first century polyurethane bed staring aimlessly at the ceiling.
Stephen Hawking once suggested the absence of tourists from the future constitutes an argument against the existence of time travel. But then again, would you wear sunglasses and shorts to see the gladiators at the Colosseum in Rome in 98 AD? In theory, time travel is possible. Ever since Albert Einstein revealed his famous theory of relativity, we’ve known that time travel could be. All the time-sailor needs is a wormhole, the Large Hardon Collider or a rocket that goes really, really fast. Time exists in space and everything has a length in time as well as in space. Even a schoolchild, as long as he or she has seen Toy Story 3D, knows that all physical objects exist in three dimensions: length, width, and height. There exists, however, a fourth dimension and at the same time, everything has a length in time as well as space. Travelling in times requires navigating exactly through this fourth dimension. Speed is the key. If one were able to move information or matter from one point to another faster than light, then according to special relativity, there would be some inertial frame of reference in which the signal or object was moving backwards in time. The fastest manned vehicle in history was Apollo 10. It reached 25,000mph. But to travel in time we’ll have to go more than 2,000 times faster!
When I was younger I had a fascination with history. I had an illustrated encyclopaedia that started like this: “If we had a time machine we would be able to see the Earth millions of years ago when it was the kingdom of giant reptiles we call dinosaurs…” I remember reading stories about time Odysseys and mad scientists with white electrified hair. I especially remember one about a young secretary who opened the door of what she thought was her boss’ office to find herself in the same room, only in Victorian London and a man with a white court wig staring outside the window.
If Stephen Hawking had a time machine he’d visit Marilyn Monroe in her prime or drop in on Galileo as he turned his telescope to the heavens. Perhaps, he says, he would also travel to the very end of the universe. If I had a time machine I’d wear a bandana and head to the 60s. I’d dance all night in some 1930s Chicago blues club. Maybe I’d even see the day the rain became the ocean.
In principle, time travelling would mean the slowing of time as we move in velocities seemingly implausible. Slowing time would mean that we would be able to travel extraordinary distances within one lifetime. Instead of millions of light-years, we could reduce the trip to the end of the universe to just 80 years. But the real wonder of the journey, as the ultimate star-gazer Stephen Hawking puts it, is that it reveals how strangely beautiful the universe is. It’s a universe where time runs at different rates in different places and where tiny wormholes exist all around us waiting for a true time voyager to jump in to the other side…