How to design a time machine, a speculative fiction

Time travel is theoretically impossible (via this spirited MeFi discussion). But forget physics for a moment, or known physics at least, and suppose that time machines already exist. We just don’t know where they are. If one is still predisposed to the idea that a time machine will eventually be invented – a relatively old fictional trope – then it makes perfect sense to assume that the time machines that have been invented in the future and sent back to the past currently co-exist with our present state of time. So where are they?


The digital realm has given fresh wings to the idea of eternity; ironic perhaps given the longevity of analogue formats versus the extreme fragility of digital media and the swift pace of obsolesence (see the lost format preservation society, for example). Eternity was once something expressed in physical terms; a temple, a vault, a pyramid. Monumental structures that survived despite war, disaster and erosion, outliving their builders by centuries. Enduring such colossal timespans goes beyond planning and into the realm of luck; political and geological stability, simple building methods and, if possible, a discrete location. Factoring in the demands of an unlimited lifespan from the outset require a titanic commitment and single-mindedness. According to the US Department of Energy Buildings Energy Data Book, the median lifespan of a small office building is just 58 years.


Unsurprisingly, architectural eternity was a natural fit for fascism: ‘[Albert Speer] told Hitler that when the time came, Nazi remains should look more impressive, and that the buildings they designed together should be so constructed that when they were in ruins thousands of years from now, they would still transmit a sense of grandeur, like the great shards of the far past. The other leaders were horrified at the very idea of suggesting to Hitler that the Nazi era might ever be over, but Hitler saw the point immediately and told Speer not to stint with the marble.’ (from Albert Speer: Ruins without Value, by Clive James, printed in the Observer in 1983). There’s not much marble in evidence in the remaining preserved slabs and blocks of Speer’s Zeppelinfeld in Nürnberg. In fact, as the Third Reich in Ruins page states, ‘the Zeppelintribüne, in common with many other Third Reich structures (such as the Kehlsteinhaus “Eagles Nest”), was not built of solid rock, but of marble blocks laid over a brick or concrete base.’ So much for longevity. (Bonus link: the Zeppelinfeld in Lego).


Posterity in the digital era is thankfully rather less grandiose and overbearing. The internet’s strange mix of permanence and fleeting glimpse has encouraged projects that convey a sense of great spans of time via swift, small interactions. In music, there is the 24-hour long 9 beet stretch by Leif Inge, subsequently usurped by John Cage’s As Slow As Possible (693 years), which in turn has been overtaken by Jem Finer’s 1000-year piece Longplayer (now about 11 years in). Finally, Ian Mellish’s Olitsky, intended to last ‘1,648,171 years, 7 weeks, 6 days, 10:23’33”, from four loops, which last 44’43”, 44’39”, 44’46” & 44’54” respectively’.


These artistic projects have reinvigorated the idea of the physical ‘long object’. Perhaps best embodied in the 10,000 Year Clock project, ‘now being built inside a mountain in western Texas‘. One might also put the land art of James Turrell or Michael Heizer into this category. On a more practical level, the idea of an eternal structures has applications for the storage of precious things – key military personnel in Cheyenne Mountain Complex, or Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank Project (Wiki), or the Svalbard Global Seed Vault embedded in the Norwegian permafrost – or highly toxic things, like the proposed Onkalo Waste Repository in Finland, where ‘the world’s first permanent repository is being hewn out of solid rock – a huge system of underground tunnels – that must last 100,000 years as this is how long the waste remains hazardous.’ These issues are all being researched: ‘Under requirements of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), Anderson [Engineering] was involved in the design and construction of a waste disposal facility that has a functional life similar to that of the great Egyptian Pyramids. Although this analogy seems extreme, the facility was required to have the design capacity to withstand the elements for a period of 1000 years. In the case of this uranium tailings facility, it was required to provide control release of radiological hazards for the term.’ (from this document at the Utah Division of Oil, Gas and Mining).


The film Into Eternity looks at the problems and possibilities. From this New York Times review, a standout conclusion: ‘One joke that went around the Onkalo project for a while, according to Mr. Madsen’s film, could have come straight from a novel by Arthur C. Clarke. What if, the team thought, the first thing it found when it started digging were canisters left by somebody else?’.


Which leads us onto this possible scenario. The energy and manpower required to send something back in time ensures that any time machine is on a one-way journey. There is no facility for making the return trip, so the machine will have to travel forwards in time at the same speed as everything else. So in order to gather data from a time machine, it needs to be programmed to first gather data and then conceal itself until such time as it can be recovered by those people who sent it back in the first place, presumably the moment after they have successfully dispatched it.


Hence our hypothetical time machine will age and decay and possibly fail. So the art of building a time machine becomes the art of designing and building for a historical eternity. So where is the time machine hiding? Is it an out-of-place artifact (or ‘oopart’), as yet undiscovered? Speculation is entertaining. Does the lack of time travellers, or artifacts from the future, indicate that time travel into the past will never be invented/possible/feasible at any point in the future? Is anyone looking for time-travel artifacts? Certainly, there are occasional interest spikes of interest when ooparts are ‘discovered’ – Time traveller spotted in 40s photo or boy texting in photo from 1911 or the John Titor conundrum or the ‘”unauthorized experiment” that was made in the year 2058 C.D.S’. But people don’t last as long as machines, which don’t last as long as buildings. Our theoretical time machine is therefore hidden well in such a way that the information it contains it will not decay or corrode. How, for example, would one protect a small memory stick for 100 years? For a thousand years? For potentially millions of years?


Thus far, all time travel is good for is endless speculation (often highly entertaining: Is Marty McFly (Prime) The Destroyer of Worlds? Yay or Nay?). We think it’s more fun to believe that time travel has existed for millennia. As soon as someone worked out how to do it, they realised that it would make most sense to send back a robot, rather than a human being. There were absolutely no shortage of volunteers, but they couldn’t be certain that a modern germ – or an ancient disease – wouldn’t somehow get loose and into the gene pool and then wreck everything for everyone else. You see, when time travel is achieved – when an object from now goes back to then – the first thing that happens is a big, bright flash, a wobble. You only really feel it if you’re really very close to the time machine. The farther away you’re standing, the less pronounced the effect is. At one mile, you might feel a shiver. Across the continent, you’ll feel nothing at all. But what happens at exactly the same time is that everything suddenly changes. Just like that. Once the rendez-vous location has been deemed safe and uncontaminated, teams of excavators and archaeologists can then move in and recover the device.


Going to the Moon meant double, triple, even quadruple redundancy. Well this is way, way more difficult. This is a device that cannot fail. It simply cannot fail. And it must conceal itself and then survive, unseen for decades. The thing is, all the devices are out there now, buried somewhere. Some have been there for decades. But some have been there for hundreds of years. And some for tens of thousands. We’re just waiting until we work out where we left them.

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4 Responses to How to design a time machine, a speculative fiction

  1. Pingback: A lustre of charm | things magazine

  2. Time machine? probably not in this life time.

  3. Risank says:

    We need to find DR. Emmet Brown to make it real because he’s the one who made that time machine car in “Back to The Future”, hahaha…

  4. James says:

    On a ‘Back to the Future’ tangent (and why not), American comic book author and artist Matt Loux is currently drawing and publishing online ‘a Marty a day’ until he runs out of ‘Back to the Future’ films. Perhaps for future linkage?

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