A heartbreaking book about time travel

Given how fundamentalist some people are--including the more bigoted sort of Labour functionary appointed by a party list--about science, it is odd to read a book about time travel which is almost religious in the feelings it evokes.

I don't refer to the almost faith-based belief in the multiple worlds hypothesis which many physicists now have, so much as the human determination that underpins Ronald Mallett's beautiful book. I got it from my public library on a whim. It is a slim tome, condensing the reasons for Mallet's determination to build a time machine, and it made me cry and walk for over ten kilometres at a go on the treadmill just to get through it at the gym last week.

Mallet is Professor of Physics at the University of Connecticut. He was born to the black working class in Pennsylvania, and grew up in the Bronx. His father was bigger and nobler than anyone in the world to him, as mine was to me, though Ronald's dreaming dad took at one point to retreating to quiet places with a book and a recording device and taping his recitation of poetry, such as that of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. Like my father, Ronald's dad died (his heart gave way), and he spent his youth troubled.

Physics and the discovery of new fathers to his mind in HG Wells and Einstein saved him, and Ronald saved himself from his truancy and the impatience of his numbness by resolving to solve the mysteries of time. In retrospect, my obsession with history and, when a boy, with the Doctor Who books to which my father and the public library introduced me was a less productive analogy of that.

Ronald Mallett joined the air force and served his country, after his grandmother lost her memories and he wished to escape his of his surroundings. By night in a racist state, he sat and read, and then moved around the country to monitor networks of threatened destruction that he had to keep in check with wires and lights. Then the air force paid for his education.

Time and its mysteries, from the beauty of Lorenz transformations to the probabilistic surrealism of the quantum, washed him rounds the nights and days of the academic ladder, and beautiful women too. Eventually, he came up with a design for a gravity-bending laser device which intrigues finer minds than mine, as well as the usual John Titor crowd of hoaxers. I loved his book.

The romance of science when tied to such a story is a beautiful one. It lifts us simultaneously beyond ourselves and reminds me of the pain and memory of love at the heart of our spirit. It puts the silliness of certainty into perspective. Like most radical things, it is of course almost unwelcome to 'professional' scientists, who these days are administrators and lobbyists for funds as often as they ever were the holders of whatever received opinion gets one through the night. Things in particle physics are still full of the spirit of the frontier, however, and the large Hadron Collider at CERN is about to be switched on, leading perhaps to time-travelling electrons that can never return to their future. You can almost hear the 'yee haws' and bucking horses, and the contempt for health and safety silliness. What's health and safety when one might be about to create a black hole?

Ronald Mallet stands out amongst the dreaming genii. His book is a joy to read, and I recommend it to you, equations and all! Here is a video from Mallett's speaker agency about his doings, which I have also reproduced below....


JTankers said…
I am very skeptical of reverse time travel, even just for electrons, but (it may violate Dr. Albert Einsteins understanding of the laws of the universe).

However... read the article of the day at LHCFacts.org, "Culture of Superiority?" about cultural differences that might be an impediment to analysis and communication of risks...


Did you know:

The LHC Safety Assessment Group (LSAG) agreed with us that if cosmic rays produce micro black holes, they will be relativistic and travel too fast to be captured by Earth's gravity, whereas if LHC head-on particle collisions produces micro black holes they will be non-relativistic with some that can be captured gravitationally, either by the Earth, or by the Sun.

LSAG is also not assuming Hawking Radiation is valid in their new safety study.

Have you heard these quotes:

“ …after 50 months the earth to a centimeter would have shrunk. It would be nothing more there, not only no more life, there but also the earth would be… a small black hole.
-Prof. Dr. Otto E. Rossler

“ … the scientists are fully aware that it is not a project without a grave risk to the life of the Earth.”
-Dr. Raj Baldev

Martin Meenagh said…
I'm conscious that I may sound blase here--and I bow to what is probably your superior understanding; but how much of a risk does a thing have to be before we do not do it?

For instance, Robert Oppenheimer acknowledged what he thought more than a mere chance that the first atomic tests could set the atmosphere on fire, and of course popular novelists amongst others regularly used to draw attention to the possibilities of nanotechnology. One, I remember, was that we would all be overwhelmed by a 'grey goo' as nanodevices replicated.

I try and read widely. Isn't Hawking radiation a bit of a stronger supposition than strings, and less strong than the possibility of a Higgs Boson? So it would be a justifiable risk to ignore it....

Assessing risk is so hard. I was very keen on Zimbardo's stuff about cognitive assessment amongst others a while ago, and professionally I've always been intrigued by how much of tort law is just fear rather than risk assessment, and fear in hindsight too. Meanwhile, of course, everyone I read with a few exceptions is ignoring the verified elephant in the room which *will* change our civilisation--peak oil. A risk so great it is not only an almost certain reality, but something no one bothers about.

Sorry for the rambling response, and thank you very much for your comment. I'll check out all the links you provided!
JTankers said…
Quote: "I'll check out all the links you provided!"

Thank you for your willingness to investigate, this issue is too often dismissed as too incredible to be credible. But it IS credible!

The possibility that scientists might gamble the planet on dubious assumptions in a race to discover new science first and protect the right to experiment without interference for safety concerns, or to protect the ability to experiment at all if the safety can not be reasonably assured, and that so few scientists would be aware and publicly warn of the potential dangers sounds too incredible to be true. But the evidence suggests otherwise...
Martin Meenagh said…
thank you for your reply. I've been to Sabine Hossenfelder's blog, and also had a look at her suggestions as to why the LHC is an acceptable risk, and I have to say initially I would be inclined to agree with her. She and her colleagues seem to know what they are doing.

We can't live as people, or as a species, scared of every single risk. Some risks are so complex that none can really ever understand them. So I suppose we employ heuristics and analogies.

Mine would be with the risks I and those I love have taken with our lives. At various times these have paid off. I would also compare with those whom I have loved who have died--and their have been many--whose worlds ended with regrets about things they had not done.

So my inclination would be to go ahead. I don't fully understand these things though. I have every reason to think that Dr Hossenfelder and people like her do, and her career and education, for instance, suggest that she does too. In addition, her arguments seem coherent and credible to someone looking from outside, not in their substance but in the appearance of her logic. I also wonder why she would go ahead if there were such a real risk, with such a love of life as she appears to have.

I understand your skepticism too, I hope. I can see that you might suspect that there is a sort of blase european elitism going on under cover at cern, and a disregard for robust American desires for openness and reassurance, possibly based on a frustration with or intolerance for the public culture of the United States and those who talk in its terms.

But we should not be slaves to the precautionary principle.

I'm not for mindlessly facing down risk. Were someone to pop up tomorrow, for instance, and offer me a teleporation device, (something CERN and various American projects have been concerned with, at the electron level), or a chance to send a message to an alien culture, or a chance to use genetic technology to control human vice--all things some scientists have sought to suggest may be 'on offer' in the near future--I wouldn't do it. As a Catholic and a citizen there are many things I wouldn't do with stem cells or foetuses that carry far less objective risk than the LHC, in some statistical analyses. I recognise that.

The decision isn't mine. Ultimately I have to decide--we do, as a society--if we trust the people who make the decision. Basically, as a citizen, I have (pardon the language) f-all say in it. Very clever people who have been historically right and who are very qualified say there is a very small risk; others say there might be a bigger one.

There would be, as far as I can see, no real way of advancing the argument beyond that however much study was done without actually engaging the LHC, unless, I suppose, we could at some future point put it in space very far away.

If we were a more rational society, we would all debate things openly--but then what? Would we have a referendum, or resolve never ever to turn the LHC on? And where are the boundaries of where we stop?.

We all die. All our worlds end. Our civilisation might be on the way out anyway. Given that, would holding back do any good at all, given the benefits of what would come if the LHC worked?

This is really one of those decisions where no answer other than the personal is possible. My personal answer, for the reasons I gave above, is that I'd go ahead. Thankfully, however, it isn't up to me.
JTankers said…
Quote: "Would we have a referendum, or resolve never ever to turn the LHC on?"

Good and reasonable analysis on your part.

No one is asking for science to be done by referendum, we generally don't do democracy by referendum. But we do ask that we be given the opportunity to select those who might represent our interests.

And in this case we have risk without representation. (Recall taxation without representation, the rallying cry from the American revolution...)

CERN did the safety study, CERN chose the review board, and CERN has not released the details of the review, nor the composition of this board, nor even the safety report which they report has been completed.

What I am asking for, what the lawsuit in US Federal Court is asking for, is to allow the world's scientists to have the opportunity to review the safety report that CERN created, for at least four months and to determine if the risks are reasonable.

That is all we are asking for.

And if the risks are currently determined to not be reasonable, then yes, we do not turn the experiment on, or at least we do not exceed the limits already passed by other colliders until such a time as the reasonable safety standard can be reasonably satisfied by a scientific body that might be more democratically representative of those who share this risk.

I would personally prefer an immediate moratorium on all collider experimentation that might exceed already passed limits during this review period until the safety of exceeding such limits might be better determined.

Thank you for your sincere review of the risk issue!
JTankers said…
This thread is currently today's EXTERNAL BLOG OF THE DAY at LHCFacts.org.

Thank you,
Martin Meenagh said…
Many thanks JTankers
Your proposal for an open process of peer review, and then an assessment by a panel of experts who could properly quantify risks is a very good one. It makes me think of NASA's promises after both the fire in which Gus Grissom and his co-pilots died, and of challenger. I do generally believe in openness, especially when public money is involved, and would be willing to swap a very limited procedure such as you described for my somewhat gung-ho one.

I love having these proper reasonable exchanges in blogland! Good luck

JTankers said…
"how much of a risk does a thing have to be before we do not do it?"

A consensus is that reasonable risk for planetary destruction should not exceed the risk of other natural or other planetary disaster of similar scope, such as a catastrophic meteor hit or catastrophic nuclear war.

The odds of 1 in 50 million of planetary destruction are generally considered reasonable risk. And I can accept such odds as reasonable also.

The problem with creation of micro black holes however, is that some credible scientists believe the danger to the planet from micro black hole creation and capture may either be closer to 0% or closer to 100%.

If you have confidence in Hawking Radiation to cause micro black holes to evaporate, then the risk may be closer to 0%.

If you believe that Hawking Radiation is not credible as I do and as several PHD's and Professors of Math and Physics state in credible peer reviewed papers, then the concern become how quickly might micro black holes grow to become larger black holes and threaten the Earth.

If you also believe that the growth rate of micro black holes might plausibly be exponential as Dr. Rossler calculates, then the risk to Earth of creation of micro black holes might be closer to 100%.

As a group, those asking for a transparent risk assessment are not just quibbling about what is reasonable risk. We generally accept reasonable risk such as 1 in 50 million, possibly less if the benefits were potentially significant and that the risk of unrelated natural or other disaster might also be similarly high.

The problem is that some credible scientists believe that the real risk, that because of our limited scientific understanding only mother nature knows for certain, may be closer to 100%.

My research indicates to me, that my best assessment is that the higher risk odds are more credible than the the lower risk odds for micro black holes being an existential threat to the planet.

Credible scientists are very concerned that this experiment might possibly, plausibly pose a probability of being an existential threat to the plant.

That is why we are so concerned and so determined to be heard.
JTankers said…
(The post above also assumes that CERN's prediction that micro black holes might be created at a rate of one per second may be a reasonably expected result. So if micro black holes are created and other disputed assumptions are as some credible scientists believe may be reasonable to expect, then an existential risk to the planet might plausibly actually be a "probability").

That is my concern, and that is why I support the lawsuit submitted to the US Federal Court of Hawaii (first hearing is June 16th) that the world's interested scientists be given the opportunity for at least four months to assess whether there is reason to believe with reasonable confidence that the risks are reasonable and not un-reasonable, and to prevent operations that would exceed currently tested limits until that time.

Thank you,
JTankers, LHCFacts.org
Martin Meenagh said…
Hi JTankers

By what means can an Hawaii Court, even if it is a federal one, assert any authority over a facility outside the USA? I'm intrigued. Is it attempting to review American funding in the project? Treaty clauses, as I understood it, go to the Supreme Court if disputes with foreign people are involved.

Good luck. The American legal system has a terrible reputation, and I'm not sure--I mean this sincerely, hope you realise that--that issuing lawsuits and debating things in American courts is going to do anything but make Europeans and Canadians determined to go ahead anyway.

There is a world issue here. In libel, in risk assessment, and in extradition cases, people are frequently using courts outside of a jurisdiction to try and change behaviour within it. I'm in for a busy day today, but if I have any time I'll try and see how an American legal case in Hawaii could affect CERN. Would you have any links that you could send any readers and myself to as a short cut?
JTankers said…
Corrected (spelling)...:

"By what means can an Hawaii Court, even if it is a federal one, assert any authority over a facility outside the USA?"
I am not a lawyer, but the case has world wide implications, some court must take jurisdiction.

"going to do anything but make Europeans and Canadians determined to go ahead anyway"
A few very credible scientists believe that CERN is basing their theory of safety on at least one flawed assumption. If the following reasonable and plausible assumptions prove to be correct, then the uncomfortable truth is that the probability of destruction of Earth is actually closer to 100%, though currently only mother nature currently knows for certain due to our limited understanding of the physics involved.

A. LHC Creates black holes as CERN Predicted (1 per second) [1].

B. Micro Black holes do not evaporate as LSAG accepts is plausible. [2]

C. One or more micro black holes are captured by Earth's gravity as LSAG accepts as plausible. [3]

D. Micro Black holes grow exponentially as Dr. Otto E. Rossler's paper predicts and calculates. [4]

If the reasonable and plausible assumptions above prove correct, and Europeans and Canadians are determined to go ahead anyway, then that would be an unfortunate situation. The entire world is in this together after all!

"There is a world issue here. In libel, in risk assessment, and in extradition cases"
Yes, there are also potentially issues with respect to freedom of speech, corporate deception, and mis-representation of facts designed to confuse or mislead the public as to risks involved. The lawsuit also [alleges] on page 15 of AFFIDAVIT OF LUIS SANCHO IN SUPPORT OF TRO AND PRELIMINARY INJUNCTION:

"CERN has neither asked mankind to validate these experiments, nor has it been open and clear about those risks to the public. On the contrary it has systematically hidden evidence, and hence it is, in my opinion and hopefully that of this Court, liable of criminal negligence and occultation of proofs, as it carries about what amounts to a potential global genocide."

"Would you have any links that you could send any readers and myself to as a short cut?"
I would suggest LHCDefense.org for the legal focus.

James Tankersley Jr.
Administrator, LHCFacts.org

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