Category: Popular

Time to the Power of Tim

Three Time Travel Tales by Tim Powers

Three Time Travel Tales by Tim Powers

This year the guest of honor at Capclave was Tim Powers. (Capclave is the Washington DC Science Fiction convention.) Tim is not only the author of many fine science fiction novels, but a very nice guy.

This turned out to be a good thing, as the initial proposal was to have Tim & I appear together and do something physic-y about his novels.  I have never done a talk with a live author before (dead authors are no problem, I have that down cold), so I was a bit nervous about the whole thing.

But it worked out well:  Tim was very helpful & gracious and when the audience asked him if one of my theories about the time travel in his novel The Anubis Gates was correct he said, essentially, “Now it is.” 🙂

I focused on three of his novels, The Anubis Gates — his first big success (with romantic poets & time-traveling Jackel Gods), Three Days to Never — something like the bastard child of John Le Carre & H. P. Lovecraft, and Medusa’s Web — who can resist the Time Spyders?

One of the distinctive features of Tim Powers working method is that he starts with a place and a time, researches it looking for the curious facts, bizarre details, & strange omissions that point to an unknown but dark reality, then gradually teases out the true story of whatreallyhappened!

“I made it an ironclad rule that I could not change or disregard any of the recorded facts, nor rearrange any days of the calendar – and then I tried to figure out what momentous but unrecorded fact could explain them all.”

So Tim builds his novels from the bottom up. As a result, they tend to differ wildly from each other.  Other authors, once they have got a setting that works, tend to reuse it, Tim builds anew each time.  No ten volume trilogies here!

And he also works out the timelines of all of his critical characters.  At each moment, he knows where each of his on and off stage characters are & what they are up to.  His notes on this are a kind of secret history of the secret history!

He has 20 or more novels out, so I focused on just three, all involving time travel.  And in each the theory of time travel was radically different!  I had a lot of fun linking each up to the corresponding physics and going back & forth about all this with my stage-mate Tim. 🙂

The talk, minus alas, the actual talking, is now up on slideshare.  Download if you will & any questions/comments please let me know!  thanks!



Stargates: The Theory & Practice

Doors and Portals and Stargates, Oh My!

Call them Stargates, Jumpgates, Fargates, Hypertubes or just an invitation to every unwanted pest from the far reaches of the Galaxy to visit, they are absolutely necessary if we are to have the glorious Science Fiction action we desperately need.  But could they actually be built?  We look at what modern physics has to say:  how to glue black holes together to build a wormhole, how to avoid the dangers of spaghettification, radiation poisoning, and paradox noise, and just what it would take to build one in practice.

This was a talk I did at the last Philcon, went over well.  And I had a lot of fun doing it.  I’ve got it up as a talk on slideshare.  And I may do variations on this at the 2017 Balticon & also Capclave.

It is the kind of subject you can go anywhere with!


Invisibility, Anti-gravity, Ethics of Time Travel, & Balonium

I’ve just received my schedule for Philcon, being held in a bit over a week, November 8th thru 10th.  Curious collection of subjects, but looks like a lot of fun.  If you are in the Philly area, it would be great if you can come by!

Sat 1:00 PM in Crystal Ballroom Two (1 hour)


[Panelists: John Ashmead (mod)]

How do we hide a jet fighter, a tank, even a city from sight? For
millennia people have dreamt of invisibility rings, caps, & cloaks:
how close are we to Harry Potter territory? Progress in the last ten
years has been extraordinary, and, with some help from general
relativity, 3d printers, advanced photonics, and more than a pinch
of ingenuity, we can now bend, fold, & spindle light in ways
unimagined ten years ago
Sat 3:00 PM in Crystal Ballroom Two (1 hour)

[Panelists: John Ashmead (mod), Ed Bishop, Walter F. Cuirle, Jay

Both creating and negating gravity are very common tropes in science
fiction. It’s taken for granted in most Science Fiction that
spacecraft have normal gravity, although they do not spin. How this
is achieved is rarely discussed. Anti-gravity is nearly as common,
(and convenient for the plot).. Are either of these concepts
scientifically plausible? Could such a technology ever actually be


Sat 6:00 PM in Plaza II (Two) (1 hour)

[Panelists: John Ashmead (mod), Evelyn Leeper, Andrew C. Ely]

Everyone talks about killing Hitler in his crib, or stopping Booth
from shooting Lincoln. But if you could change the past, would you
Sat 7:00 PM in Plaza III (Three) (1 hour)

[Panelists: John Ashmead (mod), Darrell Schweitzer, John Monahan,
Sharon Lee]

From cavorite to kryptonite, science fiction fiction writers love to
add new elements to the periodic table. How do you create
convincing imaginary substances and what do you do with them

Talks now on Slideshare

I’ve uploaded a number of my more recent talks to Slideshare.  Physics, with occasionally a wee bit of speculation admixed:

  1. Thought experiments – talk done 1st April 2012 for the Ben Franklin Thinking Society.  Role of thought experiments in history, use by Galileo & by noted violinist, how they can turn into real experiments.
  2. Not Your Grandfather’s Gravity – done last year (2011) on the latest developments in the suddenly hot area of gravity.  The stuff on faster-than-light neutrinos is, alas, already out of date:  boring won:  looks as if the FTL neutrinos were due to experimental error.   But Verlinde’s entropic gravity is still one of the most promising lines of attack.
  3. Temporal Paradoxes – physics talk given at NASA’s Goddard Space Center 2011.  A slightly NASA-fied version of a talk I’d given at several SF conventions in 2010.
  4. Quantum time – physics talk given at Feynman Festival in Olomouc in 2009.  I did popular versions of that talk as well.
  5. How to build a (real) time machine – talk given at several SF conventions in 2009.
  6. Life, the Universe, & the Second Law of Thermodynamics.  Or, the Infinite Probability drive.  About the role of entropy in the universe, complete with Babelfish.  2008.
  7. Faster Than Light – talk on faster than light travel:  theory, practice, applications. Given at several SF conventions in 2007.
  8. Confused at a Higher Level – arguably one of the funniest talks ever given about problems in quantum mechanics. OK, competition not that fierce.  Given at several SF conventions in 2004.
  9. The Physics of Time Travel.  Review of time, with respect to the bending, stretching, folding, & tormenting thereof.  Given at Philcon & Balticon (in various versions) in 2003.
  10. The Future of Time Travel – mostly about the science fiction thereof.  Probably 2002.

These are not all of my talks — I’ve probably done 20 or 30 SF talks over the last 20 years, at least one per year — these are just the ones done using Keynote or Powerpoint.  The 2005 & 2006 talks have gone walkabout.  If they reappear, I will upload.  I generally talk at Balticon, Philcon, & more recently Capclave.  I’ve spoken twice at Farpoint, but that is really more of a media convention, not as good a fit.

Talks before 2002 were done with Word & overheads. Overheads are easier to make than slides, but have a tendency to get bent, flipped, out of order, or in one especially memorable talk:  burnt.  That talk I was doing at the Franklin Inn Club: the projector failed at the last minute & I had to rent another from a nearby camera shop.  The rented projector ran hot. If I stayed on a specific slide for more than 60 seconds, the slide began to smoke.  Literally.  Colored smoke of course, wafting in strange tendrils towards the ceiling. Taught me a lot about pacing, mostly to make it faster.
By the way the word you are looking for, in re me & time travel, is not obsessed, it is focused.  Let’s just be clear about that.

Other talk(s), marginally less speculative:

  1. Overview of Backbone – talk on the jQuery library Backbone, given at PhillyCoders. April 2012.
  2. How to Destroy a Database – talk on database security.  October 2007.  Wile E. Coyote & other experts on correctness & security are enlisted to help make key points.
  3. Getting started with MySQL – talk given at PACS and my Macintosh programming group in 2006. Manages to work in the Sumerians, the Three Stooges, a rocket-powered daschhund, some unicorns, and – of course – dolphins (the totem animal of MySQL).

My Schedule at Balticon

Thanks to Jonette Butler for this:

Quantum Mechanics, Reality and You: Why Is Quantum Mechanics Mysterious But True?
Saturday at 2:00 pm in Salon A
Recent experiments on the foundations, what the implications are for how we think about reality, with interaction to Science GOH Bill Phillip’s work.

A Conversation with Physicist Bill Phillips

Interviewers John Ashmead and Steve Granade
Saturday at 5:00 pm in Garden Room
Interviewers John Ashmead and Steve Granade speak with Science Guest of Honor Bill Phillips.
Speakers: Dr. William D. Phillips

Space War — How and Why?
Saturday at 11:00 pm in Parlor 1041
Panelists debate how space war would be waged and explain some of the science behind the methods.
Moderator: Michael Andrew D’Ambrosio
Speakers: Ian Randal Strock; Jon Sprunk; John Ashmead; Tad Daley

Teachers Workshop
Monday at 11:00 am in Chase
If you teach science, mathematics, language arts or other fields, and you want to assign readings that illustrate important concepts in an exciting way; If you want to incorporate science fiction into a reading program; If you have always thought a science fiction class would be valuable at your school but didn’t know what to teach; or, If you love SF and want to persuade school administrators that teaching science fiction is important, then: The Teaching With Science Fiction Workshop is just what you’re looking for! The Workshop is designed to provide insights into science fiction and the different ways it can be used effectively in the classroom. It answers the questions educators may have about this idea-oriented, forward-looking, student-stimulating body of speculative literature. The workshop lasts approximately four hours, and includes a CD with science fiction resources as well as presentation materials from a presentation exploring the possibility of Silicon-based lifeforms and how they have been treated within science fiction literature.

Not Your Grandfather’s Gravity – 3rd time is the charm

I did this talk — basically interesting developments in gravity & related subjects — for the third time at Philcon this last Saturday.  The talk was scheduled for 1pm, so I spent a few hours in the morning refreshing it.

The big news was that the OPERA project had done a second version of the experiment that saw superluminal neutrinos, dealing with some of the objections (objectinos?) to their first results.  They sacrificed quantity of neutrinos to quality:  going from 16,000 to 20, but getting much tighter time resolution.   This made the New York Times Saturday morning, so I clipped the headline for use in a slide.  Good stuff, but of course everyone wants to see Fermilab & others reproduce the experimental results.

However the combination of refreshing the talk, roadwork on Interstate 76, & a parade or some such on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway meant I got in with no time to check the AV setup before the talk.  While the impromptu AV crew wrastled the difficulties into submission (thanks Margaret Trebling, Jay Wile, Ron Bushyager, & Ferne Welch!) I invited the audience to “open the theater of your mind” & painted word pictures thereon till the AV was working.  Didn’t take the crew long:  we hadn’t even gotten past the Black Death slide before we had light!  Actually I think the difficulties may have helped the talk go over; shared troubles create bonding between speaker & audience.  Lots of good questions; SRO crowd.

As I promised then, I have posted the talk as Keynote, PDF, PowerPoint, & HTML.  Comments, questions, and suggestions very welcome!

Had a lot of fun on the six panels I was on; will post on them over the next few days.

11/23/2011 I’ve just updated the references page to include the references from the talk.

Gravity unexpectedly popular, levity suspected

Read more »

Not your grandfather’s gravity

Talk tomorrow at the Baltimore Science Fiction Convention:

Several possible modifications to Einstein’s theory have been proposed & may even have some experimental support; in addition to string theory & loop quantum gravity, is gravity a thermodynamic effect? Astronomers are looking hard at gravity waves in search of clues as to the origin of the universe (or even as to whether the universe had an origin), and …!

I’ve just finished the talk — main problem, too many interesting possible side channels — and have uploaded it as pdf,  keynote, power point, & html.  Comments welcome!

Temporal Paradoxes Talk Online

I had a lot of fun putting my NASA talk Temporal Paradoxes together.  The feedback I got from the assembled multitude at the Radnor Library last week was extremely helpful, leading to a near complete rework of the talk, in the interests of making it clearer.   Thanks!

The pdf & keynote versions are now online.

Temporal Paradoxes Talk at NASA

I’ve been asked to do a talk, Temporal Paradoxes, at NASA.  This will be on the 21st of this month, at 3:30pm.  This is a NASA-fied version of my previous Physics of Paradox talk, meaning more animations & less science fiction, and perhaps a few equations in a grayish font.  Abstract:

ABSTRACT — Einstein’s general relativity is the leading theory of gravity. Simple and elegant, it has passed all available experimental tests including: deflection of light by gravity, precession of orbital apsides, gravitational time dilation (used in GPS), and frame-dragging.

However, general relativity makes a number of counter-intuitive predictions. In particular, trajectories looping around massive, rapidly rotating stars or passing through a wormhole can close on themselves in time, creating closed timelike curves (CTCs).

This creates the possibility of “grandfather” and “bootstrap” paradoxes. Recent work by Greenberger & Svozil, and others, however, questions this conclusion. That work suggests that when quantum mechanical effects are included, the paradoxes become self-canceling, eliminated by destructive interference within the wave function. If the paradoxes are self-canceling, then closed time-like curves are possible. If they are possible, can we create or detect them?

Several authors have suggested that we look for evanescent wormholes with the Large Hadron Collider. If we find them, we may be at the edge of temporal paradox. While the only safe prediction in this area is that there are no safe predictions, we look at the implications of this for general relativity, quantum mechanics, & causality.

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