Category: Science Fiction

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!


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).

New Hope for Space War


I’m on the Space War panel at Balticon, how & why.  Fun topic though in all candor, a bit implausible.

The main problem is that travel in space is likely to be slow, expensive, & a bit dangerous.  Given this, it is likely that space travel itself will be reserved for moving stuff that is light weight & of very high value:  information, pharmaceuticals, experts, embryos, the “unobtainium” that features in Avatar, and so on.  Bullets satisfy neither test & even nukes have a hard time.

And if it takes a century to get over to the enemy’s star, why bother having the war?  And what are you fighting about anyway?  To have a war you have to be close enough to do some damage in a reasonable time frame & similar enough to have common — if opposed — objectives.

I owe the initial observation about the high costs of space travel to Paul Krugman, the Nobel-prize winning economist.  In the spirit of not pointing out problems without also pointing out a solution, he has found an economically viable use for space war:  as a way to generating a badly-needed stimulus, a kind of weaponized Keynesianism.

Given that there is now new hope for space war, and to get me in the right frame of mind for the panel, I list ten of my favorite space war novels:

  1. The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells.  The number one space war novel.  The evil octopi are defeated by our germs. Great idea; two problems:  1) germs have to co-evolve to be effective against a host; ours probably would have no effect on the Martians and 2) real octopi are fun:  they play pranks on their experimenters & are great communicators as well.  With their ability to change skin color at will, octopi are practically eight-tentacled color television sets.
  2. The Lensman series by E. E. “Doc” Smith.  Six deathless volumes, each with at least two space-shaking interstellar battles. Chlorine breathers beware!  The oxygen breathers of the galaxy have found your secret base & are going to reduce it to a glowing pile of molten rock.
  3. Which is pretty much what happens to the lunar military base in Arthur Clarke‘s Earthlight.  Three Federation cruisers duel it out to a jointly fatal draw with a lunar fortress.  The war is about mineral rights & induced by attacks of mutually assured dementia, making the physics (this is Arthur C. Clarke!), the war, & the politics pretty realistic.
  4. Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein.  Heinlein wrote about space suits in his pre-WWII SF, then used ideas from his stories when helping to design pressure suits for our fighter pilots in WWII, then used ideas from those pressure suits for his Have Spacesuit, Will Travel juvenile and for Starship Troopers: a beautiful example of the inter-relationship of reality & SF.  The space combats are a bit less stupid than most; Heinlein understands something of the difficulty of taking a space war to an underground enemy.
  5. The Forever War by Joe Haldeman.  This is partly a reaction to the Vietnam War & partly a reaction against Starship Troopers.  The forever war starts by accident, proceeds by error, and lasts for over a thousand years:  both humans & aliens are restricted to sub-light travel, so the war plays out in slow motion.  One of the few successful space war stories that works with existing physics.
  6. Keith Laumer’s Bolo Series.  Laumer wrote a long series of stories about Bolos, giant sentient tanks that are every adolescent male’s dream weapon.  In practice, they would likely be an economic & military disaster:  witness some of the late stage Nazi vehicles:  mechanically problematic, too heavy for bridges, & absorbing a disproportionate share of the military budget.  See Arthur Clarke’s delightful story Superiority.
  7. Dan Simmon‘s Hyperion series, especially the 2nd volume, The Fall of Hyperion, which concludes with a beautifully realized space battle between two fleets for control of a planetary system.  The inevitable confusion & long delays of such a battle are foregrounded.
  8. Catherine Asaro‘s Skolian Empire series.  Asaro has a physics background, gets existing physics right, & invents as much as she needs to keep the action fast-moving & interstellar.  The space combats are realistic:  long periods of nothing, brief high velocity exchanges of fire & then more long pauses while the surviving opponents regroup & turn around.  They remind me of the lance combats in White’s The Once & Future King.
  9. David Weber’s Honorverse series, starting with Manticore Station.  Weber is another author who tries to “get it right”.  The politics are modeled on the dueling ship combats of the Napoleonic wars, with wormholes to get realtime star to star travel without invoking faster-than-light mechanics (which would imply time-travel & a lot of confusion:  it is very rough on a space navy to first have triumphantly triumphed & then never to have been in the first place!).  He sets up the physics & weapons so that the ships even have broadsides, includes relativistic time dilation, and so on.  Weber’s Honor Harrington owes her “H’s” and general command style to C. S. Forester‘s Horatio Hornblower.  In a video game version of the Honorverse, it turned out that realistic implementing the physics/combat implied a near-planet maneuver (wish I could remember what it was) that invalided much of the combat in the novels.  With the infinite authority of the auteur, Weber passed a treaty that banned the disastrous trick.
  10. And I’ll finish with John G. Henry‘s Lost Fleet series.  The first six volumes reset Xenophon’s Anabasis in a medium-future space-faring context, again with wormholes connecting selected star systems.  A nearly destroyed fleet has to work its way back home in the face of enemy attack, mutiny, and sheer running out of resources.  Henry’s focuses on the many conflicting pressures on his commander, Jack Geary, as Geary balances military requirements, the demands of honor, & the imperatives of law, democracy, and a forbidden love.  The space combat — Henry used to be a ship driver in the US Navy – takes place in four dimensions and with admirable clarity about the command difficulties created by the finite speed of light:  if the enemy is on the far side of a solar system, he will see your maneuver only hours after you make it — and you will see his response hours after that.  You have to factor his response — and the responses of your detached units — into every move you make.  It is like blindfolded chess where you don’t find out the enemy’s move until after you have made three more moves of your own.  And your pieces are moving on their own.

And a couple of titles to avoid:

  • Anything by C. J. Cherryh, as least as far as space combat goes.  I remember reading one of her novels where the defenders had an advantage because they were at rest. In space, both sides are at rest with respect to themselves; the comment & resulting tactics were just nonsense.  Nonsense on stilts.
  • Gordon Dickson’s Dorsai series.  Omni-competent genetically enhanced uber soldiers trash lots of stooges.  The “ho” meets the “hum”.

So, my minimal requirement for space war in science fiction(not counting the golden classics of one’s youth of course) is that the humans, the physics, & the space war should make at least a bit of sense.

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” at the Philadelphia SF Convention

I’ll be doing my Not Your Grandfather’s Gravity talk this coming Saturday at Philcon at 1pm.   I’ve been scheduled for six panels as well, five as moderator.  These are on Fiction of China Mieville, Alien Life in the Solar System (besides us), Future War, Tapping the Quantum Foam (entertaining nonsense:  crank up the balonium generators), What Makes H. P. Lovecraft Unstoppable (ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn), and Dark Matter gets Darker.

Full schedule:

Fri 8:00 PM in Plaza V (Five) (1 hour)

   [Panelists: John Ashmead (mod), Meredith Schwartz, Andrew C. Murphy]

   Exploring the work of the popular author of Perdido Street Station
   and others.  What makes his work so special

Sat 12:00 PM in Crystal Ballroom Two (1 hour)

   [Panelists: John Ashmead (mod), Alexis Gilliland, Eric Kotani]

   Making up planets around stars we do not know is relatively easy.
   Let's talk about a more difficult approach... imagining alien
   lifeforms in the solar system as we now know it

Sat 1:00 PM in Plaza III (Three) (1 hour)

   [Speaker: John Ashmead]

   Einstein's theory of gravity is our best to date -- even though it
   is known to be incomplete. Now it is in the crosshairs! Several
   competitors -- string theory, loop quantum gravity, emergent gravity
   -- have come out in the open & it's a horse race! We'll look at
   weird twists of space & time, dark energy, neutrinos just spotted
   going faster than light, the curiously shy Higgs particle, & the
   whole universe from its birth in the Big Bang to its death -- &
   possible rebirth

Sat 7:00 PM in Plaza II (Two) (1 hour)

   [Panelists: Alexis Gilliland (mod), John Ashmead, Amy Bailey, Frank

   It's commonly said among Air Force officers today that the last
   human fighter pilots have been born. Drones and remotely-piloted
   planes are the future of air warfare. What about the other branches
   of the armed forces? Robots are filling more and more roles. Will
   there come a point where there are few or no human soldiers? What
   are the implications? Is this a good or bad development

Sat 8:00 PM in Plaza V (Five) (1 hour)

   [Panelists: John Ashmead (mod), Jay Wile, Marvin Kaye]

   Infinite free energy drawn from the quantum vacuum - con games and
   pseudoscience today. But does our present understanding of quantum
   physics suggest it could ever become reality? Would the process pose
   any dangers

Sat 10:00 PM in Plaza III (Three) (1 hour)

   [Panelists: John Ashmead (mod), James Chambers, Chris Pisano,
   Darrell Schweitzer, Eric Avedissian, Roman Ranieri]

   Great writers, we contend, are the ones the critics cannot stop.
   Major critics, notably Edmund Wilson, tried, but to no avail. Today
   Lovecraft is famous world-wide.  Yet when he died in 1937, his only
   published book was a wretchedly amateur production which had barely
   sold a hundred copies.  What made the difference?  Was it all those
   role-playing games and plish Cthulhu toys? The movies? Or something
   inherent in the texts

Sun 1:00 PM in Plaza V (Five) (1 hour)

   [Panelists: John Ashmead (mod), Paul Halpern, Jay Wile, Eric Kotani]

   Dark matter detection experiment CoGeNT has seen a possible signal,
   similar to the much-disputed DAMA/LIBRA result, that might confirm
   the controversial claim that dark matter has not only been observed,
   but that it varies with the seasons. Meanwhile the XENON100 detector
   has just released results from its most recent rum: they don’t see

   Are we closing in on dark matter, or is it getting more mysterious?

Temporal Paradoxes Talk Done: World Safe for Grandfathers

Had a very good time at NASA’s Goddard Space Center doing my talk Temporal Paradoxes.  Nice crowd; lots of good questions.  NASA’s audio-visual support was first rate, as you would expect, and the talk should be up on their site in a bit.  I’ll post a link here when that happens.

I’d like to thank Brent Warner & his colleagues for their warm welcome & all the feedback during the talk.  Brent tells me he particularly liked the quote from an Astounding Science Fiction reader (1933):

“Why pick on grandfather? It seems that the only way to prove that time travel is impossible is to cite a case of killing one’s own grandfather. This incessant murdering of harmless ancestors must stop. Let’s see some wide-awake fan make up some other method of disproving the theory”*

As I say in the talk, if the current literature is on target, the grandfather & other paradoxes are cancelled out by interference by the time machine’s wave function with itself.

Brent & his NASA colleagues were kind enough to provide lunch & a fascinating tool of the facilities:  they manage the Hubble & are working on the James Webb.  Huge rooms with vast devices for subjecting equipment to high G’s, vacuum, heat, noise, vibration, & every other insult that it will need to be able to withstand during launch or in space:  gives one a real sense of just how hard it is to get this stuff to work!

*as quoted by Paul Nahin in his Time Machines: time travel in physics, metaphysics, and science fiction

Reality versus free will, escaping the Holodeck, are the laws of physics “more guidelines than rules”?, and more!

I’m doing five panels and my Physics of Paradox talk at the Philadelphia Science Fiction Convention, starting in a few hours.

Quite a lot of fun subjects for my panels:  Augmented Reality (for those who can’t get enough reality), Time Travel & Free Will, Are the Laws of Physics Laws (or really more just Guidelines?), Is the Universe a Hologram (& can I leave the Holodeck?), my Physics of Paradox talk in its final & perfected version, & What Came Before the Big Bang (& are we in trouble with whatever it is?)

[I’ve augmented the reality of the Physics of Paradox slides by adding the spoken text to them:  see the Keynote (for Mac users), PowerPoint (for PC users), and  annotated pdf version.]

My complete schedule is:

Fri 10:00 PM in Crystal Ballroom Two (1 hour)
[Panelists: John Ashmead (mod), Earl Bennett, Rock Robertson, Bud Sparhawk]
We’ve all heard about virtual reality and the potential it holds for gaming, learning, medicine etc., but augmented reality, while less well-known, is more likely to have a major effect on everyday life. Imagine wearing a pair of glasses while driving that produce flashing arrows to indicate your turns, or looking at a city street through your cell phone screen and seeing each building labeled by name and type of business. Learn what’s happening now and what we can expect in the future.
Sat 11:00 AM in Plaza VII (Seven) (1 hour)
[Panelists: John Ashmead (mod), Michael F. Flynn, John Grant, Helen Collins, Lawrence Kramer]
Suppose that  three weeks in the future I come back and sit on this panel,does this not imply that nothing can happen in the future toprevent me from getting in a time machine and coming back? Does this mean that time travel implies that the future is pre-determined?
Sat 12:00 PM in Crystal Ballroom Two (1 hour)
[Panelists: Paul Halpern (mod), John Ashmead, Jay Wile, Tony Rothman]
Are the laws of nature really the same across all space and time? No principal is more fundamental to physics than the idea that the laws of nature remain the same at all times and in all places. Much we believe to be true about the universe depends upon this concept. However, new observations have revealed anomalies that suggest that such physical laws as the fine structure constant and the speed of light may actually have changed over time. Will we soon have to rethink our ideas about physics and cosmology
Sat 2:00 PM in Crystal Ballroom Two (1 hour)
[Panelists: Paul Halpern (mod), John Ashmead, Jay Wile, Tony Rothman]
Is the universe a hologram? One of the strangest ideas to come out of modern physics is the holographic principal, which speculates that the universe may be a multi-dimensional projection of information encoded (in Planck length-sized  squares, each containing one bit of information) on a two-dimensional boundary called the cosmological horizon. A new experiment searching for gravity waves may have accidentally found evidence for this theory that was predicted by supporters.
Sat 3:00 PM in Crystal Ballroom Two (1 hour)
[Panelists: John Ashmead (mod)]
There is nothing in modern physics to rule out time travel, save paradox.  And — thanks to quantum mechanics — it seems any potential paradoxes would be self-canceling.  Therefore the only thing standing between us and time travel is not knowing how to go about it, exactly.  But several recent papers have proposed ways to use the Large Hadron Collider at CERN to create particle loops that
go backwards in time.  Now what?
Sat 5:00 PM in Crystal Ballroom Two (1 hour)
[Panelists: John Ashmead (mod), Paul Halpern, Eric Kotani, Tony Rothman]
Was there a time before the beginning? As incredible as it seems, new discoveries have given scientists clues about what may have existed prior to the beginning of our universe. Scientists at the University of Pennsylvania have developed a mathematical model that traces through the Big Bang to a shrinking universe that exhibits physics similar to ours. Measurements of the Cosmic Microwave
Background radiation reveal an imprint from the earliest stages of the universe may also shed light on what came before. The following links are offered as jumping off points to potential panelists who would like to investigate this topic:

The Physics of Paradox — Followup

Gave the Physics of Paradox talk at the Library of Congress Thursday (10/21/2010) & then again at Capclave Saturday (10/23/2010).   Good audiences both times, lots of good questions.  At Capclave talk was standing room only & Brent Warner, from the Goddard Space Center has asked if I would be interested in doing it there this spring.

I made some changes to the talk over the weekend, in response to audience feedback & further reflection.  The latest version is now up as Keynote (for Mac users), PowerPoint (for PC users), PDF in slides-only and also annotated forms.

I’d like to thank Dick Ladson, Walt Mankowski, Bruce Bloom, Shelley Handen, Ed & Marguerite Rutkowski, & of course Ferne Welch for their feedback at the dry run, which improved it immensely.  And I would like to thank Nathan Evans of the Library of Congress & Colleen Cahill of Capclave (& as it happens the Library of Congress) for having me.  Lots of fun!

Physics of Paradox

This talk — scheduled for the Library of Congress & for Capclave next week — is now up.

It was a lot of fun to put together:  I discuss time in relativity & quantum mechanics, kinds of time, some possible time machines, the three kinds of paradox (grandfather, bootstrap, & freewill), the Hawking & Novikov consistency conditions for avoiding paradox, some ways to implement those conditions, paradox noise, what the world might look like if paradox avoiding time travel were possible, and of course why this is likely.

I’ve got the talk on line as Keynote (for Mac users), PowerPoint (for PC users), PDF in slides-only and also annotated forms.

I’m doing a practice run on the talk in two days at the Radnor Memorial Library in the Winsor room from 6pm to 8pm (when we have to be out).  I start the actual talk about 6:30pm.  This is a dry run (well more of a wet run really) for the talks next week.

If you are not too far from Wayne, PA & have an interest in time & paradox (but then if not why are you reading these words?) please feel free to come!

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