Tag: history

"We’ve all become expert time travelers"

In his newest book, author James Gleick explores the history of Time Travel. And its future. A conversation about fascination, regret, and killing Hitler.

Early on in your book, you write that time travel isn’t possible. That it can’t be. Did you go into this research wondering if it was?
No. The honest truth is that I thought from the beginning on that it was just a fantasy. And I know very well that there’s something perverse about expecting people to read a book about time travel by someone who doesn’t believe in it. I worried about that at first. And I’ve discovered, as I’ve been talking about the book, that many people are disappointed that that’s my opinion. I have to reassure them that to honestly represent the view of mainstream physicists, I have to say that they don’t want to rule it out. They like to believe in time travel. If you’d like to imagine that some day we’ll have a time machine and go to any year that we want, you’re free to do that. It’s just not something I believe in.


James Gleick is a historian and science writer, who most recently published “Time Travel – A History”. He often writes about the impact of technology and has published titles such as “The Information” and “Chaos”. Previously, Gleick has worked for The New Yorker and The New York Times. Find out more about him on his website.

I wasn’t expecting the revelation that traveling through time would be possible, but I didn’t expect your sober reasoning either: “You can’t go into the past. Because you didn’t.” Is it really that logical?
No, it’s not. There is something complicated about my approach to the question. When I talk about philosophers making that sort of argument, I find myself making fun of it.

”You can’t logically prove time travel”

Why is that?
A lot of philosophers have said “time travel isn’t possible” and proved it logically. My view is different from that. I don’t think you can logically prove it. It’s a matter of having a consistent view of how the universe works. The logical arguments are kind of silly and have become word games – like the one you mentioned. But I actually end up giving a lot of thought to what time is, which is what the books turns out to be.
You also talk a lot about how language is insufficient in describing time – the sentence I quoted seems convincing but doesn’t necessarily reflect the physical reality.
That’s true. But also: The way physics works is not the be all and end all. It’s not an absolute representation of reality. Physics makes models of things and uses them to predict real-life events. That works very well. Yet it’s very different from making an absolute statement of what is and what isn’t real. So to put my view into a simple way: If you believe that the present is real, and that the past is not real because it’s already done, and the future is not real because it hasn’t happened yet, then you have what I’d call a normal sense of time.
That means?
This is what people think before they start to worry too much about the details. The past is gone, we don’t have access to it. The future hasn’t happened, and maybe we have some degree of free will and can make choices about the future. I can have cheese for lunch or I can have ham. Until I do one or the other, that future is not yet determined. That’s a common sense view of things and lots of philosophers have considered that that’s not how things really are. And more recently, so have lots of physicists. They have created mathematical models in which it’s possible to view the universe as a four-dimensional space-time continuum. A complete package. In this mathematical picture, the future and the past are every bit as real as the present. They look exactly the same in the equations of physics. But in my view that doesn’t mean we have to accept the mathematical view as a statement of reality – and I think many physicists would agree with me.

”Time isn’t like space”

Because of the impression of free choice? You certainly don’t feel like it’s been predetermined for your to have the ham for lunch.
Right. We don’t have to settle the question of free will, maybe my choice between cheese and ham isn’t as big as I think I do, but at least it feels as though it hasn’t happened yet. The whole notion of time travel implies that this common-sense view of time isn’t right. That you can go back into the past and even change it. You can go into the future and walk around there as if it exists now.
When H.G. Wells invented the first time machine, he realized when he was constructing what he knew to be just a fantastic story, that he was saying something that was different from our common sense view of time. He was saying that time is a fourth dimension, that time is like space. So when we talk about time travel, we are saying that time is analogous to space, that it is a thing you can travel through. And when you stop and think about it, come back to earth, that’s not what I believe. I don’t think is like space, I think it is quite different from space and we all know that quite well, deep in our bones.
It’s funny you’d use that expression, because you also wrote “time travel is in our bones” and that time travel “is a sexy idea”- Is that why we embrace it, despite of its shortcomings?
Let’s talk about the good news – we’ve been focusing on the bad news that there’s no such thing as time travel in a literal, mechanical thing.

”We are imagining new future all the time.”

Of course there is such a a thing as time travel and we’ve all become very expert and efficient time travelers. My book is not meant to just debunk this idea that’s so much fun but rather to celebrate the idea and to appreciate how powerful it has been in our thinking for more than a century. We have a relationship with the past and the future that is very exciting and very rich – even if it’s largely a matter of imagination. That’s ok, because imagination is who we are. We’re imaginative creatures. We have knowledge of the past and a kind of foreknowledge of the future – whether is it based on anticipation or terror. We are imagining new futures all the time.
Is that fascination with the past, for instance, due to our regretful nature or rather our aspiration towards perfection – going back to fix what went wrong?
Both of those come into play. People who create time travel stories, for books, TV, or just in their own minds, are motivated by different things, and you have just mentioned a very important one: Regret. You think about something and you want a do-over. We can all think of great time travel stories that are based on the idea of wanting to do something over and over again. Remember the great Bill Murray movie Groundhog Day: That’s not just a version of the story where he doesn’t want to do it again but finds himself trapped and gradually realizes that he has to live this one horrible day over and over again, until he finally does it right. It’s a variation on the theme.

”Killing Hitler has become a meme”

What does the it mean, then, that our society is so enamored with time travel.
It means we think a lot about history and about how things might have been different. It’s not an accident that one of the great memes of time travel of the late 20th century is “What if the time traveler would go back to kill Hitler in a timely fashion?” Nowadays – at least over here – you hear people wondering if it might be possible to go back and teach manners to Baby Trump. Can we change history? Is the world we’re living in the only possible world? Or might it have been different. Is it just an accident that everybody is driving around in automobiles with internal combustion engines or, if one little thing had happened in the early nineteen hundreds, would we all be driving around in electric cars instead? To pick just one trivial technological example…
In the book you reveal the role technology plays in our thinking about time travel: The idea of the time machine is directly linked to industrialization. But at the same time, it seems that there’s more to it: We’ve come to accept that machines can solve so many problems that thinking they would break the laws of time doesn’t seem too far off…
Of course we have a love-hate relationship with our machinery. I have always been interested in connections between technology and the rest of our culture. The way we live and think about the world is often unconsciously a consequence of devices and machines that are part of our life. That’s true about my last book, The Information, which was all about advances in information technology. And it’s certainly true with how we deal with time. It’s not just that H.G. Wells invented time travel at a time when there were railroads and steam engines and electric telegraphy synchronizing clocks around the world; it was also when Einstein reevaluated physics and reshaped scientists’ sense of time. And that’s not a coincidence. Our cultural understanding of how time works was being reshaped by the availability of clocks, high-speed transportation, new kinds of light speed global transfer of information.

”A paradox in many guises”

A development that has continued.
Now it’s all happening again. And this is where I found an ending for my story. It looks as though our sense of time is undergoing a new revolution. Where that’ll lead isn’t quite clear but we can already tell that in our highly-networked world, where so much of our experience comes to us through screens of different sizes and shapes, our relationship with the present, the future and the past is changing again, in tricky ways.
You mean: There’s time-shifting going on across the culture?
Right. We’re expert time-shifters. We’re watching TV with instant replays, tape-delayed version of an instant replay. We’ve gotten very smart about this and I think that occasionally we can forgive ourselves if we suffer a little bit of confusion as well.
Speaking of confusion: What is your favorite paradox that you encountered during your research?
In a funny way, it’s all one paradox that keeps turning up in different guises. There’s one – that I won’t try to explain: the central kind of loop in the movie La Jetée by Chris Marker, which not many people know, but which some people have seen the remake of, 12 Monkeys.
A lighter version of the paradox appears in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. His time traveler goes back to the 1920s and meets Louis Buñuel, the film director. He says “I have a great idea for a movie for you” and pitches him his own movie. And the young Buñuel says “That doesn’t make any sense!” It’s a paradox: If Buñuel did make the movie based on what the time traveler had told him, the question becomes: Where did the idea come from in the first place?

"A line can turn into a horrifyingly rigid reality."

What was there first, the border or the division? We spoke with artist and cartographer Denis Wood about the connection between maps and control.

Do maps still serve their purpose?
Absolutely. But it depends on what you think their purpose it.
What do you think?
Maps are mediators between human beings. They link the territory to what comes with it – which is to say all of the desires, needs, and aspirations humans bring to them.
In your book, “The Power of Maps”, you write that maps present an argument…
Maps have an essential deep purpose: The protection of private property and the protection of nation state governments that support the property.
…because they delineate a certain territory by putting a line around it?
Exactly. The lines show what part of the territory is mine and what is not mine.

Photo: Still from the movie "Unmappable" by Diane Hudson and Jasmine Luoma.

Denis Wood is an artist, author, cartographer and a former professor of Design at North Carolina State University. He is the author of the book “The Power of Maps”. Visit his website at www.deniswood.net. Photo: Still from the movie “Unmappable” by Diane
Hudson and Jasmine Luoma.

Today, we tend to think of maps as instruments for navigation.
The oldest maps we have – which are Babylonian maps of property – are for purposes of control and taxation. There are property maps from 7th century Japan, showing patty fields, who owns them, and who is responsible for raising rice in a particular space. But maps have never, until very recently, been important for navigation. We sailed the oceans without maps for centuries. We got along fine without them, both on the sea and the ground. Today, everybody knows they can find a restaurant on Google, follow the instructions on their map and get there. But before there were those kinds of readily-accessible maps, anytime before the invention of lithography, maps could hardly be for finding our way…

“If you think you can back to where you started, you are never really lost.”

Has our dependency on maps destroyed our intrinsic sense of orientation?
Maps have certainly become crutches we lean on and that we lean on with increasing frequency. People used to get around cities just fine, now they can’t imagine getting to the next corner. The problems is that most people with cellphone have a map right there in their hand, so why not make life more convenient?
Because of that, people tend to no longer get lost, which can be a very insightful experience.
People have always had to work to get lost. It isn’t something that comes easily to human beings. We have very good sense of direction and orientation and usually know where we are when we come into consciousness. It is by no means impossible to get lost, but even when we were navigating across the Atlantic ocean in the 15th century, we thought we knew where we were. And that is what matters – feeling comfortable without knowing where you are. If you think you can back to where you started, you are never really lost.
Maybe the modern definition of being lost is to no longer be able to find ourselves on a map.
(laughs) Could be! But I have noticed, for many years, that human beings are very anxious about knowing where they are: They want to know where they are in space and they want to know where they are in time. Inventions like watches are an indication of that. People look at their watches all the time to see what time it is.
Do you?
I don’t even own a watch. And I don’t own a cellphone.
How do you get around?
I have no trouble getting around! When I was traveling through the West Bank, I discovered that when I needed to know where a certain place was, all I had to do was ask the cab drivers. They would tell me – and offer to take me there. You can always find somebody with a cellphone who will lend it to you if you need it. But you really don’t need it very often.
Being a cartographer, we assumed you would embrace the map in the pocket?
I sometimes carry a paper map. But people got cellphones to not miss any messages. This all started in the 1970s with pagers. For the twenty years prior to that, people had got along fine in their businesses, but then they suddenly needed a pager to be in touch constantly. It gradually turned into the early cellphone, which has now turned into the computer in the pocket. I don’t want a computer in my pocket.
What you are describing reflects the remark about the human desire to know where we are in space and time.
It’s also visible in the physical environment. Streets didn’t use to have street names. House numbers are only 300 years old and only became universal in the last 100 years. People had no trouble getting around – they would give directions, follow them, and if they got disoriented en route, you could ask someone and they would tell you. People still do that, actually!

“What makes a map a map is its self-declared mastery of objective reality.”

Why do we map even the remotest locations, then?
Once you get the idea that you need to know where things are, you need to know where everything is. That has been a guiding principle of Western and Eastern civilizations. You don’t want holes on your map, you don’t want terra incognita. But the important maps in the world today aren’t Google Maps but the ones down in your register of deeds: They connect a piece of ground with somebody who owes money to pay taxes on it or somebody who owns it so that they can sell it. And in the case of lunatics: Places they can protect with their guns.
Is it a mistake to think of maps only in geographic terms? There are, for instance, maps that show the world according to wealth distribution. On it, the spatially large Africa is suddenly tiny.
That is the whole point of my atlas “Everything Things”: I mapped my neighborhood in all possible dimensions – to show what we don’t ordinarily map. And to show the complete poverty in terms of information on most maps. Most of them are not terribly informative: They look informative, pretend to be, but are not.
…because everything that comes as a map automatically looks informative?
Of course! What makes a map a map is its self-declared mastery of objective reality.
You have said that maps are about control – and in the case of borders, which are no more than lines on the map, it becomes obvious what you mean.
Exactly. Maps demarcate where I have authority and where I don’t. And they become guarantees of it as well. Once there is a border on a map… well then the border is there. Wars are fought over it. And the law is a machine to support them.
Here in Europe, we had stopped noticing borders, until the migrant crisis popped up…
…and the borders popped up! They became a big deal algain. The Schengen Agreement has become a curiosity of the past. I have no idea what the borders are going to look like a few years from now.
Cartography then means: Someone draws a line on a piece of paper, and a couple hundred years later, a wall gets built or a border dispute breaks out.
Of course it’s not the cartographers who decide where borders are but yes: they draw a line and it can turn into a horrifyingly rigid reality. There are many troubled borders: Think about Kashmir, or China and India – much of their border is in contest. The border between Iraq and Turkey… these are borders that have become an immense deal. And yet there is no border between most of Turkey and Greece, no matter how many lines get drawn on the map.

“Some people have zero respect for borders.”

What border do you find particularly interesting?
I have gone to Mexico many times and that border is too stupid to be believed. But the border that continues to fascinate me and that I read about every single morning is the border between the Palestinians and the Israelis. It is a dramatic instance of what borders can become.
What, then, is your understanding of a border?
I don’t think borders are very well theorized. We really haven’t come to grips with what we think a border is. We know what it means in terms of responsibility and authority, but not much more. Which is why phenomena that have no respect for borders elude us.
What do you mean?
I am thinking of wildlife or diseases. Then there are also people who don’t really have borders – like gypsies. They don’t have much of an acceptance of borders, only appreciating that they have to cross them with some frequency. Or the youth in Europe that just floats around the continent for amusement purposes. These people really have zero respect or interest in borders
If borders can be ignored in many parts of the world, why do we still have them?
Well, those lines are often taken to mean more than they actually do which is why they still matter. Think about France or Spain. There are national borders that have changed with insane fluidity over the past 500 years, as they ceased being kingdoms. When the nation state begins to emerge out of those earlier formations, there is endless fluidity. In a place like France or Spain, you have all of these remnant populations that only 150 years ago couldn’t have been assumed to speak the language. They didn’t. They were very different places not fully integrated into a proud nation state. We delude ourselves into imaging they have always been like that. That’s nonsense.
So when looking at borders, should we stop assuming their authority?
I think so, yes. But that’s maybe the anarchist in me speaking. But remember: To ignore borders is, in essence, to ignore property lines. They are the same thing, really. The nation state is a defense of private property. 500 years ago, humans didn’t own their property, everything belonged to the king or other level of the feudal system. Ownership, came with the nation state and the map, all in a mutually supportive nexus of power. And it isn’t old. People think the world has always been like it is. But no, it hasn’t. The world we live in is pretty new, post-WWII or at least post-WWI. And it clearly isn’t going to stay this way forever.

Hitler! War! Destruction!

In Berlin, a devilish chapter of history is buried under history itself.

On clear days, you can see it from the city: A run-down radar station, perched on a hill overlooking Berlin. The station has a somewhat sinister look, no doubt because of the many holes dotting its once pristine surface. And if that wasn’t enough, it stands on what is called the Devil’s Mountain.
Teufelsberg – its German name – is located in the western outskirts of the Berlin. It is far away from where most tourists go, and an oddity even in this city full of oddities. Sure, there’s that abandoned radar station, a remnant of the Cold War and a paradise for urban explorers. But the hill is not just a testament to history, it is of history itself: Teufelsberg is man-made, constructed from the rubble of bombed-out Berlin. Following the Second World War, as the city was rebuilding, it dumped more than 75 million cubic meters of debris here. In the 1970s, the rubble was covered and trees were planted, resulting in a gently sloping hill. But below the hill’s grass and wildflowers still lie the ruins of a city that no longer exists.

An entire city, pulverised and compacted.

It’s a fascinating, if depressing thought that an entire city can be reduced to mountains of rocks, splinters and dust. That
there is an earlier iteration of today’s Berlin, which has been pulverized, moved aside, and compacted. And that the city itself was used to conceal its shameful past: Below Teufelsberg, under the grass, the soil, and the countless tons of rubble stand the ruins of a military college built by the Nazis during their reign.
You would be forgiven for thinking that the name has to do with the events of the 20th century. That it was distilled from that stunning list of atrocities (Hitler! War! Destruction! More war! Decay!) and ascribed to Lucifer himself. Perhaps for a lack of better justification. But when the rubbled started growing into the city’s second highest elevation, people simply named it after a nearby lake. The Devil’s lake.

Who says we need the devil?

And this is where the story takes its final turn for the absurd. This hill, born of destruction, and a spot for Cold War espionage, was placed not just over the past but right next to a spot where the devil is said to have appeared: Legend has it that the area was once inhabited by a Slavic tribe, which was infiltrated by the devil, who posed as an idol. The local bishop, the story continues, had the tribe massacred and the devil exorcized. He disappeared into an abyss in the ground that quickly filled with dark water and gave the lake its name.

History is muddy here, rife with rumors and speculation about what exactly happened back then. It’s safe to say that the devil managed to capture public imagination, both back then and now. Just as he was cited for the lake, the devil’s association with the hill makes intrinsic sense. It remains a strange place and stands out atmospherically. Berlin doesn’t have many elevations, making the artificial Teufelsberg the second largest hill in the city and affording an unusual view over the city. The abandoned radar station’s towers poke out from behind the trees, and in summer there is an endless amount of mosquitos swarming up from the lake.
You may not believe in the devil, but if humans can create this place, who says we even need him?

Note: The intro picture shows a symbolic scene from Dresden. The Berlin city archive has a lot of great pictures from the making of the actual Teufelsberg, but unfortunately hasn’t released them for editorial use.

A Natural Nuisance

We live in overtired times, and sleep has turned from a necessity into something worth fixing.

Rafael Trujillo, the notorious Caribbean dictator, never slept. He did, of course, but the people living under the Dominican strongman did not know that. It just so happened that Trujillo fundamentally got public relations and knew that to appear powerful, it helped to hide the very things making him human. And since he needed very little sleep anyway, he went to bed late, rose before the crack of dawn, and could be seen back at his desk and in a stiff uniform before his fellow countrymen even made it out of bed.
One does not build a despicably brutal surveillance state without some elbow grease of course, and Trujillo used the extra hours at his disposal with terrifying efficiency: During his 31-year reign over the Dominican Republic, he established one of the most ruthless dictatorships in the world, had his infamous secret police execute thousands of dissidents, preyed on and raped countless young women, and killed thousands of Haitians that his soldiers identified by their mispronunciation of the Spanish word for “parsley”. In his book “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao”, Dominican author Junot Díaz compares Trujillo’s rule to that of a plantation owner, but with the whole country subject to his ill will.

Sleep stands in the way

Like any self-respecting dictator, Trujillo also perpetuated a potent personality cult: He renamed every other monument in the country after himself or his family members and liked being called the “boss”. But what I find the most fascinating is that sleep played a role in shaping his public image: Not sleeping made him appear almost superhuman, an impression that aided him in retaining his iron grip on power. But sleep is such an unexpected ingredient of a personality cult that I can’t help but think it expresses something about the way we view the activity itself.
Sleep is a very basic human need and therefore utterly democratic. Some people (like Trujillo) evidently need less of it than others, but nobody can deal with sleep deprivation for an extended period of time. In theory, you should spend around a third of your day sleeping, which boils down to an incredible amount of lifetime each and everyone of us spends with the head on the pillow. And as much as we all like staying in bed on a lazy Sunday morning, that basic human need often stands in the way of our plans or ambitions.
As you are reading this, millions of people across the world are doing their utmost to stay awake. They might have boring jobs, crying babies or worries that kept them up, or perhaps simply a sensitivity to the moonlight falling through their bedroom blinds. They didn’t sleep enough. But they also have things to do: work to be done, babies to be raised, worries to be alleviated. Which means they can’t let themselves be tired or catch up on the sleep they are missing as they wish. For them, sleep has become a nuisance, something keeping them from accomplishing something else.
It is no wonder, then, that we live in chronically overtired societies. The New York Times, which frequently reports on sleep and its health impacts, loves to cite statistics demonstrating that we don’t sleep even nearly enough. Much of our days go into other activities, and because the day counts only 24 hours, we try to squeeze other activities into the third meant for sleeping.

A potent lie

And then there’s the fact that humans are a stubborn species. In the face of obstacles, we tend to look for fixes. We don’t just accept the biological rhythm – instead we cut some corners to make it work. The impulse of those overtired legions isn’t to sleep more, but to somehow circumvent sleep.
That is a powerful idea, and quite a mouthful at that. It has people across the globe clinging to coffee mugs or snorting white powders. There is a myriad of substances you can take to remain awake, some of them legal, some of them not, but whether they have been imported from an Colombian mountain range or synthesized in a Czech meth lab ultimately doesn’t matter, for their utility is the same: To be a technical solution against that natural urge to sleep and recharge.
Trujillo, then, was simply better at combatting sleep than most of us. And that is what made his lie so potent. There is no true fix for sleeping, no realistic solution that will make the need go away. There’s even something beautiful about it: That some things cannot be solved by anything, but by reshuffling the hours of the day to make more room for sleep. That sleep is so democratic that even the most ruthless of dictators can’t find a fix and has to pretend, like the rest of us, that he can somehow cope.


The scope of human history doesn’t allow for sleep.

It’s an appropriate time to write about sleep. 6 am in San Francisco, the morning light jabbing in like lightning bolts through the blinds of the bedroom bay windows. The sound of early risers in nearby houses, opening shutters, closing doors, going to work, again, again. It’s the time of the day I experience most vividly. Out of a silent slumber, I notice every sound, every hot water pipe turning on, every parent taking their child to school and every bird with his coo. I experience the same thought each time – “You should sleep more”.  It’s a weird paradox to be so in awe with life that it leaves you detached from important sleep. To be in awe. That’s what the days are for.
Many mornings I’ve wondered if anyone else shares this version of insomnia. It doesn’t stem from anxiety or sadness, it stems from a totalitarian joy that fights closed eyelids. There’s so much to learn, so much to see. A hundred years of life couldn’t satiate every curiosity, every instance of possibility, every sunrise. I treasure those few hours of quiet on Earth, when nature plays out her symphony to introduce the world of man. He comes in with his drumbeat, his sirens and his car horn. And to scale rooftops of the Financial District and watch this whole scene unfold, that’s what the mornings are for. Remembering the size of it all and feeling excited, daunted and humbled.

Replace a night of sleep with talking

And to put on shoes and get out the house before the rest of the world wakes up. Running through imaginary slaloms and racing to distant objects. For there’s no one to see you skipping. No one to hear you singing! Your arms out wide from your chest as the cold morning air infiltrates your lungs. And then you slip and fall into mud, only to get back up again, the blood on your knees bringing back certain sentiments of childhood. You’re not a child anymore, although somehow you feel exactly the same. And in that moment you remember Time. With bloody knees you stand by old trees and pay your respects to every past moment that lead you to right here.
And what about the books? All the words ever written, every poem, every tale, every piece of humanity’s culture that lead up to the version of civilization that we are today. How to read every account? Every love letter between two individuals, every speech at every battle, to be able to understand every hieroglyphic. All the time in the world couldn’t bring you to comprehend every mathematical formula, every philosophical idea, every artistic creation, every ounce of research. To seek to feel every thought ever thought by man. To know what the Incas experienced when they lost their lands, what the Vikings felt when they crowned their Kings. Every book in the world could barely bring you close. The scope of human history doesn’t allow for sleep.
And to write. In writing experiences down we transfer them into a perpetual existence that lies outside of ourselves. I sleep much better after writing, seeing the thoughts laid out, viewing them and touching them before the nocturnal makes them a distant memory. To think that some of the best days of our lives haven’t happened yet, no matter how bad the current day has been, how bad the situation, how poor you currently are or how anguished. Another day is another opportunity for kindness. It’s another day for passion. It’s another day to carve out your reality. Whether you decide to comply to career and relationship norms that don’t exist anywhere apart from in our farcical mental constructs, or not. To meet a new person and to replace a night of sleep with talking, sharing childhood stories, music, hopes and dreams. To take risks! To make memories! To turn to your loved one and say “forget work today, let’s run away and go to the beach, eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and make sandcastles” and not care that you’re 25 or 45 or 90.
That’s what the days are for.
That’s what the days are for.