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Science Goes Further Than Fiction

Everyone's a Critic....

Well before the movie version of Crichton's Timeline is released, critics are already chiming in with their take on the conclusions of Schulman's PRL paper:

"I love this story-a 'believable' explanation for Cold Dark Matter would be a FABULOUS way to leave the 20th Century behind us."
-Walter Lewin, PhD, astrophysics professor, MIT

"He's probably wrong. He's piled speculation upon speculation. However, it will be a wild ride for us physicists to prove him wrong. Physics thrives on teasing apart outrageous and delicious paradoxes. That's how real science is done."
-Michio Kaku, PhD, physics professor, City University of New York

"Although this is a novel conceptual view of time in a macroscopic system, a localized region in the universe would have to be observed for new physical laws to prevail. Our assumptions are that the laws do not change depending upon your location in the universe."
-Herman White, PhD, research physicist, Fermilab

"Thanks for asking but, I'd rather not go there. If that's a pun, all the better."
-Anonymous physicist

"The universe is not only queerer than we suppose, it's queerer than we can suppose."
-J.B.S. Haldane

Michael Crichton's current best-seller, Timeline, sends science fiction buffs back in time by way of physics' latest theories. While even Crichton admits such time travel dreams require lots of scientific fact stretching, Clarkson University physicist Lawrence S. Schulman is putting a new scientific spin on science fiction. In a paper published in the December 27 issue of Physical Review Letters, Schulman suggests - instead of simply skipping to a previous time - the possibility of strange worlds where the timeline itself actually runs backwards.

According to Schulman, in these not-yet-discovered places broken eggs, for example, would re-form. Typically, physics says this isn't allowed. Disorder, which physicists call "entropy," rules in our world. Or, as Schulman states, "the fate of Humpty Dumpty is sealed by the 'Second Law of Thermodynamics.'"

It's been assumed that the entire universe shares the same "thermodynamic arrow of time." But, through statistical computer modeling, Schulman says, "I have found that there could be regions, perhaps within our own galaxy, in which the arrow goes the other way." Furthermore, all physical processes (including entropy) would appear to be going in a normal direction relative to a person living in that system. A person in either system would view a person in one with an opposite arrow as getting younger, from his or her own perspective.

Could we actually see this theoretical reverse arrow system? Well - Schulman uses reasoning, first proposed by physicists John Wheeler and Robert Feynman, to show that the system would have normal transmission and reception of light, which would help. Wheeler's book Geons, Black Holes, & Quantum Foam - winner of the American Institute of Physics' 1999 Science Writing Award - also helped Crichton imagine a physics technology to get his characters into the past.

Currently, though, Schulman says we have to settle for less direct - but just as speculative - viewing. While scientists tell us the visible universe is continuing its expansion away from the "Big Bang," Schulman suggests reverse arrow regions are full of burned out stars from the future (the other region's past) that haven't re-lit on their way to a rejuvenating "Big Crunch." But we may be seeing those regions' effects, according to Schulman, as the mysterious "dark matter" that seems to be exerting unseen gravitational effects on visible stars.

Viewing possibilities are definitely greater for a big budget movie version of Crichton's Timeline, but a celluloid depiction of Schulman's timeline should be less expensive to make-just run an already made film backwards.

- Randy Atkins, Inside Science News Service

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Editor: Alan Chodos
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette