a PAW web exclusive column by Hugh O'Bleary (email@example.com)
It's About Time
How Professor Gott somehow got it, and I didn't
By Hugh O'Bleary
One of the best lines
in "I.Q." - the slight but diverting romantic comedy starring
Meg Ryan, Tim Robbins, and Walter Matthau that was filmed in Princeton
a few years back - comes when Matthau, in the role of Albert Einstein,
turns to Robbins, who plays a good-hearted, decidedly unintellectual
garage mechanic, and asks, "Are you thinking what I'm thinking?"
Replies Robbins, "What
are the chances of that?" It is a quintessential Princeton
moment. How often I've felt like Robbins. I'm walking down Nassau
Street, trying to make head or tails of the latest foreign policy
news, and there goes George F. Kennan '25, architect of postwar
containment; or I'm sitting in a coffee shop, feeling pumped because
I just managed to balance my checkbook, and there goes Andrew Wiles,
the math guy who solved that Fermat's Last Equation thingie. Do-oh!
Hang around Old Nassau long enough and you start to feel decidedly
Homeric (as in the "The Simpsons," not "The Illiad").
The latest such moment occurred just this week - and fittingly enough
it involved Einstein. Sort of. I was sitting on the Dinky, poring
over the latest New Jersey Transit schedule, trying to figure out
how I could most efficiently structure my commute so that I didn't
end up spending more than, say, six or seven hours each day riding
the rails and/or waiting in the bowels of Penn Station. It was a
pretty complex problem, and I muttered something to Smitty, who
was sitting beside me reading the "Bergen Record" sports
section, to the effect that "If only I could come up with a
time machine; maybe then I could get home almost on schedule."
"Only a matter of time," said Smitty.
I said. "That's what I'm talking about." Smitty turned
a page and gave me a look. "I mean," he said, "your
time machine is only a matter of time."
He then told me about
a book he was reading called - cue Matthau - "Time Travel in
Einstein's Universe" by Princeton astrophysics professor Richard
Gott. Why did I get the feeling that old Doc Gott's musing's on
temporal transportation were going to be just a wee bit more sophisticated
Sure enough, while I
haven't yet found the time (har! har!) to read the book, a recent
article on the Princeton University website makes it clear that
Gott's got more in mind than even the most fiendishly inspired NJ
Transit scheduler could dream of.
"We have had time
travelers already," the piece quotes Gott as saying in reference
to Soviet cosmonaut Sergei Avdeyev, who, having logged some 748
days of space travel is one fiftieth of a second younger than he
would be if he had stayed home. Now, that's pretty cool (then again,
I sometimes feel as though every fiftieth of a second of commuting
ages me 748 days), but Gott is just getting warmed up. Reports the
piece, "Gott, in fact, has used ideas from time travel research
to develop a novel theory about the origin of the universe."
(Well! And what have you done lately?) Gott, along with Princeton
graduate student Li-Xin Li, has proposed a model of the universe
featuring "new universes branching from an original trunk."
Says Gott, "This is a model that allows the universe to be
its own mother." (Now, surprisingly enough, I believe I actually
did think of that one back in college - very late on a night that
might have involved mushrooms - but that's another story.)
The most amazing thing
is that this is what Gott spends his days thinking about. According
to the article, Gott is particularly pleased with the trunk-branch-mother
theory because it "also solves some nagging problems associated
with the start of the universe." If you are, to borrow from
Matthau's Einstein, thinking what I'm thinking, the nagging problems
you're working on have more to do with gutter cleanings and whether
Dennis Miller really is a positive addition to Monday Night Football.
The universe, I'm afraid, is someone else's. But, hey, inspired
by Gott and by all the other heady Princetonians, I can still turn
over a new leaf. If only I had more time.
You can reach Hugh O'Bleary
at "Hugh O'Bleary" firstname.lastname@example.org