Web Exclusives: Inky Dinky Do
a PAW web exclusive column by Hugh O'Bleary

November 21, 2001:
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 know," 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 than mine?

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" paw@princeton.edu