Summary of Time Travel by James Gleick

BookSummaryClub Blog Summary of Time Travel by James Gleick

Everyone wishes they could time travel. Maybe fast forward to the weekend or go back to change something you did or didn’t do.  Whether it be to the past or the future, it seems most people want to be anywhere but now. This fascination with the past and future has more to do with our lack of mindfulness but where did the fascination with actual time travel come from?

Time travel has been the subject of not only scientific study but also of movies, television series and even songs. But how? Was it just through wishful thinking that the concept came about? It would be pretty cool to step back and observe dinosaurs or even head into the future to check out which planets we could travel to. So, will it ever be possible?

In this book summary readers will discover:

  • The source of the concept of time travel
  • The rules of time travel
  • How Einstein’s theory of special relativity changed the game
  • The questions of time travel
  • We actually time travel every day

Key lesson one: The source of the concept of time travel

Do you know who we have to thank for the concept of time travel? It was not a physicist, it wasn’t a scientist at all but rather H.G Wells, a writer. Wells’s book, The Time Machine, was published in 1895. Before this book, no one considered time travel. Prior to The Time Machine, all concepts of the future were usually linked to a prophecy of some sort. There were no considerations of what would be different in the future or how people lived. Time was a one-way street and there wasn’t a need to think about travelling through it. The Time Machine changed everything. The book followed the journey of the Time Traveler as he used his machine to visit the past and future. In doing so, the world’s view of time changed. What if we could go back and forth through time?  

Needless to say, the book was a huge success. Not only because of this remarkable concept of time travel but also because of the time it was released. It was almost the start of the twentieth century, and the future held exciting promise. The advancements that were seen in science and technology were astounding at the time. People could tell that change was approaching and they were actually ready to embrace it. 

It was for these reasons that the book was so well received. Wells gave people a new way to look at the world and what we could do if time travel were possible.

Key lesson two: The rules of time travel

The longer people discussed the idea of time travel, the more they speculated about what could and could not be done. If you changed something in the past, would that affect the present? Could you interact with yourself in the past or future? The questions just kept on coming. So, rules were established for time travel. These were done by other writers and great thinkers and published in pulp magazines. 

For example, if you were to travel decades into the future, would you affect events that happened in between the time points? The rule decided upon was that time travel would occur so quickly that you would be able to move through decades without touching any time in between the two points. And with regards to encountering yourself at different times, it was determined each version of you would be a separate entity.

However, then came about the question, if you travel to the future and meet yourself, does this mean that your life will lead to you two meeting? Has your free will been removed and your fate predetermined? Then came the moral and ethical questions. Is it okay if you go back and rewrite the test you failed or correct the mistakes you made? What about saving lives? The science fiction community continued to pose answers to these questions and a variety of versions exist today. 

Key lesson three: How Einstein’s theory of special relativity changed the game

Ten years after H.G. Wells published The Time Machine a different publication changed the idea of time travel. Albert Einstein’s theory of special relativity was published in 1905 and stated that the speed of light is a constant. This meant that time could be considered relative – meaning that the faster you travelled the slower you experienced time. 

This led to numerous other theories being developed in the scientific community regarding time. An example would be the concept of multiverses whereby an infinite number of parallel universes exist. Each universe is different due to the possibility of different small decisions and outcomes. In simpler terms, there’s a universe that exists where you decided to go to college and another where you decided not to. 

These scientific theories gave rise to philosophical ones as well that left the world with even more questions. For example, if you remember something from your past incorrectly are you actually altering the past and therefore the future as well? It’s similar to the idea of the multiverse but it is based on memories and not decisions. Theories like this are hard to fathom for those outside the scientific community or those that don’t consider time travel at all. At the end of the day, it’s hard to believe something that you cannot see or experience yourself. This is why many people still believe that time moves at the same speed for everyone and in one direction even though Einstein’s theory of relativity states otherwise.

Key lesson four: The questions of time travel

Time travel raises a lot of questions but it is also full of contradictions. Just imagine you travelled to the past and killed your grandfather. Does this mean you would disappear? And if you did, how could you have travelled back in time to commit a murder in the first place?

This paradox of time travel has led to constant debate whether by scientists or by those watching a movie.

The butterfly effect is at the centre of these considerations. The butterfly effect suggests that if a butterfly flaps its wings on one end of the world, would the air motion created by its wings develop into a storm on the other end of the world? Much like a water ripple, growing in size as it moves outwards. In this same manner, would insignificant actions in the past cause a dramatic change in future events? And what about major, deliberate actions? If someone went back in time and killed Hitler as a child, what would the world look like today without World War II, the United Nations or the Cold War? What else would have changed? These questions and paradoxes have stumped even the world’s best scientists.

Steven Hawking and Albert Einstein did not believe that time travel is a possibility. Hawking even famously said that if it were, we would be surrounded by time-travelling tourists! Logician Kurt Gödel believed that time travel was possible and that time existed as loops as opposed to a straight line. Theoretically, it would be possible to ride these loops and travel through time. 

Debates and theories like this continue today and the concept of time travel gets thrown around a lot. No matter what we read or watch, we are exposed to a different concept. It is mind-boggling trying to figure out if time is a straight line or what kind of consequences time travel holds. It doesn’t make it any less fascinating though!

Key lesson five: We actually time travel every day

If you have not realised it already, we already experience time travel in an unexpected way. It has existed for a very long time. Time travel has been possible all along via literature and memory!

Just think about it. Every time you read a history book, you are actually travelling through time and experiencing someone else’s past. These recollections were specifically documented so that someone in the future could experience them even though they were not there. Then there is memory. This allows you to travel to the past by remembering past events and if you alter your memory, you alter the event itself. 

Considering the age we live in, even the development of the internet has allowed us to time travel, transforming our very idea of time. It is possible to stop time, go back into the past and plan for your future. Just consider your social media. You could browse through your feed, deleting photos and untagging friends which technically means you are altering your past. The fact that you can choose to allow your social media account to remain long after you have died even means that others can experience your past. 

The fact that the internet has made everything instantaneous also contributes to its time-travelling abilities. Interestingly enough, compared to people in the past who were eager to get a glimpse of the future, people nowadays mostly want to return to the past. 

The key takeaway from Time Travel is:

The concept of time travel was first introduced in H.G. Wells’ book, The Time Machine in 1895. Since then, man has been continuously debating the rules and paradoxes of time travel. Einstein’s theory of special relativity also contributed to the way people considered time. Time travel remains a controversial topic in the scientific and science fiction communities around the world. Even though no one has developed a time machine yet, the internet provides a fast and effective way for us to travel to the past. 

How can I implement the lessons learned in Time Travel:

This book shows us that humans have a fascination with travelling to the past to change their lives or to the future to observe what life could be. Maybe we should try instead to focus on the present and stop thinking about the what-ifs. This way we can make mindful decisions that will leave little regret and more happiness! Time travel, if and when possible, should be for fun, not for do-overs!

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