Saturday, July 2, 2011

"The New World Man" by Jonathan P. Hooper (chapter 2: A Private Obsession)

We were Cambridge undergraduates, Dyson and I, part of a new breed of scientists springing up in the wake of Darwin and Huxley, when we first discussed the question of Time travel. He was concerned with atoms and I with philosophy, origins and ultimate reality being the common bond that united us.

The Time travel conundrum was one of our fancies; a topic with enough paradoxes for us to grapple with, though in truth he, as an aspiring physicist, was much closer to a practical understanding of the difficulties of Time travel than I. My own interest was fuelled by the new understanding Darwin and his successors had given us of geological time. The earth was much, much older than our fathers had thought, a far more august planet than the theologians believed; indeed, one deluded Bishop had calculated that the creation of the earth occurred in 4004 B.C., but now, because of Darwin and mounting geological discoveries, unimaginable fields of evolutionary time were opening up. Thousands of years became millions, as the rocks yielded up their secrets and the colossal bones of prehistoric beasts were unearthed. Man began to stretch back much further than the clay of Adam, back to primeval forests, where his ancestors had loped among the other primates. All at once, naturalism was able to compass the entire universe, to explain all things. We did not mean to kill belief, but we were committed to truth.

In all the years that we were pursuing our respective subjects, I did not know that Dyson was continuing with this private obsession in his own time and with his own money (though, as an upper-class inheritor of a large estate in the Cambridge countryside and with an export company in the family name, money did not concern him much). In retrospect, it now seems much more obvious that something was occupying him, the source of occasionally erratic work in his department and a reputation for eccentricity. I got to hear of his frequent lateness for lectures, his preoccupied air, and there were always rumours of his numerous clashes with the dean of the college.

But the truth was, his mind, as my own, was much too valuable a thing to lose to another establishment.

We would meet still occasionally, to discuss the latest tattle, such as the early publications of Dr. Freud or the first flying machines. I asked him then what was the great project that was taking up all his time – a book perhaps with some startling new theory to set the scientific world ablaze? But he would only smile, and promise me that when it was ready I would be its first witness. More than that, he would not say.

I learnt that his father had once been a religious man, until the apparently irrefutable theories of Darwin had shaken his faith; then Mr. Dyson senior had taken to discrediting the Church in every way, as if feeling betrayed for the hope he had invested in an afterlife. Finally he had left his body to science. The father’s embitterment seemed to hang on Dyson himself like a pallor. He made it his mission, in physics, to push knowledge as far as possible, to contribute to the enlightening of a world that had spent so long in the darkness of ignorance. “The medieval mind is still with us,” Dyson was fond of saying. “The Renaissance did not banish him, and neither did The Enlightenment. Only now, at the end of the Victorian Era, are we beginning to civilise him. Sharpen your knife, West, meaning your mind, and do battle against superstition.”

And thus I did. I became the herald of a new Materialist, post-Christian age with the publication of my first book, The Supernatural Heresy. It made, from the first, enemies far beyond the Academic establishment, and with the ensuing furor came mounting sales. The reading public, it seemed, was quick to condemn and vilify, as well as champion and praise, and it seemed all at once that I was surrounded by mutterings of judgment, or even accosted on my way to lectures by righteous students. Meanwhile, my book, thrust into the centre of every argument of belief, amassed me a small fortune.

The essence of my writing became the argument for natural causes to all things. I proclaimed the great accident of life, building upon the theories of physicists like Dyson, and proceeded to discredit all the arguments for the existence of God that had gone before. Science had at last furnished us with enough irrefutable evidence to discard the argument from Creation, and within the sphere of philosophy there was scarcely any ground remaining on which to argue the traditional tenets of belief. We – not just I but all of us – went further than Descartes, for we did not stop with the banishment of evil demons, but went so far as to dispel deceiving gods. And, in the end, there was only the void left us, like a perfect mirror reflecting man.

About five or six years before the incident that takes up my narrative, there was another, much less significant occurrence (or such it seemed at that time) that gave me some clue to the nature of Dyson’ work with the puzzle of Time travel, though I was ill-equipped to fathom its meaning at that time. It began one warm spring morning at the century’s end. I was walking across the university lawns, having just given a lecture on thought and the savage man, when I saw Dyson coming towards me. He was dressed not in his scholar’s robes but in a dapper suit and waistcoat, holding a silver cane and tapping it before him along the path.

“Your timing is perfect,” he said, halting before me and twirling his cane like a mesmerist.

“My timing?” I said, askance. “For what am I on time?”

“To see a great marvel.”

I smiled sardonically at him, and lowered myself onto a bench nearby. The breeze from the blossoms was intoxicating, and I half closed my eyes. When I opened them again, he was standing over me, his well-dressed form blocking the sunlight. “Well come on then. Don’t keep me in suspense. What is this great marvel you wish to show me?”

“This,” he said, delving swiftly into his jacket pocket and producing a folded piece of paper. He sat down beside me and his eyes met mine with a conspiratorial glance. Then he thrust the paper into my hands.

Smirking, I unfolded it, wondering what sort of prank he had conceived. It was covered in newsprint: a cutting from the front page of The Times, no less, with some story on the Indian subcontinent; a minor uprising, in fact, by Indian mercenaries and Bengal soldiers in Kanpur, resulting in few deaths and much political talk. Such outbreaks had certainly happened before.

“I’m afraid it’s not my thing, Dyson. I never read the papers. The funny pages, perhaps, would be more welcome between lectures. Is this what you wanted to show me?”

“My good man,” Dyson said, with a broadening grin. “You are exasperating. The date! Look at the date!”

I looked, and for a second I was at a loss, until my sense got the better of things.

“It’s a good job,” I said, handing the page back. “But tell me, why would anyone want to print a mock-up of The Times with a date that is eight months hence?”

“It is the very paper. It hasn’t even been printed yet.”

“Come on now, Dyson. What is the answer to this riddle? You have a friend at the paper, I suppose. Did you pay for this yourself?”

His breezy confidence was beginning to dissipate. “It is exactly as it appears to be, West. A cutting from The Times, with the date as clear proof of its authenticity. There’s an easy way to resolve this, you know. Take it – store it among your papers, by all means. And then, when that day in December comes, compare the cutting with the newspapers that arrive on the shelves.”

“Your friend at the paper has laid his hands on an early proof of the front page, no doubt.” I laughed. “Do you expect me to remember, when eight months have passed, this little whimsy of yours?”

“Make a note of it in your diary. Expect an uprising in India. Now I’ll bid you good day. I have work to do.”

“So what are you implying?” I said a little too loudly for comfort, halting him in his tracks as he was making off. “That you have somehow travelled through time, and brought back this newspaper?”

He turned to face me and retraced his steps. “Not that. Not yet, at any rate. At least, in a manner of speaking I have not done so. My experiments are at no such advanced stage. But my future self is evidently at some further point in progress. He has sent this back for me to find it. Perhaps he could not send himself back, not yet.”

“And yet we arrive here at a paradox,” I said, fixing his attention. “Because if your future self, the self who sent this newspaper, goes on to achieve what he has set out to do, you and I would have already met him. If your speculations are true, wouldn’t it be inevitable that your future self would meet us at some point in the course of our lives? How come none of us have ever met travellers from the future?”

“One must tread carefully, when there are paradoxes involved,” Dyson said. “How do we not know that they have not been observing us all the time, careful not to interfere? Their research would be at a much more advanced stage than our own. They would be aware of the possible dangers, and careful not to interrupt the flow of things.”

He went off smiling, and I returned to my research, and forgot all about the paper until much later. I was working on a new thesis about the natural causes of human reason. I had recently moved from my college rooms into one of the new suburban houses on the edge of the city. My life was a happy one. Stable, secure, scarcely blissful, but not far short of my boyhood imaginings.

And then at the beginning of December, I came upon the diary entry, and fished out the page from the drawer. The next morning, when I returned from the shop with The Times in my pocket, my feelings were a mixture of vindication and sadness. The story in Dyson’s cutting was not on the front page. Back at my house, I laid out the newspaper on the kitchen table and searched every page for the story, but there was little about India, and what had appeared in Dyson’s cutting seemed flagrantly contradictory to the current state of Anglo-Indian affairs. Driven by some curious whim, I decided to visit the newspaper office in the high street, inquiring about whether the news had recently broken. They must have taken me for a crank, for the story was non-existent.

I met Dyson the next day; in fact, I had not seen him for some weeks and his demeanour seemed troubled. “Of course it did not work,” he mumbled as I entered his college rooms. “More than that, it set back my research. We have arrived at the date of the original paper, and the transportation of objects is still some way off. It can have one of only two possible explanations, of course.”

I sat down in a threadbare armchair (while rich, Dyson paid little mind to the state of the furniture) and began to fill my pipe with tobacco. I could at least pretend to listen. Dyson’s rooms were facing the quadrangle but the light shining through the window that morning was weak and watery. He paced restlessly around the room, his gaze never landing on me. “First, it is clear that the sending of the newspaper affected the future. The fact that I expected success with the transportation of objects altered the way things turned out; it affected my labours on the machine. That is why a prototype is still some way off. In other words, we know that the future has been changed in this aspect because of our knowledge. Now, is it possible that the sending of the newspaper caused ripples in the flow of Time enough to alter the future in other aspects? Could it be that the knowledge of my success with the Time Machine is somehow bound up with historical events, in this case the fate of the Indian subcontinent? It is as if everything is connected in subtle ways that we cannot begin to comprehend. The future somehow altered in order to accommodate our knowledge. Second, it is also possible that Time is not a continuous straight line but has many possible branches. Our own future now is not the same one as that of the professor Dyson who sent the newspaper.”

I raised my eyebrows. “We have talked of this paradox before. In a sense then, there are multiple selves, all of them existing in different universes.”

“Indeed,” the professor said, sounding vindicated.

“Yes, but it does not prove a thing. It does not prove that your newspaper was the genuine article.”

He snorted, took a sip of brandy from his cabinet. “We shall just have to see what else happens. And wait for the culmination of my researches.”

And so I did not see Dyson often, until the very time when he called me to his house just outside Cambridge. I knew, by then, that his experiments had become an obsession. I suspected him mad, and his deterioration troubled me gravely, as his oldest friend at the university. When I arrived at his mansion, the butler led me straight to the conservatory, where his workshop was located. And then I beheld the machine.


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