Monday, May 02, 2005

Attention all time travelers

From Instapundit, I learn that some students at MIT are organizing what they call "The Time Traveler Convention". The theory, of course, is that there only needs to be one of these, ever, and that time travelers can attend as many times as they like. The only problem is advertising. Since it may be quite a while before time travel is invented, if ever, the announcement of the convention needs to be made in such a way that it will be remembered a long time hence. The organizers are therefore asking everyone to try to find ways to record the details in durable form.

In the unlikely event that the archive of this blog does last into the far future (insert Blogger joke here), here are the details:

The Time Traveler Convention
7 May 2005 at 10:00 pm EDT
(8 May 2005 at 02:00:00 UTC)
East Campus Courtyard, MIT
42:21:36.025 deg N, 71:05:16.332 deg W
(42.360007, -071.087870 in decimal degrees)

I'm not sure about the wisdom of giving the time to the nearest second and the location to the nearest 3 cm -- which is what a thousandth of an arc-second amounts to. Sounds to me like a recipe for an unfortunate collision! But perhaps time travelers will know how to avoid such unpleasantness.

I think I may take the organizer's suggestion to leave these details written on a piece of paper slipped into a book in an academic library. The trick will be to find a book satisfying the following competing criteria:
  • The paper needs to remain undisturbed in the book. (This could of course be accomplished simply by writing in ink on one of the pages of the library book. But this would be highly unethical, even in the service of reliable transtemporal communication.) This requirement suggests a book that is seldom used.
  • On the other hand, libraries sometimes purge their shelves of unneeded books. Furthermore, for the information to get into the right hands, it needs to be a book that someone might look at a long time from now. Both of these suggest a book that has some long-term interest and continued use.
Since I know that this blog is occasionally read by at least one librarian at our college's library, I am not sure that I should disclose my own particular plans, or at least not all of them. But does anyone have suggestions?

Actually, I suspect that this advertising is either useless or unnecessary. If a bunch of time travelers do show up, it will become a world-historical event that is likely to be remembered for a really long time -- and thus more likely to attract time travelers from the future. That is, the event, if successful, will be a "self-exciting circuit". If time travel turns out to be possible, then one should expect such things.

On the other hand, time travel may turn out to be extremely expensive, too expensive to use on entire human beings. Have the organizers made any provisions for detecting the presence of autonomous nanorobots floating around, recording the proceedings, maybe communicating with one another? The actual Time Traveler Convention could in fact be largely invisible to the unaided eye, and the organizers might miss it. I suggest that there needs to be an air-sampling system with a sub-micron filter, with the filtrate to be inspected later via atomic force microscopy. Sticky-tape sampling of the skin and hair of contemporary human guests, followed by microscopic analysis (visible light or better), might a good strategy to find "piggy-back" probes, and could make an amusingly geeky party game.

Naturally, the organizers may not wish to advertise the existence of such micro-sampling arrangements, since it might suggest a lack of hospitality to the "guests" at the convention, and thus discourage participation by our future descendents. For this task they face a problem that is opposite to their advertising problem: how can they conceal this information from the future, including perhaps the near future? After all, who knows how soon some form of time travel might be invented?

I therefore predict that we will not hear of any evidence for time travelers attending the Time Traveler Convention this Saturday night. First, no time travelers may show up. They may show up but be effectively disguised as MIT students -- indeed, they may themselves believe (temporarily) that they are MIT students, since this would certainly improve the disguise. If nanoprobes show up, they may be undetected because the organizers have not made an adequate search. Or, if nanoprobes show up and the organizers do detect them, we will nevertheless probably never hear of it, since the convention organizers will doubtless take steps to conceal a successful detection effort from the future participants in the convention.

Given the eventual existence of time travel, the sophistication of MIT students and the obvious attractiveness of their party, an argument could be made that this last scenario is the most likely one. But come on, guys, you could tell me. I promise that I won't tell anyone -- and just to be sure, I'll do my best to forget it.

Update: I exchanged e-mail with the convention organizers. In addition to the points made above, I suggested that the convention might want to make some accomodation for possible nanoguests, to make them feel welcome -- say, by providing a small UV light source for power. They (the organizers) thought this might be a good idea and will look into it.


Blogger Joe said...

Seems like the problem with the "hide it in the library" theory is not that you're looking for a book of enduring value but almost no practical use. We have plenty of those. Getting said book into the hands of someone who is capable of using or building a successful time machine, though... that's a stickler.

Now, on the other hand, there are plenty of librarians out there who would be happy to honor your donation with bookplates of your own design. For a small endowment, a library could add a couple of books a year and put the adverts in them for you, virtually for perpetuity. (OK, perpetuity costs extra.)

Seems to me that the one thing mathematicians and physicists like best is a good puzzle. So if it were I, I'd come up with my advertisement, and then encrypt it in some complicated way. Set it out there as a challenge, and make a splash with it. There's no bad publicity.

Designing a puzzle which will not be broken until we are at or near practical time travel is left as an exercise to the reader...

2:11 PM  
Anonymous Michael Meckler said...

No offense to the folks at MIT, but I suspect that were time travel available, visitors would choose far more interesting parties to attend (e.g., Nero fiddling while Rome burned, or Studio 54 circa 1977).

7:10 AM  

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