(Nobel laureate Adam Riess speaking at Bolton Street Synagogue / photo by Abe Novick)
On Sunday afternoon I was able to hear Adam Riess speak. Adam is a member of our synagogue and is also the 2011 Nobel Laureate in Physics. He shared the prize with Saul Perlmutter and Brian P. Schmidt for providing evidence that the expansion of the universe is accelerating.
During his presentation, (which was extremely well documented with facts and empirical data and at the same time understandable for anyone not versed in cosmology), Mr. Riess said, “The universe is a time machine. When we look at the universe, we are looking back in time.” It was an elegant and simple way of explaining a complex concept.
And while his analogy was familiar to me, it nevertheless got me thinking and I couldn’t help but recall the recent oddball news—that entered my thoughts like static—transmitted out of Iran’s Fars state news agency earlier this week. It reported how an Iranian businessman claimed to have created a device, “The Aryayek Time Traveling Machine”, which supposedly can predict the future after taking readings from the touch of a user’s hand.
So on the one hand (sorry), I was listening to a Johns Hopkins astrophysicist explain how he went to such great lengths, even upon his discovery, to check, verify and recalculate his facts and observations which were rooted in the science of Einstein. And on the other, and even filtered through their official government news agency, was nothing more than science fiction.
In fact, calling Iran’s news “science fiction” gives sci-fi a bad wrap. That’s because like most fans of science fiction, I’m able to distinguish between fact and BS.
Take for example the recent news out of Israel in March that Phinergy, a technology company based in Israel, has created a car that runs on air and water. The car battery can go 1,000 miles before needing a recharge and was featured on Bloomberg News with a video demonstrating how it works. This was actual innovation and ingenuity aimed at solving real world problems.
But let us indulge the Iranian government for a moment and contemplate the notion of a time machine. For out of the world of science fiction, whether Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke or Ray Bradbury, masters of science fiction have taken on this profound concept often lacing it with danger and dystopian tragedy. Even the term “time machine” was coined by science fiction author H. G. Wells from his novella “The Time Machine” written way back in time (1895) where the protagonist eventually travels some 30-million-years into the future and witnesses a dying Earth with menacing crab-like creatures chasing butterflies before freezing and falling silent. Perhaps before embarking on a nuclear device, Iran should take heed of the lesson?
And it was almost 60-years later, when Ray Bradbury also used the delicacy of a butterfly as a metaphor in his short story, “A Sound of Thunder” while again illustrating the potential perils inherent in time travel. In one of the most re-published sci-fi stories (even coining the term “butterfly effect”) rather than go into the future, a hunter pays to travel into the past on a safari in order to kill a Tyrannosaurus Rex. As he waits to depart, a presidential election has just occurred and the fascist Deutscher has just been defeated. Then, upon their arrival in the past, the hunter is warned not to change anything as any tiny alteration could have catastrophic effects upon history. It’s only when they return to the present that they at first notice subtle changes like words spelled differently and then the horrifying news that Deutscher has won the election. It’s then that the hunter looks and finds a crushed butterfly stuck in the mud on his boots. How different things might have been but for one gentle, seemingly harmless butterfly!
Back in the present and inside my synagogue, gazing up at the bema while listening to Dr. Riess, these and other stories raced through my mind. I couldn’t help but contemplate a world where science could go so wrong with Iran’s nightmarish quest for a nuclear bomb to wipe out Israel or how a warped mind could contemplate such an act, utter such words—never mind a nation celebrate in them.
I thought of all the scientific contributions the world has received from Israel since its modern rebirth 65-years ago, every area of the arts and sciences where Jews have enriched life on Earth. And I had to wonder, like so many wish we could, were we to go back in time and stop the Shoah from ever happening, how much different the world would be. How many more scientists like Adam Riess would there be? How many more Einsteins would walk the planet? How different things would be.
Iran’s brand of science fiction gave me a chill.
Yet rather than give in to such depressing thoughts, I chose instead to resort to the words of Star Trek’s Spock (and nice Jewish boy Leonard Nimoy) on Israel’s 65th birthday. May she “Live long and prosper.”