Sunday, March 4, 2018

The Bend of Time

Einstein and Godel on a walk

Reading James Gleick's Time Travel, one of the theories gaining traction in Physics is that we don't so much make choices but select alternative paths.  We may take one path, but the other path still exists in a space-time dimension, and if only we could find a "wormhole" we could cross through the metaphorical woods and see what it would be like on the other path, presumably retaking that path if we grow tired of the path we are on.  Fortunately, we come to other crossroads, and can branch again, creating yet another path not taken.

This kind of multi-dimensional universe is not so hard to grasp, especially in an ever expanding universe.  To a large degree, Lewis Carroll imagined it in Alice in Wonderland, using rabbit holes as his means of moving from one dimension to another.  Historians prefer "what-if" scenarios, imagining what it would have been like if the fledgling united states had lost the Revolution or Hitler defeated the Soviet Union or Hillary won the electoral college.  In a multi-dimensional world all those possibilities exist, so we try to construct them as counter-arguments to the world we live in.

Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick presented one such counter-argument in "The Untold History of the United States," imagining what it would have been like if FDR had stuck with Henry Wallace as his VP in 1944 rather than allow the convention to select that Haberdasher from Missouri, Harry Truman, who ended up succeeding Roosevelt as President upon his death.  Stone projected we would have reached a better accord with the Soviet Union, would have created a more socialist United States, and avoided the perils of the Cold War.

All well and good, but most physicists and philosophers still believe the past is what it is and we have to come to terms with the present for better or worse -- kind of like an arranged marriage.  Many physicists and theologians take it a step further and say we can't alter the future either.  We are stuck on this time line and that it is best not to let our imaginations run away from us, otherwise we become hopelessly lost.

Of course, physicists and theologians arrive at this conclusion from opposite ends, yet they both see the space-time continuum as unalterable.  For physicists it makes it much easier to work out their equations, assuming t to be constant, for theologians it makes it much easier to accept an omnipotent God in a fatalistic universe.  This means we are stuck with Trump for an unforeseen length of time, hopefully no more than four years, but who knows how much time he has on the inscrutable line that stretches into infinity.

Kurt Godel in his walks with Einstein pondered if that line bent and circled back on itself.  Einstein was open to the suggestion, according to Gleick, that time might indeed repeat itself.    Godel imagined it had to be a very long cycle, since we perceive time as a straight line, much like we do the horizon.  How many "years" is anyone's guess, since our concept of a year is limited to our relationship with the sun.

We often see history repeating itself.  We go through progressive periods, only to revert back to more conservative times when things start to move too fast.  This was certainly the case during the 2016 campaign when Americans were confronted with too many things going on at once and decided to slam on the brakes.  Transgender rights, a renewed push for gender equality, the Black Lives Matter movement, athletes taking the knee during the national anthem.  Individually, each of these events seemed like the right thing but taken together it was too much too soon.

America's slow road to progress is one of fits and jerks, not some great watershed moment.  If it had been, Trump would have been banished in 2011 when President Obama put him in his place at the now infamous White House Correspondents Dinner.  Instead, we ultimately saw Trump get his revenge, as he systematically tries to eliminate any semblance of Obama ever having been President.

We can take some comfort in that no one can erase history no matter how hard he tries.  We all know Obama was an effective president, able to navigate the United States through a very difficult time after the 2008 economic collapse.  All Trump can do is try to revoke his predecessor's executive orders, and even here he is finding it difficult as the Supreme Court recently upheld DACA.  That "stupid dumbass Obamacare" manages to linger on as well.

We can alter, even bend time to some degree, but it seems we can't completely change its trajectory.  Obama once said we still are living in the trajectory of Reagan in what was probably one of his most trenchant moments on the 2008 campaign trail.  He took a lot of guff for that one-minute clip, but here again we are confronted with a similar dynamic as in 1980.  Has Obama altered the trajectory enough that Trump and the Republicans find themselves in a similar quandary as was Clinton in 1992?

The excesses today are largely seen as coming from the conservative side, and the public appears to be reacting to these excesses by voting out Republicans in special elections, which the RNC is notably concerned about.  Unfortunately, they are stuck with Trump, who personifies all these excesses in a nepotistic White House that sees him elevate Jared and Ivanka at the expense of more seasoned advisers, cabinet members and diplomats, and now we see Trump pondering what it would be like if he was "President for Life."

History can be brutal, and no more brutal than when someone tries to overreach the limits of his powers.  This is what brought England down repeatedly, brought Hitler down in 1944, and ultimately brought the Soviet Union down in 1991.  The Republicans now find themselves in the same uncomfortable spot.  What they thought was a watershed moment in reclaiming the White House, reasserting their influence over the Supreme Court, and holding majority control of Congress is turning out to be their worst nightmare, because they simply can't hold onto it, anymore than Obama was able to hold onto his moment in time.

All you can do is try to affect as many positive changes as you can and hope that enough of them will survive the push back of recalcitrant forces.  This seems to have been Obama's strategy during his time in office, which maybe why he is so sanguine in this "Age of Trump."  Or, maybe he found one of those "wormholes" and saw the fate of Trump before we did.

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