This morning, I had something else in mind to write about today; in fact, I had started it and already had almost six hundred words written and the rest planned out in my head. But then I had to leave it behind and go to class, and while I was in class, I changed my mind about what I wanted to say to the internet today. When I say that I changed my mind, I don’t just mean that I altered my plans; I mean that my mind literally started behaving in a different way. That different way was quite odd.
For example, when the professor introduced the terminology of “spacelike”, “timelike”, and “lightlike” intervals, I almost started laughing because that sounded so much to me like the modified language known as Newspeak from the novel 1984 by George Orwell, which I am currently reading. It occurred to me that, even if I were to point out this hilarious connection that my brain had made, nobody else would have understood why I was greatly amused. I can’t even explain now in writing what it was that was so funny, because the humor of the situation depended upon a unique combination of facts: A) the observer, me, was taking a course in relativity in time and space, B) the observer, me, was currently in the middle of the said novel 1984, C) the observer, me, was particularly interested in Orwell’s predictions of the linguistic future of dystopian humanity because that is the kind of thing that interests said observer, D) the observer, me, already had enough of an understanding of the concept being discussed in class to be able to pay attention while simultaneously making random and irrelevant mental connections, E) the observer, me, had a sense of humor of just the right type to be entertained by that particular kind of thought, and F) the observer, me, was in a kind of strange mood that involved thinking very random thoughts and finding them very hilarious.
Another one of these random thoughts that had occurred to me only moments before was inspired by a new kind of graph paper that the professor had just shown us how to use. One benefit of this kind of graph paper is that it makes it significantly simpler to draw a two-observer space-time diagram, which is what we’ve been doing in class for the last few days. The other benefit is that this kind of graph paper just looks awesome, and it makes me feel very clever. Apparently, on a subconscious level, I believe that knowing how to use fancy graph paper is proof of extreme cleverness. As the logical and intellectual part of my brain did math and stuff and used the graph paper to draw graphs, the part of my brain that detects awesomeness came up with an awesome idea. You see, the point of two-observer space-time diagrams is that an observer who is moving relative to the coordinate framework has a different set of coordinates because this observer sees space and time differently. As it so happens, because space and time are weird, this coordinate system is shaped differently. The faster the second observer is moving, the closer the x-axis and time-axis will be to each other. I understand the relativistic principals behind that, and I agree that the physics and math are interesting, but, to me, the sight of a graph distorted by the principle of relativity has implications that go beyond physics and beyond the nature of the universe itself. The question that was implied to me was this: could you play scrabble and chess on a two-observer relativistic board?
Needless to say, this idea revolutionized the way I thought of time, space, physics, math, relativity, and life as I know it. While everyone around me marveled at the usefulness of this type of graph paper and the interestingness of relativity, I pondered the ways in which board games could be changed to use such a board. I immediately gave up on the idea of playing scrabble that way; scrabble isn’t a relativistic game. I could explain what I mean, but it would take a lot of words and require a very detailed analysis of the differences and similarities between chess and scrabble and how this relates to Einstein and physics. So I won’t explain what I mean right now, but maybe that would make a good blog post for another day. For now, it suffices to say that scrabble cannot be played relativistically, but chess presumably could. The board would be more complex and would resemble the new kind of graph paper pictured above. From each player’s perspective, the other player’s pieces would move differently. For example, to me, my pawns would be moving forward, but to my brother, they would be moving diagonally. (I say “my brother” rather than “my opponent” because I am fairly certain that my brother is the only person I know who would be interested in playing Two-Observer Relativistic Space-Time Chess with me.)I didn’t work out all of the details and rules of this variant of chess, but I’m pretty sure it could be done. It would just take a good deal of math and even more nerdiness.
As all of these thoughts rushed through my brain faster than the speed of light, my professor was using two-observer space-time graphs to show why nothing can travel faster than the speed of light. You see, the faster something is moving relative to the perpendicular coordinate system, the closer together the x-axis and time-axis of its own coordinate system are. (I am tempted to go off on a lengthy tangent explaining why this is and what this means in terms of relativity, but again, I must refrain from doing so if I want to finish this blog post at some point today. If I could post my entire brain onto the internet, I probably would, but I can’t.) If something travels at the speed of light, its x-axis and time-axis are actually the same line, which is the 45 degree angle bisecting the 90 degree angle formed by the x-axis and the time-axis in a regular perpendicular coordinate system. The point of all of the above is this: if you were to go faster than the speed of light, time would go backwards and causality would be reversed. Of course, I already knew that; that’s what everyone tells you on a regular basis if you’re like me and have a habit of repeatedly asking physics professors why nothing can travel faster than the speed of light. (This is, in fact, why certain professors told me to take this class.) But still, it’s cool to see it proved on a graph.
But here’s the thing. I still don’t fully accept the idea that it’s definitely impossible for time to go backwards and for causality to be reversed. I can see on the graph what that would entail. It would mean that time and space would be reversed. Apparently, that idea is supposed to be utter nonsense, but I see some sense in it. I once wanted to write a science fiction story in which there was an alien species who experienced time and space as being reversed. These aliens would be able to travel through time in any direction and would be able to change direction and speed through time at will, but in space, they would only be able to move in one direction at a constant speed. After thinking it through, I came to the conclusion that, to us, these aliens would seem to suddenly appear and disappear as their paths in space and time meet and depart from ours. I hadn’t quite figured out what the plot of this story would be, but it would definitely be awesome. I basically abandoned this idea when my father informed me that Kurt Vonnegut had done something very similar in Slaughterhouse Five. I then became angry at Kurt Vonnegut for traveling in time to steal my idea, and I proceeded to add a section in a story I was writing which claimed that time and space are reversed in the set of dimensions that we know as hyperspace. The point is that it isn’t necessarily total nonsense to image a situation in which time and space would be reversed. It’s just very, very weird and very, very awesome.
All of the ideas listed in the last five paragraphs actually occurred within the space of just a couple minutes, and in the meantime, I was listening to my professor, doing math, learning about relativity, making profound psychological observations about the connection between my handwriting and my current state of mind, and mentally sorting through all of these thoughts and trying to arrange them into greater and awesomer observations about life, the universe, and everything.
I did not interrupt the class to share these thoughts, because I wasn’t sure which of them, if any, made sense, and because I would have had to say them all at the same time, which would have been impossible. Even now as I type this out, I’m on the third page, although I’m single-spacing and using a somewhat small font. And I left out all the bits about the math and the non-relativity of scrabble and the rules of my new kind of chess and the exact details of my psychological analysis of my own handwriting. If I had included all of those things, plus all of the information from this class which is necessarily involved in this stream of consciousness, who knows how long this blog post would be. It certainly would be too long for me to say all that stuff in the middle of class. Besides, my brain works better when my mouth is idle and my hands are busy than when my mouth is at work. So I kept my mouth shut and thought stuff instead. In fact, when the professor asked me a rhetorical question moments later, the only word that managed to escape from the web of thoughts in my head and find its way to my mouth was the word, “What?” Such is the extent of my articulateness when I’m thinking stuff.
And my professors wonder why I don’t talk more in class.