Saturday, February 04, 2006

Back to the future

In September 2004, when commissioning the Time Travellers, the august J Richards said I had to explain the physics of my time machine or people would write in. So I read some stuff about quantum mechanics, and came up with a theory.

With whopping great SPOILERS for the book (which of course you've all now read), here's what I came up with. Bit in italics are comments from Dr "Beard" Kelly, a proper particle physicist.

"As threatened when I saw you in Bristol, I’d like to pick your brains for a Dr Who thing I am writing. It’s about time travel, and I need to make sure that what I’m saying isn’t picked to pieces by the [Nimboses] of this world. Pints will be bought for your assistance, oh yes.

The first principle of the story is that, concordant with Heisenberg, whenever the Doctor steps out of the TARDIS, he changes history. TARDISs are designed for observing, and can slip discreetly and unnoticed into any surrounding to watch what happens. But opening the doors and actually interacting with people alters things. Indeed, bringing down a government overnight alters things a lot. So, over the course of his adventures, the Doctor changes things a lot. He just doesn’t admit it.

The wheeze of my story is that the first Doctor, towards the end of his first year on telly, arrives in London 2006. Only it’s a London, 2006 where he hasn’t yet stopped all those alien invasions in the 70s and 80s, and where in 1966, WOTAN (the computer up in the Post Office Tower) was able to take over the world by (and yes, I know this is horrifying) being able to TALK TO OTHER COMPUTERS VIA THE TELEPHONE LINE.

Scary, huh?

So, the people of the Earth having defeated WOTAN, they now don’t have phones and televisions and broadcast media. But, in a secret laboratory at Canary Wharf, they have designed a time machine. It’s conveniently powered by the nuclear power station at the Millennium Dome. Yes, I’m afraid the story’s full of silly gags like that.

For story purposes, the time machine is a large metal hoop, stood upright from the floor. It’s big enough for people to step through, and wide enough for them to get the TARDIS through, too. That will be part of the story.

Oh no, not a big hoop thing like in the TimeCop film is it? Or are you ripping off the big metal hoop idea from Stargate?

As I see it, the ways it works is like this. Particle physicists have already sussed how to make a wormhole, by exploiting quarks that are inexplicably linked across space.

The old "Quantum entanglement". You can do it with any particle I think, on a basic level. Sounds an interesting idea, as quarks like to be bound with other quarks, one has (currently) never been seen on its own due to the weird effect of the strong nuclear force. It gets stronger the further you try to pull a quark from its partner, unlike any other known force...

Also, you get quarks in pairs (a normal + an antiquark) in the form of particles known as Mesons, these are kind of like light versions of protons and neutrons (who normally have 3 quarks). Mesons were known about i think from maybe the late 40's (The pion, the lightest of these was found at Bristol Uni in '47...)

My time machine exploits quarks inexplicably linked across time. Special conditioning equipment (left behind by the Daleks, as it happens) allowed you to create these special quarks in the lab. This you do at exactly 12:00, right at the centre of the metal hoop. At 13:00, you create another, identical quark at the centre of the hoop. This second quark in linked to the first, and in effect creates a wormhole back to the first one.

This takes a lot of energy (so they do it at night). A lot more energy allowed you to stretch the wormhole wider, so that it fills out to the metal sides of the hoop. Then you can step through it.

The 13:00 quark sees the 12:00 quark as an anchor, or lodestone. It actually seeks it to create the wormhole. The wormhole bridges the vortex of time and space, through which the TARDIS travels. And this is where things get complicated: the TARDIS has special properties to help it navigate time and space. And these properties also act like a lodestone. So, when the TARDIS materialises down the road from the metal hoop, the 13:00 quark doesn’t link to the 12:00 quark, it fixes on the TARDIS. So people stepping through the 13:00 hole end up strewn all the way down the street.

There are also some other effects which I won’t go in to now.

So, does that make sense? Is there anything I’ve got glaringly wrong? Is there anything I should specifically refer to?

No, seems rather good actually, the best thing with high energy physics is that you can do very weird things... and they are allowed! There are all kinds of weird particles in various theories, some that we can't detect, other we can't get the energy up to create yet.

Some things to be aware of:

1. The world completely changes from what we know in 1966, so they won’t even be called ‘quarks’ (which was coined in ’68). There will have been parallel scientific research, but they won’t necessarily know in this London, 2006 what we know.

I'm not sure, SLAC discovered the evidence for the quark conclusivly in 68, but the theory of their existance was there since about '63 by a various people like Murray Gell-Mann who thought that protons and mesons were made of smaller things. I don't know where or what the particles in their theories were called.

The earlist reference to "quarks" I can find in the journal database we use is 1964. There existed particle-physics machines around that era (1950s/60s) that had enough energy to make quarks (just that people of the time didn't detect them). You can make then in electron-antielectron collisons pretty easily. Well, easy if you have a large enough machine :)

In the 50's 60's the UK had the Rutherford Labs near Didcot doing that kind of madness, next door to the Harwell nuclear research labs. And frankly if you ever get the chance to visit the place you'll see it was MADE for a Dr Who connection, has plenty of buildings of dubious nature and various large earth mounds that cover other dubious things. I mean, look at the place.

2. The scientists get a headstart. The Daleks have a matter transmitter in London in 1963, and my idea is that it is this that kickstarted the research. The matter transmitter actually uses time technology, rather than breaking the subject up into little bits and then reassembling. However, the reason the subject appears to materialise from the inside out (you see wiggly Dalek innards, then the shell) is that you’re observing the materialisation in linear time, but the subject isn’t actually materialising in linear time. So you see through them to begin with.

Makes sense, you can get computer programs that do a simular thing and simulate what looking at a 4 dimentional object (usually a cube) would look like projected into our normal 3D space. Its kind of freaky. So that sounds like the same effect above, only with time not space being the weird dimension.

3. Essentials for the story:
  • The time machine has to fit people and the TARDIS through it
  • The subjects have to be drawn off course by the TARDIS being in the area
  • It has to use nuclear power (allowing me to blow the power station up at the end)
Needless to say, the scientist in charge of the experiments is a beardie Dr Kelly, who dies before the end.

Pip pip,


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