Neil DeGrasse Tyson on the Science of Stephen King’s Dark Tower

Those of you that have heard the Dark Tower episodes of the podcast, know that I really enjoy the theoretical science that goes into it. One day, whilst pondering another MIND = BLOWN episode of StarTalk Radio, I got to thinking about the Tower, and how a scientist would view these various things. On a whim, I decided to shoot an email off to, none other than, the Director of the Hayden Planetarium and world renowned astrophysicist, Neil DeGrasse Tyson. To my surprise, he did a short email interview with me regarding the topic! I am so excited to bring you this interview! Dr. Tyson is a man that I look up to greatly, even as a lowly hobbyist of astronomy and physics. What follows is that interview, and I will say it again, MIND = BLOWN! Is there anything this guy doesn’t know?

Matt Jacobs: In the novels, human kind manages to perfect time travel to the point of allowing corporations to build “doors” to other times and offer trips to different times as, what amounts to, vacations packages. If the human species is ever capable of time travel, is this something that you could see happening? Will Google, one day, be sending people to Ground Zero on September 11, 2001 or Dallas, Texas on November 22, 1963, as it is suggested in the book?

Dr. Neil DeGrasse Tyson: It’s been morbidly rumored that the Titanic sank because when the first time machine was invented, everyone wanted to go back to the Titanic and watch it sink, which overloaded the ship – creating the real reason why it sank.

Provided you could not interact with the past that you witness, there’s no reason why these could not become quite the vacation package.  Historical Voyeurism.  If you interacted with the past you could inadvertently change the future, possibly preventing two of your ancestors from meeting one another, setting a series of chain-linked events leading to your non-birth, preventing you from being born and going back in time to interfere with your birth.  That’s why a policy of non-interaction would be best.

MJ: The two previous examples are popular answers when it comes to the “if you had a time machine…” question. I highly doubt that, should time travel ever be an actual possibility, it would be applied in such a way. Could you give some practical examples of what time travel would be used for, by the scientific community, or is Killing Hitler it? Not that I am saying that wouldn’t be a valuable use of time travel.

NDT: An historian friend of mine told me that the British had a sure-fire plot to kill Hitler, but chose not to because they realized that his Field Marshals were far more competent as military commanders than Hitler was.  Combine this with Hitler’s interest in pseudoscience and the occult, and the Nazi regime was sure to implode on its own. So it’s not always obvious that killing someone, or saving someone in the past is the “right” thing to do at any one time.

In science, we keep such good records of our work through journals and other publications that we don’t need to travel back in time to clarify one point or another.  What would be interesting is if there were no Dark Ages, and science, as we now practice it, began in the year 900 rather than 1600. Then, today, we’d be 700 years farther into our technological future.  That would be an interesting, but possibly dangerous experiment to conduct.  With great scientific advances requires enlightened governance.

MJ: Keeping with the story line, and considering that time and space are connected, would time travel be governed by the “Outer Space Treaty” of 1967, therefor making it illegal (according to US Law) for any “private business interests” to be applied? Since space is considered “global commons”, would that also apply to time?

NDT: No laws prevents private business from being conducted in space.  What modern treaties prevent is ownership.  Time travel is a kind of space travel.  You have never been at a place except for at a time.  And you have never been at a time except at a place.  So treaties of conduct are always in reference to space and time simultaneously.

MJ: In the Dark Tower novels, the protagonist, Roland Deschain, is able to cross over into other “dimensions” and time streams to collect his band of travelers that will accompany him on his journey to the Dark Tower, which is the nexus of not only all space, but also of all time. Again, in the event that time travel is ever created/perfected, do you think it would ever get to a point where people could have a portable unit for personal use? Is there an app I can get for my iPhone?

NDT: Portable Space-Time portals, would indeed be cool, if there were one in every home and merchant and attraction in the land.  But I’m reminded of some comments made upon demonstration of the telephone in 1876.  In particular:  “I foresee a day when there’ll be one of these in every city.”

It’s not clear whether the space and time to which you transport will require a device like the one you used to get there for you to be received and for you to return.  Airplanes, for example, require airports and runways on both ends to complete the trip.

Currently, our best understanding of backwards time travel comes from the control of a (currently inaccessible) staggering amount of mass-energy to curve the fabric of space and time in such a way that certain planned trajectories allow you backwards through time.  That amount of energy rivals the sum of all energy produced by all hundred-billion stars in our Milky Way galaxy.  Meanwhile, currently, the best we can do is dig fossil fuels from the ground to power our civilizations.

MJ: This question also applies to the last bit of story line. Considering the universe is ever expanding, and everything in the universe is moving away from each other, that implies, not only a time of origin (the big bang), but also a PLACE of origin. Is there currently research being conducted to find such a location within the universe as we know it? If so, are their plans to build a large, black tower in that spot where one could travel to other “dimensions” and/or time streams?

NDT: The center of expansion in space exists in a dimension higher than our own, and is therefore not accessible to us. That’s like asking a balloon-person, who lives on the 2D curved surface of an expanding balloon,  “Where is the center of your expansion?”  It’s not on the balloon at all.  It’s in a third dimension away from the 2D balloon surface.  So if we up everything by a dimension, then we would just need to travel perpendicular away from our three spatial dimensions, back toward the expansions beginning.  But this coordinate is not accessible to any of us since we are prisoners of three dimensions.  We can locate the beginning of expansion in time, however. That was 13.7 billion years ago.  The time of the Big Bang.

MJ: I’m going to take a leap here and assume that time travel and dimension jumping is still a little out of reach, at this point. In your opinion, considering all the technology that has been inspired by science fiction in the past, are there any sci-fi gadgets out there that you would like to see someone get to work on developing? If I’m wrong about time travel and dimension jumping being out of reach, feel free to correct me and let me know where I can order a teleportation device or Portal gun.

NDT: I loved the technologies showed in the recent film Prometheus.  The flying spherical laser surveyors, the automated medial operation pod, the holographic map on the ship’s deck.  That story takes place about 70 years in our future, so all these things should be within reach.  And yes, you should probably give up on the portals for now, and possibly forever.

I want to send a BIG thank you out to Dr. Neil DeGrasse Tyson for doing this interview with me. This was an amazing interview for me! I have included links below, should you be interested in finding out more about Dr. Tyson and the things he does. Check out his books and the StarTalk Radio Podcast!

Dr. Neil DeGrasse Tyson:  Hayden Planetarium | StarTalk Radio | Twitter

Dr. Neil DeGrasse Tyson Books:  Amazon |  Audible | iBooks

Posted by: Matt Jacobs

9 comments on “Neil DeGrasse Tyson on the Science of Stephen King’s Dark Tower

  1. Pingback: Time, the Universe, and Belief | The Wellness Quest

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  3. Pingback: Episode 27: Secrets.

  4. This was so awesome! I am 1) super jealous you got to communicate with Neil Degrasse Tyson 2) Definately reading this book! and 3) Telling everyone about this!

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