I'll confess: When we first began this week's series, I wasn't particularly keen on the subject of time travel.
I mean, sure, it's is a neat idea. Who wouldn't want to traverse the bounds of boring ol' second-to-second linear time and live the nomadic life of a roaming chrononaut? The concept can be an amazing plot device, and it's been around for a long time. As we mention in an earlier episode, the Mahabharata has time travel, as does Middle Eastern and Japanese folklore. In the modern age almost everyone has a favorite film or book about time travel... but there's the rub: We're talking about films and books, right? Stories.
In other words, fiction.
Or so I thought. I'm still not convinced that movie and TV-style time travel -- you know, the "handsome protagonist invents nifty machine, hijinks ensues" variety -- is possible yet, but Matt and I did find a few surprises.
First, we divided our series into two categories: physical and mental time travel. Physical time travel isn't taken very seriously, and the people who claim to have traveled in time are often ridiculed, primarily because their claims don't have any backing evidence or their predictions turn out to be incorrect. Right now, humanity's best chance at real, physical time travel comes from future astronauts. If they travel far enough, then they will experience dramatic time dilation, meaning that their Earthbound buddies will age much more quickly. It's a head-trip, and we still don't have the technology to try it out.
But what about mental time travel? If we can't ship an entire human body to the distant future, can we somehow slip our awareness past the known laws of physics and witness distant events? If extrasensory perception (or ESP) turns out to be real, then things like precognition and clairvoyance would essentially be a form of mental time travel. Again, it's a neat idea. Again, it's pretty much fiction. Right?
Well... here's the second part. Call it the 'crazy' part, I guess. We found that government entities, reputable academics and even private corporations have all dabbled in ESP research. As you can imagine, this is enormously touchy stuff. Loads of scholars see this research as an embarrassment to their fields, and voters can't be blamed for asking "hey, is this really what my tax dollars should pay for?"
We also found, to our flat-out surprise, that several of these projects claimed to have statistically significant results. Sony found that there was experimental evidence for the existence of ESP, but no practical application. The U.S., the U.K., the U.S.S.R. and China funded ESP experiments, and Stanford -- to the extreme displeasure of numerous scientists -- researched similar phenomena.
Critics of these experiments believe the results are just the results of the usual mistakes -- sloppy methodology, confirmation bias and so on. We found these to be valid questions in a number of cases, especially where the evidence is anecdotal. But, despite these criticisms, research into the controversial fields of remote viewing, precognition and clairvoyance continues. Why? Other fields of research that were thought of as pseudoscience (here's lookin' at you, phrenology) were just consigned the great dustbin of bad science.
But ESP research continues. If there ever is accepted proof of extrasensory perception, then we'll find ourselves on the precipice of one of the most amazing discoveries in human history -- and we'll have a bonus achievement, too: real-life time travel.
Of course, that's one gigantic 'if.' What do you think? Why have governments, schools and corporations researched psychic powers? Is it a bunch of hooey, or is there more to the story?
A Shortlist of Sources
- "Public Knowledge About S&T." The National Science Board, 2004.
- Beckhusen, Robert and Noah Shachtman. "See for Yourself: The Pentagon's $51 Billion 'Black' Budget." Wired, 15 February 2012.
- Bem, Daryl J. "Feeling the Future: Experimental Evidence for Anomalous Retroactive Influences on Cognition and Affect." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. American Psychological Association, 2011.
- "ESP (extrasensory perception)" The Skeptic's Dictionary.
- Garp, T. S. "Time Travel or The Rip Van Winkle Complex." Scienceray, 21 May 2010.
- Harris, Tom. "How ESP Works: The Case Against ESP." HowStuffWorks.com
- Moye, David. "Seattle Attorney Andrew Basiago Claims U.S. Sent Him On Time Travels." The Huffington Post, 28 April 2012
- Mumford, Michael D., Andrew Rose and David Goslin. "An Evaluation of Remote Viewing: Research and Applications." The American Institutes for Research, 29 September 1995.
- Semel, Gene. "E.S.P. Exists: Inside Sony's Corporate Research." Disinformation, 5 March 2013.
- "Philadelphia Experiment." The Skeptic's Dictionary.
- Pike, John. "Star Gate [Controlled Remote Viewing]" The Federation of American Scientists, 29 December 2005.