Afrocentric Quantum Time Travel

April 02, 1994|By GLENN McNATT

Hello, have you seen 'Sankofa' yet?'' I was calling my friend, a woman of powerful religious convictions, about Ethiopian film director Haile Gerima's moving remembrance of the African slave trade. The film has been playing to packed houses in Baltimore for several weeks now.

''What about it?'' my friend replied. ''Is it any good?''

''It's terrific,'' I said. ''And it has set me to thinking about our history in a whole new way. Let me run an idea past you, OK?''

''You know I can't stop you.''

''Just listen,'' I said. ''In the movie, a glamorous, very Westernized young black woman finds herself in Africa on a modeling assignment. She is being photographed in a skimpy swimsuit against the backdrop of an ancient European slave castle on the coast, which has become a tourist attraction."

''2 Live Crew would have fun with that,'' my friend remarked.

''Anyway,'' I continued, ''while she's cavorting in front of the lens, a wizened African elder comes over and reproaches the woman. He says she is profaning holy ground because this is the place where her ancestors where rounded up and branded before being carried off to the New World as slaves.''

''As if she cared.''

''Actually she is quite chastened,'' I explained. ''Later she follows a group of tourists inside the castle, but then becomes separated from them. The old man must have put a kind of spell on her, because next thing she knows the castle turns into a real dungeon filled with African captives. Somehow she's been transported back to the 18th century and now must relive the suffering of her ancestor's journey into slavery. The rest of the film depicts her life as a house slave on a West Indian sugar plantation.''

''Serve the heifer right.''

''Stop that,'' I said. ''The interesting thing is, there's an article in 11 the current issue of Scientific American magazine by two Oxford University dons who say the kind of time travel described in the film might actually be possible.''

''They're crazy!'' my friend exclaimed. ''It's just a movie!''

''No, listen,'' I insisted. ''These guys, David Deutsch and Michael Lockwood, say that even though the rules of classical physics absolutely forbid travel backward in time, some interpretations of the equations of modern quantum physics, when coupled with Einstein's General Theory of Relativity, suggest time travel is not only possible but that one could even go back into the past and meet one's former self.''

''What have you been smoking?'' my friend cried. ''You're always spouting these cockamamie theories. First evolution, now time travel? You need help, brother.''

''Let me finish,'' I said. ''Deutsch and Lockington say one could travel backward in time according to General Relativity because there may be places in the universe where gravity is so strong that spacetime curves back on itself, forming a bridge to the past. But here's the catch: Since anyone traveling to the past could change the present, the rules of quantum mechanics require that there be an infinite number of alternative futures -- and thus an infinite number of alternate universes. In other words, if you traveled to the past and changed it, the future you created would be different, but it also would exist in a different universe from the one you left.''

My friend was by now contemplating dialing 911. ''And how long have you been thinking about this?'' she inquired gently.

''Ever since I saw 'Sankofa,' '' I replied. ''It got me to wondering how, if I could go into the past, I would change things so black people would be better off today than they are now -- even if it meant we had to live in some other universe.''

''The ultimate separatism,'' my friend teased. ''You and Minister Farrakhan.''

''I'm serious!'' I persisted. ''But what I can't figure out is, knowing everything that's happened since slavery, what could I do to change it if I went back? That's why I'm calling you. What would you do?''

There was a long silence at the other end of the line. Finally, my friend spoke:

''You think your scientific theories can help people lead a better life,'' she said. ''But I've told you before: All man's knowledge is vanity. No one can change what has been or what will be. You want to play God -- but that desire is itself the spring from which all evil flows. Whatever our sufferings, they are the result of the world's sinfulness, and that is something you are not going to change, ever. So just leave it alone,'' she concluded. And so the conversation ended exactly where it began.

Glenn McNatt writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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