Month: June 2017

The Chronal Spin Cycle

The Chronal Spin Cycle

Reading Time: 3 minutes

The recent revival of the live action superhero movies has made comic book fans rather happy. The Marvel Cinematic Universe, or the MCU (not the Major Crimes Unit of Gotham City, that is DC comics), started in 2008 with Iron Man, a movie that jump-started Phase I of the MCU as well as revived Robert Downey Jr’s career. With one excellent movie after another–interspersed with the pedestrian Thor movies or the somewhat underwhelming sequel to the Avengers–the MCU has swiftly taken its place among James Bond and Harry Potter as one of the most lucrative and popular movie franchises of all time. DC comics has also attempted to duplicate Marvel’s success, but with questionable success, with a disastrous Green Lantern movie and a rather soulless Man of Steel.

Which brings me to Superman live action movies. I’ll begin with the most recent one1, which gets a bit of a Nolanesque Dark Knight treatment, being all dark and gritty and joyless. Not surprising, considering that Nolan was in the production team. The problem with making a Superman movie humourless and dark is that it does not work as well. Dark and gritty are the Batman’s territory, while it is up to his foil Superman’s job to keep things happy and shiny.

Which is of course what the excellent 1978 Richard Donner movie managed to do flawlessly. With Christopher Reeves as an almost perfect Superman/Clark Kent, Donner never quite let go of the fun, comic-booky feel of the plot, blending real danger–such as the flooding due to the breaking of the dam–with its rather silly reason hatched up by an equally silly Lex Luthor played by Gene Hackman. Thanks to Superman’s timely intervention, the total number of casualties of Luthor’s nutty plan is precisely one.

And that is when the penny drops, for that one person who manages to get herself killed is Lois Lane, Superman’s love interest, played brilliantly by Margot Kidder (honestly, she is by far the best live action Lois Lane; Dana Delany of course is equally good as Lane’s voice in the Superman animated series as well as in Justice League). When Lane dies and Superman fails to revive her, Reeves does a passable and much more humane impression of Shatner’s Khaaaan yell and flies off into space, to be confronted by the disembodied–and very dead–voices of his biological father Jor-El (Marlon Brando) and his adoptive father Jonathan Kent; the former prohibiting him to do anything to influence the history of his adopted planet, the latter urging him to do so in true Uncle Ben fashion. So Superman decides that the Prime Directive of Krypton can go to hell, he is gonna to do something about it, bring Lois Lane back to life. But how? CPR? Magic defibrillators? Perhaps fly her to the Fortress of Solitude and give her a little of ye olde Kryptonian magic science? Nah, nothing too complicated. Here’s what he does.

Simple, ain’t it? Jus’ spin ’round the ol’ earth at superspeed a few dozen times, turn back yon time, and spin da udder way ’round to git tings back on track and all that shit bro!

In a movie filled with silliness, this takes the cake, and is a perfect example of how comic books used to be written once upon a time. This is a perfect Superman comic book trope, and doubtless the authors of the movie story must have been inspired by some Superman story somewhere. Right?

Probably. But this particular panel from a 1940s Flash comics might just be the first instance of the incredible scientific thought of Golden Age comic book writers.

Thanks to the excellent tv show, the Flash has recently entered the popular sphere. Grant Gustin plays the second Flash, the forensic scientist Barry Allen who gained his powers when he was hit by lightning and (a) doused with a cocktail of chemical (in the comics) (b) was exposed to a cocktail of dark matter particles from the particle accelerator explosion (tv show). The first Flash was Jay Garrick, who obtained his powers by inhaling hard (or heavy) water vapours. That is the Jay Garrick Flash time travelling here.

Of course, the Barry Allen Flash time travels in a rather different manner. Granted (see what I did there? no? may an evil wind gust in your eyes), he also runs really really fast, but he has something else to help him. The Cosmic Treadmill! I wrote a post about that hereabouts.

There is probably no way of knowing if this panel was indeed the inspiration for the climax of the classic movie almost three decades later, but it no doubt shows that ideas shared by comic book writers across decades don’t lose their absolute kookiness.

This is a repost of a rather old and dusty post I had written years back. Well, half and one year back. The original post can be found here.


Time Machines

Time Machines

Reading Time: 8 minutes

Ahh, time machines! {rubs hands in delight}.1

Ever since H G Wells first wrote about the intrepid Time Traveller and his curious machine that would whisk the occupant into the future with the merest flick of a quartz lever, time travel yarns have become one of the mainstays of science fiction writing. In some cases, time travel stories have also transcended their parent genre and have made inroads into romance and socioeconomic commentary. Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveller’s Wife is a case of the former, while Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court or Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward: 2000–18872 are very early (pre-dating even The Time Machine) examples of the latter. Even J K Rowling has used time travel in a unique and magical way to resolve the central conflict in one of the books of the Harry Potter series.

Pre-New 52 Superman
New 52 Superman

Comic book writers have made generous use of it, in a recent case using paradoxes generated by such travel to completely overhaul close to 70 years of comic book history, so much so that this guy, the one on the left, is now this guy, the one on the right3.

 TV shows have written with time travel as their central premise, be it the long-running BBC Doctor Who or Quantum Leap from across the pond. Hollywood has often delved into the genre, with offerings that have ranged from the mediocre to the excellent and the fun and also the utterly paradoxical and thought-provoking.

I have been reading about time travel from a very young age. I think my first exposure to it was the genre generator itself, Wells’ The Time Machine, a book I received when I was entering the second decade of my life. My school library had books about a traveller of time whose time machine takes the form of a blue police box. I had probably read all of those books in the library periods allotted to us every week. Since then, I have read, and have actively sought out, stories that deal with time travel. What has caught my eye is the sheer variety of methods and machines writers have devised to enable the protagonist to go on a jaunt in what is erroneously referred to as the fourth dimension. Some science fiction writers, such as Michael Crichton (Timeline) or Stephen Baxter (The Time Ships) have stuck to a standard sort-of-science based approach, and such efforts, although worthy of riveting stories, are not the focus of this post. What I wish to write about today are methods and machines of time travel that are odd, quirky, and in some cases downright wacky. So, without further ado, let us be on our way. I should warn you though, some of these might qualify as spoilers, and if you haven’t read the book or the comic or watched the tv show or the film, and do not want some plot points (generic or critical) revealed in advance, tread softly.

  1. The carton from Primer
    Time travel mechanism in Primer

    Four engineers fund their research hobbies by building and selling computer circuit board cards at night. While attempting to invent a device that would reduce the weight of objects, two of them accidentally invent time travel. Their prototype time machine is a humble plain grey carton4, and does not come with attached “neon lights or chrome”. Initially, the two of them decide to use the machine to get rich off the stock market. However, as time goes by, the two have a falling out of how to use the machine, and if it should be used at all. The dialogue of the movie is rather technical and dense in jargon, and the plot is not very simple to follow. Yet, the reason this features in this post is because of the unique way time travel has been depicted here. In most cases, one travels through time either instantaneously or over a period of time that is, rather necessarily, shorter than objective time passed outside the box, so to say. For example, the Time Traveller’s time machine (The Time Machine) enables him to travel almost eight hundred thousand years into the future in a matter of hours, if not minutes. In Primer, however, there is no such shortcut. Suppose the user wishes to make a profit from advanced knowledge of the day’s stock prices. He calibrates the machine for a six-hour loop, sets it up so that it will automatically activate at noon, and walks away. He spends six hours memorizing the stock prices of the day and keeps a low profile during this time, careful not to do anything that will have any significant causal effect on the timeline and thus perhaps cause a paradox. For example, he would do well to, say, not propose to his girlfriend or to perhaps go and try to shoot the president. If the Novikov Self-Consistency Principle holds, however, this precaution becomes quite unnecessary. At six, he returns to the time machine and enters it. The machine, set on a six-hour loop, begins travelling into the past exactly at 1800 hours, at the same speed that everything else is moving to the future. Six hours of subjective time later, the user exits the box, but instead of being midnight, it is noon of that day again. Now the user is free to use his advance knowledge of the stock prices to make a fortune, and walks away a rich man at the end of the day. Interestingly, during the second six-hour period, two versions of the user exist; the original, who is trying to keep a low profile and playing a game of memory, and the duplicate, who is cashing in on the original’s knowledge and getting rich. The duplicate is of course an older version of the original, having spent an additional twelve hours of subjective time. The graphic above will hopefully make things easier to understand5. Click on the caption for the full size graphic.

    Primer was an extremely low-budget independent science-fiction film written, storyboarded, directed, produced, cinematographed, edited, and scored by Shane Carruth, a former developer of flight simulation software. The film took five weeks to shoot, two years to be post-produced (almost exclusively by Carruth), secured the Grand Jury Prize at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival, and has since gained a cult following after a limited release. Shot on an incredible budget of $7000, it went to collect more than 60 times that at the box office.

  2. The Time-Turner from Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
    The Time-Turner

    Hermione, Harry, and Ron are in a spot of bother, to put things mildly. Buckbeak has been executed on orders from the Ministry of Magic, thanks to manipulations from Lucius Malfoy. Sirius Black is set to receive the Dementor’s Kiss, and have his soul sucked out in a manner not entirely similar to the way Shang Tsung did the deed in the first Mortal Kombat movie. Dumbledore has a conference with Hermione and Harry, and leaves the hospital ward where Ron is recovering from his injuries, hinting something that Harry entirely fails to grasp. Hermione pulls out a chain from around her neck, throws it around Harry’s neck, and fiddles with a rather curious hourglass at the end of the chain, turning it three times. In front of Harry’s incredulous eyes, everything around them seems to spin back in time, much like a cassette tape in full rewind6. In under a minute, Harry finds that they have travelled three hours into the past. The two of them then retrace their adventures of the past three hours, attempting to right two wrongs and also, perhaps, save their past selves.

    The reason this features in this post is the novel way J K Rowling has introduced a very science-fictiony concept such as time travel into the very magical fictional universe of Harry Potter. According to the Harry Potter wiki, an Hour-Reversal Charm, encased within a special timepiece, allows the user to travel back in time. The device, or the charm, is unique in that it does not allow the user to go forward in time, and the maximum safe time jump is about five hours. This limit explains why it would not be practical to go back in time and stop Tom Riddle before he embarked on his career as Lord Voldemort. Since the Time-Turner operates only in one direction, habitual users age faster, adding time to their internal biological clocks. Hermione Granger used the Time-Turner throughout her third year at Hogwarts, and consequently gained about a month at the end of it. Given the way that events panned out in the book and its movie version, the Time-Turner seems to obey the Novikov Self-Consistency Principle quite rigidly.

  3. The Cosmic Treadmill from The Flash comics7
    The Cosmic Treadmill, The Flash v1 #139

    Perhaps no fictional character whose primary function is not to time travel has undergone so many trips through time as has The Flash. In DC comics continuity, the first Flash was Jay Garrick, whose tenure spanned the forties. In a previous blogpost, I talk about, albeit briefly, how Garrick travels forward five thousand years by running around the Earth at super speed. Author Gardner Fox gets the prize for this, the absolute silliest time travel mechanism possible. If you thought this notion fell entirely within the ambit of comic book writers, consider that it was none other than Mario Puzo who wrote the story for the 1978 Superman film, a story that involves Superman flying at relativistic speeds around the Earth to turn back time and save Lois Lane. Granted, a number of other screenwriters were attached to the project, and it is entirely possible that Puzo was not responsible for this silly idea.

    However, the Cosmic Treadmill falls within the purview of the second Flash, Barry Allen. In issue #120 of his tenure, Barry Allen and Kid Flash Wally West get thrown millions of years into the past by the an errant earthquake. In order to get back to the present, the two of them duplicate the vibration of the earthquake. Some time later, in issue #125, Allen and West have to travel through time again to repel the invasion of aliens. The former has to go forward in time, while the latter needs to travel into the past. However, given the seriousness of the situation, they must be able to travel precisely to those specific points in time. Barry Allen comes up with a special treadmill which uses cosmic rays (no, seriously, cosmic rays) to send the user forwards or backwards in time, by running on the Cosmic Treadmill at super speed forwards or backwards respectively. Time travel is achieved instantaneously, although there is catch, and that is one of the two reasons why this features in this post. While the Treadmill allows the speedster to travel through time, it also sets up internal vibrations within the body of the user, which he has to then maintain in order to stay in the different time period. I can only speculate if John Broome came up with this idea by likening Treadmill time travel to the user stretching a rubber band, and then having to keep the “temporal rubber band” stretched in order to remain in a foreign time. Alternatively, one could liken a speedster who has travelled through time as being in an excited state8, and his base, or home, time period being the ground state.

    The second reason why this features in this post? Why, it is a friggin’ treadmill, for Emmett’s sake. A treadmill time machine! How zanier can you get?

This is a repost of a rather old and dusty post I had written years back. Well, half and one year back. The original post can be found here.


Reading Time: 5 minutes
The Twelfth Doctor

I am a longstanding fan of the BBC science fiction television series Doctor Who. The show documents the adventures of the Doctor, a Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey. Time Lords, extremely long-lived individuals who are also the masters of time, and are able to travel through it by way of machines called TARDIS–Time And Relative Dimensions In Space. The TARDIS is a time machine, perhaps the most recognisable of all fictional (is there any other sort) time machines. There are others too. I wrote about them once.

The Doctor is the moniker of a rebel of this vaunted group, a maverick who once stole an old and outdated model of a TARDIS and went on a series of adventures that has impacted the fictional universe of Doctor Who in extreme and original ways.

Time Lords such as the Doctor are able to live so long thanks to a unique biological trait which allows them to regenerate their bodies whenever death approaches, much like the proverbial phoenix. There is a catch though–Time Lords are only allowed to do this twelve times, meaning that the thirteenth incarnation of a Time Lord is the final one. However, there is no particular time limit set to how long a particular incarnation can last. The Doctor’s thirteenth incarnation, numbered Eleven due to some pretty convoluted reasons, lived for hundreds of years, ageing slowly but surely. He ended up an old man, and funny things happened afterwards.

Fictional long-lived individuals are of course not restricted to BBC science fiction television shows. The Hebrew Bible speaks of Methuselah, the grandfather of Noah, who lived till the really ripe old age of nine hundred and sixty-nine. It is said that he died a week before the biblical flood came and washed everything away except his grandson’s ark and all the arkizens1. His name, which means “his death shall bring judgment”, seems about right.

Jurojin with deer

I am pretty sure a lot of people lived to be centuries old in Indian mythology–Hanuman, for example, was one of the few mortal beings to have featured in both the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Sadhus and heroes in Indian mythology used to carry out tapasya (meditation) for thousands of years to gain favour from the gods. Valmiki was ensconced in a termite mound for so long that he metamorphosed from caterpillar into a butterf…I mean, from a robber to a poet extraordinaire. Someone told me recently that Moy, (ময়দানব in Bangla) the giant who built for the Pandavas the incomparable city-state Indraprastha, was actually Ravana’s Father-in-Law! In Taoism, Jurōjin (寿老人) is one of the Seven Gods of Fortune (Shinjifukuchin) and is the god of longevity. He himself is, however, immortal, being a god and all.

The first I had ever heard of the name Methuselah was sometime in the early nineties. I had a pair of extraordinarily well-written illustrated encyclopedias from Dorling-Kindersley, and one article concerning how champagne is prepared had a beautiful photograph about different champagne bottle sizes, with the 2L Magnum somewhere in the middle and the 6L behemoth Methuselah topping them off (yes, they name bottles after old Hebrew mythological characters and kings). I had but a hazy conception of what champagne was, mostly thanks to Tintin in Tibet and my father’s unique way of getting me to pronounce the word correctly2. That illustration was beautiful, and the closest I could find to it on the net is this one.

Turritopsis dohrnii, the immortal jellyfish.

Longevity and by extension, immortality, has been a goal humans have sought since the day our brains developed enough to have been able to think about such things. Life expectancy has certainly increased over the centuries. According to this site, the average life expectancy of Indian females in 1960 was 41.3 years, with a global rank of 145. Fifty odd years later, in 2013, that has jumped to an incredible 68.2 years, an increase of 65%! Surprisingly enough, Indian females still rank 140th worldwide in this department. Despite this marked increase in lifespan, humans are still nowhere close to a certain species of jellyfish, which is as close to being actively immortal3 as any species in the animal kingdom can hope to be.

Since biological immortality is probably still a long way off, humans attempt to achieve immortality through other means; artistic, scientific, architectural, sociopolitical or even militaristic contributions (think Sun Tzu) can offer immortality to their long-deceased contributors. At the turn of the century, on the first day of the new millennium, a twenty-minute piece of recorded music started playing, and is designed to keep playing for the next thousand years without repetition. A computer algorithm ensures that the music is never repeated…well, not in a millennium at least. The piece is called Longplayer, and it can played on your music player by downloading this m3u file which is also available on their website. I have been listening to it for the past three minutes and thirty-three seconds and my impression is that it is both eerie and soothing at the same time. The music was composed using Tibetan instruments. Longplayer was conceptualised and executed by English musician Jem Finer.

Clock of the Long Now Prototype 1

There is no guarantee if Longplayer will indeed last that long. It is entirely possible that nuclear war or similar catastrophes, whether man-made or otherwise, might wipe out most of human civilisation so that future generations will have no conception of algorithms and computers, and might not be able to figure out how to make the piece work. To counteract such a scenario4, Danny Hillis conceived of the Clock of the Long Now, a mechanical clock that is designed to run accurately for ten thousand years. The guiding principles of building such a clock were longevity, maintainability, transparency, scalability, and evolvability. The clock should run for ten millennia, be maintainable with bronze age technology, be simple enough so that construction principles can be divined from a simple inspection, its design should be such that small tabletop versions as well as giant versions that are installed on mountaintops can be constructed from the same design, and it should be possible to improve the clock over time. In order to see the time of the clock in the mountains, one would need to climb up the mountain and then turn a display wheel. The clock is interesting enough (as I research it) to warrant its own full post in the near future.

Wouldn’t it be rather grand if by some quirky law of entanglement of fictional and real universes, the Doctor might set his TARDIS down near the Clock of the Long Now sometime in the distant future, taking a short break from his never-ending adventures across space and time, and hike up the mountainside to see the last time anyone was there to see the clock tell its tale?

This is a repost of a rather old and dusty post I had written years back. Well, half and one year back. The original post can be found here.


The Nerd Druid

The Nerd Druid

Reading Time: 1 minute

The Nerd Druid is a website where I, the eponymous nerdruid (yes, without the extra d in between), attempts to understand the world and its workings and share whatever I learnt with you. Yes, I am a nerd, and no, I am not a druid. Well, not in the traditional sense anyway. Or the asterixian sense. Or the D&D sense, for that matter. Anyway, bottomline, we’ll have some fun and, hopefully, learn something along the way too.


Well, that is a D&D term. In case you have no clue what D&D is, fear not, there will be section (or two) hereabouts that will enlighten you. In case you do know what D&D is and tend to avoid people who associate themselves with such matters, fear not! For this is not a website about D&D. Some parts of it might be, at times. But not the whole thing. No sirree. Hear me out, will you? Lend me your ears, as Mark Anthony would say.

Oh, and in case you’re wondering why there is nothing up yet, well, hmm, you see, because there is nothing up yet. I am still building the site and gathering content. So, uh, yeah, until later then.

On reflection, I think I’ll put this up as the first post. I mean, there’s gotta be something at least, right?