If You Could Travel in Time, Where Would You Go? Have you ever felt that you were born in the wrong era? We asked professionals from a diversity of fields what time periods they would visit if they could rewind or fast-forward time. And — before we get too carried away — an astrophysicist explains the complicated logistics of time travel.

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NEIL: Pleasure to be here with you here and now.

SMITH: Here and now. It's going to be a very long hour if you give the wrong answer to the next question which is: is time travel possible?

TYSON: Well, it's easy to go in the future - that one we've known since 1905, with the rules of special relativity laid out by Albert Einstein - that if you just sort of travel fast enough, your clock ticks more slowly than that of everybody else. So, you go into their future. You don't actually go into your own future. So...

SMITH: So, if I want to skip this presidential race because it's taking too long, I can go very fast or near a high gravity object, I remember, right?

TYSON: Yeah, either of those will work just fine - high gravity objects or very high speeds - and you can come back at some arbitrarily distant time in the future. The problem is, while you might get a fun send-off, depending on how far in the future you go, no one will have remembered you, depending on when you come back. So, you want to sort of take friends with you and things. But that kind of going into the future is not as fun as you might think it would be...


TYSON: ...because you don't come back. You don't come back.

SMITH: Yeah. What's the fun of seeing how the world is going to turn out if you can't impress your friend?

TYSON: Yeah. There you go. You want to come back and say, look what I saw, you know? It's like, no.

SMITH: A more difficult question: how do we travel back in time?

TYSON: And so, I have to kind of trust their calculations because they are extremely invoking the rules of general relativity far beyond my capacity to calculate. But they seem to know that it's possible but only if you have the power and the energy resources to curve the fabric of space-time yourself.

SMITH: Well, that's not a problem. This is talk radio here. So, why don't we just accept that as a given and talk about the fun part. So, we've built the machine, we've given you the time, we've given you the power which, let me guess, is not going to be operated by gasoline, but we'll figure out the power issue, and we want to take you back somewhere. So, Neil deGrasse Tyson, what time and place would you like to time travel to?

TYSON: Let's hope it's not fossil fuels we're using there. That would be embarrassing to go back in time or anywhere in time.

SMITH: And it's expensive.

TYSON: So, the one thing that I imagine I could bring him that would transform time in his day would be a highly functioning scientific calculator. And you can bring like, you know, a decade worth of batteries with you, and then he could see how you can just calculate things that would take him days and days, weeks, or perhaps even be impossible to compute. And I would learn from him what kind of insights he brought to bear on his discoveries. And it's fun to think about whether people like that were in fact themselves time travelers - these people who transformed our understanding of our place in the universe just by their own brilliance. And maybe they were all sworn to secrecy about their actual real past. But it's fun to speculate on that and possibly even contribute to works of fiction in the process.

SMITH: Now, Isaac Newton is certainly brilliant in his time, do you worry that you would go back and be disappointed? After all you learned everything he had to teach you when you were a young man. Do you think you'd go back and think, wow, you know, this guy would be working in a fast food restaurant if he were in the 21st century?

TYSON: That's an excellent question. But the answer to that is plum no, because, just for an example, he discovered the laws of motion, the laws of gravity, the laws of optics, and practically on a dare, when he couldn't answer a question about why the planets orbit in ellipses, he went back and, like, invented a new branch of mathematics to solve that problem called calculus. And he - then he turned 26. So, people today struggling with calculus well into adulthood, and he does it just kind of as a side thing. So, the man was brilliant by anybody's measure.

SMITH: Okay.

TYSON: And so I just want to just, like, be there with the guy, but I would caution. There are some events - people like sort of watching famous events like the Titanic. There are lot of people we know now want to go back and see the Titanic. And it's fun to speculate whether in fact the day that the time machine is invented that so many people go back and see the Titanic sink that in effect that's why it sank, because everyone overloaded the ship. All the time travelers from the future went back to the ship and the ship couldn't accommodate the extra weight. There's some fun speculating on that.

SMITH: You're blowing my mind, dude, as they say when you bring up time travel. I actually picture you being like Bill and Ted when you meet Isaac Newton, getting down on your knees and saying, I'm not worthy.

TYSON: I love Bill and Ted. That's one - that's a sleeper movie for me. That's one of my favorites. I'd try to bring them all to the present and try to get an A on my report card too.

SMITH: Exactly. Let's try and get some callers in on this conversation. People have great ideas where to go.

TYSON: Sure. Sure.

SMITH: Well talk with John(ph). John is calling us from Little Rock, Arkansas. Hey, John, where should I set the time machine for you?

JOHN: Hello.

SMITH: Hello, John. Where should I set the time machine? Where headed?

JOHN: I like to travel back to the California Gold Rush days.

SMITH: California Gold Rush because you want to be a rich man with the price of gold.

JOHN: Well, I think just the prospect of fame and fortune around every corner, and, of course, the colorful characters that were involved, and that would be fascinating.

TYSON: I would warn you, sir, that if you, you know, you read the retellings of those stories, that it's quite - there's the romance of the exploration and the kind of fun lawlessness of the time, but then you like look closer and realized there was no sanitation; there was no - and you get a little closer, it begins to smell and - so there are a lot of times in the past that I don't long for simply because they're kind of cleansed in the memory of those who retell it. But to actually live it would require a level of tolerance, of absence of hygiene and other things that today we take for granted.

SMITH: We're speaking...

JOHN: I'd say yes.

SMITH: Well, thank you very much. Thank you very much, John, and thank you for the sobering analysis, Neil DeGrasse Tyson.

TYSON: I'm - I don't want to mess them up - the dreams there, but I'm just trying to be - reality check.

SMITH: Hello Dr. Ellis.

JOSEPH ELLIS: How are you doing?

SMITH: I'm doing great. So I have the time machine, where do you want to go?

ELLIS: The afternoon of July 2nd, 1863, a mountain ridge called Little Round Top in the town of Gettysburg.

SMITH: Hmm. Is this a tourist attraction?

ELLIS: And what supposedly happened is that Chamberlain gave an order, once his men ran out of ammunition, his casualties were really, really heavy, he gave an order to charge down the hill with fixed bayonets, and it so surprised the Confederates that they retreated and that turned the tide. It's unclear whether he really ever gave that order.

SMITH: Huh. So, would you be worried about your safety going back to a time like that and that they would say, who are you and why are you here, listening in?

ELLIS: I'm one of these historians that sort of presumes that bullets will bounce right off me and...

SMITH: Why not? We are doing time travel.

ELLIS: Yeah. And, well, I mean, maybe you are being fastidious but I think that I'm back there, I guess, with the presumption that once I get there, I'm not a participant in the events, I'm someone who's like a journalist and I'm trying to interrogate the witnesses, Chamberlain as to whether he ever gave the order and the men as to what they thought they were fighting for. Where they fighting for the Union? Where they fighting to end slavery? There's evidence on both sides to that in the history books, so I'm almost looming back here, you know, moving back there to sort of clear up what seems to me a rather intriguing little set of questions.

SMITH: Thanks for joining us.

ELLIS: Thank you.



SMITH: Maria(ph), from Lacey, New Jersey, where are you going now in our time machine?

MARIA: I'm actually racing to pick my daughter up at school. But...

SMITH: So you would like a little bit more time for that, but where do you want to go with our time machine?

MARIA: Well, I actually would love to meet face-to-face with, I don't want to be too religious, but Jesus, you know? It would be interesting to be in a time to witness one of his miracles. Oh, dead silence.

SMITH: No, not at all. I mean, I find this fascinating. And it would, I wonder if any of it would be a test of your faith? If the miracle was not as the Bible described it, if it was something different, if Jesus were a more philosophical being, or if the miracles were exaggerated, would this shake your faith, or do you think you would find something different?

MARIA: I don't think it would shake my faith. I do have a strong faith towards Jesus and I do strongly believe that the miracles, you know, did happen. I just envy the time then that I wasn't around, that I didn't get to witness it, and then here I am just reading about it and being educated about it, you know, during church and stuff like that. I just - you know, I'm sure everyone has that question, you know? Were some of them real or they fables of, you know, storytellers, you know? But you have to go with your faith and if you do have that faith in God then, you know, know that it's to be true, you know, by the - based on the Apostles, you know, and what they've educated us on.

SMITH: Where would you like to go on time machine?

JOHN: Oh, hi. I'd like to go back to the early rabbinic period around 85 C.E. because I think there was a big debate over the Oral Law between Rabbi Akibah and Rabbi Ishmael, and I'd like to see really what went on as opposed to what is said to have gone on.

SMITH: Would you have a specific question? Is there something you've always wanted to know?

JOHN: Yeah. Well, For one thing, I'd like to know who was Rabbi Ishmael. I have an idea that he might have been the famous apostate Elisha ben Abuyah. Excuse me...

SMITH: Now, I don't know these names. This is a very important question in the field of rabbinic studies, is that right?

JOHN: Yeah. Yes. It's a very big question. And I think there was a conflict, that's my point about the Oral Law. I'd like to see what really transpired in those early years of the rabbinic movement, that's basically it.

SMITH: Unidentified Man: Go ahead.

SMITH: Hey, Hal.

HAL: Hey. Is it for Hal?

SMITH: Yes. We're traveling through time, where you know where to stop.

HAL: Well, I'm sorry. I'd just like to go back to somewhere in the middle '40s, early '40s and be something like one of the lead physicists at - on the atomic bomb project at Los Alamos. You know like be Oppenheimer's gofer, and just watch that whole process of how that came together and then go out there for the first test at Alamogordo.

SMITH: Are you a physicist now? Do you think you know more than they did back then?

HAL: Physicist by training, engineer by profession nowadays.

SMITH: Now the interesting...

HAL: So I know what's going on.

SMITH: The interesting question would be, not only could you go back and perhaps help him get the atomic bomb quicker because you understand the physics, but you would also have sort of a moral question too, would you want to tell them how the world has turned out and how their weapon would be used?

HAL: Possibly. It's an interesting thought. Maybe something - I think, yeah, I'd like to like carry the message back because, you know, in this day and age, we kind of see that what they were doing works, you know, the bombs were used twice and not since then, you know, and we went through a Cold War and got out of that so, you know, maybe they were right.

SMITH: Perhaps, and perhaps...

HAL: Yeah, perhaps.

SMITH: ...they'd be interested to know that thousands of these bombs existed and not just in the hands of the United States, they might be curious about that also.

HAL: Oh, I agree with you, it's not - you don't know what decisions they would have made, but you're right, it would have been interesting to carry that information and tell them what the next 50, 60, 70 years would look like.

SMITH: Just the look on their faces alone would be great. Thanks, Hal, for your phone call.

HAL: Yeah.

SMITH: Hey, Glenn.

GLENN: Hello.

SMITH: Where are we headed?

GLENN: My comment is related to a show that was on FRESH AIR today actually as I was listening.

SMITH: Hey, Mark.

MARK: Hey. Well, I salute your guests and Hal's interest in science and math. Mine is technology and culture. So the choice is easy, it's ancient Rome. I just got back from a trip there and got to see Pompeii and of course, the Colosseum and - just amazing. In fact, Pompeii is wonderful because you almost don't need a time machine, it's well preserved. You can really feel like what it might have been like.

SMITH: Well, seeing Rome, I mean, you must want to say, what was it like when this stuff was new? I mean, imagine how beautiful it was. Is that what you want to see or do you - are there some unanswered questions back in ancient Rome?

MARK: Well, there's a couple of things, you know, our tour guides around Rome indicated that the culture was so technologically advanced, there're some things about the technology we still don't understand. For example, the incredibly hard stone that comprises Nero's birdbath, it's like about 20 feet wide. The guide at least explained that even with the diamond-studded drill - tipped drill, it would have taken, you know, an impossible amount of time to carve that out, things like that. Or just standing in the middle of the Colosseum and, you just don't appreciate how enormous and grand in both the design and technology.

SMITH: Sure. Let's just make it clear that you may not want to be actually in the middle of the Colosseum. There could be events going on that you don't want to be part of.


MARK: Fair enough.

SMITH: So be careful back there. Mark, thanks for the phone call.

SMITH: Thanks for joining us, Judith.

JUDITH MARTIN: I'm delighted to be here.

SMITH: Before I ask you where you want to go in time travel, this has come up several times with our callers, we're going to need etiquette when we go back there, because you are a stranger in a strange time, I guess, we would put it. Any advice for our time travelers when they are going back to meet somebody who might be a little shocked by what we have to tell them?

MARTIN: Well yes, you would have to learn the etiquette, just as you do when you travel geographically nowadays. People always think that they behave naturally and until they encounter different culture or that they can deduce behavior from first principles and just do what's sensible. But on the time travel thing, I'm...

SMITH: Sure.

MARTIN: ...continually being accused of wanting to go back in time to when everyone behaved perfectly, which I wouldn't mind doing if I could find out when that is. I think that people who imagine that have not been reading history. And do I want to go back to a Victorian era and live in corsets with no air-conditioning? Not really, thank you very much. Or even to the '50s where I was around, and blatant bigotry was tolerated, officially and otherwise. So it is really, really not a good idea to do that. I'm rather with your callers who go because they have the true reporter instinct and I'm an old reporter of wanting to see history firsthand for themselves.

SMITH: Yeah, and unanswered questions. Is there a specific time we should take you to in this time machine we have to go?

MARTIN: Well, my great interest is in Venetian history and so it would be great fun to go back to Venice in, say the Renaissance, or a little before, when Venice was more powerful, when we just have to be careful not to step into it when there was a plague going on or something of that nature.

SMITH: There would have to be a lot of research before any of this time travel. You know, I'm curious, a lot of people treat this, and they treated rightly, like it would be a job, they have to go back and find something out that they can bring back to us an unanswered question.

MARTIN: It's because we were just having a jolly old time.

SMITH: Well, I was going to say, going to Venice in that time period would be a lot of fun. I think you could enjoy yourself. What would your date be like though?

MARTIN: I would think so. And I would be able to find my way around because the city hasn't changed, appreciably, and a lot of the same families are still there. The same houses are there, so I think I would feel right at home.

SMITH: Do you...

MARTIN: But as I say, there are times when you really don't want to go.

SMITH: Yes, absolutely. Do you think the food would be better?

MARTIN: That it would be better?

SMITH: Different?

MARTIN: No. It would be slightly different, yes. But, then it has depended on importing food for a long time, so that the main staples would probably be not that different. We have old recipes in that time. We have accounts of parties that (unintelligible) great feast with all kinds of wonderful food. Not to mention boatloads of courtesans and such.

SMITH: And I could imagine this travel from the future trying to cage an invite to one of these parties.

MARTIN: Well, I think some of those parties were big enough that they wouldn't notice whether you're invited on not.


SMITH: Well, that violates etiquette but we can make a special dispensation for you since you are traveling through time. Judith Martin aka Miss Manners is a syndicated etiquette columnist. Her upcoming book is called "No Vulgar Hotel: Desire and the Pursuit of Venice." Thanks for joining us from Washington, D.C. We appreciate it.

MARTIN: You're welcome.

SMITH: Let's go to Sean(ph) now. Sean is calling us from South Lyon, Missouri or Michigan, I'm sorry. Where do you want to go, Sean?

SEAN: Well, you know I'm one of those guys that's not exactly of the, I guess, the person that has any big philosophical questions but I like those mysteries to be solved especially the ones where nobody knows anything about it. So, you know, I'd be that guy that would want to go back and see, you know, what was on the grassy knoll with JFK, but especially Amelia Earhart. I don't know if there'd be any way to follow her but, you know, what happened? Nobody knows, and those are the things that I'd want to figure out.

SMITH: Yeah, that's a technical...

SEAN: (Unintelligible) she disappeared.

SMITH: Yeah, it's a technical problem since we would have to figure out a place for you to go. And the South Pacific is a large, large and lonely place.

SEAN: Yup.

SMITH: But maybe you could fly along. Maybe you could be the answer that she was looking for.

SEAN: Well, I'm not so sure I'd want to be the co-pilot because nobody does know what happens. But, you know, maybe with radar who knows what you could do.

SMITH: You're in the air, Paul.

PAUL: Hello?

SMITH: Hey, Paul. Where do you want to go in time?

PAUL: Oh, a place I'd like to go is 1930s Hollywood.

SMITH: 1930s Hollywood. You just like the clothes, the style? What is it?

PAUL: Oh, what I would like to do, ideal is to work for someone like Jack Warner or Hal Wallis or Harry Cohn at Columbia Pictures. And they were such outrageous characters in demanding people but with just be a thrill to work for someone like that in 1930s Hollywood when things were really popping.

SMITH: Would you be tempted to throw at some ideas there like, hey, you should do a show about a movie about a shark, a big shark on the East Coast. They'll be like, yeah, we could do that. Would you want to throw some plot lines out there that you think might fly, "The Godfather" maybe?

PAUL: Yeah, (unintelligible) by Darryl Zanuck, at the time since his son Richard made the movies.

SMITH: Well...

PAUL: ...and see how he would go with them.

SMITH: It would be interesting to see which movies from today would stand up, at least the plot lines. I could think that a lot of them would not. They would look at you like you were crazy.

PAUL: Well, Spielberg said one time that because of the success of his movies he couldn't make "Jaws." He couldn't get that produced today because it didn't, you know, it didn't have enough action in it. And it will be interesting to see it because in those days they made so many movies. They didn't rely on five blockbusters for the entire year.

SMITH: Roberta, you're on the air. What time and place would you like to go to?

ROBERTA: Well, I can't hear you. Can you hear me?

SMITH: I can hear you just fine. Where do you want to go in the time machine?

ROBERTA: Okay. I'd like to go to end of slavery time or maybe a few years after. I would see Anderson, South Carolina so I could find out who my family is. I mean, and I'm at a point now where I don't know and I'd love to know.

SMITH: Have you traced things back genealogically to this one place? Is that right?

ROBERTA: Yes, I traced it back to Anderson County, South Carolina, I've - but nobody knows anything else, you know.

SMITH: Well, it's a fascinating question. Do you if you arrive there - a small town - if we got you to the right time, would you be able to recognize them? Would you know enough to find them?

ROBERTA: Well, I know the last name, Clinkscales(ph). You know, if I could just get back there and find Clinkscales, I'm sure I could do something.

SMITH: What would you tell them about how their family turned out?

ROBERTA: Actually, I don't think I'd want to tell them anything because that might, you know, put a kink in there and people start trying to live up to the expectations that I told them and it might be different in the long run.

SMITH: Do you think that there will be something they will at least find heartening now? I mean, just you showing up I suppose.

ROBERTA: Yeah. I think so. And I think it would be great for everybody concern, me, because I'd know where I came from and them because they'd know that there's a future for them.

SMITH: Pamela, where do you want to go?

PAMELA: 1366, England.

SMITH: That sounds a little unsanitary to me. Why do you want to do back there?

PAMELA: I would like to visit the plague and...

SMITH: No, you don't. Who wants to go back and see the plague? It sounds horrible.

PAMELA: It does sound horrible. It's morbidly fascinating to me just because no one knew what caused it. People were terrified. They thought it was witchcraft. They thought it was Jews. They had no concepts of health care, and since that we do, and it will be interesting to go back and observe what the knowledge that we have today as long as I was immune, of course.

SMITH: You know, the interesting thing would be a lot of people talk about whether they would want to bring back technology that could help. The interesting about this is you could go back and simply look at people and say, wash your hands. Like...

PAMELA: Exactly.

SMITH: ...that concept alone you could be someone who would save a million lives through that simple concept of just telling them where this is coming from.

PAMELA: Right. And keep their cottages clean and once it's in your village, don't interact with anyone else, right?

SMITH: But would you, you know, you talk about it as an observer and you would be immune. Would you want to do anything? I mean, that's the real question, isn't it? And I guess...

PAMELA: Oh, absolutely. I think if I was there I couldn't help intervening and trying to save people's lives but I just think it would be fascinating to watch people's reaction to it not that they didn't understand it, they didn't know what was happening, and it was so sudden.

SMITH: Well, it was certainly put into perspectives the challenges that we face today. You would have stories to tell, I'm sure.

PAMELA: Absolutely, and in the same sense, someone a thousand years in the future coming back today to look at us, suffering from hepatitis and AIDS virus and things of that nature, I'm sure there are people that would interested in doing that and helping us.

SMITH: This is National Public Radio. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


SMITH: Let's talk to Ricardo(ph). Ricardo is calling us from San Francisco, California.

RICARDO: Oh, hello. Well, good afternoon. Can you hear me properly?

SMITH: I can. Where would you like to go?

RICARDO: Well, three tangents in time that are very important to us so because he talked about the atom and Alamogordo. So I would like to go 24 hours before the big bang and just sit there in a comfortable spot and watch the activity level that comprised everything that is joined into the big bang structure and gave us what are thoughts are about these ideas.

SMITH: Now, the notion of the comfortable place to watch is really the rub here because we don't know before the big bang if there's plenty of room to stretch out or if you're in an infinitely small space, a little cramped.

RICARDO: Yeah. I left that as a riddle.


RICARDO: Yeah. And the other place is 24 hours before World War III.

SMITH: How are you doing, sir?

LEEBON: Oh, I'm doing great.

SMITH: Where do you want to go?

LEEBON: It's Leebon, actually.

SMITH: Leebon, sorry.

LEEBON: I would like to go to the original library at Alexandria and sneak in a digital camera with enough memory to record all of the information that was lost there.

SMITH: Wow. From all I hear that would be - you would need a very large data card for that.

LEEBON: Yeah. I hear they're doing wonders with solid state technology though, so...


SMITH: Well, is there anything that you - if you had a moment that would stop and read - I guess we don't know much of what was there but there must have been just a fascinating browsing, right?

LEEBON: Well, I just know that the more archaeology is revealing about history, the more, in fact, people of that time knew of the same kind of things that we know about in terms of engineering, architecture, mathematics and so forth. So it just be - I would imagine eye-popping to see all of the knowledge laid out before you.

SMITH: Kitty there's one last stop in the time machine, where do you want to go?

KITTY: I would like to be with Chief Joseph and his - when he surrendered to the army. You know, 40 miles south of the Canadian border.

SMITH: And you could hear that great speech, his famous speech.

KITTY: It's very famous and he's a very smart man. I think he was the first human rights advocate in United States long before Martin Luther King and whatever, but he was looking to - for his people. But what I like to know is what did the colonel feel like when he - if it was like his tribe that was being pursued. What would the colonel feel like if it was his family and his distant relatives that had to run 1,800 miles, you know, and get - you know, be captured 40 miles from the border?

SMITH: If you had the opportunity, would you tell Chief Joseph what had happened to Native American peoples in United States? Would you want to lay out that history?

KITTY: I think he already knew that and that's why he ran so hard and - but he wanted to protect his people but what did the colonel feel like and if it was his family, you know, why didn't he feel like, you know, this freedom of movement and the freedom of having his own family, did they help him grow. How did the colonel feel? Would he have let them go of that 40 miles if it was his family?


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