Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Politeness and the invention of time travel

It’s a curious fact that the invention of the time machine was a feat not just of science but of good British manners.

For many years, physicists and philosophers alike had scorned the idea of time travel, citing the paradoxes that it would create: if you went back in time and killed your grandfather when he was a boy, you would never be born, so you wouldn’t be able to go back in time to kill him, so you would have been born and then would have gone back in time… and so on.

However, one Saturday afternoon, in a discreet and highly exclusive club in Mayfair, frequented by ageing grandees who preferred to avoid the company of the wrong sort, everything changed.

Sir Reginald Burr, who had inherited his father’s air-conditioning fortune and then trebled it by selling the family firm to an internet company in 1999, felt the call of nature and rose from a chair that cost more than your house. He made his stately way across the reading room.

As he reached the doorway that led to the bathroom, he suddenly found himself side-by-side with Sir Mortimer Frowse, whose estates encompassed half the land in one of the less fashionable English counties, and whose imperious bladder was also calling for relief.

They could not both fit through the doorway at once. One of them had to go first.

These two fine gentlemen did, of course, loathe each other for being if not quite the wrong sort then certainly not the right sort. And, of course, they were utterly determined to treat each other with unimpeachable propriety.

Thus began one of the greatest British stand-offs in history.

“After you,” said Sir Reginald.
“No, no, after you,” said Sir Mortimer.
“Not at all. Do go ahead, dear fellow.”
“Why really, I insist, old boy.”

This bout of competitive politeness raged calmly for over two hours, with increasingly vicious exchanges of deference and implacable self-deprecation. But neither could gain the upper hand, and their need was becoming ever more desperate.

It is not known which of them hit upon the idea first, but what is certain is that both of them muttered instructions to passing stewards (they had, naturally, bought each other drinks during the impasse, both to assert their own goodwill and to exacerbate the other chap’s problem). These instructions were identical.

The stewards conveyed to Sir Reginald’s people, and to Sir Mortimer’s, that they were to commit all necessary resources to the construction of a time-travel machine, so that their master could send his rival a few seconds back in time and thereby trick him into going through the doorway first.

Sir Reginald’s people called the physics department at Cambridge, offering generous funding for the work. Sir Mortimer’s people made the same offer to Oxford. The scientists protested that this was a preposterous idea, and that even if it were possible it might take centuries. They were told that this would be fine; once built, the time machine could simply be sent back in time for use in the present.

The universities took the money and set up research teams.

Work was indeed slow, but progress was aided by the Oxbridge merger of 2087, allowing the teams to combine their efforts on the understanding that they would send two copies of their eventual invention back to Sir Reginald and Sir Mortimer.

Breakthrough after breakthrough followed, along with a string of Nobel Prizes, and finally, in 2231, the notorious grandfather paradox was solved, when a work experience student suggested that it would probably be best not to give the time machine to any deranged smartarses.

The two copies were dispatched back to the club on that distant Saturday afternoon, not long before Sir Reginald’s and Sir Mortimer’s critically overfull bladders were due to rupture. Each man set his device to send the other ten seconds into the past. They pressed their buttons simultaneously.

There was a flash of light and, ten seconds earlier, they appeared in the same place, facing each other as they had shortly been.

Assuming that the damned thing hadn’t worked, they tried again.

And again. And again.

Their fate is unknown, I’m sorry to say. But some historians have noted in passing that that area of Mayfair had been agricultural land until the 1680s, on account of the rich nitrogen content of the soil.

(With thanks to Left Outside for nudging me toward the idea.)