Monday, 8 August 2011

Don't be so gullible, McFly.

A lot of news stories have gone unnoticed in the past month (Gee Note: Largely because the media went buck wild with the revelation that tabloid journalists would sell their own grandmothers to Somali pirates, especially if it meant a scoop and a slim chance of being able to snort cocaine with Z-list celebrities at The Hilton. Although to be fair it's hardly shocking. The chances of someone working for the News of The World being an amoral scumbag are about the same as water being wet). For example, if you've spent the past twenty years building a flux capacitor in your shed then you've probably wasted your life. Although on the other hand if you have no idea what a flux capacitor is it means you've never seen Back To The Future and you've definitely wasted your life.

The reason why building a flux capacitor would be a bad idea is that time travel is impossible. No really, it is. As in, trying to defend The Green Lantern movie impossible. And before you start calling me a square for killing your buzz, this isn't just me shouting my mouth off. Nuh uh Jack, this comes from one Du Shengwang, head of a team of physicists at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

Professor Du had become rather miffed by recent talk in certain scientific circles that maybe, just maybe, it would be possible to go all Doctor Who and start jumping around in time like a teenage girl at a Justin Bieber concert. (Gee Note: Although travelling backwards in time can be achieved by simply having Superman fly around the Earth a couple of times causing the globe to start rotating in the opposite direction. This would totally reverse time, and not fling every man, woman, and child in to space with such force that you'd end up swallowing your own knees before you left the ground. Tsk. Scientists eh? You'd think they'd put down their Bunsen burners and watch a movie once in a while. Would save them a lot of time and effort). So with all the other scientists saying things like "Waddup. I am really thinking we could travel in time and shit". Du was like "Bitch please, y'all be trippin fo' sho'.". And, thinking a lot of people weren't taking his counter argument seriously enough, he decided to prove it.

You see it's all to do with whether or not light can travel faster than… er… light. More specifically it's whether or not a single photon, or unit of light, can travel faster than the accepted speed at which light itself travels. Confusing? You bet your ass it is. But as far as I've managed to work out (Gee Note: And I've legitimately spent all night trying to get my head around this, to the point where my eyes are bloodshot and I'm pretty sure I've been drinking out of a pot plant thinking it was coffee for the past hour) it's all to do with the special theory of relativity. Special relativity states that as a particle approaches the speed of light then time itself starts to become relative. Therefore if a particle could exceed the speed of light then it would start moving backwards in time if it was observed by something not travelling at the same speed. I think. Although I’ll be honest with you, I’m not sure what my middle name is most of the time, so theoretical physics may be a step too far for yours truly.

But fear not dear reader, Professor Du is here. According to Discovery News Shengwang is about a trillion times better at this science stuff than I am and has proved that photons, by definition the particles that show off by painting stripes on their side and revving their engines, cannot themselves travel any faster than they already do. He and his research team accomplished this by passing a single photon through some group of laser-cooled rubidium atoms (Gee Note: Psshhht. We can all do that. If you really want to impress me science dude you’ll explain to me why unicorns went extinct). And in doing so extinguished the flames of the time travel dream forever.

Or did they?

Well maybe and maybe not. Because while photons may not be able to travel faster than light, other particles in the universe might, such as the hypothetical tachyons for example. Hell some would even argue that the entire universe is expanding at a rate that makes light look like a particularly lazy tortoise. Plus there’s always non-faster than light means with which to get your time related rocks off, such as wormholes and parallel universes. Time travel may be possible, even if it’s not the way we thought it would be.

Just ask Charlotte Anne Moberly and Eleanor Jourdain.

Charlotte Anne Moberly (via Wikipedia)

(Gee Note: OK. You can’t ask either of them. Because they’ve both been dead for over sixty years. Don’t worry though, I’ll fill you in on the details. I know. I really am too good to you guys.)

It was the year 1901, a wild and reckless time where deadly Panda bears trained in the ancient art of Karate roamed the streets of London (Gee Note: Not really). Meanwhile up in Oxford the Principal of St Hugh's College, one Charlotte Anne Moberly, was starting to become concerned about her ever increasing work load. Having been in charge of the all-women’s college for the past fifteen years she had seen the institution expand substantially, to the point where it had become obvious that she would require some help. And so she offered the role of Vice-Principal to renowned head mistress and text book author Eleanor Jourdain.

Which sounds just peachy. The problem was Moberly and Jourdain had never met each other before and as such it wasn't certain they would be able to work together in a professional manner. And so the two decided to spend some "getting to know you" time with each other. Jourdain owned an apartment in Paris (Gee Note: Oooo. La-di-dah your majesty.) and Moberly was invited to stay with her that Summer.

While there the pair took several trips to places that caught their fancy. One such jaunt, on 10 August 1901, was to the Palace of Versailles. Neither lady had been before, and both were excited about the prospect of visiting such a historically rich location (Gee Note: And they were also excited about the prospect of visiting the little shop on the way out and picking up an official "Palace of Versailles" pencil sharpener and a stick of rock). So they donned some nice hats, jumped on to a train, and headed to the Palace.

Reportedly neither lady thought much of the Palace itself. Now bear in mind the Palace of Versailles looks like this:

Palace of Versailles (via Wikipedia)

One can’t help but think that both of them were maybe setting the bar a wee bit high here. "Oh sure, it's a nice looking building I guess. But will it float? Can we turn it in to a really big canoe? And then race it against other big canoes in a race we shall call "Le Gran Canoe?" I don't think so. This might be a nice palace but it's a pretty rubbish canoe if you ask me". Regardless Moberly and Jourdain decided to have a mosey around the palatial grounds in the hope that the excursion wouldn't be a complete bust. It was at that point that Monsieur Sensible decided his work for the day was done and Monsieur Bat-shit-crazy took over the reins.

Having wandered around a bit it soon dawned on the women that they were lost, despite using a Baedeker guidebook (Gee Note: That'll teach them for not forking out for an iPhone). And at that point the entire universe lost all its mirth. Or according to Moberly "Everything suddenly looked unnatural, therefore unpleasant; even the trees seemed to become flat and lifeless, like wood worked in tapestry. There were no effects of light and shade, and no wind stirred the trees.". The pair passed by some men that looked like “very dignified officials, dressed in long greyish green coats with small three-cornered hats.". The ladies asked for directions and were advised by these snappy dressers to head straight on.

Continuing forward they reached the edge of a wood and saw a man sitting next to a garden kiosk. The man, wearing a large hat (Gee Note: Big fans of hats the French) and a long dark cloak was, according to Moberly, "most repulsive... its expression odious. His complexion was dark and rough.". Jourdain would add, "The man slowly turned his face, which was marked by smallpox; his complexion was very dark. The expression was evil and yet unseeing, and though I did not feel that he was looking particularly at us, I felt a repugnance to going past him.". Which, you know, is a bit harsh I guess. OK so the dude wasn't exactly Fabio, but there's no reason to be dicks about it. Even ugly people have feelings. Or so I have I've been told. I'm a hunk so I can't really relate to the ugglies. But I'm sure some of them are, like, really good at making little wooden figurines or something. Point is we're all special in our own way, even if ugly people are less special than - for example - lingerie models.

Eleanor Jourdain (via Wikipedia)

Moberly and Jourdain were starting to get a bit freaked out until they were saved by a man in a sombrero (Gee Note: Again with the f***ing hats!). As Moberly would later state he was "tall... with large dark eyes and crisp curling black hair.". Which, let's face it, sounds a bit like the beginning of a Match.Com profile. Sombrerolover90 is tall. He has large dark eyes and crisp curling black hair. He's looking for someone to share long walks on the beach with as well as quiet nights in and occasional trips to the zoo. Must be a non-smoker. And also not a raving lunatic. Unless they’re smoking hot and/or easy. In which case, whatever.

Thankfully Jimmy McLonelyhearts didn't try and impress the ladies with his favourite pick-up lines (Gee Note: Which is a shame because "Hey baby. You must be a General because you're making my Privates stand to attention." is a sure fire winner). Instead he simply pointed to the direction they should be heading. And so with haste Moberly and Jourdain made their way over a bridge and finally to the gardens in front of the palace.

There Moberly noticed a woman sketching on the grass, wearing a light summer dress and shady white hat on top of a bundle of fair hair. While Jourdain did not see this woman, the lady left such an impression on Moberly that days later she could recall her features vividly. Moberly would later become convinced that the person she saw that day was none other than Marie Antoinette.

Eventually colour returned to the world and Moberly and Jourdain joined up with a group of other visitors to complete the tour, And then they went back to the apartment in Paris and didn't discuss the incident for an entire week. Because that's how British people deal with stuff like this. Something crazy happens? It'll soon pass. In the meantime sit down, have a cup of tea, and complain about the weather and how Kit Kats aren't as nice as they used to be. After a while though Moberly was composing a letter to her sister about her trip to the palace and asked Jourdain if she thought it was haunted. "Hell yes!" was Jourdain's response (Gee Note: Or words to that effect. What am I? "Mister History"?), and so they decided to write separate accounts of what they saw and compare notes, while at the same time researching the history of the Palace of Versailles. They returned to the scene on a number of occasions, but were unable to retrace their steps. Several landmarks including cottages, the bridge, and the kiosk were missing. More importantly the grounds were choc-a-bloc full of people whenever they returned, as opposed to the very few souls they encountered on August 10.

Convinced that something completely out of the ordinary had happened to them Moberly and Jourdain decided to tell the world of their story. Realising that their tale might be a bit too wacky for their academic friends they released a book detailing their experience under the pseudonyms Elizabeth Morrison and Frances Lamont. Entitled “An Adventure” it was published in 1911 and caused quite the uproar. The reaction ranged from at best polite snickering to at worst outright cries of balderdash. These women are deluded, they said. They had obviously stumbled across a private party of some sort, said some. They perhaps had partaken in too much of the local vino, said others. And besides, they all agreed, there is not now nor has there ever been a bridge in that part of the Palace.

Which is all well and good. Except Moberly and Jourdain weren’t simpletons who if you told them the moon was made out of cheese would believe you without questioning it. They were two women who were both extensively educated and highly intelligent. The reason they didn’t put their own names on “An Adventure” was that they were well aware they would be met with ridicule. In fact it wasn’t until 1931 that their true identities were revealed, some seven years after Jourdain had passed away. Which would suggest that neither was actively looking for fame or notoriety.

Since then many modern day scholars have thrown their lot in to ring. Literary critic Terry Castle claims Moberly and Jourdain were involved in some kind of lesbian folie à deux (Gee Note: Which if I said it would be insensitive and crass, but because Terry Castle is a woman its fine I guess), while noted dandy Philippe Jullian says the whole thing was a soiree thrown by poet Robert de Montesquiou that Moberly and Jourdain accidentally stumbled upon.

Except Moberly and Jourdain checked the Palace records and found no evidence of any event or private gathering held on August 10 1901. And just because two women hang around together doesn’t make them lesbians any more than Ernie and Bert sharing a bed in Sesame Street makes them gay (Gee Note: This argument sounded much better in my head than it does typed out). Of course they may very well have been lovers. But it appears the only evidence supporting this claim is that they were both professional women who never married. And I’m pretty sure there’s a bit more to being a lesbian than simply lacking a husband. Of course the folie à deux theory fits better if Moberly and Jourdain were an item, as one could be more easily influenced by the other. But, oh I don’t know, there’s something about this idea that doesn’t quite wash. Shared delusions are a recognised psychic phenomenon, but Moberly and Jourdain were so shocked they didn’t even talk about for days on end. It wasn’t the case that one was egging the other on. Quite the opposite in fact.

So is it possible that Moberly and Jourdain travelled back in time to the days before the French monarchy lost their heads?

Well you scoff (Gee Note: Yes you do. I’m watching you right now through your webcam. Also, put some trousers on. Where were you born? In a zoo?) but there’s one very interesting thing to consider. Remember that bridge Moberly and Jourdain crossed, the one that never ever existed ever? Well it did exist. A map of the Palace grounds dated 1790 was discovered in 1903, showing a hitherto unknown bridge exactly where Moberly and Jourdain had described. 1790 of course being a full three years before Marie Antoinette was executed by revolutionaries.

It could also all be nonsense. A shared delusion, or a misunderstanding, or even a prank. After all time travel is impossible.

Just ask Professor Du.

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