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We are urging the Kenyans to be calm, to have peace when voting. They vote and go back to their homes waiting for the outcome.
MEGAN WILLIAMS: She supports Kenya's incumbent leader in today's presidential elections. Many of her fellow Kenyans will vote for change from the opposition. But what she and so many others across Kenya, East Africa and the wider world are hoping for today is that the violence that marred presidential elections there, 10 years ago, can be avoided this time around. The run up to today's vote has already been marked with reports of violence, including the torture and killing of an election official. We go to Nairobi, first up today for the latest in the Kenyan elections as they unfold. We'll take a look at what they mean for the future of a would-be beacon of African democracy. Then, we'll travel not across space but across time.
I can't think of any science fiction novel where somebody manages to kill baby Hitler and everybody lives happily ever after. There's no world war two. There's no holocaust. It never works that way.
MW: And writer James Gleick has studied quite a bit of science fiction, science fact and everything else in between. He's an historian of time travel. The way it's gripped our imaginations and the paradoxes and puzzles it inevitably gives rise to. We'll hear from James Gleick in about half an hour from now. Or, you can just worm hole it there now. I'm Megan Williams and this is the summer edition of The Current.Back To Top »
Kenyans on edge as presidential vote puts democracy to the test
Guests: John-Allen Namu, Gabrielle Lynch
When people scrambling to get into the queues, then I think there's a hot tempered police officer, he just threw the tear gas into [unintelligible], I mean in front of the people and unfortunately, on the frontline where the women with the children, the pregnant women and the old, you see. So they were the most affected. People ran over them. So when we went out, police they threw people out and then another tear gas was thrown. So, you see, two which means they knew what they are doing.
MW: An eyewitness describes a chaotic scene at a polling station in Nairobi, this morning, as Kenyans lined up in the early hours eager to vote. The election is being watched closely across Africa and the world. That's because Kenya, East Africa's biggest economy with some 19 million people registered to vote, has long been held up as a democratic success story. But during elections tensions can boil over. Memories remain fresh from 10 years ago. The 2007 elections broke out in violence and left more than 1200 people dead. Today's vote between two dueling political dynasties is expected to be tight and the lead up has already been marked by violence. A senior Kenyan election official, working to keep the vote fair, was found tortured and killed last week. One person keeping a close eye on today's vote is John-Allen Namu. He's a Kenyan investigative journalist and co-founder of the media publication Africa Uncensored. He joins us now from Nairobi. Hello.
JOHN-ALLEN NAMU: Hi, Megan.
MW: I understand voting is now under way. What's the mood like there?
JOHN-ALLEN NAMU: Well it's fairly calm, across most of the polling stations in the city, it is very calm. In fact the clip that you played at the top of this report is one of the exceptions to the rule. I've been around a number of the polling stations, actually quite close to where that chaos broke out, and although things are calm, things are moving smoothly. But, by and large, has been fairly good reports about how electronic identification [unintelligible] is working. And even if the lines are moving slowly, they are moving people are fairly satisfied with the voting process, so far.
MW: Election official Chris Msando was found dead about 10 days ago. How has his murder affected the mood among voters?
JOHN-ALLEN NAMU: The [unintelligible] election definitely affected the overall psyche of the country, going forward to the election, because of Msando’s role specifically. Msando was acting director of the ICT of the Independent and Electoral Boundaries Commission. And he was charged with rolling out a new electoral management system that included some very important electronic aspects; voter identification and registration and the electronic transmission of the results, to be able to ensure that the votes are free and fair that there's no ballot stuffing or rigging in various spots across the country. And I've spoken to him a few weeks before his murder and he spoke very confidently about how well the system was going to work. Going through the days after his murder, really were tense time for the country, as both coalition both main political formations ask for investigations to be held, rather speedily and to death. But frankly, there has been no answers that have come out as yes. Thankfully, for a number of workers across the country, that doesn't seem to have affected the mood today. It remains to be seen whether the [unintelligible] will come up once the vote counting starts after polls close at
6pm this evening.
MW: Right. Now, let's back up a bit. Can you tell us about the two men facing off against each other in this race? There's no incumbent president Uhuru Kenyatta and the opposition leader Raila Odinga.
JOHN-ALLEN NAMU: Yes, well, Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga are facing each other, for the second time, in that election. The first time being in 2013, although they have been on opposite sides of political formations before, way back in 2007, perhaps one of Kenya's most infamous elections. We're looking at the son of Kenya’s founding president Jomo Kenyatta, and has made his way up to the higher reaches of power through what was first the ruling party KANU, before founding the National Alliance Party, which now formed into yet another coalition, while Raila Odinga is a veteran politician, having been jailed for a number of years after his alleged role in 1982 coup in this country. He's widely seen and widely regarded by Kenyans as a person who fought for the democratization of the country, fought for multi-partism and was part of the first political party that was formed, after multi-partism was made legal again.
JOHN-ALLEN NAMU: It was done to the first vice president of the country, Jaramogy Odinga
MW: Right. Now if Odinga manages to win how will that impact Kenya?
JOHN-ALLEN NAMU: It really remains to be seen. But I think for his supporters he definitely will be positive. This will be the first time in Kenya's history, if Raila Odinga wins, that an incumbent has not finished his term. So it would be historic in that sense, and a sigh of relief for a number of voters in his camp, specifically hardliners who think that the past two elections that he participated in were stolen elections where he was robbed of victory. He said that repeatedly, including today. In terms of the overall effect on the country, the systems are strong enough to be able to withstand whichever presidency and really to manage with whichever individual comes into that office.
MW: Now human rights organizations have raised numerous concerns about this election. Otsieno Namwaya is an African researcher for Human Rights Watch. We spoke to him earlier and here's some of what he had to say.
OTSIENO NAMWAYA: Between 2013 and 2017, we have witnessed a rolling back of some of the gains in human rights that had been realized before 2013, especially on freedom of the press, deterioration or restrictions on civil society groups, and generally abuses by police and other security agencies, and lack of accountability for the same. In most cases, I think the threat violence is linked to the public exchanges between the two leading presidential candidates. That is the current president, Uhuro Kenyatta, and the leading opposition candidate, Raila Odinga. So each time they engage in a public exchange, the tensions on the ground increase. Our best hope is that the election goes well and people trust the process, that it is free and fair, and therefore there are no disputes and public protests, because that is eventually what leads to serious human rights abuses.
MW: John-Allen Namu, what do you make of those concerns?
JOHN-ALLEN NAMU: Well, that's true. Over the past four and a half years, there definitely has been a rollback in terms of human rights, especially with regard to impunity within various sectors of the police force in dealing with various crimes, like terrorism. And the number of extra judicial executions that have been reported or people from low income areas to people who serve in a legal fraternity are quite a number. So that has been a major concern for human rights organizations, as well as a stain on the legacy of the Jubilee government. Now whether it was the violence that people are afraid of during the election is related to the two leading presidential candidates, yes. Every time there is a speech that seems accusatory or seems rather aggressive from either side, and that ramps up tension on the ground. However, I have to [unintelligible] to say that, at least within the last few days, there have been a few more conciliatory comments that have calmed things down a bit. But the more important period in an election is when counting starts. That is when the eyes of the nation will be turned to the Electoral and Boundaries Commission, as well as the statements that are made from either side. This is a hyper political time. And any statement could really lead to protest, either by the opposition, or a statement that that is perceived to be in support of a process that does not and seems to be free and fair widely. So, that is where we are right now.
MW: Right, now no doubt you'll be keeping a very close watch on the situation after the election. What will you be watching for to gauge for the health of Kenya's democracy?
JOHN-ALLEN NAMU: Well, first of all, the things that we should be watching for are mistakes that are made in 2015. The chief mistake that was made, was by the Electoral and Boundaries Commission, in the transmission of results in a timely fashion, and the conclusion of the voting during the voting hours, as well as in the counting of votes to ensure that there is padding, especially in party strongholds. That we are hoping to see, perhaps the impact of electoral management and management system kick in minimizing these kinds of effects. But going forward, it is in the statements of politicians whether they endorse this election as being free and fair. That often leads to violence.
MW: Right. Okay, thank you very much.
JOHN-ALLEN NAMU: Alright. Thank you.
MW: John-Allen Namu is a Kenyan investigative journalist and co-founder of the media publication Africa Uncensored. He was in Nairobi, Kenya. For her perspective on the election and the state of democracy in Kenya, I am now joined by Gabrielle Lynch. She's a professor of comparative politics at the University of Warwick in the UK and an expert in Kenyan politics. We've reached her in Norwok, Kenya. Hello.
GABRIELLE LYNCH: Hi. How are you?
MW: Fine. You're in Kenya right now, monitoring the vote. What are you seeing so far?
GABRIELLE LYNCH: Well, I'm down in Norwok in the Southwest [unintelligible] and so far things have been very calm and there's been a few minor issues to deal with - a couple of polling stations opening a little late or some of the machines are not recognizing everybody's fingerprints but minor issues. Otherwise, process so far, in this part of the country, going ahead very smoothly.
MW: So how would you describe what's at stake for Kenyans in this election?
GABRIELLE LYNCH: I think people feel that a lot is at stake. For many Kenyans, there's a strong feeling that if their preferred candidate wins, then they will benefit personally and that if the other leader wins that they might actually lose out. And they start modularization, that for the presidential race. But then, you also have five other elected posts that people are voting on today.
MW: Hmm. And what about neighboring countries? I mean what effect will the outcome of the election have on the countries around Kenya?
GABRIELLE LYNCH: I mean that depends on how the rest of the process goes. And how the losers respond to the results and whether they concede defeat or to decide to dispute the results. So in 2007 when you had the post-election violence, it has had a massive impact on neighboring countries in terms of its stopping supply of oil along the road to Uganda, for example. So it really does depend on how the rest of the process goes and how the politicians respond to results.
MW: Right. Yesterday the United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights put out a press release saying: “Kenya had made significant progress since 2007 in strengthening democracy human rights and the rule of law.” Do you agree?
GABRIELLE LYNCH: I think the record has been mixed. There have been improvements in the electoral commission in terms of logistics, in terms of increasing the number compensation, for example so that the queues are shorter. There is also evidence that the parliament and judiciary are becoming more independent. But it is not a single track moving forward. There is also some evidence of steps backwards, for example, an increase in extrajudicial killings over the last few years. So I wouldn't say that it was an overall movement forward I would say that the track record is mixed, at the moment.
MW: As we've heard Chris Msando, who was in charge of the electronic voting system at the independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission, was murdered in the lead up to the election. What has that done to confidence that this will be a fair election?
GABRIELLE LYNCH: I think Christian Msando’s murder has really affected the mood around this election. It has increased people's fears about electoral malpractice and it may also play into people's perceptions, if anything goes wrong with the election technology. So far it's working relatively well, but we're only halfway through the day, and we still have the transmission of votes ahead of us. And that was one of the things that he was in charge of. So, there is a fear amongst people that if that goes wrong, it will be blamed on his death. And then people would [unintelligible]. There's a perception that people will say: “Ah! Msando was murdered so that XYZ.” So, I think that it really has affected the mood around elections.
MW: Right. Last Tuesday, CBC News As It Happens interviewed Abdullahi Halakhe. He's a researcher for Amnesty International in Nairobi. He was asked about events leading up to this election. Listen to some of what he had to say.
ABDULLAHI HALAKHE: There are too many things that have happened. I'll just take you back a little bit. The opposition party coalition came out and said, you know .the government is intending to use the military to read the elections, right. On Saturday, while the deputy president's house was raided by a machete wielding you know, lone person. On Saturday or Sunday, we are being told Chris has disappeared. On Monday, we are being told Chris's body has been found. So, all these things, you know, cast a dark cloud over the electoral process, whether its legitimacy whether it is the trust in the institutions that are going to deliver these. So, I think a lot of people are not a good place, they will say: “Look, this is got to be a free, fair, peaceful and legitimate elections.”
MW: That was Amnesty International's Abdullahi Halakhe, on As It Happens, last Tuesday. Gabrielle Lynch, what can be done to strengthen confidence in democratic institutions in Kenya?
GABRIELLE LYNCH: I think of the things that would really help strengthen democratic institutions is this election continuing to go ahead relatively smoothly. There is a loser conceding defeat. But I just said we are still very early on in the process. In past elections, the problems haven't really been during the voting, they've been during the counting and tallying. So we have to see whether the experience of this election ultimately will contribute to the strengthening of the Electoral Commission and the people’s perception in other democratic institutions.
MW: Hmm. Are there any other African countries that can sort of serve as a strong democratic example with strong institutions, for Kenya?
GABRIELLE LYNCH: Yes. There are examples. One good one is Ghana, where you had a peaceful transfer of power last December, but where you also have an electoral commission that has strength, and over a period of electoral cycles. This is in part because they have overseen a number of peaceful transfers of power. But it's also because of the approach that they've taken on to dialogue with political parties and other stakeholders. We have a number of advisory committees in Ghana where electoral commission officials regularly meet with party officials and other stakeholders to discuss the electoral process and to agree on a series of reforms, in each electoral cycle. So, there are lessons from other countries on the continent.
MW: Okay. And when do you think we'll know if this was indeed a free and fair election in Kenya?
GABRIELLE LYNCH: When will we know?
MW: Yeah. When will you have a sense that this election was a transparent and free election?
GABRIELLE LYNCH: Not until the co-chief is over. I mean so far there have seen allegations of various problems, for example around the register. But we won't know until later on in this process. For example, if some of the people, you know, allegations that there are dead people on the vote I mean those registrations the votes to register whether any of those people have been able to vote or not. So, whether people have been able to vote for them. So it's really going to be at the end of the process once people have voted, once the votes have been counted and tallied and then the results have been announced, and people have then analyzed the data to see if the results were announced were the same ones that were collected at the polling station by various party agents and observers.
MW: Okay, thank you very much.
GABRIELLE LYNCH: Thank you.
MW: Gabrielle lynch is a professor of comparative politics at the University of Warwick in the UK. She's an expert in Kenyan politics and we reached her in Norwok, Kenya. The CBC News is next. Then:
VOICE: H.G. Wells’s this time machine was published 10 years before Einstein first published any inkling of his theory of relativity and Wells said the time is a fourth dimension. And he thought he was just inventing a fanciful idea that was going to be useful for his story to justify it. He thought it was a trick. And then ten years later, Einstein said essentially the same thing; Time is just like a fourth dimension. And we, more or less, take that for granted today. Right. I mean, I think you can find eight year olds arguing about whether time is the fourth dimension. That's pretty familiar to us.
MW: The acclaimed science writer James Gleick takes on the history and future of time travel in his latest book. And you'll hear his interview with Anna Maria Tremonti in the very near future. I'm Megan Williams and you're listening to the summer edition of The Current.
[Music]Back To Top »
ENCORE | 'Imagine what might have been': Author James Gleick's time travel adventure
Guest: James Gleick
MW: Hello I'm Megan Williams and you're listening to the summer edition of The Current.
MW: Up next: Back to the future and forward to the past. The Curious History of traveling through time.
MR. PEABODY: A question Sherman, where is Toronto?
SHERMAN: Out on the reservation with the lone ranger Mr. Peabody.
MR. PEABODY: [Laughs] You’re close. Actually, Toronto is in Canada and that is our destination for today.
SHERMAN: What great name in history are we going to meet up there?
MR. PEABODY: Constable Archibald Willy.
SHERMAN: Never heard of him.
MR. PEABODY: He was the first Royal Canadian Mounted Policeman. I instructed chairman to set the way back machine for the year 1869, the place and outpost in the wilderness territory of Toronto. And before you could say halt or I’ll shoot, we were standing inside the post headquarters [peculiar goofy sound effect] watching a very irate Constable Willy.
SHERMAN: What’s the matter Mr. Peabody, he’s tearing the place to pieces.
MR. PEABODY: Looking for something Constable?
ARCHIBALD WILLY: Yes, by [unintelligible] a new job.
SHERMAN: You mean you’re quitting the Mounties?
ARCHIBALD WILLY: Yes, the whole thing is a bast. For my very first case, I’m supposed to bring in Ottawa O’Toole.
SHERMAN: Well, bring him in.
ARCHIBALD WILLY: I can’t.
MR. PEABODY: Why not?
ARCHIBALD WILLY: Because of our motto. We always get our man. Ottawa O’Toole is a girl.
MW: Well, that might just take you back in time. Sherman and his dog Peabody from the Rocky and Bullwinkle Show, in the 1960s and yes in case you're wondering constable Willy did eventually arrest Ottawa O'Toole. But as with all time travel that excursion to the past raises an interesting philosophical question; what if Sherman and Peabody hadn't traveled back in time and are intervened? The consequences for Canada are almost too dire to consider. Well, author James Gleick has spent a lot of time lately puzzling over the paradoxes of time travel. He's written a number of bestselling books about science and technology and his latest is called Time Travel, a History. Anna Maria Tremonti reached to James Gleick in New York City, last November.
ANNA MARIA TREMONTI: Hello.
JAMES GLEICK: Hello.
AMT: I've got to confess, I remember that show. [Laughs]
JAMES GLEICK: I do too.
AMT: Well, when we talk about time travel what do we mean?
JAMES GLEICK: We mean anything we want it to mean these days. But originally it started with H.G. Wells and he meant getting onto a machine. He invented the time machine in 1895 and sent it forward into the future to see what things were going to be like. And before that there was no such thing as time travel. Now we have time travel everywhere, so we can talk about imaginary time travel and we can recognize that books are time machines and we can use television cartoon shows to send our kids hurtling into an imaginary past.
AMT: So for those who have not read The Time Machine, give us a brief synopsis of the plot.
JAMES GLEICK: Well, the plot actually to me becomes the least interesting part of it. Wells wanted to tell a story about what the future might be like and if, I think a lot of our listeners probably do have some at least vague recollection of the time machine, but it tends to be as much from the movie as from the book, and the movie keeps changing the plot. There's a girl in the future named Weena who in the 1960 movie is played by Yvette Mimieux. And there are much more elaborate romantic scenes than there were in H.G. Wells’ original version. But the main thing about the book is the initial device where the time traveler has to explain to his friends that everything they know about time is wrong.
AMT: And so how does he explain the ability to move through time?
JAMES GLEICK: Well, he says remember in school they taught you about geometry and there were only three dimensions. Well I've got news for you, time is a fourth dimension. And my little machine can move through it just the way, you know, we move through the first three dimensions. And yet in his era it wasn't that easy to move through the vertical dimension but at least they were starting to have balloons and elevators.
AMT: The book touched off a philosophical debate about time travel. What were some of the problems philosophers were moved to contemplate?
JAMES GLEICK: Well the problems really arose when people started to go backwards through time, which H.G. Wells never thought of doing, and that that's sort of odd in itself. You'd think a guy like him who was interested in history would have wanted to take his time machine back and meet Queen Elizabeth, or well I guess it's reasonable that he didn't care about the formation of the Canadian Mounties.
JAMES GLEICK: But when you go back in time weird things can happen. What if you meet yourself, then what?
AMT: And what would you do that changes something and how do you, what do you –
JAMES GLEICK: And if you start to have a conversation as people do in some of the early time travel stories, then you think well shouldn't one of these people remember the conversation because they had it already? And then other paradoxes come into play. For example, a lot of people have heard of the grandfather paradox, which goes something like what if you could go back in time and kill your grandfather. Why it's the grandfather and not the grandmother, I don't know. But that's how always is. And then you will never be born and then you can never go back in time to kill your grandfather so you should be born. And so you're in one of these impossible loops.
AMT: Mm, I like that one. When we think of time and space a lot of people immediately think of Albert Einstein. How important did Einstein's theories become in time travel literature?
JAMES GLEICK: Well there is this peculiar coincidence that H.G. Wells’ time machine was published ten years before Einstein first published any inkling of his theory of relativity. And Wells said that time is a fourth dimension and he thought he was just inventing a fanciful idea that was going to be useful for his story to justify it, he thought it was a trick. And then ten years later Einstein said essentially the same thing. Time is just like a fourth dimension. And we more or less take that for granted today, right? I mean, I think you can find eight-year-olds arguing about whether time is the fourth dimension, it's pretty familiar to us. Physicists do like to think of our universe as a four dimensional space time continuum where the future and the past are just other parts of the big block. And so, if you imagine the universe that way it is sort of plausible that time travel could exist. You can imagine, for example, going through a wormhole as physicists like to do now a days. Maybe you saw the movie Interstellar, where our space travelers went through a wormhole to go back to the past. That's sort of thing that the modern physicist likes to speculate about.
AMT: Well, and we can talk about some modern physicists or we can go right to The Simpsons, and I have a clip for you. [Laughs] We have a clip of Homer Simpson traveling back in time when he accidentally turns his toaster into a time machine. Listen to this.
[Music: fantastical orchestra]
HOMER SIMPSON: I’ve gone back to the time when dinosaurs weren’t just confined to zoos.
[Sound: dinosaur scream]
HOMER SIMPSON: OK, don’t panic. Remember the advice your father gave you on your wedding day.
[Sound: dream noise]
ABE SIMPSON: If you ever travel back in time don't step on anything because even the tiniest change can alter the future in ways you can’t imagine.
[Sound: dream noise]
HOMER SIMPSON: As long as I stand perfectly still and don't touch anything I won’t destroy the future.
[Sound: bug buzzing]
HOMER SIMPSON: Stupid bug, you go squish now.
[Sound: Homer squashes bug]
[Sound: bug stops buzzing]
HOMER SIMPSON: [gasps] But that was just one little insignificant mosquito, that can’t the future, right? Right?
DINOSAUR: I don’t know.
AMT: James Gleick, we’re finding all the clips.
JAMES GLEICK: Perfect. Well I love the toaster, isn't the toaster one of the very best of all time machines, you know, besides the DeLorean and the various time portals in Star Trek and the blue police box in Doctor Who. But that Simpsons clip is stolen, not counting the toaster, it's stolen from a wonderful Ray Bradbury short story called The Sound of Thunder, where a sort of safari organization exists to send bored huntsman, that is they're bored with hunting elephants, so they want to go back into the past and hunt dinosaurs. And the thesis of the story is exactly what you just heard on The Simpsons, that they have to be careful not to change anything. They're only supposed to kill dinosaurs that are already about to die because they're sick and old and they're not allowed to get off the path. And in this story, a hapless safari hunter accidentally steps on a butterfly and changes the future.
AMT: And we now talk about a butterfly effect.
JAMES GLEICK: [laughs] Well, that's another of these odd coincidences. And one of the themes of my book about time travel is the way ideas seem to bleed back and forth from popular culture and serious science. The butterfly effect is a serious part of chaos theory that was invented by a meteorologist Edward Lorenz, and I have no idea whether Lorenz chose the butterfly consciously or unconsciously because he had read Ray Bradbury’s story.
AMT: And what are some of the arguments against the butterfly effect on history?
JAMES GLEICK: Well, it doesn't have to be true that some tiny change a million years ago would have gigantic effects on the course of history. You might imagine that the forces of history are mainly big themes and that the only things that matter are the giant events and, you know, economic forces and political forces, and then if you make a little change in history it'll just get washed away in the great currents of things. These are things that historians argue about seriously and they turn up in every time somebody else starts to write a new time travel story that involves changing the past. He or she has to think about these issues. You know, how easy is it to change the past? And if you do change the past, do you get the kinds of effects that you expect? I think you know, the great example of that is the one everybody likes to speculate about is what if you could go back in time and kill Hitler before it was too late?
AMT: It's funny that you bring that up because I have another clip. [Laughs]
JAMES GLEICK: Go.
AMT: And it is a clip of Jeb Bush
JAMES GLEICK: [laughs]
AMT: The failed Republican presidential candidate. He was asked about some of the questions he received on the campaign before he dropped out and that was actually one of them. Have a listen.
VOICE 1: Baby Hitler.
VOICE 2: We have a request for Baby Hitler.
JEB BUSH: He said if you could go back in time and kill baby Hitler, would you? I need to know.
VOICE 3: Hell yeah I would.
VOICE 2: Even if he was really cute?
JEB BUSH: No, look, you got to, you got to step up man, I mean, that would be key. The problem with going back in history and doing that is as we know from the series, what was the name of the Michael Fox movies?
VOICE 2: Back to the Future.
JEB BUSH: Back to the Future. It could have a dangerous effect on everything else.
VOICE 2: There’s a lot to consider.
JEB BUSH: But I'd do it. I mean, Hitler.
VOICE 2: Oh, you’re down. I mean, there’s no backing out now.
AMT: OK, there you go, it sounds like that he was on the plane and they were just killing time there. But what do you think about his answer on killing baby Hitler?
JAMES GLEICK: Yeah, we learned quite a few things from that answer don't we? One thing we learned is those Bushes really like to be tough guys. Another thing we learn is that everybody is very familiar with these issues now. Time travel is so much in our heads, and he remembers Back to the Future and he realizes that when you try to change history, the effects might be what you expect. And when you read a lot of the science fiction literature that has actually explored the question of killing Hitler, you discover that most writers, and I don't know if this is a reflection of their fear of what reality is actually like or the demands of storytelling, but for one reason or another it never works out the way they want. I can't think of any science fiction novel where somebody manages to kill baby Hitler and everybody lives happily ever after. There's no World War II, there's no Holocaust. It never works that way either. Either they're not able to kill Hitler, the gun jams, or they get to the wrong place or something else goes wrong. Or it turns out that something even worse happens because of their attempt to kill Hitler.
AMT: And so that idea of going back in time to kill him, when was that first written about it?
JAMES GLEICK: Incredibly, the first story I found that involves fantasizing about killing Hitler was written in 1941, just as World War II was starting. And well before the full horrors of the Holocaust were known. Hitler was such a, well I guess if you're going to imagine changing the past there's no more obvious villain, right?
AMT: But even in 1941, what was the plotline of that story?
JAMES GLEICK: The plot line was some kind of, it was by a man named Ralph Milner, and I forget the details, but I do remember that it just doesn't work. And, you know, nowadays I don't know if you've heard this in Canada but here in the US we're starting to wonder what if you could go back in time and teach manners to baby Trump.
AMT: [Laughs] What do you think of that?
JAMES GLEICK: [Laughs] Oh God, if only.
AMT: There have been a lot of tyrants in history, why again are so many literary assassins focusing on Hitler, traveling back to get him?
JAMES GLEICK: Hitler is pretty exceptional. Hitler’s the one and only. I mean, people have also speculated about trying to prevent the assassination of Lincoln. That's turned up a number of times and I think it's showing up on a new network television show about time travel.
AMT: And one of the scientists who's had a hard time with time travel is Stephen Hawking. You write about a party he threw for time travelers, what happened?
JAMES GLEICK: [laughs] Hawking is another one of these physicists who both loves the idea of time travel but also knows in his heart that it isn't really possible. And he announced a party and sent out invitations and said dear time travelers here's a party that took place a few weeks ago. Please come. And then he observed that nobody came. And so he announced that he had proved that time travel does not exist because the time travelers from the future are not among us.
AMT: So interesting. I want to stay with the idea of changing history. I've got another clip for you, this is from the very first episode of another 1960s show called The Time Tunnel. I remember this one too. It's in this scene, a scientist travels back in time. Listen.
DR. TONY NEWMAN: Captain I must tell you something.
CAPTAIN SMITH: Yes, of course Mr. Newman, what did you want to say?
DR. TONY NEWMAN: I don't know how to say it without sounding like I’m out of my mind.
CAPTAIN SMITH: [laughs] Come, come, my dear fellow, you’re dissatisfied with your accommodations of the food or perhaps you’ve misplaced something and you're afraid it's been stolen, in any case I’ll show you--
DR. TONY NEWMAN: [interposing] Captain, this ship is the Titanic.
CAPTAIN SMITH: Is that what you had to tell me?
DR. TONY NEWMAN: What I mean sir is the Titanic sank, it struck an iceberg and was lost.
CAPTAIN SMITH: Sank. This is our maiden voyage sir, that means our first voyage. I trust this is not some poor attempt at a practical joke.
DR. TONY NEWMAN: No Captain, it’s not a joke, I swear to you. How can I make you understand?
AMT: Well of course, Captain Smith did not heed a warning from the future. If he had, the Titanic would have arrived safely in New York. How much of our desire for time travel is based on that desire to warn ourselves about looming disaster or heartache and to try to avoid it?
JAMES GLEICK: Yeah, certainly in all of our lives we have things that we wish we could redo. We wish we could get a do over free of charge. It is sort of sad that they always fail to heed the warnings and that's because again there are all these paradoxes that emerge. What if he did heed the warning?
AMT: So what's the lesson for us? I don't know. Could time travel actually have prevented something or changed something?
JAMES GLEICK: I think that the lesson is let our imaginations be time machines. You know, time is brutal, time imprisons us. It's no wonder that we want to escape from it. Time buries us all. I think more and more these days we feel trapped in a present that is full of multiple channels of information. The present is expanding in scary ways. Virginia Woolf said, what more terrifying revelation can there be than that it is the present moment. That we survived the shock at all is only possible because the past shelters us on one side and the future on another. So no wonder we like to dream about the past and imagine the future. And if we can't get there by using a machine like H.G. Wells’, at least we can get there in our books and in our movies.
AMT: So it's about freedom.
JAMES GLEICK: it's about liberation, yeah. It's about staving off our own mortality.
AMT: And I guess that's why in 2011 China's State Administration of Radio, Film and Television denounced time travel.
JAMES GLEICK: [laughs] Yes, well and it's also because time travel is a subversive way of thinking about the world. It allows you to again imagine what might have been. Things don't have to be the way they are if you can go back to the past and change things. That's the point of a lot of these time travel fantasies.
AMT: So if Chairman Mao had not been able to make a long march what would have happened to China?
JAMES GLEICK: Exactly. You know, we can think maybe the world doesn't have to be the way it is. Maybe if, you know, maybe if somebody just a little more clever had had thought about electric cars instead of gasoline powered cars. We would have skipped the whole dependence on Middle Eastern oil problem or should I say Canadian oil.
AMT: Now you're getting into conspiracy theories because of course there are people who argue that the electric car was actually thwarted by those pushing the oil.
JAMES GLEICK: Well, you know, history unfolded in a certain way and some people like to think, well, it happened that way because it had to happen that way. But other people prefer to think well what if? What if it was different, what if you could do it over? Another version of this kind of fantasy that is in its own weird way a time travel story is Groundhog Day, the Bill Murray movie. Where he's not trying to change history, he is stuck in his present and relives the same day again and again starting at 6 o'clock in the morning, only gradually he learns that he can do it better. And so the whole movie becomes a sort of parable about what if you can live your life over and over again until you finally do it right? Isn't that an emotion that we all share at some time in our life one way or another? I haven't always been a science fiction buff myself, I've read sort of, you know, the usual space travel adventures when I was a teenager. But time travel has really embedded itself in our culture in just astonishing ways. Everybody knows about these stories and there, when I started working on the book four years ago, I was thinking well maybe the genre of time travel will finally burn itself out. You know, every possible story has been told what's there left to think of? But I'm almost embarrassed to admit that I thought that because I couldn't have been more wrong. And even while I was writing the book, people kept producing the most imaginative time travel fiction, time travel movies. I love the stuff that people are doing now.
AMT: It's interesting, you know, because it does capture the imagination, there is something magical and full of possibilities, and intrigue.
JAMES GLEICK: And Anna-Maria, where we where would you like to go? If you had a time machine and--
AMT: Hey, that's my question for you. [Laughs]
JAMES GLEICK: Oh no. Alright, well should I go first?
AMT: You go first.
JAMES GLEICK: I have to say, even though we've been talking a lot about the past, I always imagined that I wanted to go to the future. When I started working on the book I just thought well it was obvious that everybody would want to go to the future. And I have to admit nowadays I'm not quite as sure, the way we imagine the future has gotten a little bit gloomy. There are a lot of dystopias. We are not as excited as people were 100 years ago about all of the technological marvels that are likely to arrive and improve our lives because we've been disappointed so many times. So I'm not quite as sure, but I still think I'd like to go maybe just a little bit into the future to see what happens when we finally become one giant hive mind connected to the world brain. Resistance is futile.
AMT: I’d kind of like to go with you.
JAMES GLEICK: [laughs]
AMT: We’d do that together, we could take notes. Do you think time travel will ever be a reality?
JAMES GLEICK: No. Not in, I'm sorry, now I'm worried about disappointing all of my potential readers. But no. Not in the literal sense, that you're going to be able to get into a time machine and throw the lever. But I do think that time travel is a reality for all of us in ways that we are able to appreciate. Now, we are traveling through time in our networked lives, we are experiencing the past more and more vividly and imagining the future and creating the future as we go along. I hope that doesn't sound too sappy because it is what I feel. I think that we citizens of the 21st century are time travelers in ways that our grandparents couldn't have imagined.
AMT: So you're giving me the Wizard of Oz theory of time travel. The very thing we want we already have. [Laughs]
JAMES GLEICK: Well, that's one way to look at it. Of course, yeah, the corollary to that is that there's no place like home.
AMT: There you go. But in your book you ask why do we need time travel? What's your answer to that question?
JAMES GLEICK: We need it for freedom, we need it to counter regret, we need it for the mystery, we need it ultimately, we need it to to stave off death even for the short amounts of time that we're able to imagine little journeys into the past and into the future.
AMT: Well, James Gleick, our time is up but this conversation will live on in time. So thank you.
JAMES GLEICK: [Laughs] Thank you. It's been a pleasure.
MW: James Cleick’s new book is titled Time Travel, a History. He spoke with Anna Maria Tremonti last November from New York. That's our program for today. Stay tuned to Radio 1 for a new episode of the summer series On Drugs. This week it's the story of a drug that changed the world of psychiatric medicine forever but which you have likely never heard of. I am Megan Williams. Thanks for listening to the summer edition of The Current.
CBC would like to acknowledge the support of the Broadcasting Accessibility Fund.