The Time Machine
from the book, "Petrified Lightning"

Petrified Lightning

The Time Machine

Is travel through time really restricted to the realm of science fiction? No, not entirely! Centuries ago man invented an instrument that would permit Earthlings to witness events as they happened and things as they appeared in the very distant past. This window into days and eons gone by is a well—known, much—used instrument called the telescope.

Contrary to popular opinion, Galileo did not invent the telescope. A Dutch optician, Hans Lippershey (1570—1619), is usually credited with its actual invention, although other people, long forgotten, had experimented with lenses and almost certainly had discovered the principle before Lippershey assembled lenses into a telescope. However, Galileo very likely was the first to view the magnificence of our solar system. And when he turned his telescope toward outer space, he was among the first time travelers.

Galileo got himself into a lot of trouble because of his telescopic revelations. Back in the late 16th century, the only acceptable belief was that Earth was the center of the universe. It did not move because every celestial body, including the sun, revolved around Earth. This viewpoint was first challenged by Nicolaus Copernicus in 1530 but for obvious reasons was not published until 1533, while he lay on his deathbed. Copernicus, ignoring the wisdom of Ptolemy and the ancients, had displaced man from the center of the universe.

To agree with Copernicus was unhealthful in those days. One Giordano Bruno could attest to that; for he was burned at the stake in Rome in 1600 because of his heretical views that Earth, "this center," moved. Shortly afterward Galileo was seeing unseemly sights through his telescope: craters on the moon, satellites of Jupiter, the ring of Saturn. Much of what he saw proved that the earth was not the center of the universe. After writing his Dialogue on the Great World Systems in 1632, he too found himself up before the inquisitors. Rather than sacrifice his work and himself, he recanted and confessed his error in confirming Copernicus. According to legend, after recanting he quietly muttered, "yet it moves!" His last 10 years were spent in internal exile, under close watch, just as a modern parolee reports periodically to the parole officer. Galileo's name was cleared a few centuries after his death. In 1979 the Pope declared that the Church's verdict on Galileo should be reexamined.

Light travels over 186,000 miles per second (six trillion miles per year). The light that reaches us from the sun left its source eight minutes earlier to make the 93—million—mile trip to the earth. On a clear dark night, an observer can see, even with the naked eye, a sky full of twinkling stars. In most cases the light one sees left the star many eons ago. Even within our solar system, the light reflected from Pluto takes five hours to reach Earth. At 24 trillion miles our nearest star, Alpha Centauri, is a little farther than four light—years away. The astronomer's telescope is, in effect, a modern time machine, for it reveals remote areas of the universe as they appeared up to billions of years ago. If there are planetary systems around Antares in Scorpio and Betelgeuse in Orion, their inhabitants can see Columbus discovering America in about 15 years.

In 1975 a very distant galaxy was discovered, over eight billion light—years from Earth and still receding. The light seen by the astronomer left this galaxy eight billion years ago to make the 48—nonillion (30 zeros) mile trip to the earth. Since Earth is only about 4.6 billion years old, the astronomer observing this galaxy sees it as it appeared nearly 3.5 billion years before Earth was born. Unfortunately the viewer from the distant galaxy training a telescope toward our solar system will have to wait 3.5 billion years to see an event of great importance on our planet—its birth.

If you ever give a telescope to a travel or history enthusiast, a perfectly appropriate label for the package would be "Enclosed: one time machine."