A time-travel game

April 26, 2021 • 11:00 am

I was reading Anthony Grayling’s new (2019) history of philosophy last night. I’m only 70 pages in, and had to plow through all those boring pre-Socratic philosophers (he deals at the end with philosophy outside the Western tradition), but Anthony is smart enough and a good enough writer to make it all interesting. I’m looking forward to reading all 500-odd pages (click below to see the Amazon link):

And while I was reading about the early conception of atoms, I fantasizd about going back and telling people like Democritus that yes, there are atoms, but they are different from what he thought they were, and that they combined in molecules, and so on.  And then I thought about how much I could impart to the ancient Greeks if I had just one day to tell them what we’d learned by the 21st century. But then I realized that it would be useless, for I don’t speak ancient Greek and they wouldn’t understand English. It would be a futile exercise, and they’d probably kill me as a demon. Besides, there’s that effect of altering the future by imparting such stuff, an effect that was the subject of a science-fiction story I read as a kid but whose name I can’t recall.

But I also thought, “Wouldn’t it be cool to be in the agora in Athens and actually see Socrates engaged in a dialogue with someone?” He was described by Grayling as ugly, snub-nosed, and with bulging eyes, but I’d want to see that for myself. And I’d want to see Pericles and the whole of Athens in full flower. I’d love 24 hours in Athens around 440 B.C.

And so I propose a game, similar to one I’ve proposed before, but this one restricted to human history. Here are the rules:

1.) You are given 24 hours to be any place in the world during human history, but you have to specify a place and a date (or an event). You cannot go further back than ancient Egypt.

2.) You will be invisible, so you can run around at will and observe everything, but you cannot interact or communicate with anyone.

3.) You cannot have a tape recorder or a camera, but you are allowed a notebook and a pen to record what you want. You will not be able to understand the language unless you’ve learned it beforehand or already know it.

4.) At the end, you’re transported back to the present.

There are two ways to regard your journey: as a way to gather information about the past that is missing to historians, or as a way to satisfy your own curiosity. What you do is up to you.

Now think of all the choices! Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address (how did his voice sound?). The death of Julius Caesar! Charles Darwin, either on the Beagle or at home in Downe. Watch Michelangelo paint the dome of the Sistine Chapel. See Shakespeare at work! The possibilities are endless.

Think about this for a few minutes, and put your answer below. Although I’m drawn to Darwin, I couldn’t talk to him but could only see and hear him. And the idea of seeing Socrates (would I be able to know who he is?) still entices me. . . .


198 thoughts on “A time-travel game

        1. Decades, minimally.
          Centuries more likely. Unless the initial settlement took place by “island hopping” along the now-submerged coast, and the land-based members of the same tribes knew (by reports form the “seal hunters” that there was hunt-gather-survivable land in that direction, not just “more mountains”.
          More archaeologists are getting access to shallow (<100m depth) underwater drones, and the prospects for archaeological surveying of the interesting areas are better now than they were a decade ago.

      1. OK. Approximately contemporaneous with the building of the Pyramids (so there’s a century of duration there, plus another century of argument over “long” or “short” Egyptian dating), I’d be on Wrangel Island to watch the penultimate female mammoth give birth to the last female mammoth.

    1. You might very well need to live there for very many generations, and travel along every however many years, each time they ‘pull up stakes’ and move a bit further in an easterly direction, on that Bering land bridge—and then you must make a largely arbitrary line where one of them steps across from the land bridge somehow ‘onto’ North America. In fact not even stepping across from one geological plate to another (such as one can do in several places in Iceland, moving only a few hundred metres) could be used, because the plate called the North American Plate (IIRC) swings around and encompasses a chunk of what is now north-east Siberia.

      But somehow observing this really would be interesting.

      It would also be interesting to be in the mind of the first mythical North American person who clearly realizes that the widening gulf, as sea level rises, means they have no way to get back across, though only you would be aware of how permanent, in a sense, and how significant.

      I think the ancestors of present day Inuit only crossed a few thousand years ago. But they were extraordinarily ‘technologically’ advanced, with their kayaks etc. Later, a thousand years ago, along the west coast of Greenland, it is arguable that they were more advanced people than the Viking settlers there. Amundsen himself, a hundred years ago might likely agree.

      1. each time they ‘pull up stakes’ and move a bit further in an easterly direction, on that Bering land bridge

        Hunter-gatherer tribes generally have substantial ranges, and their hunting parties have to be self-sufficient. They’d have a decent knowledge of the landscape around them – out to several days of dog-sledding (say, 100 miles), and parties caught by the winter, then returning “home” in the spring after their funerals would be a reasonably frequent event.
        Maybe two summers later, they’d step out to “I know a good place”, with several women who really dislike the current “headwoman”.
        My ball-park estimate is on the order of 100km/generation, but it could be 200km/generation and not strain anything.
        But the people kayaking down the coast would be far ahead of the land-walkers.
        Ditto rivers.

        1. Would there have been something like kayaks there even close to 15,000-20,000 years ago? (something making almost open ocean travel possible)

          1. It’s around 40,000 years after some AMHs had sufficient understanding of sea transport to get to Australia. We don’t know what their technology was, but since it was a technology which was also potentially useful to their neighbours (on either side), it’s unlikely to have been lost.
            15,000km is a long way to travel, but the earlier AMHs had travelled a similar distance from the crossing of the Bab el Mandeb in the previous 10000 years, so there’s nothing inherently implausible about them doing the same travel again.
            Unfortunately, post-glacial sea level rise doesn’t help much with the archaeology of coastal communities. We need more seabed sonar, and aquatic surveying drones that can operate in about 100m of water.

  1. The Butterfly Effect – don’t know if the story was given that name, but I remember reading it and a Twilight Zone episode of it. Q: Darwin on the “Beatle”? I’d like to hear The Great Agnostic speak and be able to take notes!

    1. The story is ‘A Sound of Thunder’ by Ray Bradbury. A party of time travellers goes back to the Cretaceous. One of them accidentally treads on a butterfly. When they return to the present they find a number of random changes: words are spelled differently, the wrong person has won the election, and so on. Small event, far-reaching effects.

  2. It may already have been done. A prank may have made the licence plate number of the car in which Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated refer to the end date of World War I.

  3. How about going back to witness the crucifixion of Jesus? No, just kidding but how about watching Joseph Smith dig up the book of golden plates?

    Bur seriously, and thinking about time travel. it might be interesting to see and hear H. G. Wells. Perhaps at a meeting of the Fabian Society.

    And for anyone interested in the concept of time travel I highly recommend Time travel : a history by James Gleick. Pantheon Books 2016

      1. More like a significant non-event. That Joseph Smith actually dug up any gold plates suffers the same historicity problem as the crucifixion of Jesus (and many other purported religious events). Given a one-shot opportunity at time travel, I’d as lief waste it on Joseph Smith or Jesus as on watching Moses part the Red Sea or Noah lay the keel for his ark.

    1. Given you’ve only got 24 hours, surely the following Sunday at the tomb would be better.

      Of course, the probability is that you’ll find yourself standing at the edge of a mass grave filled with several bodies, any one of which could be Jesus and none of which will make any attempt to come back to life.

      1. Right. I tried to think of alleged historical events that have had significant influence on human culture. The Resurrection and Gabriel’s talk with Muhammad are the ones that popped to mind. I know it would not make much difference because people will believe what they so want to believe.

    2. Michael Moorcock’s Behold the Man does exactly this; it will warm the hearts of atheists everywhere. I’ve only read the original novella, but I don’t think the novel was much longer.

    3. Godel, around 1948, was the first to find solutions of Einstein’s General Relativity, to show that without additional assumptions, time travel is theoretically a possibility, does not violate the best theoretical physics of the time<– no pun intended, just accidental.

      1. Hmmm, several of those assertions require support. Gödel, interestingly weird maths. 1948? First (?) “solutions of” (?) GR … that showed TT is possible?

        1. With these brackets, it should be clearer:

          Godel, around 1948, was the first to find (solutions of Einstein’s General Relativity, to show that without additional assumptions, time travel is theoretically a possibility). I thought it was better known that he found solutions with closed time-like curves.

          It was not the first solution of the equation of course. You’ll find stuff about Godel’s solution in many places re his relationship with Einstein at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton: e.g. in his collected works, 3 volumes edited by Solomon Feferman; and in a book of essays in honour of Einstein where IIRC it was first published.

          Or see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gödel_metric

        1. I didn’t get these clues, and so Googled “December 17”. Under 1903, it said this “1903 – The Wright brothers make the first controlled powered, heavier-than-air flight in the Wright Flyer at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.”

          Now being there would have been something!

          1. If you enjoy Bluegrass, the band Balsam Range has a lovely song titled Last Train to KittyHawk that memorializes the impact of that flight.

  4. I’ve long had that fantasy too! EXCEPT I don’t understand your exclusion of recording. In my version you don’t even have to be physically there, you just send a drone with audio/visual recorder. (And reliable trans-temporal control signal line,)

    Because then you could settle all those thorny historical questions, **and provide proof**.

      1. What is observation but a different level of recording?
        Nullus in verba“? Well it was good enough in “Owd Rowley’s” time to say “I saw…” but the Roy.Soc had a habit of experimental meetings and demonstrations because “viseo vincit verba” (sorry, Diana”)

  5. “Wouldn’t it be cool to be in the agora in Athens and actually see Socrates engaged in a dialogue with someone?” – those profound thinkers Bill S Preston Esquire and Ted “Theodore” Logan had the same thought: All we are is dust in the wind, dude!

      1. Yeah, but the Romans ripped off the Greeks big-time, dude….

        Of course, Bill and Ted also rounded up Abe Lincoln: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=Y6wwzs6cyhU

        Not sure how I accidentally embedded the “So-crates” video above – I’m not aware of having posted the link any differently from usual, but my apologies to our host anyway.

      1. IIRC, Dara did physics, possibly one of the more esoteric branches, before he went into comedy.

        A Dara vs “Things will only get better” match, referred by His Inceness … would be entertaining. Particularly if they went esoteric.

  6. There are so many possibilities, but I will go with one day at the Constitutional Convention of 1787. The day the 3/5 compromise was debated would be particularly interesting. It would be great to see the Founders in action.

    1. It was really more than one day but the debate is well covered in the book, The summer of 1787 as you likely know. Chapter Ten, The small states win.
      More sad times at the convention.

  7. Within those restrictions, there are a few events that I would like to discover
    1) How my grandfather got his bronze star: Attu, May 18th 1943, Battle of Engineer Hill
    2) What happened to DB Cooper after jumping from the plane?
    3) Where is Flight 19, December 5th, 1945
    4) Where is the loot from the Antwerp diamond theft? 16 February 2003

    1. Is number one not on a commendation? They surely say why you get an award? An officer would have put his name forward with a reason surely?

    2. 2) What happened to DB Cooper after jumping from the plane?

      Fatal impalement. Fatal for the tree, which over the next fe years sagged down into the river, it’s branchial adornments being shredded and spread by the waters.
      Any parachutists here? On a night-time landing, would you aim for bright lines on the landscape, which might be roads. Or rivers.

  8. I’ve always been fascinated by Rome and its greatest orators. I would love to see Marcus Tullius Cicero’s opening speech in his prosecution of Gaius Verres, or one of his best speeches in the Roman Senate. While I admire the Rome’s republic, I would spend a day following Marcus Aurelius around, watching as he wrote and spoke. Just following one of the greatest geniuses for a day. Maybe watching Leonardo da Vinci toil in his workshop for a day at the height of his powers. I have no greater desire to see any of greatest moments of history. My interests lay more in seeing smaller moments, though those moments (like Cicero’s) may have reverberated through history and become more crucial than they seemed at their time.

    I also wouldn’t mind seeing, say, Caesar’s parade through Rome, though it would be difficult to stomach the bloodshed that comes with a Roman military parade…

    Being invisible really changes my thinking. If I could interact with these people, I would probably still choose Marcus Aurelius. And I would gladly learn the language before going. I’ve always wanted to learn Latin, but I don’t have the time to learn a dead language, at least for now.

    1. Oh, and the UK, 6/4/40. Following Churchill around as he planned for his most famous speech, watching him deliver it, and seeing how he behaved in private after (including his managing British forces).+

      1. 4th of June, or 6th of May? It is ambiguous given the readership here (US habits can’t be assumed.
        1940-06-04 or 1940-04-06. I refer the honourable cat (you are the CC of fame? No?) to the classical rant upon dates (for post-html values of “rant”).

  9. “You cannot go further back than ancient Egypt.”

    This limit means something like 5000 years ago. I think I’d go for 30AD Jerusalem and bring back a definitive account debunking the miracles. On the other hand, faith being what it is, my account would have no effect on believers anyway. So I’ll change my mind… Send me to Orkney during the neolithic period. I’d like to see what the communities that built Skara Brae and Maeshowe were like.

  10. The rule about recording or cameras is a bit annoying, as I’d like to take a digital camera to the Library of Alexandria. Unless you are a good impressionist, hearing Lincoln would leave you with a disappointing description about how he talked when you return, eg. Higher pitch than I expected, like Mitch McConnell on helium.

    Personally I would like to solve some mysteries:
    – What was Fermat’s last theorem? (visit when he finished working it out)
    – Who was the “Man in the Iron Mask”? (the actual person the story was based on)
    – Who was Jack the Ripper?
    – Where were the crown jewel’s lost? Or other treasures hidden.
    – What happened to (pick a famous missing person)?

    1. ” – What was Fermat’s last theorem? (visit when he finished working it out)”

      If referring to his ‘proof’, of the famous statement, almost certainly never proved before the 1990s, today’s roolz here would constrain you to not point out to him his error. But if you could come back and tell us, that’d be very interesting.

      1. Where Fermat was wrong in his “proof” might be very illuminating. Or depressingly ordinary. . Has the “landscape” of mathematics been more thoroughly explored since his day ? Almost certainly. Has it been exhaustively explored? That is a much harder question.

  11. I’ve been obsessed since I was young in being able to visit the Tower of London (as a phantom obviously) around 1485 to find out what really happened to the Princes in the Tower. When I first became interested I was young, impressionable, and convinced that their uncle, Richard III, wasn’t the murderer. Now I’m older I’m more inclined to the view that he was guilty, but I’d still like to be certain.

      1. It’s always possible but rumours of illegitimacy were a standard method of propaganda by opposing factions. One has only to look at the tenuous claims of Henry Tudor to the throne, which even William Shakespeare was called upon to try and ‘spin’.

    1. Have you read Josephine Tey’s Daughter of Time? Her detective, Scotland Yard Inspector Alan Grant, is laid up and can’t work. So he tries to solve the mystery of the princes in the tower. Highly recommended!

  12. The heyday of the Achaemenid Persian Empire (probably 499 BCE) during the reign of Darius the Great, in the ceremonial city of Persepolis.

    Just being able to copy down all of that scrollwork and the architecture before Alexander’s army comes burning it down about a hundred years later. Also, all of that knowledge recorded would be a great counterbalance to the whole pro-Greek narrative of the world.

  13. If anybody knows the date/time when Lady Godiva mounted up, that’s on the list. Otherwise, for me it has to be Dealey Plaza, 11-22-63.

    1. Beat me to it! But the later addition of Peeping Tom being struck blind argues for a drone. And the fact that her long hair was arranged to cover all essentials shows how much confidence she had in her admonition for all inhabitants to stay indoors with windows shuttered.

  14. Like others, I’d want to see Jesus — or not see him, because he didn’t exist. I’d ask for “whatever or whoever inspired the character, at a critical juncture “ and let the Magic pick. It would satisfy my curiosity, for I’ve read and heard so many wildly differing accounts.

  15. Copenhagen, 1941, to overhear what *really* was said between Bohr and Heisenberg that convinced Bohr that the Germans were planning to go ahead on a crash program to build a nuclear weapon—a conversation that led to Einstein’s famous letter to Roosevelt, the Manhatten Project, and the postwar arms race. Heisenberg is said to have thought he was signaling to Bohr, and thus ultimately to the Allies, that he didn’t think it was a feasible project; Bohr thought Heisenberg was fishing for information about how the bomb might be constructed to pass on to his Nazi superiors, and hit the panic button. After the war, the two tried to reconstruct what was said and what was meant, but each retained very different ideas about the facts of the conversation. I’d really like to hear what happened there—so much of literally terrible consequence resulted from that meeting.

      1. Yes, definitely. I don’t think Heisenberg spoke Danish, but Bohr was something of a polyglot, and given the centrality of Germany in the theoretical physics world of 1910-1930, it’s a certainty that he’d have spoken German.

    1. Was that before or after a certain Nobel Medal was dissolved in aqua regia, and labelled “human piss”?

  16. Too easy. I would spend a day following J. S. Bach around and listening to him improvise at the organ. Second choice would be 1920 New Orleans to hear the legendary Buddy Bolden.

    1. Walk behind him humming the aria of the Goldbergs before he came up with it. It would drive him nuts.

  17. I’ve thought about this a lot, and a few of my choices may be a little morbid, but I stick to them:

    Seeing Hypatia lecturing in Alexandria, one day toward the end of her life when things were getting a bit chaotic there…

    In the court of Mithridates VI, day of the Asiatic Vespers, even though word wouldn’t carry for who knows how long–I’d just be curious to see the how the notorious king presented himself. A lot of historians wonder how the heck that terrifying act was orchestrated.

    March 18, 1990 super early in the morning, Gardner Museum in Boston–and then following the thieves to wherever they took that loot.

  18. “A Sound of Thunder”, but A.C. Clark, may be the short story you were thinking about. If I recall, a time traveler goes back to the time of the dinosaurs to hunt a Brontosaurus. It being ok since it was about to die. But he steps on a butterfly, and that changes history drastically. This is perhaps an origin of “the butterfly effect”.

      1. There is another one by Asimov, “The Red Queen’s Race”. It is about a book sent back to Greek times.

    1. That one is certainly tempting. BUT watching Oswald won’t tell you if he was acting on his own, or whether there was another shooter.

        1. I thought he fired but then a protection officer accidentally shot him with his weapon? Thus explaining the angle of wounds & smell of gunshot on street level? Incompetence rather than conspiracy?

          1. No. Most witnesses heard three shots. There were three shell casings where Oswald hid and the magic bullet really wasn’t magic when you take into account the positions of JFK and Connally

      1. Several minutes before the shooting, you could glide — I presume gliding is an option? — on over to take a peek behind the stockade fence above the grassy knoll.

  19. October 21st 1805 in the environs of Cape Trafalgar on a British ship.

    Or continuing the nautical theme, November 25th 1872 aboard a certain ship around 37°01′N 25°01′W

    1. 1872 … in the Western Atlantic. On a Floridian to Gibraltarian parallel.
      I cold cheat, but “Maria Celeste”?

      1. I thought that was a solved mystery? A volatile cargo? They left the ship in boats but then it sailed off?

        1. There have been proposed solutions a-plenty over the years, but I’ve not followed the subject with any real interest.

  20. “A” science fiction story?

    Besides, there’s that effect of altering the future by imparting such stuff, an effect that was the subject of a science-fiction story I read as a kid but whose name I can’t recall.

  21. I think I’d join Mallory and Irvine on their final day climbing on Everest. I’d love to know whether they made the summit and the circumstances around their deaths.

    1. As a former teacher at Irving’s Alma Mater, where there is a life size portrait of him in the school hall, this wins for me. If meddling were allowed, then ideally the day when Dodo extinction could have been prevented, or at least the day when the Oxford specimen was destroyed.

  22. There are so many great historical places and times, it is hard to chose one. But, I’m currently reading Leonardo Da Vinci by Walter Isaacson, so I’ll use that fact to narrow the choice. I’d love to see him while working on any of his late major paintings, Lady with an Ermine, Mona Lisa, Salvator Mundi.

  23. Part of me says “go to 1865 and prevent Lincoln’s assassination,” but I’d probably go to belle epoque Paris just for fun. Maybe the Moulin Rouge sometime in the 1890s.

      1. I.wasn’t sure if that was the deal breaker for the adventure with Lincoln or with the Moulin Rouge dancers…!

  24. You know, many of us older non-Jews in Europe are still traumatised by The Holocaust. I’ve been to Auschwitz, and have stood upon a bare car-park in Ukraine where a synagogue used to be, and have stood in the streets of Lvov and remembered those terrified families hiding in the sewers. One may read Martin Gilbert’s 800-page book on the subject, or even talk to survivors, but it all seems fragmentary and distant. I was once a sharp and observant journalist who survived the horrors of the Iraq war and the Serbian wars, observed the guerrilla wars in Central America, and in West Africa, but what a gift to the world it would be to have a dispassionate first-hand account of a day in Auschwitz from the Winter of 1944-1945. I want to find ‘the heart of the matter’ – a description so searing and compelling that the experiences of Europe’s Jews are drawn together in one crisp eye-witness account that will live as long as there are people on this earth.

  25. This is something I have thought about for some time. I don’t want to go anywhere, just want to be right here at my home location in southeastern Ohio. In the 1500s, or at least some while before the first Europeans saw it.

    Why? I am a retired forest ecologist and ornithologist. And one continuing argument in the field is what forests of North America were like before, say, 1492. A lot of researchers have devoted years to trying to reconstruct the appearance and workings of that landscape. Was it all one big wilderness, scarcely affected by the presence and activities of the Native Americans? Or did they have a significant effect on the forests through practices such as setting fire to the woods on a regular basis? And what about the effects of species that are no longer with us? Passenger Pigeons. Carolina Parakeets. American Chestnuts. And other species gone from my area, although not extinct, such as wolves, mountain lions, and bison.

    I could say a lot more. But will close by saying that each time I walk in my eleven acres of second growth woodland, I can’t help but wonder what it was like in the distant past.

    1. This is my favorite answer so far. I’ve been puzzling what the best thing would be, given the limitations. View a musical or visual thing? Sure, but what notes would be valuable?
      This, I can get behind. Brava.

    2. I’m with yazikus; great answer. I’ve also read that, prior to 150 years ago, the air was filled with birdsong; I would have loved to have heard that.

      Many great suggestions on the list (Kitty Hawk, the Constitutional Convention, Neil Armstrong; let me add the first performance of Beethoven’s 9th symphony), but I can read about all of these, and have read many science fiction stories taking up these themes. But to have seen what America looked like before we “paved paradise, and put up a parking lot” would be awesome. Plus, there would be no language barrier!

    3. To briefly experience the local environment before European settlement would be the greatest temptation, indeed, but it would make life after returning to now more difficult to bear due to comparing past richness with present decimation and therefore wishing to have been able to stay there. To try to stem constant melancholy because of that, one would have to constantly remind oneself how difficult it would have been, as a lone human, to actually stay in that time period and survive.

  26. I think I’d like to be there to watch Einstein when he applied his equations of General Relativity to the perihelion shift of Mercury and found that it accounted for them. It’s not very bang-zoom-to-the-moon to watch, but what a moment. To see the look in his eyes.

    1. Or Andrew Wiles, the moment the last piece of his proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem fell into place.

  27. We just discussed this as a family at our evening meal:

    Son: “To Ancient Egypt to see the aliens building the pyramids […] I want a front row seat to watch that galactic mish-mash”. (Not sure how seriously he was taking the exercise… Can’t think where he gets it from.)

    Daughter #1: “To watch my own birth – that would be weird!” (Even I didn’t see her birth, as I had to leave the operating theatre when it became clear that my wife was going to have to have an emergency caesarean under general anaesthetic – the last thing I saw was my wife trying to bop the anaesthetist on the nose as he tried to fit the mask…!)

    Daughter #2: She’d wait and decide later. She’s only 12, so perhaps fairly wise – she could well learn about an intriguing historical event that she doesn’t know about yet.

    Wife: Couldn’t decide between many musical events, but in any case, “Does not consent to take part in [my] study”! Her musical taste just about fits into the permitted timescale…

    Me: First thought was to be on the Moon to greet Neil Armstrong, but then realised that this would break “da roolz” on no interactions, and also if I couldn’t record it, it would be no fun. Also, I’m not sure if time travel within your own lifespan would be allowed/worthwhile. So, back to the drawing board for me…

      1. Yup, caesarean, ventouse, and a normal delivery – it was the last one that led to a major blood transfusion and nearly killed her. I certainly wouldn’t want to travel back to times without modern medicine for too long!

  28. It would be a futile exercise, and they’d probably kill me as a demon.

    They’d’ve probably had you quaffing hemlock about five minutes into that schpiel.

  29. The Lewis and Clark “Corps of Discovery” expedition. I’d love to have been on that trip. The 24 hours? A Mandan or Teton Village, seeing those vast herds of Bison.
    Yeah, Trafalgar.

  30. The Shakespeare, Darwin and Lincoln ones really appeal to me. Perhaps also MLK’s I Have a Dream speech. Yes, there are videos, but wouldn’t it be thrilling to actually be there?

    I’d quite like to go to the American revolutionary period, to watch Tom Paine get pissed and write Common Sense, and to follow the revolutionary war and the Constitutional Convention. Oh, and I could peak in at Jefferson writing the Declaration of Independence!

    If I could speak French, I’d follow Napoleon around for a few years. Actually, I might do that anyway- I wouldn’t understand much, but it’d be pretty exciting!

    The Putney Debates. The trial and execution of Charles I. Churchill in the war room. A Eugene Debs speech. A Chartist march. The Norman Conquest. Timothy Conigrave. The Spanish Civil War- siege of Madrid, Barcelona during the May Days (hello, Orwell!). 18th century Edinburgh (hello, Hume!).

    And, this will sound odd, but 9/11. One of those epoch-defining moments. I’ve often wondered what it would be like to be conscious of it as it happened. Terrifying and horrifying, I imagine.

    I’ll stop now- I could go on forever!!

      1. I have to say for all his culture, Napoleon was a murderous bastard. Few Europeans until the 20th century have as much blood on their hands.

        1. Few Europeans until the 20th century have as much blood on their hands.

          Julius Caesar could give a good run for the money. Even without the killings, chopping the right arms off a few hundred thousand Gauls is going to spill some claret.
          Charles Martel and the Battle of Tours (0732-10-10) and the associated massacres has got to be in contention too.

    1. Oh I was living in Manhattan that day – smelt the smoke, saw it all. There are better times in history that aren’t so well recorded to observe ,I think. Better perhaps to see stuff that we don’t have good records of.
      I’ll give one observation, though, you can’t get from the tape: afterwards everybody in public was REALLY nice to each other/strangers, polite. Conversely people tended to take their anxiety out on those closest to those to them.
      Back to the TARDIS my friend!


  31. The day in Mohenjo-Daro when an unnamed sculptor created the dancing girl figurine. No one speaks that language. I would settle for being bewildered.

    1. Oh my! That sugested me going back to the day the Hephaestus disk was made. Maybe I could take some notes that would help decipher the Linear A writing, learn what the hell the minoan language was, anb what the minoan civilization was about.

      Seriously people, if you like a good historical mistery, you should look into the minoan civilization.

      1. Yes, the whole bull-jumping ritual etc. is all very strange. I love the way that Arthur Evans turned up and “discovered” a whole civilisation (although the earlier achievements.of Minos Kalokairinos have to be swept under the carpet, of course).

        The days when an enthusiastic amateur like Evans or Heinrich Schliemann could just rock up and discover Knossos or Troy or Mycenae is unimaginable now.

        1. Fortunately!

          Who knows what a modern scientific excavation would have found that Evans (and Minos) destroyed. today, archaelogists excavate as partially as possible. One year findings guide theoretical assumptions that in turn guide next year’s findings. If they were to excavate as much as possible at once, valuable information would be lost.

          I didn’t know (or remember) about this Minos guy. Anyway. it seems that Evans was the first to realize that knossos belonged to a previously “unknown” civilization.

          When I visited Crete I tried to visit as much “palaces” and sites as possible. My impression was that they were not palaces (not all the complex), but actual cities. The reason they were built apparently as a single unit is… well Have you been in the mediterranean in July-August? It’s hell. If you visit north Africa (I have been to Morocco and Tunis) you can see how the old but still inhabited neighborhoods are that way, streets as narrow as possible, save some of the main ones, as means to avoid the heat. You can see that in some spanish old towns and I imagine in Italy an actual Greece too.

          Another enigmatic fact is the sea related themes in the frescos. Crete es a big islands, Minoan civilization covered it all. For a great part of the population sea would be something they would see once or twice in their life, if ever. I think they didn’t reflect the economic base or the everyday life of the minoan civilization, but the power base and ideology of the ruling class, probably having to do with the control of maritime commerce an externar relations. The style remembers me of some ancient egyptian art, so some sort of influence and/or relation is suggested. Unfortunately the alleged minoan language (if it is a single one) doesn’t seem to be related to egyptian, as far as we know, nor greek, the language of the settlers/invaders who displaced the minoans.

          I don’t remember the name or location. The lasts known minoan settlement is hig up in a isolated mountain in inland crete. That’s one of the few I couldn’t visit, so difficult to access is. It tells the story of how the last minoans were gradually displaced or left to live in the more inhospitable places of the islands.

          1. A lot of that is interesting, but as a point of fact,

            For a great part of the population sea would be something they would see once or twice in their life, if ever.

            The average width of Crete is around 30km; few people were more than 15km from a coast. That is around 3 hours walk (avoiding the mid-day sun, and mad dogs escorted by anachronistic Englishmen). Not a bog requirement for a seasonal (or less often) rite.

            1. Even 100 years ago, after railways, many people in Britain led lives that meant they travelled very rarely, so it is possible.

              1. Yes, something like that was on my mind. You have to have in mind that each palace was allegedly a centre of power, maybe even independent states, who knows. There could have been implicit or explicit limitations on the movement of people arpound the island. And save a big plain in the central south, its a prety mountainous country.

                Even with an ocasional visit to the coast, sea (and all the imaginery that the frescos in the palaces portrayed) wouldn’t be a component of everyday life for most of the people. Or lots of them. I am just speculating.

  32. Jerry, I think the best date to travel to Athens would be that of Socrates Trial. A given period of 24 hours in it would be probably the best to:

    A) Get to know Socrates himself, by his behaviour an because the trial was allegedly about him.

    B) Maybe discover the true motivations after the trial and execution, as the “asebeia” accusation seems a bit off.

    That would be my own choice. My theory is that “asebeia” was not a serious accusation, for all the things we know about Athens’s culture and society at the time, it was allegedly pretty non-religious. Althought we may discover that Athens was more religious than we think. I think that probably it was because of Socrates humble origins (as opposed to plato’s or Aristotle’s, for example) and his oposition to the sophists, who got paid for teaching the young “noble” class. As Athens was a democracy, the way to power needed good oratory and intellectual abilities. Socrates teched for free, so he was a threat both to the sophists and the richer families who know could have competition from people of humble origins. The veredict stablished that Socrates could leave to city or take the poison, his oposers probably expected he would leave the city, but it got out of hand when Socrates didn’t do so.

    Plato’s account of Socrates and the trial shows pain and it’s misterious…. seems to me that Plato, who greatly admired Socrates, his teacher, or was even, maybe, in love with him, didn’t tell everythng he knew. Probably his own social position or even threats to himself played a roled, so he had to be quiet and discreet.

    24 hours at the trial could clarify lots of things.

  33. I think it would be interesting to go back to the Yalta conference in February ’45 to watch FDR, Churchill, and Big Joe whack up the post-War world.

    Alternatively, to be present for the Fifth Solvay Conference in 1927, which I take to be the greatest collection of scientific intellectual firepower ever assembled in a single place at a single time — though the stipulation about being invisible would take all the fun out of photobombing the famous group photograph (as a common Zelig or Forrest Gump might do).

  34. I am really interested in ancient history, so there are lots of possibilities. Britain circa 450 AD for example. Stonehenge circa 2,500 BC ish.

    However, I will plump for the Mitanni empire. Circa 1600 BC. No one knows the exact location of their capital Washukanni. It is hoped that if found it will reveal a library of cuneiform tablets in various languages with royal correspondence. How great it would be to find that! I find it remarkable that their Hurrian empire overlapped the area of the ISIS caliphate.

      1. A little after. Because we know so little from written sources. It would be interesting to see how Anglo-Celtic political & social relationships worked & whether ethnicity or language was important in identity, or other factors.

    1. Stonehenge circa 2,500 BC ish.

      Stenness (Orkney), about 2800 BCE. Though I think you’re mid-phase there, so I might budge it back by a half-millennium or so.

  35. What a difficult decision. I will choose something relatively recent, and take a walk with Neil Armstrong on the moon in 1969.

    1. If that’s allowed, no space rule, how about observing a bit of molten dust or whatever, flying off what was about to become the sun, the bit being about to become the earth.

      You see, I’m temporarily a biblical nitwit, so that doesn’t violate Jerry’s time rule, does it?

      Or whatever it was, crashing the early earth, and the splatter to become the moon itself.

      1. You’re conflating origin stories.
        Nobody (TTBOMK) has seriously supported Laplace’s “close encounter” hypothesis for … many decades, of not a century+.
        The impact of [whatever] with [proto-Earth] would be very interesting. What was the impact factor? (Head-on, or glancing?) What was the product (rings or synestia? So many questions.

        1. Sorry, what was the Laplace hypothesis exactly? I’m not even sure if you’re referring to earth’s, or to the moon’s, coming into existence.

          1. I have to check up on my 18th C French philosophers too. Laplace came up with a variant on Descarte’s “nebular” hypothesis whereby the gravitational collapse of a gas cloud produced the Solar system, with complicating factors arising from the conservation of angular momentum.
            A few decades earlier Le Compte de Buffon proposed that a “comet” (in 18th C terms, not today’s trivial ice balls) impacted the Sun (origin unspecified) and caused the ejection of plumes of solar material which condensed to form the planets.
            Laplace wrecked Buffon’s model on the shores of angular momentum at the end of the 18th C, showing that such ejecta would eventually re-impact on the Sun. That hasn’t stopped text books repeating Buffon’s ideas (I remember them in my youth), but I’ve never seen anyone seriously proposing them.

            People are still trying to work out how the Moon formed. I still haven’t seen any serious work they goes outside the “Giant Impact” hypothesis, but balancing the natures of the projectile, proto-Earth, and the impact (head-on, or off-centre, how fast) hasn’t given really good solutions that generate an Earth-Moon like systems (including isotope ratios, distribution of dense and less-dense matter, etc). There are too many questions and not enough data – we’ll probably never know. So, people are turning outwards, looking for really young planetary systems to see if they can add some observational constraints to their models. If we’re looking at the first 100 million years of the Solar system (which is not a certain constraint) then about 1 in 45 of Solar-like planetary systems should show something informative. Which isn’t happening, So, are we (well astronomers more than geologists) missing something, or looking under the wrong stones? (Dust clouds.)

    1. Top deck (well there wasn’t really one) of Old Trafford, in 1964 I think, watching a different George (the Best one, not necessarily best one) score his first 1st division goal. Oops, I was there.

  36. There are so many good choices I have a really hard time picking one. So rather than try and pick a favorite, I’ll go with an homage to Indiana Jones and pick the sacking of Jerusalem in 587 BC. That way I when I return I can go dig up the Ark of the Covenant (assuming it survived – but at least I’ll know if it didn’t).

    Ooh, second choice might be Troy or Carthage. Since the victors made sure we don’t know much about them.

    But wherever and whenever you go, I strongly recommend you wear your time traveler’s essential t-shirt. You know, just in case your time travel machine malfunctions… 🙂

    1. Aggripina, Agatha Christie, Graham Young (the “Teacup Poisoner”) on the guest list at your TTTP (Time Travel Tea Party)?

  37. The evening of August 25,1967.. I’d like to witness Jim McCarty of the Yardbirds hearing, for the first time, Jake Holmes perform his song Dazed and Confused at the Village Theater in NYC. Then I’d like to watch McCarty go to the record shop the next day, buy Holmes’s album, and then play it for Jimmy Page and the rest of the Yardbirds (assuming that all happened in a 24 hour period)….

  38. I would like to go back to Marvel’s Silver Age and watch Jack Kirby draw for a day. Late 1960’s. Unfortunately, I don’t know how to pin-point a specific day, but I think he drew titles simultaneously. Watching him draw Fantastic Four would be the point of that visit.
    With the 24-hour stipulation, most people visited would be sleeping half the time, so how about an event like Woodstock where the 24-hours could be fully utilized? Or a Bacchus party hosted by Caligula? I guess that’s the voyeur in me. 😉
    Watching Carter discover King Tut’s tomb would be a thrill. There are too many to list. Good choices here too…thanks for this fun imagination-stimulating (thought experiment as David said above) post PCC(E).

  39. Ohh, so difficult.
    If I were allowed microscopic eyes, and some decent quality non-invasive (this is a hands-off scenario) X-ray … ummm, the one where you scan the X-ray beam across the target and get constructive/ destructive reflection diffraction orders to give you mineral atom-spacing data. And how crystalline the minerals are. Pointed at near-coast alkaline geothermal seeps. To mix several popular concepts for the Origin(s) of Life.
    I’d probably need a thick notebook and a fast finger to write down the mineral ID data, then a lot of reference tables. So could I have an AI system for parsing that data. AI gets re-booted to the training data on time-travel. Stateless.

  40. Not sure if there’s any given precise date or location that would be of particular interest, but I’d love to see what a day in the life would have been like anywhere in Europe during the Dark Ages. Perhaps England before the Viking Invasions started, or even Denmark around that period.

  41. Try as I might, I can’t come up with a compelling time-travel scenario within those rules, but I just bought Grayling’s book on audible.com. 28 hours and 6 minutes of intellectual porn for one credit! All spent while doing mindless farm chores, over noise-cancelling bluetooth headphones. Such a deal!

  42. – Madagascar before the arrival of humans (or any other weird island). Or any place in the Americas before the Europeans.
    – Hero of Alexandria’s workshop.
    – On the phoenician ship sent by pharao Necho around Africa’, about when they reached Mozambique .
    There is so much choice.
    If allowed by da Roolz though, I’d choose 200 years in the future.

  43. Germany, July 1914. To see the decision making that took firstly Europe and then the world to catastrophe.

  44. The first thing I would do (if given the chance!) is to geometrically construct a regular pentagon with a ruler and a compass. That would establish me as a scholar worth keeping alive!!

  45. This is only tangentially related to the intent of this post, but one of the great hopes I have for Virtual Reality technology is that artists and historians will eventually use it to construct detailed simulations of ancient cities and sites. I’d love to wander around a fully ‘alive’ version of Ancient Rome or Athens, or innumerable other places in space and time. Of course it wouldn’t be ‘real’, just the best guess we could make using the available data, but I think to be immersed in the bustle, and to appreciate the grandeur and scale of buildings in their prime would be amazing.

    You can get a hint of the experience in the Assassin’s Creed games, which often involve walking you character stealthily through representations of ancient cities, but it’s not VR, and it’s designed to be a game, not a historically accurate experience.

  46. I’d like to witness the conversation between Gorbachev and Baker to confirm whether there was a “gentleman’s agreement” providing for concessions by the Soviet Union in exchange for the U.S. agreeing not to push NATO further east.

  47. This is difficult. I’m torn between wanting to see one of the original productions of “Hamlet”, with Richard Burbage in the title role and Shakespeare himself as the Ghost – or just browsing the Library of Alexandria. Though the only titles I’d be able to read would be the ones in Latin. I’d like to see fellow-librarian Hypatia in action.

  48. See today’s Zippy strip: “Griffy time travels to Paris at the turn of the twentieth century, where he shares an atelier with a local artist…”

  49. The caveat here is that the information I gather should be accepted as valid fact by historians and all other stakeholders.

    I would like to go back to the time when Valmiki wrote Ramayan, and put an end to the debate whether Ram was a real or fictitious person. That would also end the whole Ram birthplace debate, and save thousands of innocent lives lost since 1992.

  50. Given the limitations and just 24 hours, I would chose something more personal. One respondent mentioned a daughter choosing to see her own birth. Rather than something happening in my lifetime, like family stuff, would be interesting. For a(n) historical event I would like to go back to the time just before the Mountain Meadow Massacre. To be there when the crazies came up with the idea and the plan to slaughter other human beings. My great granddad was the Mormon bishop in one of the small towns that the wagon had already passed by, so there is a personal link too. GROG

  51. Fantastic idea. I love this exercise and I’m glad I’m not the only one that daydreams about traveling in the past 😂

    It’s hard to pick just one because I’m a huge fan of history, but I’ve been learning some about Alexandria and, in particular, the Library of Alexandria.

    I think it would be amazing to go back and see if our descriptions of Alexandria are accurate, and to peruse that library (despite not being able to read anything) would be awe-inspiring.

    So, I think I’ve gotta go to ancient Egypt.

    So, counter-question, if you COULD speak and understand the language, but you’re unable to alter any events – would your choice be different?

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