Incompatible Arrows, II: Kurt Vonnegut

By Sean Carroll | April 1, 2008 10:12 am

As Richard mentions in comments, another famous example of temporal reversal is Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. The protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, comes unmoored in time, and finds himself experiencing wildly disconnected moments of his life in an unpredictable order. At one point he becomes unstuck in time and watches a movie played backwards. The movie shows the firebombing of Dresden, which Pilgrim had witnessed in person.

The formation flew backwards over a German city that was in flames. The bombers opened their bomb bay doors, exerted a miraculous magnetism which shrunk the fires, gathered them into cylindrical steel containers, and lifted the containers into the bellies of the planes. The containers were stored neatly in racks. The Germans below had miraculous devices of their own, which were long steel tubes. They used them to suck more fragments from the crewmen and planes. But there were still a few wounded Americans, though, and some of the bombers were in bad repair. Over France, though, German fighters came up again, made everything and everybody as good as new.

In the Afterword to Time’s Arrow, Martin Amis credits a “famous paragraph” by Vonnegut in inspiring his work; it is generally thought that this is the paragraph, although others have suggested something from Mother Night.

Besides incompatible arrows of time, Slaughterhouse-Five explains the temporal viewpoint of the intelligent beings on the planet Tralfamadore, who can see all of time at a single glance:

The Tralfamadorans can look at all different moments just the way we can look at a stretch of the Rocky Mountains, for instance. They can see how permanent all the moments are, and they can look at any moment that interests them. It is just an illusion we have here on earth that one moment follows another like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever.

The Tralfamadorans are “eternalists,” who buy into the block time view of the universe — that the past, present, and future are equally real. They are so convincing, indeed, that Slaughterhouse-Five is quoted by Scholarpedia as an illustration of the concept.


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About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] .


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