Ahead of Time

Gerald Feinberg, James Blish, and the Governance of Futurity

Colin Milburn

In 1967, the physicist Gerald Feinberg published a quantum-field analysis of a purely hypothetical class of faster-than-light particles that he dubbed “tachyons.” This was a rather unorthodox research project, to say the least. While the possibility of objects moving at superluminal velocities had been considered since the late nineteenth century, the impact of Einstein’s 1905 special theory of relativity seemed to put further study of faster-than-light speed into the realm of pure science fiction. According to special relativity, it would require infinite energy to accelerate an object with real mass up to the speed of light. In other words, as Einstein put it, “superluminary velocities have no possibility of existence.”1 Even were it possible to transmit signals faster than light, such transmissions could appear to some observers as having travelled backwards in time, introducing the uncanny possibility of information from the future influencing past events. Not only would this violate the principles of physical causality, it could also lead to certain paradoxes, for example, if messages were to arrive before they were sent and preempt the sender from sending them. Special relativity therefore seemed to squash any fantasies of faster-than-light travel and backwards communications from the future—at least in the zones of serious science.2

But in 1962, the physicists Oleksa-Myron Bilaniuk, V. K. Deshpande, and George Sudarshen postulated the existence of subatomic particles that always travel at superluminal velocities. Such “meta” particles would never confront the speed of light as an upper barrier because they would be already beyond it. Moreover, the problem of temporal paradoxes could be solved by relativistic reinterpretation, insofar as observers in some frames of reference would perceive such a particle “not as a weird negative energy particle traveling backward in time, but as a positive energy particle traveling forward in time, but going in the opposite direction.”3 Likewise, any apparent violations of causality could be reinterpreted as causal events, as a matter of perspective.

Feinberg, a professor at Columbia University since 1959, was fascinated by this possibility. Encouraged by his successful prediction of the muon neutrino in 1958 (its existence was demonstrated in 1962 by his colleagues Leon Lederman, Melvin Schwartz and Jack Steinberger, who later shared the Nobel Prize for their work), Feinberg took up the question of faster-than-light particles with a bold territorial move: he named them. Rendering them as objects of relativistic quantum field theory, figuring them as excitations of a quantum field with imaginary mass, Feinberg also conjured them as objects of discourse: “One description is presented . . . for noninteracting faster than light particles, which we call tachyons.”4 Shortly afterwards, in a Scientific American article introducing tachyons to a wider audience, Feinberg highlighted the strategic nature of this maneuver: “In anticipation of the possible discovery of faster-than-light particles, I named them tachyons, from the Greek word tachys, meaning swift.”5 Feinberg’s philological and theoretical production of these speculative objects ahead of time, I venture, represents a science-fictional way of doing science, a way of staking claims on the future.

After all, Feinberg was known as much for his intense love of science fiction as for his prodigious talent as a physicist. When he passed away in 1992, the obituaries described him as a “devoted scientist and avid science-fiction fan.”6 And sure enough, his work on tachyons was to some degree indebted to his reading of science fiction. As the physicist and science fiction writer Gregory Benford recalled, “He told me years later that he had begun thinking about tachyons because he was inspired by James Blish’s short story ‘Beep.’ In it, a faster-than-light communicator plays a crucial role in a future society . . . The communicator necessarily allows sending of signals backward in time . . . Feinberg had set out to see if such a gadget was theoretically possible.”7

While Blish’s 1954 story no doubt piqued Feinberg’s curiosity, I want to suggest that its value for Feinberg’s own work was less in its technical provocations than its literary ones. For “Beep” affords an understanding of theoretical science as equivalent to science fiction: not a purveyor of mere flights of fancy, but a generator of consequential fictions with the capacity to produce the circumstances of their own actualization. In other words, they are fictions that become the conditions of possibility, the enabling contexts for discovery and innovation.

Cover of Galaxy Science Fiction, February 1954. (source: Galactic Central)

Reading the Future

Blish’s text unfolds as a story within a story. The framing narrative focuses on the governmental organization known as the Service, responsible for overseeing the smooth advancement of galactic civilization. This massive interplanetary operation depends on the technology of the Dirac communicator. Any message sent through one Dirac communicator is received instantaneously by all others, preceded by a small beep of sound. In the nested story, concerning the origins of the communicator, the video commentator Dana Lje discovers that the “beep is the simultaneous reception of every one of the Dirac messages which have ever been sent, or ever will be sent.”8

The narrative symbolically aligns Lje’s discovery with lies and illusions—the fictive as such. Her disclosure of the beep’s meaning depends on an elaborate charade where she poses as a man named J. Shelby Stevens. On the other hand, Robin Weinbaum, the director of the Service, is fully aligned with the regime of truth. He represents a government that does not tolerate fiction: “Just in case you’re not aware of the fact, there are certain laws relating to giving false information to a security officer . . . plus various local laws against transvestism, pseudonymity and so on” (30). Weinbaum demands transparency. He likewise insists on stripping any obscuring “noise” from otherwise pure signals. He instructs his assistant to excise the beep: “Margaret, next time you send any Dirac tapes in here, cut that damnable beep off them first” (23). Weinbaum, agent of truth and law, disregards this literally preposterous noise. Its meaning only comes to light through Lje’s fictive performance.

Lje’s process of extracting discrete transmissions from the beep is an interpretive practice described as reading: “I can read the future in detail” (31). It apprehends the faster-than-light messages as texts, many of which are strange, mystifying, and unnerving: “Once you know, however, that when you use the Dirac you’re dealing with time, you can coax some very strange things out of the instrument” (39). Yet these “strange things” are recognized as consistent with reality, explicable by scientific logic. Which is to say, they have the qualities of science fiction: “She paused and smiled. ‘I have heard,’ she said conversationally, ‘the voice of the President of our Galaxy, in 3480, announcing the federation of the Milky Way and the Magellanic Clouds. I’ve heard the commander of a world-line cruiser, traveling from 8873 to 8704 along the world line of the planet Hathshepa, which circles a star on the rim of NGC 4725, calling for help across eleven million light-years—but what kind of help he was calling for, or will be calling for, is beyond my comprehension. And many other things. When you check on me, you’ll hear these things too—and you’ll wonder what many of them mean’” (39).

These vignettes draw from a common repertoire of science fiction tropes—enormous space ships, intergalactic civilizations, time travel—and they body forth a sense of wonder and wonderment: “Weinbaum, already feeling a little dizzy . . . wanted only scenes and voices, more and more scenes and voices from the future. They were better than aquavit” (42). Alluring and bewildering, they evade full rational comprehension even while indicating that such comprehension is possible—some day: “The farther into the future you travel with the machine, the more incomprehensible the messages become, and so you’re reduced to telling yourself that time will, after all, have to pass by at its own pace, before enough of the surrounding events can emerge to make those remote messages clear” (39).

The effect of these weird messages from the future is instead a new perception of the present, namely, as the historical context for incredible changes to come.9 Viewing a beep transmission of a “green-skinned face of something that looked like an animated traffic signal with a helmet on it,” Weinbaum exclaims, “And we’ll be using non-humanoids there! What was that creature, anyhow?” (42). Weinbaum sees the alien as his own future, albeit radically estranged. This surprising future puts the present in new light, exposing the humanist biases of the present (“looked like an animated traffic signal”), even as it suggests the possibility for things to be otherwise.

The beep is therefore a figure for science fiction as such. While Lje’s “method of, as she calls it, reading the future” (35) understands the beep messages to represent inevitable events—evidence for a perfectly acausal universe—she nevertheless interprets them as self-fulfilling prophesies: “Since I was going to be married to you [Weinbaum] and couldn’t get out of it, I set out to convince myself that I loved you. Now I do” (32). Taking the beep messages seriously, Lje “cooks up reasons” (33) to ensure they will take place. She invents fictions of causality (“rationalizations”) that become indistinguishable from actual causes.

It is a method of reading the future that the Service then implements as policy. In the framing narrative, hundreds of years later, Serviceman Krasna says: “Our interests as a government depend upon the future. We operate as if the future is as real as the past, and so far we haven’t been disappointed: the Service is 100% successful. . . . Despite the evidence that the future is fixed, we have to take on the role of the caretaker of inevitability . . . we have to act on the philosophy that history helps only those who help themselves. . . . Our obligation as Event Police is to make the events of the future possible, because those events are crucial to our society” (43).

This “as if” approach does not draw a hard line between fact and theory, truth and lies, science and science fiction.10 The Service accepts the beep messages as if they were reliable prophesies, but treats them in practice as speculative forecasts that might fail without a vast technoscientific infrastructure designed to “make the events of the future possible.” In its role as “Event Police,” the Service assembles numerous technical resources: “We have some foreknowledge, of course. . . . But we have obvious other advantages: genetics, for instance, and operations research, the theory of games, the Dirac transmitter—it’s quite an arsenal, and of course there’s a good deal of prediction involved in all those things” (11). Even with knowledge of things to come, the Service marshals the tools of various scientific disciplines to turn speculations and “as if” scenarios into lived events.

All of this represents an explicitly constructivist approach to truth, a model for the generation of scientific knowledge that does not excise science fiction (as Weinbaum once excised the beep), but rather upholds its crucial role for the advancement of science and society.

As traces of things to come spiral into the present, time travelers and alien laughter from the outer limits converge on the scene of “reading the future.” Illustration from James Blish, “Beep,” Galaxy Science Fiction (February 1954): 58.

Promethean Projections

To the degree that it represents a science-fictional way of governing the future, the appeal of “Beep” to a “devoted scientist and avid science-fiction fan” like Feinberg seems obvious in retrospect. The Service’s decision to reinterpret causally uncertain events in a causal way, sidestepping potential paradoxes, is tantalizingly similar to the principle of reinterpretation developed in Feinberg’s own work. According to Feinberg, actual instrumentation for detecting the absorption of tachyons from the future would make distinctions between emission and absorption, sending and receiving, undecideable. Inclined to causal explanations, an observer would therefore “naturally describe” the tachyon detector as if it were spontaneously sending signals forward rather than receiving them from the future.11

For the same reason, Feinberg suggested that a device such as the Dirac communicator, if taken literally, would not be possible.12 The relevance of “Beep” for thinking about tachyons, however, is more figural. For the story presents a model of scientific practice and technological governance that treats physical theories and interpretations of data as fictions, but not “mere” fictions; rather, the Dirac messages become the conditions for further experimentation, triggering additional research and decisive actions. They are science fictions that enable their own materialization in the form of consequential practices.

Feinberg offered a similar perspective in his writings on tachyons: “Having convinced ourselves that the existence of faster-than-light particles does not imply any contradiction of relativity, we must nevertheless leave the determination of whether such objects really happen in nature to the experimental physicist.”13 Feinberg here presents tachyons as consequential fictions that galvanize experiments—no more, no less. To be sure, they have provoked numerous studies and experiments over the last half-century. Even failure to prove their existence has led to new theoretical interpretations. For example, we could point to the “tachyonic field” concept in quantum field theory, taken to mathematically indicate field instabilities rather than real particles. We could also point to the abiding hope for faster-than-light signals—a hope projected always into the future—as suggested in some recent research on quantum tunneling, or more tellingly, in the premature 2011 declaration by scientists at CERN that they had discovered neutrinos traveling faster than light (a claim later disproved).14

Yet even as they generate such experimental adventures, tachyons have not ceased to be understood as science-fictional objects. Already in 1970, Feinberg conceded that experimental results seemed to suggest that tachyons are not actually real, but to him, this only further demonstrated the value of such entities. After all, it may be likely that “tachyons simply do not exist . . . [but] we may not understand why it should be so until we reach a much deeper understanding of the nature of elementary particles than now exists.”15 Which is to say, as nothing otherwise than science fictions, they indicate the degree to which extant physical theories are themselves provisional and constructed, prone to change in the future.

In 1968, this forward-looking perspective also led Feinberg to write an ambitious book called The Prometheus Project: Mankind’s Search for Long-Range Goals. Here, he presented a scheme for reshaping social organization in order to achieve futuristic science-fiction visions. In effect, he proposed establishing an Event Police, governing the future in the image of science fiction.

But that is another story . . .

  1. Albert Einstein, “On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies,” in The Collected Papers of Albert Einstein, Volume 2: The Swiss Years: Writings, 1900-1909 (English Translation) (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989), 170.

  2. On the history of faster-than-light communication theories and time-travel scenarios, see Paul J. Nahin, Time Machines: Time Travel in Physics, Metaphysics, and Science Fiction, 2nd ed. (New York: Springer-Verlag, 1999).

  3. O. M. P. Bilaniuk, V. K. Deshpande, and E. C. G. Sudarshan, “‘Meta’ Relativity,” American Journal of Physics 30 (1962): 2. For reflections on this foundational work and later developments, see Oleksa-Myron Bilaniuk, “Tachyons,” Journal of Physics: Conference Series 196 (2009).

  4. Gerald Feinberg, “Possibility of Faster-Than-Light Particles,” Physical Review 159/5 (1967): 1090.

  5. Gerald Feinberg, “Particles That Go Faster Than Light,” Scientific American 222/2 (1970): 70.

  6. Leyla Kokmen, “Prof. Dies after Fight with Cancer,” Columbia Spectator (April 23 1992).

  7. Gregory Benford, “Old Legends,” in New Legends, ed. Greg Bear and Martin H. Greenberg (New York: Tor, 1995), 276.

  8. James Blish, “Beep,” Galaxy Science Fiction 7/5 (1954): 6-54, quote on 36. Further page citations appear parenthetically.

  9. Fredric Jameson has argued that science fiction’s “multiple mock futures serve the quite different function of transforming our own present into the determinate past of something yet to come. . . . SF thus enacts and enables a structurally unique ‘method’ for apprehending the present as history”; Fredric Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions (New York: Verso, 2005). This is one aspect of cognitive estrangement, famously described by Darko Suvin in Metamorphoses of Science Fiction: On the Poetics and History of a Literary Genre (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979).

  10. See Michael Saler, As If: Modern Enchantment and the Literary Prehistory of Virtual Reality (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012).

  11. Feinberg writes, “Therefore, while it does appear possible to construct kinematic closed cycles using tachyons in which signals are sent back to the past, a careful examine of the methods of detection, with due regard to the interpretation of absorption of negative-energy tachyons as emission of positive-energy tachyons, leads to the conclusion that such closed cycles will not be interpreted as reciprocal signaling, but rather as uncorrelated spontaneous emission”; Feinberg, “Possibility of Faster-Than-Light Particles,” 1103. Though such reinterpretation of faster-than-light phenomena was first suggested by the work of Bilaniuk, Deshpande, and Sudarshen, it is now generally called the “Feinberg reinterpretation principle.”

  12. Feinberg writes, “A conclusion warranted by this argument is that tachyons cannot be used to send reliable signals, either forward or backward in time, in the sense that one cannot completely control the outcome of an experiment to produce or absorb them”; Feinberg, “Possibility of Faster-Than-Light Particles,” 1092.

  13. Feinberg, “Particles That Go Faster Than Light,” 72.

  14. See Günter Nimtz, “Tunneling Confronts Special Relativity,” Foundations of Physics 41/7 (2011); E. Kapuścik and R. Orlicki, “Did Günter Nimtz Discover Tachyons?,” Annalen der Physik 523/3 (2011); and T. Adam, et al. (OPERA collaboration), “Measurement of the Neutrino Velocity with the OPERA Detector in the CNGS Beam,” arXiv:1109.4897v1 (17 November 2011).

  15. Feinberg, “Particles That Go Faster Than Light,” 77.

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