The Sirens of Titan: Playfully Toying with Time | Van Kooten on The Sirens of Titan

Rick Van Kooten


As an undergraduate student, our friend Kurt Vonnegut studied mechanical engineering, chemistry, and biology, and subsequently worked as a publicist for General Electric in New York. He clearly enjoyed animated conversations with his brother, Bernard, an atmospheric scientist working at a GE research laboratory and credited with discovering that silver iodide could be used effectively in cloud seeding to produce snow and rain. Kurt was clearly familiar with and interested in science, commenting, “I understand how scientific reasoning and playfulness work, even though I have no talent for joining in. I enjoy the company of scientists, am easily excited and entertained when they tell me what they are doing. I’ve spent a lot more time with scientists than with literary people, my brother’s friends, mostly” (Paris Review, 1977).

This “scientific playfulness” is a central part of the giddy mix of sometimes absurdist extensions of a range of modern physics (modern then, still modern now), including special and general relativity, wormholes, and quantum physics, that he throws into his 1959 book The Sirens of Titan.

A first example is Vonnegut’s fanciful “chrono-synclastic infundibula” (CSI), which Winston Rumfoord “had run his private space ship right into the heart of . . . two days out of Mars. . . . Now Winston Niles Rumfoord and his dog Kazak existed as wave phenomena—apparently pulsing in a distorted spiral with its origin in the Sun and its terminal in Betelgeuse” (p. 7–8).

The “infundibula” piece merely means “funnel-shaped cavity or structure” (used a lot in descriptions of anatomy!). Something like this existing in space, bringing one “elsewhere,” certainly smacks of a wormhole, a special class of black hole that can be described by general relativity, but requiring a dash of quantum fluctuations, modified gravity, or exotic matter to be stable and traversable—see just one example of current serious research. At this point, I was very excited given that the flip side of my “trading card” listing strengths and weaknesses actually includes the strength “able to explain Interstellar.” The characters in the film Interstellar explore a planet right near a black hole, and time travel because of it. Vonnegut’s characters are spread out through time via a CSI acting as a roving wormhole. Effectively, this isn’t too dissimilar from Interstellar’s spherical wormhole located near Saturn.

After being infundibulated, Rumfoord no longer exists as a point but as “a wave phenomenon extending all the way from the Sun to Betelgeuse” (p. 15–16), and he materializes on Earth every 59 days when the Earth transects the spiral that is akin to the probability wave function of quantum mechanics, another injection of modern physics. Just as an electron in a hydrogen atom is described by a quantum mechanical wave function whose amplitude is related to where the electron is most likely to be, Rumfoord’s probability for existence peaks within this wave phenomenon. Now when Vonnegut tossed out this 59-day repetition, my reaction as a scientist was immediately, “Huh, how could that be? The Earth takes 365.25 days to orbit the Sun, and 59 days does not divide evenly into that.” I was at first excited that Rumfoord also regularly materializes every 14 days on Mercury; the ratio of these two periods is essentially the ratio of the orbital periods of Earth and Mercury, so there was some thought put in there. I admit to having a proverbial napkin sketch of Rumfoord’s wave function starting at the Sun, executing six lazy loops intersecting the orbits of Earth and Mercury (or beaming out from the Sun, rotating like a lighthouse), with the loops slowly drifting in the same direction that Earth orbits, then heading out to Titan and following its complicated exact spiral around Saturn, and finally exiting the plane of the solar system and stretching 642 light years to Betelgeuse. Vonnegut’s playfulness messing with a scientist’s head.

Now for the big one, the other parts of the CSI, from the novel’s A Child’s Cyclopedia of Wonders and Things to Do: “Chrono (kroh-no) means time. Synclastic (sin-classtick) means curved toward the same side in all directions” (p. 9). Rumfoord enters the CSI where he can see in all three normal dimensions, but also in time. He is able to see the past, present, and future all together. When he is caught in it, or “unstuck in time,” he will appear at different places for certain amounts of time. He is able to see what is happening in different places at all times, but is not able to know everything. This is also used as a device in Vonnegut’s later book Slaughterhouse-Five.

At this point in history, Einstein’s concepts in his Special Theory of Relativity showed that time as well as the sequencing or simultaneity of events is completely relative to the observer and their motion with respect to the events. This completely destroyed the idea of absolute time. It also helps our understanding of the Child’s Cyclopedia explanation of what it is like being inside the CSI: “Now, you can say that your Daddy is right and the other little child’s Daddy is wrong, but the Universe is an awfully big place. There is room enough for an awful lot of people to be right about things and still not agree” (p. 8).

In Einstein’s famous twin paradox, the different relative motions of each twin resulted in a disagreement of the time shown on their clocks. Which of the twins’ clocks was correct? According to Einstein, both were equally correct.

This also allowed Vonnegut to toy with time by introducing a bizarre notion that is still relevant and argued today in current research, often described as the “block universe”:

According to conventional wisdom, the present moment has special significance. It is all that is real. As the clock ticks, the moment passes and another comes into existence—a process that we call the flow of time. The moon, for example, is located at only one position in its orbit around Earth. Over time it ceases to exist at that position and is instead found at a new position. Researchers who think about such things, however, generally argue that we cannot single out a present moment as special when every moment considers itself to be special. Objectively, past, present and future must be equally real. All of eternity is laid out in a four-dimensional block composed of time and the three spatial dimensions. This figure shows only two of these spatial dimensions.
(Paul Davies, “A Question of Time,” Scientific American, vol. 21, Spring 2012)

Note that here “block” is not describing an explicit shape of the universe; rather, the simplistic illustrations often look like blocks. Throughout The Sirens of Titan, Vonnegut cleverly uses the word “punctual” to essentially refer to the present “slice” in the above figure, meaning,

To be punctual meant to exist as a point, meant that as well as to arrive somewhere on time. Constant existed as a point—could not imagine what it would be like to exist in any other way. (p. 7);

Salo was punctual—that is, he lived one moment at a time—and he liked to tell Rumfoord that he would rather see the wonderful colors at the far ends of the spectrum than either the past or the future. (p. 273); and

In a punctual way of speaking, good-by. (p. 270).

Rumfoord lives within the block universe and describes the difference as follows:

Life for a punctual person is like a roller coaster. . . . All kinds of things are going to happen to you! Sure . . . I can see the whole roller coaster you’re on. And sure—I could give you a piece of paper that would tell you about every dip and turn, warn you about every bogeyman that was going to pop out at you in the tunnels. But that wouldn’t help you any. . . .
Because you’d still have to take the roller-coaster ride. . . . I didn’t design the roller coaster, I don’t own it, and I don’t say who rides and who doesn’t. I just know what it’s shaped like. (p. 54)

Ah, but does this remove free will? This is a question more of metaphysics, and I leave it to the philosophers in the faculty of our Salo University to address this question.

We continue to struggle with deep questions regarding time: is it continuous or discrete at mind-bogglingly tiny intervals; what is the difference between past, present, and future; why does time appear to move in only one direction; and is time fundamental or emergent? As particle physicists, we regularly use calculational tools where we merrily replace particles moving forward in time with anti-particles moving backward in time. A movie of this fundamental process makes sense running forward or backward, but a movie of a shattering drinking glass run backward is clearly (almost!) impossible due to the Second Law of Thermodynamics and entropy. Vonnegut, even back in the 1950s, lets us playfully ponder these profound questions in often ridiculous situations.

In closing, something completely different, using just good old classical physics. In describing the planet Mercury and its vibrations which the harmoniums groove to and feed from, Vonnegut describes the source of these vibrations as follows:

The planet Mercury sings like a crystal goblet. It sings all the time. One side of Mercury faces the sun. That side has always faced the sun. That side is a sea of white hot dust. The other side faces the nothingness of space eternal. That side has always faced the nothingness of space eternal. That side is a forest of giant blue-white crystals, aching cold. It is the tension between the hot hemisphere of day without end and the cold hemisphere of night without end that makes Mercury sing. (p. 187)

For kicks and giggles (okay, it is easy to get a physicist to giggle), knowing the composition and diameter of Mercury, and imagining “pinging” it at the equator, one can calculate the resonant fundamental frequency and the accompanying overtones. In what may be the world premiere of the actual audible sound, I present the Song of Mercury (the first five overtones), sped up by a factor of ten to allow you to hear the first overtones.