I was asked to write something on North Dakota Quarterly and wormholes, and this is what I wrote. It’s received lukewarm reviews probably because I don’t really understand wormholes, but it was fun to write so not a total loss!
North Dakota Quarterly and Wormholes
North Dakota Quarterly had a problem. At some point during the history of this journal, we fell behind in the volume numbers and dates. Volume 79 had a date of 2011, but did not appear until 2012; volume 80 has dates of 2012 and 2013, but the last numbers did not appear until 2015. Something had slowed time in the NDQ offices and interrupted the regular flow of volumes. We recognized that the most likely cause of this time dilation to be rapid speed of change in the NDQ office. Over the past two years, we have organized the editorial board, brought in a new poetry and fiction editor, developed a more robust digital presence on the web, and released almost our entire catalogue of back issues for the general public for free.
In 1905, Einstein predicted in his special theory of relativity and experiments have demonstrated that times moves mores slowly for an object moving at a high speed than for one that is traveling at a slower speed. For example, it is well known that a highly-accurate atomic clock orbiting the earth on a satellite measures time more slowly than a clock stationary on earth. In fact, GPS satellites have to correct for the slightly faster rate of time present on the fast moving satellite when communicating with the almost stationary status of the terrestrial GPS receiver. In 1915, Einstein’s general theory of relativity, describes how gravity also influences the rate of time. A clock closer to a source of high gravity, will record time more slowly than one encountering lower gravity. For residents of the international space station, the difference in gravity almost counter balances the increased rate of speed to ensure that time moves only slightly slower for them as it does on earth. These two effects account for the dilated passage of time at North Dakota Quarterly where change is propelling the journal forward at a very great rate of speed, and the public humanities imposes a significant gravity to our work.
Unfortunately, this has had the effect of slowing time at the Quarterly in relation to the rest of the world. As a result, we have to figure out how to reconcile the difference in time between NDQ and our audience (although we suspect that for some members of our audience the difference in time is not apparent; these people are quite literally “fellow travelers.”) To fix the issue of time dilation at the Quarterly, we could either skip a couple of years (and not publish volumes with the dates of 2014 or 2015) or to fiddle with the volume numbers in such a way that it allows us to skip them ahead without causing alarm (e.g. the next volume being 81-82 and have a date of 2014-2015). There is ample historical precedent in the world of literary publishing to combine volume numbers or simply the skip a year.
Of course, a long-time reader will know that NDQ had a jump in years between volume 23 (1933) and 24 (1956), but this did not represent the Quarterly falling behind in relation to the regular world, but a formal hiatus in publication. We also published a few combined volumes like in 2005 and 2006 where we combined the first two issues of volume 72 and 73, but this was a treatment generally reserved for special issues on particular topics. Volume 72 1/2 was dedicated to “Belles Letters” and Volume 73 1/2 to “Hemingway.” As far as I can tell NDQ has never combined volume numbers. The closest we’ve ever come is in 1994-1995, when we combined years, but kept the same volume (62). This knocked the volume and year numbers out of whack and was clearly not a tidy or satisfactory solution to our problem.
The absence of a time-honored solution to this problem left us in a bit of jam. We had no real precedent for skipping years or combining volumes, so those proved to be dead ends. And while we could have followed the gradualist route of slowly combining issues, but the speed of change at NDQ would likely lead us to confront the reality of Einstein’s laws before we caught up. Plus, we’d have to find topics worthy of double issues but also to invest the effort to produce a double issue, and this would risk putting us even further behind. In this hopeless situation, we returned to where the problem started: theoretical physics.
Since the initial issue with time slowing down derived from the phenomenon of time dilation at high speeds, we hoped that Einstein’s general theory of relativity might also provide us with a solution. It so happens that as physicists came to terms with Einstein’s theories, they began to speculate on phenomena like black and white holes. Both of these phenomena involve locations of very high gravity surrounding very dense (and hence very small) non-rotating masses. From what we understood, the high gravity of black holes distort timespace enough to allow for some basic time travel. Time moves far more slowly for objects orbiting black holes than for those at a great distance.
Objects sucked into a black hole would also experience timespace compression to a remarkable degree. Einstein and other physicists, particularly Karl Schwartzchild, recognized that if black holes were to exist and would ingest matter, then the matter ingested by a black hole could be ejected by white holes. This provided the basis for the notion of wormholes which do more than distort timespace, but actually punch a hole through two distinct location in timespace and allow matter to pass from one place to another. Einstein and Nathan Rosen developed these ideas most fully and they are sometimes called Einstein-Rosen Bridges in 1935. Some astronomers think that very small wormholes probably existed at the Big Bang and might still exist. The work at the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland has sought to create these microscopic black holes, which, on the one hand, could end the universe, and, on the other hand, might help us understand the origins of the universe. Physicists have theorized that such wormholes could be created and held open with a massive infusion of negative matter. It may be that the creation of these very small black holes, or even wormholes, are useful to us because, we only need to travel a few years and the Quarterly is, for now, quite small.
While it may seem a bit unorthodox for a journal dedicated to the public humanities to use a wormhole to resolve the dating problem of their volumes, I’d suggest that this is consistent with a growing interest among scholars of the humanities to think about science as an approach to traditional social, cultural, historical, and literary problems. I suspect that most humanities scholars take their lead from such important cultural landmarks as Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. This imaginative documentary linked a scientifically advanced future to an equally sophisticated understanding of the past. Despite its advanced science, the future of humanity needed Bill and Ted to do well on a history presentation, and future generations did not hesitate to leverage time-space to make this happen. In response to these remarkable revelations, scholars in the humanities have gravitated to the works of Bruno Latour and Karen Barad. Barad and Latour, among many others, have worked to unpack scientific thinking in ways that reveal the deep entanglement of objects, institutions, people, and events. Science and the humanities draw upon the same imagination and navigate similar institutional, economic, material, and historical limits to our work. Our idea of a strict division between culture and nature has increasingly receded reminding us that we are part of the natural world that our science describes. The inseparability of time, culture, space, society, and matter in the world recognizes the potential for innumerable wormholes connecting even such disparate places and times as the arts, humanities, science, engineering, and technology. These wormholes exist despite the apparently dispersion of disciplines, institutions, and ways of thinking into institutional silos with distinct histories and theoretical commitments.
The wormhole connecting Bill and Ted’s history presentation and the future is no more (or less) absurd than the wormhole resolving the effect of temporal dilation in the sequence of NDQ volumes or the entanglement of arts and sciences. We are increasingly coming to see the division between the arts, humanities, and sciences as arbitrary and the mutual commitment to understanding the universe is not the distinct domain of any particular set of approaches. At the same time, we recognize that the world’s problems are as complex as they are pressing. From resolving a bit of lag in the NDQ volume dates to ending the world at the Large Hadron Collider or resolving tension between religious and secular views, the humanities and the sciences share a desire to use their understand of the universe to create a better place. We hope that synchronizing the volume numbers and dates of North Dakota Quarterly contributes in some small way to this common cause.