Time: A Traveler's Guide

On-Line Syllabus
Spring 2006, First Bi-Term

Honors Colloquium 200-301: The Nature of Time

Dr. Richard Gelderman
230 Thompson Complex, Central Wing
Dept of Physics and Astronomy
Western Kentucky University
Bowling Green, KY 42101-1077


Course Goals and Philosophy:

In this seminar we will discuss many of the widely varied aspects relating to the nature of time, using fields of study including physical sciences such as biology, chemistry, geology, astrophysics, and paleontology as well as disciplines such as philosophy, psychology, history, politics, literature, and the fine arts. No prior knowledge in any of these fields is assumed, but a willingness to learn parts of all the fields is expected. To be a success, this class requires interested, motivated students willing to freely and openly participate in the discussion. Every person will have some experience with most topics, though no one can be an expert in all the various disciplines related to time. We will rely on each other and a broad reading list in order to exit the course with a good sense of time.

Required Texts: Longitude (1995, Dava Sobel) and Time: A Travelers Guide (1998, Clifford Pickover)

Grading: The final grades will be determined from the following formula:
10% Participation
25% Homework
20% Book/Movie Criticism
35% Final Project
10% Presentation


This colloquium will emphasize discussion. Thus, attendance, participation, and preparation are more important in this class than in the usual lecture. I expect prompt and regular attendance and full participation in class discussions. I further expect that you will be well prepared to contribute to the discussion, having read and thought about the day's material before class.


A number of short homework assignments will be assigned. Most will be short essay questions requiring your analysis of a particular topic. Other questions will be quantitative problems involving simple algebra and knowledge of material presented in the suggested readings. All work must be turned in on or before the due date to receive a grade. Collaboration of any kind, on any assignment in this course, is expressly forbidden. No credit will be given for work that is not demonstrably your own.

Book/Movie Criticism:

Over the course of human civilization, the possibility of time travel has been the focus of numerous books and, more recently, movies. Compare and contrast the manner in which time travel into space is presented in two different books or movies. Your paper must go beyond a book report which simply summarizes the story. You will be expected to present a criticism of how each author's treatment of time travel is used to advance that plot and convey a deeper meaning. One possible pair might be to compare a book or movie from today's era of spaceflight and relativistic physics to some work of fiction from the early industrial age. Or, perhaps, you might contrast a story where humans explore the past/future in an honorable and civilized manner to a story where humans are exploitative and destructive. The paper must be at least 1200 words (4 to 6 pages). All papers must be fully proofread; misspellings and unintelligible grammar will not be tolerated. The grading will focus on the quality of the analysis. Successful submissions will exhibit independent, creative thought. The best papers will point out an unexpected or at least non-obvious aspect of time travel.

Final Project:

Your final project should be a detailed presentation of some well defined topic relating to time.  Almost any topic which has any connection at all with this course is acceptable (you must state the connection).  Make use of your interests, prior knowledge, and/or other courses to produce a project which is inspired and engages the audience.  Acceptable projects include:  a research paper on some narrow topic; a critical comparison and contrast of an issue as presented in two or more books; a piece of fiction which accurately and intelligently deals with future possibilities; an economic or political  analysis of time travel implications; a dance presentation or theatrical script dealing with issues related to time; a computer program or engineering technique to speed up or slow down a mechanical device; or even the results of a relativistic physics experiment in which you create a wormhole in the laboratory. It is important that you choose a narrow topic.  Go beyond introductory texts or items from the popular press.  Instead of analyzing a broad subject, focus on some detailed aspect and present an in-depth discussion of that.

     The primary quality I will be looking for in your project is evidence for critical thought.  I want to clearly see that you have learned something from your project. However, realize I also have the selfish motive that I want to learn something from your project.  Be sure you do not just repeat back to me what someone else has said.  If you speculate about future possibilities, make certain that it is reasoned and supported.  Assemble multiple references, evaluate what has been written by others about your topic, and synthesize ideas of your own as a conclusion. If you choose to write a paper, I expect at least 2,500 words (8 to 12 pages).   If you intend to submit a non-paper project, arrange to meet with me well before the deadline, so we can estimate the work required.


Each student is required to give a 10 minute oral presentation of her/his final project during the final class meeting. The grade will be based on your overall ability to communicate the substance of your project.

Calendar and Suggested Readings

Mon, 1/23 Introduction - What is time?

Wed, 1/25 Traveling through time - an overview of time travel

Mon, 1/30 Visiting the future - special relativity and cryogenics

Wed, 2/1 Back to the future - unrestricted time travel

Mon, 2/6 Time paradoxes and multiple time lines

Wed, 2/8 Worm holes and hyperspace  

Mon, 2/13 Calendar time

Wed, 2/15 Clock time - the importance of keeping time*** Critical Writing Assignment due ***

Mon, 2/20 Deep time - geological and biological

Wed, 2/22 Our sense of time - jet lag and circadian rhythms

Mon, 2/27 The arrow of time - entropy and reversibility

Wed, 3/1 Free will versus predetermination

Mon, 3/6 The beginning (and end?) of time, eternal versus everlasting *** Final Projects due at beginning of class ***

Wed, 3/8 Student Presentations

Fri, 3/10 Student Presentations