The Net Advance of Physics RETRO:


2013 July 29

Portrait of A P Trotter; head and shoulders turned slightly to l, and looking to front. 1895
Graphite, on pink paper
Portrait of A. P. Trotter by Alphonse Legros (1895).
© Trustees of the British Museum.

Alexander Pelham Trottter did many things in the nine decades of his now all-but-forgotten life, among them essentially founding, as a scientific discipline, the entire branch of engineering concerned with street-lighting and open-air illumination. Although he spent years in public service and was a (largely unheeded) senior technical-advisor to the British government during the First World War, he hated the ever-growing bureaucracy (which he blamed for the slaughter in the trenches), and, as noted elsewhere on this site, was among the few champions of Mrs. Hertha Ayrton, whose career (and with it perhaps the advance of whole fields of physics) was stalled by the sexism and anti-Semitism of the British establishment. He was an early adopter of every new technology, but a student of old technology as well: his article "Stonehenge as an Astronomical Instrument" (he doubted it was) appeared in Volume 1, Number 1 of Antiquity. A radical within the system ... an internationalist in a time of jingoistic xenophobia ... one of the great electrical-engineers of his generation ...

Not quite so good as a poet, though.

Wormhole by Les Bossinas [NASA]

A Poem by A. P. Trotter
[Knowledge 4, 362 (1883)]. Trotter's words are in bold.

  1. Bring out Imagination,
    And we'll put her to the Car,
    And harness fitful Fancy,
    For to-day we travel far,

  2. Due northwards our direction,
    And through chilly gloomy space,
    One hundred six' five billion miles --
    And at a rattling pace.

  3. Now stop, and turn our telescope
    Towards the distant Earth,
    And we shall shortly see how much
    Our expedition's worth.

    [From The Splendour of the Heavens]

  4. We've found it : now bring England
    To the middle of the field ;
    Slip on a higher power
    That will good definition yield.

  5. Here's a quiet Hampshire village
    That we've never seen before,
    And 'tis as though we stood
    Before a lowly cottage door ;

  6. And peeping through the lattice --
    There's an aged woman sitting
    In an arm-chair by the fireside,
    Feebly toiling at her knitting.

  7. Who's this weather-beaten soldier
    Bursting through the cottage door?
    'Tis her son -- and see, she knows
    His footstep on the sanded floor --

  8. Just back from the Crimea :
    No more battles, night alarms,
    No more hardships and privations --
    Leave him in his mother's arms ...

    Home from the War

  9. And away again at twice the speed
    Of light : 'tis quickly reckoned.
    You'll find 'tis nigh three seven' three
    Thousand miles through Space per second.

  10. Now through the cottage window
    There's a sight that makes one glad,
    As the thankful mother kisses
    The brown cheeks of her dear lad.

  11. But see, the two are separating
    With outstretchèd arm ;
    The good old lady sinks into
    Her chair, and with a calm

  12. And unexcited manner,
    In the firelight, gently rocking,
    Is quietly at work,
    But is unpicking her new stocking.

  13. The soldier striding backwards
    (His strong arms are still stretched out)
    Backs through the door which opens
    Of itself to let him out.

  14. A last glance within the window
    Shows us plainly, if we wait,
    We shall see the soldier's mother,
    Who now wipes a pewter plate,

  15. Engaged at supper ; but the sight
    Would surely turn us pale,
    So over the description
    We had better draw a veil.

    Evening, After Rain by Benjamin Williams Leader (1886).

  16. The soldier backs along the road --
    To him it's not surprising
    That in the glowing western sky
    The evening sun is rising,

  17. And that the busy village mill,
    With never-ceasing clack,
    Makes grain from flour, and with the wheel
    It laps the mill-stream back,

  18. And that the reeds in yonder brook,
    Where gurgling eddies gleam,
    Nodding their heads, bend forward
    Against the rapid stream.

    Kinburn, Ukraine, 1855 October 17.

  19. We'll hasten onward from the Earth,
    For Fancy knows no limits.
    The story of the previous weeks
    Whirls by in a few minutes.

  20. Now past Gibraltar, Malta, Greece,
    The ships stern-foremost skim :
    Whoa ! Slacken speed to former rate
    For see, the air grows dim,

  21. And muskets flash, and cannon blaze,
    The battle's all around,
    But as we have no telephone
    There's not the slightest sound.

  22. The movements are confusing,
    'Twill be better, if you please,
    To travel at a slower rate,
    And see things at our ease.

    Diorama, Regimental Museum of the Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders [Photo: Kim Traynor]

  23. Our soldier is a gunner,
    And he ought to think it fun,
    For here the clouds of smoke
    Grow thicker, rolling t'wards the gun.

  24. They gather at the muzzle now,
    And with a blinding blaze,
    The shot comes up and drives them down
    The barrel as we gaze.

    The Valley of Death.

  25. An officer's unwriting
    A dispatch by Raglan signed ;
    The pencil gliding to the right
    Leaves paper clean behind.

  26. The battle, as we've hinted,
    Does not seem so very sad,
    For the dead on all sides rise up,
    Although many wounds are bad ;

  27. And now the bullets quit their bodies,
    Leaving unharmed skin,
    And, finding their respective muskets,
    With a flash go in.

  28. The cartridge-cases fill,
    And soon the cannonadings cease,
    The troops march backwards to their camps,
    And all again is peace.

    Serpens Caput: "twice as far as is Arcturus". [Animation by MicheletB]

  29. Now home again, lest some fixed star's
    Attraction should allure us,
    For now we're more than twice as far
    As Earth is from Arcturus.

  30. At first it seems impossible
    To witness bygone scenes,
    But it is not unthinkable
    To us by any means.

  31. The laws of Physics on this Earth
    We cannot but obey :
    This does not contradict the laws
    Of Thought in any way.

Rather a cross between William Topaz McGonagall and Martin Amis, to be sure, but there are salvageable bits. If I were rewriting this -- for a steampunk song, perhaps? -- I would certainly cut 11-15, and probably put 30 or 31 near the beginning. But a few lines are quite good: Nodding their heads, bend forward // Against the rapid stream, for instance, or The cartridge-cases fill, // And soon the cannonadings cease.

Trotter's contemporaries do not seem to have been much taken with "Time Turned Back"; I am unaware of any reference to it beyond its original publication. On that occasion, the editor of Knowledge, Richard A. Proctor, remarked that "I find so much that is really scientific, as well as amusing, in Mr. Trotter's poem that I have inserted it as it stood. I had occasion to make a little note upon one part of it, and as I found a prose note had a comical effect I ran the note (with as little change as possible) into rhymed form:

Just here I would throw in a note
Suggested by this poem
(On things thát we can surmise
Though perchance we'll never know 'em).
This voyager in space,
As our deponent seems to say
Saw more than had elapsed
Within the compass of a day ;
But all that time the Earth
Was swiftly turning without jars,
And the places seen from far away
Were turned towards diff'rent stars.
So to see those places clearly
During several days expiral,
Our traveller must have voyaged
In a most amazing spiral.
See this subject lightly touched on
In my cheerful little treatise
Geometry of Cycloids
Which for seaside reading meet is.
It's advertised, I notice,
In the outside sheets of
But the bulk of it I worked out
In my salad days at College."

(Proctor, too, was a Victorian polymath whose strong point was not comic verse!)

Richard A. Proctor [Wikipedia]

The existence of some connexion between superluminal velocities and time travel was at least intuited long before Einstein, probably soon after the realisation that the speed of light is not infinite. Looking at the stars (as every populariser of astronomy in the last four centuries has most likely remarked) is looking into the past, seeing them when the rays of their light departed. Likewise, observers hundreds of light-years away see us not as we are now, but as we were centuries ago.

(Of course, relativity makes these statements a bit less self-evidently correct, but never mind that -- one still hears them today.)

Therefore, if one could only race away from the Earth at a speed outstripping light's, then turn around, one would see the past.

Trotter's effort aside, there are several literary treatments of the underlying conceit, works in which time unspools before a distant observer. Among the most elegant is the prose-poem "Lumen" by the astronomer-visionary Camille Flammarion in his Récits de l'infini [Paris: Didier, 1873] (English translation Stories of Infinity [Boston: Brown, 1873]) -- science fiction, but of a type completely different in tone and content from that of his contemporary Jules Verne. Flammarion's dream-like tales will be the subject of a future blog-entry here, but they share little beyond their subject with "Time Turned Back".

Bernafay Wood, 19 July 1916 by Ernest Brooks.

Alexander Trotter's wife Alys was a far more talented poet than he; some of her anguished Great War verse (notably "The Hospital Visitor") is still read -- and still painful -- today. She was also as an historian of South Africa. If Alexander Trotter was ahead of his time as an engineer, Alys Fane Trotter was ahead of hers as a scholar. Her most significant book, Old Cape Colony: A Chronicle of Her Men and Houses [London: Selwyn & Blount, 1903], told the story of the Dutch settlers largely through their material domestic culture -- very much a Twenty-first Century approach, although unusual enough in 1903 for her to modestly insist "This is not a history". She illustrated the book herself, and her sketches are of enormous value in their own right. As she said in the preface: "Calamity falls on houses as well as on people. I learn that to several buildings has come, since I drew them, that worst of fates, 'modern improvement.' I make no apology for including the drawings of houses that can never be seen again ..."