A FLASH OF LIGHTNING
Mr. Schonfield hunched over the chronopod control panel on his desk, checking the settings and taking attendance until the bell rang. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he said, “welcome to Applied History I. We will spend this semester exploring cause and effect in American History prior to the Civil War.” One of the
students glanced down at his schedule and skulked out of the classroom. Schonfield gestured toward a gleaming metal
cylinder propped up against the wall behind his desk. “And of course, the thing that makes it
possible for us to tinker with the past is the Weiser chronopod. Before the invention of the Weiser field by
Jason Weiser back in ‘33, there were two dominant theories about time
travel. Can anyone tell me what those
were? Yes, Ms., uh, Bradbury.” Salem High School
Terri Bradbury delicately removed a wad of chewing gum from her mouth and placed it on her desk. “Well,” she said, “there was this one idea that the past couldn’t be changed.”
“Yes,” said Schonfield. “That was one theory. And the other one was…?”
“Uh…,” Terri riffled through the textbook. “Not sure.”
“OK,” said Schonfield, “the other theory was that a tiny change in the past would have huge consequences in the future. People used to talk about a rock thrown in a pond. The ripples spread outward, producing bigger and bigger effects as you move forward in time. And which theory turned out to be correct?”
Terri raised her hand. Schonfield smiled. “Yes, Ms. Bradbury?”
“Is this going to be on the exam?”
Schonfield scowled. “I haven’t decided yet. But the answer is that neither theory was correct, as we will see today. I’m going to activate the Weiser field, and we’ll take our first trip of the semester, all the way back to the Cretaceous.” Schonfield leaned over his desk and flicked a switch. The walls of the classroom vanished, and hot, humid air buffeted the students.
Terri wrinkled her nose. “Eeew, what is that smell?”
“Rotting vegetation, mostly,” said Schonfield. “The world’s future petroleum supply.” The classroom, minus walls and ceiling, nestled in a fern-covered valley, flanked by steep forested hills on all sides. Schonfield pointed to one of the hills. “After school today, I will use the Weiser field to bring a 20 kiloton nuclear device to the other side of that hill, about 10 miles away. Now, watch and learn.” He pressed a button. Purple-white lightning wreathed the hill, followed by a low rumble that shook the classroom. A few students dived under their desks.
“Relax,” said Schonfield, “it’s just an atomic bomb, not an earthquake. We’ll be gone before the fallout reaches us. Now, by my calculations, we have exterminated several hundred dinosaurs, thousands of smaller animals, and millions of plants. Let’s see how this affects the future.”
Schonfield fumbled with the control panel, sliding ahead to the Eocene. A lone Eohippus scurried through the grass. “At this point,” said Schonfield, “we’re viewing the newly-altered timeline outside the classroom. But the Weiser field also allows us to display the original, unaltered timeline.” He punched a button and a sepia-colored scene superimposed itself over the outside view. A sepia herd of Megacerops grazed at the rim of a lake. “Note the rather large change we’ve produced. Our tampering has wiped out those weird-looking rhinos and that lake.”
“That’s really mean!” said Terri.
“We haven’t killed them,” said Schonfield. “They simply never existed in the new timeline we’ve created.”
“It’s still mean.”
“We’ll discuss the ethics of time travel in the spring semester. Now let’s make another jump, ahead to 19th -century
Salem.” Schonfield slapped the switch with his palm,
and a handful of rickety wooden buildings appeared, crowding around a rutted dirt
road. A dry wind blew dust across the
“Welcome to the Old West,” said Schonfield.
Terri coughed. “Yuck, it smells bad here, too,” she said.
“As we explore history this semester, the one thing you’ll have the most trouble getting used to is the smell. As Jason Weiser said, ‘History stinks.’ It’s just a consequence of the horse-drawn transportation system.”
As if on cue, a rider plodded up the street on a mangy, dirt-colored horse. A woman fluttered out of one of the buildings, arms outstretched to greet him. Schonfield hit a button, and a sepia version of the Old West popped into view. The sepia buildings, along with the horse and rider, tracked their newly-altered counterparts, but the woman was nowhere to be seen.
“Note the more subtle changes,” said Schonfield. “The buildings, the horse, the rider appear in exactly the same location, but our distortion of the timeline has added a woman friend. Does that make up for the rhinos, Terri?”
“It’s cute,” said Terri. She grinned. “You’re a regular matchmaker, Mr. Schonfield.”
“OK,” said Schonfield, “now let’s go home.” He flicked the switch, and the classroom popped back to its original space-time coordinates at Salem High. A gaggle of students strolled across the lawn just outside the classroom window. “Let’s see how we’ve changed the present,” said Schonfield. He tapped a button, and a sepia group of students appeared, superimposed exactly over their real counterparts. One of the students stepped a few inches to the right of his sepia doppelganger, crushing a moth in the grass.
“We now know,” said Schonfield, “that neither theory of time travel was correct. We can change the past, but the time stream has its own kind of friction. Colossal changes are slowly damped with time, until -- ” Schonfield stepped out the classroom door and retrieved the mangled body of the moth “-- there are almost no discernable changes at all. Does anybody know what this friction effect is called? Anyone?” The students fidgeted silently. “This will be on the exam,” said Schonfield. He held up the dead moth. “We call it the Butterfly Effect.”