A “Human Wormhole”

No, this is not about physics, despite the title. It’s a phrase borrowed from Jason Kottke, who claims he thinks it isn’t quite right. But it seems perfect for what I’m about to present. Just watch it– it’s five minutes and it speaks for itself.

That’s right this is footage that you’re watching on youtube in 2012, of a television show taped in the late 1950s, featuring a man who remembers being there the day that Abraham Lincoln was shot.

If that’s not a human wormhole, a little narrow bridge made entirely of people forming an astonishingly short path between two extremely separated points in time, than I don’t know what it is. I suppose it’s also a bit like six degrees of Kevin Bacon played out through history, but that expression is just so much less compact!

By the way, this came to my attention through the excellent blog of Ta-Nehisi Coates, (I’m a shameless blog thief today) who noted it as part of his ongoing effort to remind us that slavery is hardly that far into the past. Indeed, it’s hard for someone my age to wrap his brain around the fact that there are plenty of folks alive today, including the parents of many of my friends, who can probably clearly remember when the civil rights act was passed. So to find out that some of them might have, in fact, watched a TV program as a young child about a man who saw the assasination of Abraham Lincoln…. It boggles the mind. I mean, Abe Lincon, the man so far back in history that he has become the stuff of legends. A man from such a distant time that there are fewer than 200 known photographs of him in existence….

These “human wormholes” are wonderful. Because I’ve always been a little facsinated about the past and am constantly in search of ways to make it feel a little more accessible to me, I confess I’ve noticed a few in the past but just failed to blog about them. Until now. Rest assured, I’ll keep my eyes peeled for them in the future. For now, I’ll leave you with one more to tide you over, also from Mr. Coates: There are two men alive today who are the grandsons (not great-grandsons!) of President John Tyler. That’s the Tyler who was president in 1840, and who was himself born in 1790. In other words, there are men alive today who might reasonably be able to say “I bet my grandfather was really excited when he heard that they were building a special white house for President John Adams to move into.”


About Colin West
Colin West is a graduate student in quantum information theory, working at the Yang Institute for Theoretical Physics at Stony Brook University. Originally from Colorado (where he attended college), his interests outside of physics include politics, paper-folding, puzzles, playing-cards, and apparently, plosives.

One Response to A “Human Wormhole”

  1. Moominmamma says:

    Watching this is strange, because yes, it is a wormhole to a time that should seem so long ago, but really isn’t. Did you hear the way the audience “oohed” when they showed the secret? There must have been all kinds of people in that audience who had grandparents who could tell stories about the Civil War, yet the historical magnitude of the event makes it seem somehow removed from our daily lives. So many of us have similar “wormholes” in our lives, but we rarely take the time to hear their stories. My own grandmothers were born in the 1800s, and grew up in a world without highways or traffic lights, but lived to see men walk on the moon.When Neil Armstrong died, I thought of the day I listened to his voice as he detailed the descent to the moon’s surface in real time. I can hear it in my mind right now. Watching this clip, I am transported to the world of my childhood, where I watched this show (though not this episode), and I remember Bill Cullen and Jayne Meadows. It does just what a wormhole should: it makes the Civil War seem not that far removed from my own life. And that is a useful thing to understand, because as you can see in the world around us, we are still dealing with the ramifications of that war and the beliefs that provoked it.

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