Time Travel?

Science fiction writers have speculated about time travel for more than a hundred years. H. G. Wells’s novel, The Time Machine has been an enduring classic in publishing, with too many editions to keep track of. Some of them have very fun covers, however.

It is a subject that continues to fascinate writers, including in my own work in a story that I’m working on now. But what does science say about time travel? Is it possible? Is it just a fantasy?


Recently, physicists have made discoveries about dark energy that may indicate that no time travel into the past would be possible because of the direction of the physical properties of particles.

But one thing is for sure – the imagination works in both directions, to the past as well as the future. We cast our minds into the past to learn about what we can do in the future, to see what went right, and what went wrong. Or maybe it is just for entertainment?

  • – David W. Wooddell

Drunk men with guns

Good luck to all in Cleveland this week at the Republican National Convention. I hope cooler heads will prevail, and peace is not destroyed by the extremists of any belief.
As I saw this week in online posts, there are people claiming to travel to Cleveland for the convention with their guns, intent on stopping at breweries and distilleries along the way to stock up on alcohol, so they can “stand up” to Black Lives Matter, and anyone else who disagrees with them.
     That is exactly the kinds of sentiments and intentions that started the Civil War in 1861. Drunk men with guns who wanted to suppress blacks, perpetuate slavery, and tell the country how to govern itself was a losing proposition in that year, and it is a losing proposition in 2016.
     Drunk men with guns is a bad prescription for peaceful democratic process. Guns are not the right objects to bring to political conventions, unless one is supporting violence.
     Bring brains and logic, understanding and ethics, and yes morality that is based on helping others to your political convention. You want to make America great again? Bring back the middle class way of life. Bring back jobs for Americans. Bring back the dollars earned in the US that have been hidden oversees in banks to keep from having to pay taxes. Bring back the ethics and morality of freedom for all, and justice for all, not just for the wealthy, the whites, and the politically connected. That is what should be brought to this important American political gathering, and yet I understand it is probably not going to happen.
     The party of Lincoln that freed the slaves by winning the Civil War is today intent on building walls, violating freedom of religion, and suppressing dissent. It seems intent on disenfranchising as many non-Republicans as possible through gerrymandering, restricting and unconstitutional voting laws. And the reason?
     Drunk men with guns is my only explanation for this danger to the United States. Certainly, they could not hold those un-American values if they were sober.
– David W. Wooddell

Nom de Pen contest

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B&O RR Museum 052715

I write serious history books as my main occupation, though it pays little, so I could probably say it is an avocation. And I publish them under my own name, David W. Wooddell.

But my dirty little secret – well, one of them I’m willing to admit to here – is that I write fiction, too.

That’s right. Factually incorrect narratives, with wildly imaginative “facts” that are improbable, but plausible if you squint, and drink enough caffeine, and are excited by space travel, aliens, and new interpretations of physics and biology. And occasional sex. Because sex sells, and it is hilarious to write. Especially when combined with the new interpretations of biology, in which… oh, never mind for now. Just take my word for it.

Evidently, to be a successful fiction author, I need a nom de pen (or should that be nom de word processor?) I’m currently writing a series of science fiction novels. And those will be followed with a series of speculative historical adventure novels with some traces of steam punk levity.

Any suggestion would be gratefully received. I won’t guarantee I’ll use the suggestion. But I do think it would be fun to see what people suggest, and there is always a chance I might like one enough to use it on my books.

If I end up using one of the suggestions, I will award the person an autographed copy of my first science fiction novel, The Invisibles, after it is published later this year.

Who’s in? Make a comment below, or send one to me, here or on FB at my writer page.

  • David W. Wooddell

How do you stop racism?

How do you help fix the problem of racism? I’ve been speaking up about it since I was a teenager. It maybe has pressed some of my family and friends to question their overt racism, but I don’t know that I’ve been able to change them. Over time, they have learned that if they speak racist stuff, I will challenge them, and I will ostracize them if they continue. I will not be in the same room with them. I will not take part in what they take part in. And I will let them know why.

And yet, some of them choose to continue in their racist beliefs. And they get butthurt because I call them on it.

I feel it is important to speak out about it in social media. I feel it is important to write to politicians, chiefs of police in my area, to attend occasional public meetings and speak out and be seen as a white person who is against the police profiling, and acting on their racist attitudes. The stories of what those police do are terrible.

When I adopted my son from Korea, the agency we worked with told us to introduce son to the police, and “let them see you with him often, so that they will know he is protected by a white person.” I did so, but I’ve always known that the rest of the blacks, Hispanics, and Asians in the US don’t have the advantage of a white person protecting them.

But I have to ask – why should that be necessary? Why, in the 21st century, are some people, including some police still acting as thought the Civil War was about to start? Why have we allowed racists to hold office, and to be in position of authority, such as serve in the police?

The police are not all law abiding. I know this from my own family’s experiences. We had a crooked cop in the family, and we all suffered from it in one way or another. We also had a lot of cops in the family who were not crooked, who acted in an ethical and legal manner all their careers. So I know the difference, and I know that not all cops are law abiding  because I read the news and see reports of policemen arrested for every kind of crime imaginable. And yes, those are the exceptions. But too often the reaction within police forces is to look the other way and allow it. Just as security guards often turn out to be the inside man in robberies and theft, some police create problems instead of stopping problems. They have joined for the power, and because they can get away with abuse of the power. That includes racism and the ability to persecute those they perceive as weak. They perceive blacks and hispanics as weak because their own leaders and fellow police let them get away with racial profiling, with violence against them, and with outright illegal behavior. It is the power and ability to exercise power against someone who can’t lash out at them in return.

If you want to help end this continuation of racism, and persecution of blacks by police, speak out. Stand up. Let it be known that you won’t support police who break the law. Let your local and national politicians know you will not stand for it, and you will campaign against them if they support that kind of behavior.

This is not blacks against the police. It is some police acting against blacks, and that puts us all in danger, it demeans all of us because it fractures our society, it breaks the law, and as with all criminals, it creates fear. It is time to stop the violence. It is time to stop racism.

Ashoken Farewell

Many years ago, I attended a concert of Jay Unger and Molly Mason, fiddle and guitar players. They passed out 4×6 prints of the dots (the sheet music) for Ashoken Farewell. It had been missing for years in my stuff, but this week I came across it tucked safely in a civil war history book I had chosen somewhat at random to file it in for protection. I’m preparing to sell my civil war books, and have been looking through them one last time to make a record of them.

I won’t post the scan of the dots – they are copyrighted, and I don’t have Jay Unger’s permission, but the YouTub is lovely.

It has always been a sad song for me. It is a lament. A farewell, and a sorrow. I wish we could say goodby to sorrow, but that has not been the case this week.

I thought this might be reflective for those who play, and the rest of you, go listen to it on YouTube.


  • David W. Wooddell

Early Bird Gets the Word

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I’ve been in the habit for so long, I can’t recall when it began. Some will tell you that my habit is odious. Some are offended by it. “Why can’t you quit?” someone asked. “Just act normal.”

“But this is normal,” I reply, “normal for me.”

Back when I smoked cigarettes, I used to think it was because I needed the nicotine. But it didn’t change after I stopped smoking. In fact, it may have become worse. I still drink coffee, and while I tell the dogs, when I rise at 3am that it’s just for coffee, that is my way of telling them not to hope for breakfast for a couple more hours.

No, the habit is not connected to coffee, though I enjoy my cup of joe first thing. There was a day last week when my wife asked me to do something before I’d had my first cup of coffee of the day, and I thought, just for a moment, that I’d crack. But I held it together, and didn’t snap at her.

Hard to conceive it is possible, but what I’m discussing this morning is more important than my coffee habit. It is the habit of getting up early to write.

The reason is simple: my mind is clearer first thing in the morning. And since I go to bed early, sometimes as early as 8 pm, I’m ready to roll out of bed and start digging at the word farm before 5 am. And that is what bothers many people. They like to laze around in bed, some of them until 8 am, if you can imagine! And I’ve heard that some people sleep until noon, though I have a hard time crediting it as anything more than rumor.

Recently, I found evidence to back up my claim that early morning is best for what I do. I love confirmation. I feel vindicated. It’s 4:59 am, and I feel like shouting out the window: Get up you lazy slugs, you’ll work better!

But of course, I’d wake everybody up. That will never do. They might find chores for me to do, or distract me with marketing calls, or spam, or post something to distract me on Facebook. No, I prefer to keep quiet when I am up early.

And now, back to writing. – David W. Wooddell

Books Feed Your Brain

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Books: If you want to be a thinker, and know stuff, you have to feed your brain. If you want to convey information that will last, books are the time-tested method.
By comparison, information seen on video is ephemeral, lasting only long enough for the image to resolve and then the camera lens usually passes along to another image, another bit of information, but again it is there and gone. It is more temporary in nature.
Digital information can be solid only temporarily for a matter of years; and is not archival. It has to be refreshed every five to ten years, and then it degrades. It is not a permanent archive such as words printed on paper, which remain the only enduring, and permanent record of whatever information was conveyed on the page. Imagine if all the books at the Library of Congress had to be copied over or reprinted every five to ten years in order for them to be read fifty years from now. 
As a adjunct: Photographs printed on high quality photo paper are the best means of preserving photographic images, especially now that we no longer have the negative film with which to make a new print.
Books. Write one, read one, shelve one, or buy one. Visit them at the library. See them in a book store. See them on a friend’s shelf and ask to look, or borrow, and read.
Your brain will thank you; your culture will thank you; and your life will be richer.
A recent New Yorker article on bibliotherapy speaks to the latter part of why we read books. Can Reading Make You Happier? It’s worth a try.
– David W. Wooddell

Last man to leave the ship

Some years ago, when I worked for National Geographic magazine, I was assigned to do pre-research for a fun story being written by Priit Vesilind. The Steamship Republic had been found in extremely deep water by the treasure hunting company, Odyssey Marine Engineering. The ship went down in a mighty storm after the steam engine stalled. Despite the storm, most of the passengers and crew survived the shipwreck, as did the gold that she was carrying for the banks in New Orleans. One of the heroes who helped passengers survive that day was a young, Union army officer named Louis Caziarc.

I have a love of quirky people. I guess in that regard, I’m like all writers and photographers. We tend to be attracted to the ones with interesting stories. But a problem with that approach to story telling is that such people are not representative of the population at large, so one must be careful about drawing generalized conclusions from the tales of such men or women. That was a corollary of something I’d discovered when I was an art researcher for the magazine: when choosing reference photos of animals, artists tend to pick the photos that show anomalies. That is probably because the animal looks distinctive, or different, and artists, like writers, tend to appreciate the unique. Problem is, those anomalies make poor reference for the population in general. I discovered that on a story about lions in the Ngoro Ngoro crater. I had passed to the artist some photos of lions in zoos, to use as reference, but hadn’t considered that lions in zoos are an inbred population, and they do show unique, or non-representative physical traits.

As I researched the passengers on the Republic when she sank, I came across Caziarc, a young Union Army officer from Boston who was returning to the south from a long, well-deserved leave after the Civil War had ended. He was a lieutenant, and aide-de-camp of General Canby, who was in charge of the Restoration of Louisiana, South Carolina, and North Carolina.

The editorial researchers at National Geographic were responsible for writing a short article for the magazine’s website, to bring to light something extra that didn’t make it into the feature article. I chose Lt. Caziarc because he had some real depth as a person, and as a military officer in the post war years. It helped that he was credited as a genuine hero after he saved lives as the Republic sank. In that regard, he was singled out for praise. Telling his individual story was a way to shed extra light on the story of the shipwreck itself. Was he representative of Union officers who helped the restoration of government and commerce in the South despite the ravages of war? You tell me.

Here’s the original Did You Know (scroll down the page)


– David W. Wooddell





Lost at Sea

Polish Navy sonar image of S. S.Steuben laying on her side.

“Past the promenade deck I saw the entrance to the concert halls that had been packed with wounded German soldiers, and I knew that inside there must be the remains of thousands of them. I remembered what Polish Navy officers had told me after they’d investigated the wreck in late May 2004. They’d taken a good look at the sea bottom with a remotely operated vehicle and found the entire area around the wreck “covered with human remains, skulls, and bones.” – Marcin Jamkoswki, “Ghost Ship Found,” National Geographic, February 2005

Jamkowski was the Polish editor of National Geographic Poland. An adventure writer and expert diver, he brought to the magazine an amazing story about the German liner, S. S. Steuben. She was filled with 4500 (some say more) men and women, including thousands of wounded German soldiers, and more than 1,000 refugees when she was torpedoed by a Soviet submarine. Jamkowski’s eyewitness account is of finding and examining the wreck in deep water, below 150 feet.

I was the fact-checker on the article, and helped with arranging some of the firsthand accounts from survivors to be translated into English. Working on the article brought me to the stark realization of what war does to non-combatants. A very powerful visualization of the deaths during WWII, especially the civilians, is shown at the video at Omeleto: The Fallen of World War II: A Data Visualization of War and Peace.

I wrote a “Did You Know” on the three largest losses of human life in wrecks at sea. People throw a lot of statistics around. It’s always interesting to chase down what the actual numbers are, and who they represent. Because it is always about the people, from children to women and men of all ages. Along the way in my research for the article, I had read Antony Beavor’s piercing study of war crimes perpetrated against civilians as the Red Army moved westward in 1945. I expanded into the refugees that streamed, and were herded across Europe, against their wills, forced out of their traditional homes for political reasons. Some of those migrations, which were then considered the largest movements of people in history, remain a thorn in the side of countries in Eastern Europe today. The loss of the S. S. Steuben, a German passenger liner that had been converted to serve as an ambulance ship comes out of the large, forced migrations of Europe at the tail end of World War II.[1]

“Did You Know: The Three Largest Marine Disasters”

David W. Wooddell, for National Geographic, February 2005

The three largest marine disasters in history were the 1945 Baltic losses of Wilhelm Gustloff, Goya, and Steuben. But how many people were on these ships? Approximately 5,200 people were on Steuben when it set sail on February 9, according to our article, and 4,500 people died when the ship sank. This is based on the eyewitness testimony of Joachim Wedekind, a German merchant marine officer who was on Steuben as a passenger and says he was involved in helping the ship’s officers estimate the number of people on board: “I counted 5,200, but we reported only 3,600 or so.” Wedekind claims they reported less than were on board because German authorities had forbidden such large evacuations.

Counterbalance that with historian Heinz Schön, who claims that a smaller total is accurate. Schön says Steuben had 2,800 injured soldiers, 800 refugees, 100 returning soldiers, 172 navy hospital crew including doctors and nurses, 12 Red Cross nurses, 64 crew for the ship’s anti-aircraft guns, 61 navy seamen, radio operators, signal men, machine operators, and administrators, and 165 navy crewmen, for a total of 4,267 people. Since 659 survivors were counted after Steuben sank, according to Schön, 3,608 died when the ship went down.

Let’s compare that to the sinking of Wilhelm Gustloff on January 30, 1945. The Gustloff’s records cite 918 naval officers and men, 173 crew, 373 women’s naval auxiliary, 162 wounded, and 4,424 refugees, for a total of 6,050 people. In 1980 a trio of British journalists studied the tragedy and reported an estimated 7,000 to 8,000 deaths on board Gustloff. But Schön, a survivor of the Gustloff tragedy, has revised the Gustloff numbers in his more recent works, based on an analysis of the movement of people conducted by a documentary film company. “When it sank,” Schön wrote to me, “there were 10,582 passengers on board. 8,956 were refugees, mainly women and children. 9,343 died when the ship sank (it took 62 minutes after the torpedo attack) and 1,239 survived.”

And Goya? One of the more reliable reports says 7,000 refugees and wounded soldiers were on board when it departed Hela, near Danzig. When Goya was hit by Soviet torpedoes and sank in four minutes, all except 183 survivors went down with the ship. And until Schön revised his figures in the late 1990s, Goya was reported to be the largest loss of life in maritime history. Now it is the second largest loss. And Steuben remains third.

—David W. Wooddell

[1] Beevor, Antony. The Fall of Berlin 1945. Viking, 2002.

Beevor, Antony. “They raped every German female from eight to 80.” The Guardian (May 1, 2002).

De Zayas, Alfred-Maurice. A Terrible Revenge: The Ethnic Cleansing of the East European Germans, 1944-1950. St. Martin’s Press, 1994.

Dobson, Christopher. The Cruellest Night. Arrow Books, 1980.

Schieder, Theodor (editor). The Expulsion of the German Population from the Territories East of the Oder-Neisse-Line. Federal Ministry for Expellees, Refugees, and War Victims, 1959.