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Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Problems With Time Travel

Is time travel possible? My generation knows, that with the flux capacitor, it is. All you need is a shiny DeLorean going 88 miles per hour, and presto! You're off to cause paradoxes, time loops, circular plot structures, and incestuous crushes that could negate your own existence...

But really, if time travel were actually possible, what would happen when you travel into the past and somehow change the events of the future? Well, there are several theories we've seen in popular culture films. The first is in Back to the Future. Marty McFly inadvertently keeps his parents from getting together. As the timeline of events progresses, it becomes clear that Marty and his siblings may not be born. He can tell because he has a photograph of himself and his siblings in his pocket, and one by one, the McFly kids start disappearing from the pic. When things get really hairy, Marty can feel himself starting to disappear. Drenched in a cold sweat, he notices that his hand starts vanishing. But after Marty rights all the historical wrongs with his parents, he and his siblings return to the photo, and all is well...

So, what would happen if you traveled back into the past and killed your father before you were born? (Sorry to be morbid, but this is the best example I can think of to illustrate this point). If your father were truly dead, you wouldn't have any chance to correct the mistake you had made like Marty does in Back to the Future. BUT, here's where time travel gets interesting: logically, if you killed your own father before you were born, you would have never been born in the first place, and you would never wind up getting in a time machine, going back, and killing your father. The results of such an act would make it impossible to ever commit the act itself. Trippy, eh?

**SPOILER ALERT: The following paragraph may contain pseudo-spoilers for Lost season 5.**

Or, another popular time travel storytelling mechanism employed to avoid such paradoxes is the idea that the past simply cannot be changed. In Lost, we learn that "whatever happened, happened." It's the simple idea that you can try, but you will never truly succeed in altering history. God or fate or whatever J.J. Abrams and Damon Lindelof want to call it, is in charge. Everyone has a destiny that is irrevocable. In the past, the character Sayid shoots a young version of Ben Linus, his future enemy, in the chest, creating a wound that should have been mortal. But since history can't really change, Ben doesn't die. People come to his rescue and nurse him back to health.

My own personal idea about time travel paradoxes is that every time someone time travels, a brand new timeline is created; a brand new reality; a parallel universe. In other words, if you traveled back in time and killed your own father, you would succeed in killing him, and you would not cease to exist. You would create an alternate timeline in which your father is now dead. Back in the original timeline, your father is alive and well, and you were indeed born, thus enabling you to travel back in time to kill your father and create this alternate timeline. Confused yet?

And please don't think I have some weird father issues because of all this talk about killing my father in the past before I was born...I mean really, what other example could I use other than going into the past and killing my mother...? And if you're sitting around at the dinner table discussing this blog and talking about time travel paradoxes, I think your dad would be able to handle the talk of going back in time and killing him better than your mom would.

Anyway, so one intelligent argument I've heard about time travel is this: If time travel ever happens, then we would have had contact from time travelers already. And since we haven't, we know that time travel never becomes a reality. The logic is pretty solid, but I can think of a few loopholes. The first would be if a form of time travel is possible in which travelers are not able to interact with their surroundings at all -- that in fact, the subjects of the past are not even able to see the time travelers among them. Time travelers can simply witness historical events, but are not able to interact with anything they see.

Or, perhaps there are an infinite number of parallel timelines or universes, and in many of those, there are historical records of encounters with time travelers.

Or, maybe, in an effort to minimize the alteration of history, there have been time travelers here, but they've kept an extremely low profile. During WWII, a number of pilots -- we're talking credible, military witnesses here -- saw UFO's hovering above their planes during famous aerial battles. Is it possible that these UFO's were not, in fact, extraterrestrials, but were actually time travelers; historians from the future, returned to witness a legendary battle in the past? They referred to these strange aircraft as "foo fighters."
If you want to check out a time travel flick that will blow your mind, try Donnie Darko. It's a subtle look at time travel, in which a tangent universe is created when a young man cheats death. And, I was blown away by The Time Traveler's Wife. This film is a sci-fi romance that chronicles the life and love of a man who can't live out his days in chronological order. It's a thoroughly confusing movie, but if you can wrap your brain around what's happening, it's well worth the effort. Finally, I really enjoyed the remake of the H. G. Wells classic, The Time Machine, starring Guy Pearce.
Ah, if only I had a time machine...I would totally go back and invest in Apple.

photo courtesy of healingdream / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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