Time for some sobering truth, folks (PUN INTENDED). Time-travel might seem like a great idea. We’ve seen a lot of TV shows and movies and read some books about time-travel, and it always looks like the folks involved are having a bunch of fun. Sure, Marty McFly had to fight bullies, avoid oedipal conundrums, and prevent killer paradoxes, but he learned a lesson in the end and his life was better for it. Or what about skipping around time and space with the Doctor? Who wouldn’t want to do that? Or we could go back and do some historical engineering to make the present a better place, or forward and get some great stock tips.
But the harsh reality is, time-travel, if we ever invent it, would be a freaking terrible idea, for one reason: Tourists.
Being the nerd I am, I have read anything I could find on the subject of time-travel, because I once held the foolish notion that it would be totally awesome to go back and forth through time. How wrong I was. And it was my own naive desire to cruise through space and time that reveals why, because who else in their life has NOT fantasized about going back in time. Even if it is as mundane as to go back and beat up a childhood bully, we’ve all thought about it. So if we were suddenly afforded the opportunity to do so, would we take the ethical high ground and pass it up? Some might, but I’d wager a guess and say most people would hop right inside that TARDIS.
But I’m not here to talk about temporal prime directives. Instead, I’m trying to point out the ecological and societal disaster that would befall us should a time machine one day get built, and I’ll do so by referencing a real scientist.
Back in 2004, I got the opportunity to see one of the greatest living science popularizers speak about his then-new book, The Fabric of the Cosmos. Professor Brian Greene was promoting the book at the Cherry Creek Tattered Cover (which has been gone for seven years? wow…), and I arrived late. My dad and I hung out in the back while Prof. Greene eloquently explained time, space, reality, entanglement, superstrings, and a bunch of other stuff. Me, the young science geek I was, loved it, even though I understood next to nothing. I got my copy of the book, my friend Andrew got my copy of The Elegant Universe signed for me, and that was that. Little did I know, this book contained the secret of… (cue dramatic music) TIME TRAVEL.
On page 461 he gives us a blueprint for a time machine, using, of all things, characters from The Simpsons to tell it like a story (which illustrates one of the great things about Greene’s books, engaging the layperson, even if it is a bit hokey at times…). The gist of it is, to make a time machine, you first make a wormhole. You take one end of the wormhole on a journey through space, traveling at relativistic speeds, turn the ship around and come back to the point of origin. From the traveling wormhole’s point of view, only a few hours may have passed, but to the other end, those few hours could be decades, centuries, or millions of years. The wormhole can be in the same point in space, but due to the travel, one end will now be way ahead in the future. Viola, a time machine!
Now, this sort of time machine can only work in a limited way – two points of time, either direction, but that’s it. So, future people have only one place to go, and past people have only one choice too. What happens? Say we make our wormhole tomorrow. By Sunday, we’re hip deep in goobacks, tourists, and sociopath bankers. Future Earth will be full of folks from Silcon Valley, families with smartphones taking a million pictures, and (probably) missionaries, because they’ll no doubt want to make sure the future has heard the Good News.
Maybe the future is a horrible place, with no jobs? See South Park, season 8, episode 7, “Goobacks”. Maybe it’s a world where the singularity transforms the Earth into paradise? I see a mass exodus from this time, and paradoxes ensue.
Prof. Greene admits that he doesn’t believe time travel is possible, but he also says the laws of physics don’t rule it out. There are other reasons it may not work, such as Stephen Hawking’s suggestion of a feedback loop of energy from vacuum fluctuations. Or there’s the many-worlds interpretation – see Back to the Future Part II, Star Trek 2009, etc. There’s the technical problems associated with making such a wormhole – basically, it’s really really hard. There are, of course, the numerous paradoxes that could obliterate the universe. Me, I’m more scared of the tourists. That’s why I say we don’t even take the chance.
So, just so you don’t come away from this blog with absolutely nothing you didn’t know already, here’s a short list of time-travel movies you may not have seen already.
Primer – If you haven’t seen it, go watch it. Then watch it again. And probably a third time. It provides another reason not to time travel – because no know can think fourth dimensionally very well, at all.
Happy Accidents - 2000 film with Vincent D’Onofrio and Marissa Tomei. It’s not the best, and like Primer has no whizbang effects, but come on. Marissa Tomei.
Safety Not Guaranteed - less scifi, more quirky dramedy, but great nonetheless. My favorite movie from last year.
Frequency – Also from 2000, sentimental as hell and dated to boot, but still fun
11 Minutes Ago – Clever indie film broken into 11 minute chunks about a time traveler who falls in love with a woman from the past. It takes place in one evening, and was filmed in one day. Not that great of a movie, but deserves a look for innovation.
There’s a lot of time travel movies out there – got some to add? Leave a comment. Also, visit my comic Well That Didn’t Work for a
hilarious cliche time-travel joke.