Tempus Termanati

Artistic Impression of a worm hole, one of the ways that time travel might be possible, theoretically at least. By Kjordand (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)

As mentioned many times, the first true work of modern science fiction (if you don’t view Shelley’s Frankenstein as modern, and don’t think that Jules Verne’s adventure tales count as SciFi) was H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, written in 1895. It was the first work of time travel that didn’t involve someone simply falling asleep and waking up 100 or more years in the future. In The Time Machine, the inventor — known only as the Time Traveller — travels to the year 802,701 and finds that humanity has devolved into a pre-civilized state, and are prey to a new ape-like species known as the Morlocks. After helping the future humans — known as the Elio — defeat the Morlocks, The Time Traveller ventures millions of years into the future to watch the world fade away.

With The Time Machine‘s popularity, time travel became not only a common and defining story of science fiction but also one of the most obviously philosophical. Time travel, as with all science fiction, is symbolic and metaphoric and not really about what it says its about. It can’t be. Because we can’t travel through time. Perhaps some day we will be able to do so but of all the things we’ve seen this semester and will see, time travel to me, is the least plausible as we understand it in the movies. By the same token, or at the same time, time travel is something we do every single day, unlike fighting with aliens or using the Force. You can do it simply by closing your eyes and imagining. Or you can get on a plane. Or, you can watch a movie, such as Planet of the Apes, which is set in the far future, but also the far past because the primates rule the world and the humanoids don’t. Fittingly the first movie about Time travel is The Time Machine in 1960 with the second one being La Jetée, the short film upon which 12 Monkeys is based.  The third time travel film, the second popular one is Planet of the Apes

There are numerous famous time travel stories (as opposed to stories set in the past or the future). To be a time travel story, the plot must have two time periods and connected by distance that exceeds the time it takes to travel there.  There was a great deal of interest in time travel narratives following Einstein’s publication of his theory of Special Relativity. But most of the influential stories were written after WWII and are by Robert Heinlein, including the insane All You Zombies (1959) (which the 2014 movie Predestination is — very loosely — based upon) and Ray Bradbury’s A Sound of Thunder (1952), the one that is the cautionary tale about changing the future by doing something insignificant in the past, such as stepping on a butterfly. Travel to the past is the most perilous because it can or might affect the future. A Sound of Thunder popularized the term Butterfly Effect and our sense that any change to the past produces ripple effects of change in the future. In it a time traveler tourist accidentally kills a butterfly during a dinosaur hunt thus disrupting the future. There’s a movie version but it’s only loosely based upon it. All You Zombies is intriguing because it’s not only hard to follow but it’s about someone who turns out to be his own mother and father. This is something alluded to in The Terminator when it turns out that Reese could be John Connor’s father.

Not surprisingly given what we’ve discussed this semester, the time travel story is an old one. For what is time travel, a vision of the future, but prophecy? What is time travel but a vision of the future and of the past?  Now of course, there is an obvious lure to time travel. Who wouldn’t want to go back and fix all those things that they screwed up?  Who wouldn’t want to go back in time and meet someone famous or see something incredible? Who wouldn’t want to go into the future see how things work out?  Associated with time travel is the desire for things to be or to have been different than they are.

And that leads to all kinds of interesting thought experiments. And it also brings up the idea that time is really about free will and predestination. There’s the famous idea that if you were able to go back in time to kill Hitler or one of his parents before he was born, first would you, second, what would happen if you did? Maybe if you killed him, the Second World War would have never happened. Or maybe if you did, it would still happen. Or maybe if you did, something even worse would happen, if such a thing is even possible. What about something more mundane such as going back in time to the day Apple stock went public and buying 100 shares. Can you change time?

When you start to think about it, you run into all kinds of paradoxes and problems. The most famous is the Grandfather Paradox.   Described by the philosopher David Lewis in a very famous article called “The Paradoxes of Time Travel” in 1976 which discusses time travel from a very rigorous perspective and attempts to reconcile the various paradoxes. Philosophers since Lewis have actively and continually debated time travel as an illustration of philosophical ideals, not just free will and determination, but other ones as well, and they even have names to which club people belong. Eternalists, Presentists, Possibilists and others. Lewis’ article is very influential in philosophical circles because it’s based in logic and rhetoric and all that and was the first to take time travel seriously as a subject, as a philosophical problem. He’s one that came up with a precise definition of time travel. A time traveler is someone who moves from one location in time to another, past or future, and the duration of the journey is different from the gap in chronological time. So really what this means is there’s a gap between the perception of time by the traveler that exists independent of their perceptions.

In the Grandfather paradox, Tim hates his Grandfather (Lewis provides the reason that not only is his Grandfather a jerk, but he also made a fortune on weapons production so there’s blood on the family’s hands). He builds a time machine and travels back in time to kill the grandfather. Finds him and kills him. Because he kills his grandfather, Tim ceases to exist. However, is that really possible because if Tim ceases to exist, then who built the time machine that enabled him to travel into the past and kill his grandfather thus making it not possible that he wasn’t born? Tim could not have existed in order to have made the time machine that allowed him to travel into the past to kill his grandfather. It’s a paradox then, it can’t really be resolved…or can it? That’s the point where the philosophers take over.

What is really going on, as the Grandfather Paradox indicates, is that time travel is really about free will versus predetermination, which starts from the premise that there is or is not a God. And that there are certain attributes that make God what he is and what our puny human brains thing he is.

It depends upon how one conceives time, which changed dramatically when Einstein published his first paper on the theory of space and time – and then years later a more refined discussion of same the theory of relativity – 1915. Basically changes the study of space and time and inaugurates modern physics. His research leads to the understanding that time is not linear that it is dependent upon other factors, something that is confirmed later with the discovery of black holes. Worm holes were theorized shortly thereafter but more conclusive evidence is discovered in the 1950s. A wormhole would be a shortcut through time and space like a black hole but without an event horizon and without smashing everything to bits. Einstein’s theory changed the world, for sure, but for science fiction fans and philosophers it also seemed to indicate that if time bends and isn’t linear, that time travel could be theoretically possible.

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3 Comments so far

  1.   Anna Douramanis on January 15th, 2018

    A few days ago I watched interstellar for the first time and even though Matthew McConaughey’s character doesn’t go through time travel per se, I think it was an interesting perception of what trying to affect the past looks like. I think time traveling is a possibility but it’s an idea that is way too complicated to understand.

    Nikola Tesla said that he was insanely close to finally discovering how to time travel and after his death, the government seized all his research. Maybe time traveling does exist but he government is keeping it a secret from us.
    Interesting enough, the person who was in charge of going through Tesla’s findings was no one other than Donald Trump’s uncle. This and along with the publishing of some oddly coincidental books, has lead to people believing that Donald Trump is a time traveler (yup, you read that right). Obviously this isn’t true but I added a video below that further explains this “theory” for your entertainment

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CG-plYvYbXA skip to :50

  2.   Kawser on January 16th, 2018

    Interstellar, one of my favorite movies all the time. After watching the movie many times it always leaves me with
    confusion, questions and curiosity. In Interstellar they show
    how they travel through a worm hole and a black hole. Although i wonder, if worm holes did exists or if humans
    ever finds one what it’ll take humans to actually travel through one. Our universe is big, with in our universe there
    are so many planets. in order to reach the further galaxies and the planets mankind must find a way or make a space ship that travels faster then the speed of light. Interstellar
    really shows how space and time travel can be done but in
    reality at this current age of humanity it’s just not possible with the technologies that we have. To me the the idea about going back in time or going to the future is just amazing that these are theories. I can only imagine how we humans would be or how the world would be if all of those things were actually possible.

  3.   Shira Rosner on January 16th, 2018

    Time travel is something that every person thinks about in one sense or another. Like you (Professor Cornell) said, engaging in nostalgia is a form of time travel, hopping on an airplane to Australia is a form of time travel, and I’ve also been asked “if you could go back in time to kill Hitler, wouldya??” With that being said, time travel fits perfectly well within the scifi genre but the movies I think of when it comes to time travel are the Austin Power movies. He’s frozen in time in the first movie and he can go back and forth in time in the second and third movies through a wormhole and a “shagadelic” car. The movies poke fun at many things from pop culture references to various movie genres (most notably the spy) so it makes sense that it would want to add a scifi element as well. I’m also reminded of Rachel McAdams when it comes to time travel movies because she has been in three time travel movies! She was in Midnight in Paris, The Time Traveler’s Wife, and About Time. In all three, she plays the time traveling protagonist’s love interest/wife. She herself never travels through time and can’t even live vicariously through the men in her life who can. All three movies are thought provoking about ideas of changing the past, living in the past or living in nostalgia. Does it do any good to think of the past (or worry about the future) when we can live in the present?

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