I attended a friend’s birthday party over the weekend that had a 1930’s theme. Next thing I know, I’m in a room full of gorgeously dressed gorgeous people in authentic 1930’s formal attire.
Naturally that got me thinking about time travel.
Because, really, what nerd brain wouldn’t go straight to Captain Kirk in City on the Edge of Forever or Captain Picard on the holodeck in The Big Goodbye or Vic Fontaine crooning to the crew on any given episode of Deep Space Nine? It’s only natural.
Time travel is a common theme in science fiction. It’s a convenient story line that can take up an entire episode or movie and be self-contained or expanded into a multiple episode story arc. The possibilities are endless and the hardest part is making up some kind of space-time fluctuation to get our heroes to the time period needed.
Back when Gene Roddenberry first envisioned his “wagon train to the stars,” he got together with some of the greatest scientific minds of the time to hash out all things science-based on his show. He wanted to know exactly what could be done and how it could be done that was accurate and feasible. In other words, he asked these scientists to look into the future and dish the dirt.
The result has been the precursor to the cell phone, the hypospray, the modern computer, and so on and so forth. Their predictions were so accurate that NASA named one of its space shuttles Enterprise to acknowledge the fact that Roddenberry and his cohorts were far ahead of their time and deserved to be recognized for it. Every time I read an interview with an astronaut they claim to have been inspired by Star Trek.
But what about their ideas on time travel? Some of the earliest evidence of exploration on the topic comes from the 700’s BCE with the Sanskrit Epic Mahabharata. In it, King Revaita travels to the heavens, meets God, and returns to discover that many years have gone by on Earth since he left and everyone he knows is long dead. The Japanese tale Urashima Taro and Washington Irving’s Rip Van Winkle contain the same basic storyline of a lone traveler leaving and returning to find themselves in the future. Even A Christmas Carol is a study of time travel.
Time travel in science fiction is often a paradox, a confusing mess of “what if’s.” If I step on a butterfly in the past, will I alter human life in the future? If I altered human life in the future, how could I have stepped on the butterfly in the past? It’s a classic chaos theory or “butterfly effect.” I’ve seen wormholes, time dilations, subspace temporal distortions, a transwarp corridor and a temporal casualty loop all used in the name of story telling. But is time travel real?
Time travel does exist, just not in a way that is convenient for us to go back and tell our 20-year-old selves not to get drunk and sleep with so-and-so. According to the theory of relativity, if I board a spaceship and start traveling away from Earth at a relativistic speed and then turn around and come back after a few years, more time would have passed on Earth than did for me on the spaceship. Therefore, technically, I would be traveling into the future. Einstein also theorized that it would be possible to travel into the past using specific types of motion in space. Folds in space time are another popular theory. If space folds in on itself, then why can’t we skip from one fold to another? One of my favorite books, The Last Legends of Earth by A.A. Attanasio goes into this in depth. Ancient magic has been the inspiration for many time travel stories as well. From Claire Randall going through ancient Druid standing stones in Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander, to Hermione’s Time Turner in Harry Potter, the possibilities are endless.
Physicists all tend to have their own theories of what is and isn’t possible. Stephen Hawking has been one of the biggest naysayers of most time travel theories. Ironic, since science fiction writers like to use black holes as a time travel source and Hawking is the world’s leading expert on the phenomenon.
If I could go back in time and attempt to change something, I’m not sure that I would. I would love to have prevented some deaths I feel were unnecessary, but who am I to make that decision and change the course of history ala Quantum Leap? Is it even possible to change it? Maybe it would simply result in fate finding a way like in Final Destination. Given the choice, I would much rather travel to the future. I would love to see what the human race is able to accomplish 100, 200, 300 years from now.
I promise I won’t step on any butterflies.