Hulu and Netflix make it way too easy for me to feed my time travel addiction. Dr. Who, Time After Time, Quantum Leap, D.C.’s Legends of Tomorrow, The Flash, Continuum, Primeval–SF binge-watching has never been more fun.
The different time travel theories proposed by each show and the screenwriters’ various answers to the insidious paradox problem fascinate (and sometimes infuriate) me. My favorite theory so far was advanced by the character Fitz in Marvel Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.; he insists that if a psychic truly saw the future, then of course that future can’t be changed. If anyone could change the future by their action or inaction, then the psychic wouldn’t have the ability to see the actual future, now would she, because what she saw was only a potential future. If she can view the future, then it will be as fixed and unchangeable as the past. Viewing the future collapses the waveform! I love it!
One thing everyone seems to ignore, though, is the critical “moving through space” part of time travel. If I went back in time an hour or so, my main problem wouldn’t be avoiding myself so as not to create a paradox; my problem would be my inability to breathe or maintain internal temperature and pressure in the vacuum of space.
Earth is rotating at 1000 miles an hour; it is rocketing around the Sun at a speed of 66,000 miles an hour; the sun is moving at a pretty fair turn of speed around the galaxy at 483,000 miles an hour, and the galaxy is streaking through space at 1.3 million miles an hour! (1)
Celestial motion won’t stop in deference to my little time-travel jaunt.
What makes my time-travel journey so exciting (and lethal) is the fact that we don’t have absolute reference points to quantify all this motion. We don’t know the precise location of the Big Bang, or the exact distance traveled so far, and we don’t know our precise speed, either. Mathematicians are amazing people, and if they had absolute reference points I’ve no doubt they could calculate exactly where we are now and exactly where we were an hour ago. They could make my trip nonlethal–if we weren’t lost out here in space. We don’t know where we started and we don’t know where we are and we don’t know where we are going, either.
One popular way Hollywood ignores the whole “lost in space” problem: semi-sentient, gigantic wormholes are eager to assist time travelers. These wormholes magically know when and where they are going and how to expand to an improbable size and safely convey travelers to their destinations in one piece. Characters use mystical phrases like “quantum entanglement,” “negative longitude” and “Einstein-Rosen Bridge” in haphazard ways, but nobody does any math, and the mystical wormholes are in charge of celestial navigation.
Math is the antithesis of magic. Math requires a lot of hard work, and relies on facts, theories and formulas. It only looks magical from the outside.
Mastery of movement in time is only half the problem; quantifying travel in space is equally challenging. Still, I guess it’s just as well screenwriters cheat and pretend wormholes (or the machines traveling through them) can solve complex math problems and calculate the precise location of our tiny ball of rock as it hurtles through the universe. If they didn’t, those shows I love to watch would be awfully short.