From fact to fiction, is it really possible to travel to the past?
There have been many great advances in science and technology over the last decade but no matter how many sci-fi dreams become reality there’s always one futuristic concept that seems beyond our grasp, time travel. There is evidence to suggest it may be achieved at some point in the future but when it comes to TV and the movies there’s little to backup our favourite time travel methods. Here’s a breakdown of the science behind time travel, how it’s done in the movies, and what you should avoid doing if you do happen to find yourself in the past.
Thanks to Einstein and his special theory of relativity we know that the closer you get to the speed of light the slower time moves. This has been proved by putting one highly accurate clock on a jet plane flying around the world while another remained on the ground, when the clock in the plane returned it was found that it was slightly behind the stationary time piece.
Even though it was only a few nanoseconds behind it proved Einstein’s theory and showed us that time really does exist and the fact that it goes slower the closer you get to the speed of light suggests that time travel is possible. It’s been theorised that if you could go fast enough, millions of times faster than a jet plane, you could effectively travel to the future (but not the past). According to Stephen Hawking nanoseconds would become seconds, and if you reached a high enough speed, while days passed for the traveller years would pass on Earth.
Another favourite scientific theory, and one that backs up Star Trek, is that of wormholes. It’s theorised that these holes in the fabric of the universe could connect two points in space and time meaning that it might be possible to use one to travel to the past.
When the Large Hadron Collider, the world’s biggest and most powerful particle accelerator, was turned on back in 2008 there was an element of uncertainty about what exactly was going to happen. A popular theory at the time that it would create a mini wormhole opening up a doorway to another time. While some eager scientists made preparations to welcome a possible time traveller the actual results were not so exciting and no one showed up to greet us from the future.
Whatever your method of time travel it’s highly likely you’re going to be in some kind of vessel while doing it, in which case there have already been a few fictional time machines which will no doubt inspire future time machine makers.
Ever since H.G. Wells became the granddaddy of steampunk when he wrote ‘The Time Machine’ in 1895, coining the term “time machine”, vessels for travelling back in time have varied in shape and size from Bill and Ted’s phone box to the hot tub from the imaginatively titled 2010 comedy ‘Hot Tub Time Machine’
There’s one vehicle that’s synonymous with Time Travel though and that’s the Delorean from Back to the Future. Utilising the flux capacitor which made time travel possible it was powered by a nuclear reaction and only worked if the driver could get the Delorean up to 88mph, at which point they would see “some serious shit”. The most plausible part of Doc Brown’s machine was the large amount of energy required to get it to work (1.21 gigawatts, pronounced ‘gig’ and not ‘jig’ as in the movie) but it wins hands down for the most appealing method of time travel.
As cool as the Delorean was it’s one of the more fanciful methods of travelling to the past. Still pure fantasy, but grounded more in science, the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise became pioneers in the use of the wormhole to travel through time. Despite being an overused plot device, even in the original series when wormholes hadn’t even been called wormholes, it led to the creation of some memorable episodes and provided a great way of getting Leonard Nimoy into the 2009 movie. More importantly the fact that warp speed travel is possible in the Star Trek universe, and that wormholes are common, make it one of the more scientifically accurate TV shows that have dealt with the subject.
While not primarily about time travel it’s hard to ignore the TV show ‘Lost’ when looking at the subject. It may have bordered on the magical but no series or film went further with the psuedo-science, mainly from the mouth of Daniel Faraday, to explain how it worked even if it just made things more confusing. Lost subscribed to the theory of “whatever happened, happened” which rules out the possibility of the dreaded paradox and suggested that the universe has a way of “course correcting” itself.
If science fiction has taught us anything it’s that there are some things you just should not do when travelling through time.
The first, and only rule really is when in the past – do nothing. The butterfly effect means that even the slightest alteration to the past can have a deep impact on the future and not only that but you could cause destruction of the space time continuum.
Marty McFly offers the best example of this by causing his mother to fall in love with him instead of his father. Primarily disgusted and then worried about fading away he managed to avoid any serious romantic entanglements with his mother and save the space time continuum. The paradox is that if he hadn’t have been successful and just faded away how could he have existed in the future to travel to the past to change to the timeline in the first place.
In the classic Simpsons’ ‘Treehouse of Horror V’ segment ‘Time and Punishment’ Homer’s misadventures with a time travelling toaster also offers plenty of insight on how the slightest change in the past can effect the future. Something as seemingly insignificant as killing a mosquito could have some serious consequences including donuts not existing in the future.
Even if science says its possible, actual time travel by a human being seems unlikely to happen soon. However it was recently announced that a group of scientists had broken the speed of light, albeit by a very small amount. If their results prove to be true it could throw Einstein’s special theory of relativity into doubt and mean that travelling to the past could happen in the future. For now we’ll have to be content with the fact that technically we’re all time travellers, we just can’t control which way or how far we go.