Yo ScienceYo Science: Looper is Awesome. Let's Talk Time Travel!Sean Morrow

Rian Johnson’s Looper came out this weekend, and features a lot of awesome stuff, including but not limited to Bruce Willis, time travel, Emily Blunt being all beautiful and talented, and Joseph Gordon Levitt being all Bruce Willisy and badass.

But it got me thinking, time travel is awesome. Of course, I’d thought that time travel is awesome before–I didn’t just realize that now–but Looper reminded me of how awesome time travel is, like how smelling delicious pie reminds you of how awesome delicious pie is.

So let’s talk about time travel!

Time travel, of course, is not a real thing, so to start talking about time travel we need to start talking about the people that made it up:

Early time travel stories never involved people intentionally traveling through time, and usually involved entities (Gods or men) that fell asleep or something and accidentally woke up years in the future. Alternately, an entity of some kind will travel somewhere (like in the Hindi Mahabharatha, where a king travels to another world to meet the creator) and when they return, hundreds of years have passed. That raises one of the important philosophical questions of time travel: does it count as time travel if one simply doesn’t perceive the passage of time?

In the 12th century, Walter Map, a Latin author, wrote about King Herla “who is transported with his hunting party over two centuries into the future by the enchantment of a mysterious harlequin,” which is the first instance of someone being simply transported through time due to the very intentful actions of another. You gotta watch out for those mysterious harlequins, as I always say.

Then in the 1700′s and 1800′s time travel stories began to become more prevalent, with people being transported forward in time by mystical things like “good fairies,” “angels,” and “naps.”  Calling Rip Van Winkel a time travel story (the aforementioned ‘nap’) is interesting, because Winkel doesn’t actually travel through time, he is merely put into coma-like sleep, but the philosophical implications are the same: he skipped 20 years of his life.

Later, stories about traveling back in time would start to pop up, like A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, but these early time travel stories ignore the “do my actions in the past affect the present?” question. (In time travel fiction, “questions” are important, because as the genre has evolved, it has become such that time travel is often used as a way to bring up moral and philosophical questions, as well as sweet paradoxes like “what if you go back in time and kill your Grandfather, thus negating your existence, and making it so you never could go back and kill your grandfather, but if you never killed your Grandfather then you DO exist and…” Looper presents the excellent philosophical question, “what if you had to murder your future self?”)

A bunch of other great bits of time travel fiction have come out since Connecticut Yankee, with H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine being one of the greatest, and the one that popularized time travel in fiction, so the idea had been floating around for awhile. Wells just kind of made it popular and added the “machine,” which has been kind of key in the time travel fiction to erupt since.

Since then tons of great time travel fictions have come out: just focusing on the past 30 years we have the dark, like 12 Monkeys, to the light, like the Back to the Future series or Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, and the romantic, like The Time Traveller’s Wife. An awesome 2004 time travel movie is Primer which was made on a super-low budget, with the goal of depicting time travel very realistically: as in time travel isn’t realistic, but the way that the dudes discover time travel and (more importantly) how they react to and use it is realistic. Great moral dilemmas erupt, and the character’s are comically aware of paradoxes. It’s very confusing (in a good way) because so many different timelines (timelines reminds me of the awesome “Remedial Chaos Theory” episode of Community, another awesome faux time travel story) are created, so you might have to watch it a few times to “get it,” but it’s worth it. It includes the great line “Man, are you hungry? I haven’t eaten since later this afternoon.”

Then time travel will pop up as bit parts in TV series’ either satirically or taken seriously:

LOL remember when Felicity time travelled?

And will sometimes play a small part in a big story that doesn’t involve time travel otherwise: like the time turner in Harry Potter (which was flawed but dealt with paradoxes and the like well in my opinion.)

OK, so time travel is the stuff of fiction, but some real scientists have a lot to say about it. Stephen Hawking said that time travel (to the past) will never be invented because we never see “time tourists” walking around (even though the present and past could just be the most boring parts of human history and no one wants to go there on vacation.)

The cool thing about the question “will we invent time travel” is that it breaks down to “is time travel possible?” and the fact that something like time travel could “exist” and we just haven’t “discovered” it yet is kind of mindblowing.

Other scientists have suggested time travel may be possible through the use of wormholes:

or traveling faster than the speed of light:

Time travel is different from most science-fiction and fantasy in that many people consider it a possibility, something they hope one day exists, and something that is considered with real world ethics in mind. The ethics of the time turner in Harry Potter get discussed by critics, but no one discusses the ethics of using magic to excel in life, or how cool dragons are (JK everyone talks about how cool dragons are.) Time travel is treated differently than other fantasy.

I think the reason time travel is so prevalent in our culture’s myths is for the same reason religion is popular, or why people hope for life on other planets: it’s a wish for something more, a wish to prove that there is something further in our reality than what we usually perceive and experience. A wish for time travel is more than a wish to see the future or to fix past mistakes, it is a wish that the reality presented to us is not the true reality, and that what we experience isn’t the totality of our existence.

And that’s not to say that time traveling to the future wouldn’t be awesome and desirable: I have an intense sadness that I will not get to see the future–I will never know what scientific discoveries are made and what awesome new kinds of candy come out–but its the kind of sadness that is solved by a simple “that is out of your control, so don’t worry about it.”

Going to the past to “fix” things doesn’t interest me; I wouldn’t even want to kill Hitler because of paradoxes and whatnot, but I would love to go to the past just to observe things! Going to the past to fix something major historically, or something minor in my personal life (you should’ve asked that girl to prom, dude) doesn’t interest me.

So let’s talk about time travel. In the comments, talk about if you’d time travel if you had the chance. What would you do with it? What do you think about time travel philosophically? What’s your favorite time travel movie? Do you think we’ll ever invent time travel?

Honestly, just take this time to gab about time travel with other HelloGigglers, then go out and see Looper because it’s awesome!

Images from IMDB.

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  1. Have you watched 11 Minutes Ago? It was a cute indie about time travel a few years ago. Saw it on Netflix…but I don’t know if it’s still there :|
    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0423783/

  2. Have you seen Spanish movie Timecrimes? It’s different from other time travel films and shows that no big budget is needed in order to tell a science-fiction story.

  3. Have you read Warren Ellis’ Planetary? They use the idea that time travelers can only travel backwards to the invention of the time machine, because they need something to connect to. I thought that was an interesting solution to the “no time travelers” problem.

    • Huh, cool, I will give it a read, I like Ellis. In Primer you get transported back to when you turned your time machine on, so the same is true.

  4. Ah! I know! Dr. Who was a major part of my notes when I was figuring all this out, but I already had so many examples and I don’t know enough about early Dr. Who to do it justice!

  5. OH God, I just remembered Quantum Leap!Great show :]

  6. oh man, I’ve always loved stories of time travel Slaughter House 5 is probably my favorite with The Time Traveler’s wife being a close second. They are both very different, yet very similar with their time traveling rules. A really good short story is ” A sound of thunder” which is about going back in time to hunt dinosaurs but accidentally changing the future via the butterfly effect ( which is a great time travel movie :]!)

  7. How can you create a post about Time Travel and not mention Doctor Who?!
    “People assume that time is a strict progression of cause to effect, but *actually* from a non-linear, non-subjective viewpoint – it’s more like a big ball of wibbly wobbly… time-y wimey… stuff.”

    Also, BBC America recently aired a Doctor Who based program where they broke down different aspects of the show and discussed if those things could be real. When discussing time travel a scientist mentioned that when an astronaut goes into space, he travels a head of time a little bit. So in a way, time travel is already real. It was a fun & entertaining program. I’d check it out if any of you who read this are Who fans!

    • Ah! I know! Dr. Who was a major part of my notes when I was figuring all this out, but I already had so many examples and I don’t know enough about early Dr. Who to do it justice!

      • Watch some Doctor Who. You’ll be glad you did.

      • I’m a rather new Whovian. My friend got me started on the David Tennant era and of course I’m watching the current Matt Smith seasons. I don’t know much about the old Who period either, although I keep telling myself I will check out some of the old stuff they have on Netflix! Still, not mentioning the TARDIS! Tisk! Tisk! :P