Science as the language of time-travelers

16 04 2012

A note today on something that is implicit in many of the popular treatments of time travel that I’d like to make explicit.  Namely, I’d like to explore the answer to the question:

Presuming backward-and-forward time travel to be possible, how could we communicate with those from different times?

This is something that actually comes up quite frequently in science-fiction.  More often than not, the answer to the protagonist’s communication woes is simply: Science. 

More specifically, science is the means by which a character from a less-advanced culture is able to understand and quickly adapt to and utilize new concepts.  -And I think it’s spot on.

Allow me to illustrate what I mean.

The Time Traveler interacting with an artificial intelligence expert system at the future New York Public Library. (Credit: Warner Bros)

The Common Element

Take the recent film incarnation of “The Time Machine” as an example.  When the Time Traveler begins his journey into the future, he does so from the same spatial location – his house in early-twentieth-century New York city – to arrive in a futuristic New York City that looks to be mid-to-late 21st Century.

In attempting to answer his own question about the nature of causality in the universe, he is able to meaningfully interact with a computer system from the future to quickly digest advanced concepts.  (Further, on a related note, the backwards-compatibility of scientific concepts allows the computer to understand him.)

Take this exchange, for example, (bearing in mind it essentially occurs between two characters hypothetically separated by what could be nearly two centuries):

Time Traveler:  “What are you?”

Computer:  “I’m the 5th Avenue Public Information Unit, Vox Registration NY-114.  How may I help you?”

Time Traveler:  “You’re a stereopticon of some sort.”

Computer:  “Stereopticon?  Oh no, sir.  I am a third-generation, fusion powered photonic with verbal and visual link capabilities connected to every database on the planet.”

Time Traveler:  “A photonic?”

Computer:  “A compendium of all human knowledge.  Area of inquiry?”

Time Traveler:  “Know anything about physics?”

Computer:  “Ah.  Accessing physics.”

Time Traveler:  “Mechanical engineering.  Dimensional optics.  Chronography.  Temporal causality.  Temporal paradox.”

Computer:  “Time travel?”

Time Traveler:  “Yes!”

Very quickly, the Time Traveler is able to accurately communicate the advanced concept of technical time-travel to the point that the artificial intelligence from the future is able to anticipate his inquiry.  No small feat!

Crossing the Generation Gap

For another example, let’s take the more recent film “Tron: Legacy.” 

But wait, astute readers might say.  There’s no time travel in that film!  I beg to differ.

Programmer Kevin Flynn learns about the outside world from his son, Sam, in Tron: Legacy. (Credit: Disney)

In the story, programmer Kevin Flynn is marooned inside a computer system for nearly two decades.  Based on his technical background, he is easily able to digest the existence of technology twenty years ahead of the world he knows during a conversation with his son, Sam, (which is essentially like talking to someone from 20 years in the future).  He asks his son what the world he’s been separated from has changed:

Sam Flynn:  “I don’t know.  The rich are getting richer, poor getting poorer.  Cell phones.  Online dating.  Wi-fi.”

Kevin Flynn:  “What’s Wi-fi?”

Sam Flynn:  “Wireless… interlinking.”

Kevin Flynn:  “Of digital devices?”

Sam Flynn:  “Yeah.”

Kevin Flynn:  “Huh.  I thought of that in ’85.”

A Universal Language

And let’s not forget that this principle – the idea of science as a universal language – was essentially the basis of Carl Sagan‘s landmark book, Contact.

Dr. Ellie Arroway, moments from receiving an extraterrestrial signal using math and scientific principles to communicate engineering plans across space and time. (Credit: Warner Bros)

Being that it’s impossible to separate the distance of space from the passage of time, (and one of the reasons that my two passions – space exploration and time travel – are not too dissimilar,) any electromagnetic signal received from an extraterrestrial source comes from the past and must be able to communicate to future civilizations – whether technologically advanced or inferior.

This is why science is (or will be… or has been?) the language of time travel.

-Just a fun aside to keep in mind during your next millennial jaunt.

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