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.


Time travel physics in flux

4 10 2011

Something is rotten with the state of time travel/lightspeed physics.

To “c” (the symbolic designation for the speed of light), or not to “c”? 

-That is the question plaguing physicists in a number of recent studies with apparently conflicting results.

The "Flux Capacitor," a fictional device enabling instantaneous, bi-directional time travel. (Credit: Universal)

Traditionally, the speed of light is viewed as a barrier to physical movement.  According to conventional interpretations of Special Relativity, due to the time-slowing effect physical matter experiences as the speed of light is approached, movement through time is believed to stop at the very moment something hits “c.” 

As a result, lightspeed appears to be a barrier to movement, (see: lightspeed barrier,) and many have come to speculate based on certain geometric and philosophical arguments that moving faster than light might equate to backwards travel through time.

So, here’s where things get interesting. 

This summer, scientists at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology announced that in a meticulous data transfer experiment, they verified that photons don’t break the lightspeed barrier, and their effects don’t appear to even slightly precede their cause.  Hence, lightspeed is a barrier and causality is confirmed, thus ruling out backwards time travel.  (On a side note, Stephen Hawking has also endorsed this view.)

However, research published just last month by researchers from the Gran Sasso National Laboratory in Italy appears to demonstrate that neutrinos do travel faster than light, throwing everything else into question.  In the study, scientists analyzed the speed of neutrinos being emitted from the particle accelerators at CERN and discovered them arriving faster than “c” by 60 nonoseconds(!) 

While fractionally small, this is a definitely measurable quantity of time with today’s instruments.

The Time Machine, from the movie of the same name. (Credit: Warner Bros/Dreamworks)

So, it appears that lightspeed might be traversable after all.  What is currently most unclear is whether or not these findings mean that backwards time travel is possible or simply that objects may continue to move faster through space than speed c.

(Note: I fall on the latter side of the fence, predicting allowable faster-than-light movement in my 2006 Kronoscope article.  This is due to what I believe is a Newtonian conceptual parasite infecting modern Relativity interpretations.)

In any case, it’s a very exciting time for time physics – the discovery of conflicting results at the margins often heralds the imminence of a new discovery!

Hawking promotes forward-only Time Travel

6 05 2010

Eminent physicist and cosmologist Dr. Stephen Hawking has recently come out to say that he no longer fears ridicule and endorses the possibility of time travel.  While this might seem like a revelation, his actual endorsement is not.  Let me explain.

Einstein’s Special Relativity has shown for nearly the last century that objects appear to move through time more slowly the faster they move through space.  This phenomenon has been measured, though the effect is so slight in everyday experience that physicists ignore it.  However, if astronauts were to travel in a spaceship very close to the speed of light, (a version of the Twin Paradox,) the effect would be very pronounced (see: Time Dilation), and our intrepid explorers would zoom forward in time – in a few years time spent away for the astronauts, the Earth and everyone on it will have aged centuries.

This is the only sort of time travel Dr. Hawking has come out to endorse – forward time travel as a result of moving quickly – which, as I mentioned above, has been a known effect for nearly a hundred years.  Backward time travel in Dr. Hawking’s view is still impossible because it would allow violations of causality, which bother him.  (Endorsing that kind of time travel would have truly been a revelation!)

So, nothing new here.  However, anything that gets the physics of Relativity and time travel into public media is okay in my book!

…and being that Dr. Hawking is so clever, maybe that was his intent all along.

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