Science in Fiction Part One: Time Travel


I have only seen maybe one episode of Star Trek and only two of the six Star Wars films, so I will not pretend to be an expert in science fiction. However, I am obsessed with Doctor Who, LOST, and the book The Time Traveler’s Wife, plus I’ve read some of Stephen Hawking’s stuff, so I will pretend to be an expert in time travel.

THEMATIC ASPECTS

The use of time travel in fiction can aid the writer in revealing a message about philosophical arguments that have been going on for ages, particularly that of fate versus free will. While the answer to this question as portrayed in the work is strictly the author’s opinion, if the time travelling aspects of the work reinforce the theme successfully, then the answer is valid. The second main contribution to theme that time travel can provide is that history affects the present and the future in profound ways. The sequence of events leading up to the present (whether they can be altered or not) will always influence the future.

EXAMPLES

The novel The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger is not the ordinary man-in-time-machine cliché of time travel. In the book, a man is plagued by a genetic condition that forces him to skip around on his own life timeline at random intervals, though it can also be induced by stress. The time travelling adds to the love story aspect of the book by requiring the time traveler’s wife to learn to be strong and independent, as she never knows when he could simply disappear to spend time with the child version of herself or the version twenty years older. She develops a thick skin because she knows that his disappearing at this point in time is necessary for a significant event in her life to occur some time in the past or the future. Though she lives her life in the normal sequence, her husband’s skipping around creates its own sequential story, and they reinforce each other with their durability and the strength of their love, which binds them through time.

The TV series Doctor Who is a prime example of time travel in action. The Doctor travels in his time machine, called the TARDIS (Time and Relative Dimension in Space) to any point in time. Cautiously avoiding the 1980s, The Doctor has visited the creation of the earth, the destruction of the earth, and hundreds of times in between, as well as before, and after. The adventures his companions experience always help put their own minuscule lives into perspective as they witness events that occurred millions of years before their birth and events that won’t occur for millions of years after their death.

In LOST, another television series (2004-2010), time travel plays a significant role in the revelation of the plot. There is no mention of time travel until the fourth season, where an individual’s consciousness escapes their mind at one point in their life, and they go limp while at another time they wake up. This phenomenon was caused by the island on which they were stranded being out of sync with the rest of the world by about a day, though in many instances, the characters were able to move the island through time utilizing electromagnetism. (Note: if you have not seen the show before, this probably sounds like the most screwed-up plotline you have ever heard, but I assure you that you will not regret watching it.) In the fifth season, the characters end up trapped on the island in 1977, and they decide to blow up the electromagnetism station to prevent the incident which caused the island’s strange properties, but as it turns out (*SPOILERS!*) them blowing up the station was what caused the incident in the first place. Though the time travel does not occur until the fourth and fifth seasons, it does fill in many of the plot questions brought up during the first three seasons. Watching closely, there are little to no plot holes, though there are dozens of characters who are involved.

Other examples which I do not have enough room to discuss here include the Back to the Future film trilogy, the film The Butterfly Effect, and the short story A Sound of Thunder by Ray Bradbury.

THE REAL SCIENCE BEHIND TIME TRAVEL

Theoretically, it is scientifically possible to travel into the future, but probably not the past, unless worm holes exist. But let’s take this one step at a time. As Stephen Hawking said, time is relative, which means time does not progress minute by minute at the same interval for each and every atom, and therefore, person. You see, time is a dimension, just like the three we can see: height, width, and depth. Right now, you are moving through the dimension of time, just as you move through the dimension of height when you, say, raise your hand. The speed at which you raise your hand determines how long it takes your hand to get there. If you move slowly, it takes longer. Common sense. But if you think about it, since time is the “fourth dimension,” you can move faster through time in a similar way.

Take the twin paradox, for instance. If a set of twins are on earth, and one takes off in a spaceship that goes faster than light (faster than the speed of light is the only way this would work in a noticeable way) and the other stays on earth, the space twin will travel faster through time than the earth twin. So when the space twin returns, he will noticeably younger than his earth twin (and everyone else, really). It’s kind of a difficult concept to grasp, but this is the theory. Unfortunately we do not have the technology to go faster than the speed of light, so we can’t do this presently.

The twin paradox is an example of how we could travel into the future (the space twin travels faster through time than the earth twin), but there is another way. Worm holes. Now it took me a while to understand this concept, but Stephen Hawkings’ book A Brief History of Time, explained it well, using the analogy of two mountains. If you are standing on top of one mountain and wish to reach the peak of the mountain next to you, you would have to climb down mountain A and then back up mountain B, which would take a while. But what if there was a bit of space-time that connected the tops of the two mountains? You could probably cut your time in half by walking strait across (or whatever fraction; I’m not good with math). Don’t take my word on this, but a worm hole might be able to work both ways, back and forth between the two mountaintops. But no matter; we haven’t found any yet.

MY OPINION

Time travel is one of the most intriguing concepts in science to me. I have attempted to write a novel with time travel in it (with a similar concept as I mentioned from LOST, with their consciousness leaving their body at one point in time and entering in another) and I must say, it is extraordinarily difficult. I have put the project on hold for now while working on something different because it was beginning to get a bit too complicated with all that back and forth in time business, but I am planning on coming back and finishing it eventually because I adore the story. I believe that writing about time travel takes a lot of hard work, and though it may take a while (and a lot of brain-draining intellectual thinking) to write a successful time travel story, the end result is usually spectacular. 

8 comments:

  1. I never liked science fiction. I don't find it interesting. Science in fiction is OK, but i prefer to keep it realistic. There are many cool phenomena occurring in quantum mechanics (e.g. tunneling) and in string theory (e.g. all the new dimensions) and in relativity (e.g. relative time). Non of these phenomena are directly accessible to us, at the length scale and energy scale that we live our boring human lives. I can see that these phenomena are tempting to play with for fiction writers, but I don't find it interesting at all. The books by Hawking and Feynman (e.g. QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter), however, are very interesting >:)

    Also, keep in mind that some of the theories of particle physics and cosmology are speculative. 20 years ago I wrote my MSc thesis on one of these theories called supersymmetry (a predecessor of superstrings). Very interesting mathematics and science. However, the problem is that supersymmetry predicts a myriad of new elementary particles, and none of them have been found in the laboratory, in spite of many efforts.

    The Grand Unified Theory is yet to be discovered. There are great still great opportunities for young and smart physicists. >:)

    Cold As Heaven

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    1. Lots of things are theoretically possible, but either not physically possible or we just haven't found the technology yet. Time travel is perhaps the best example of this.

      I also am not really a fan of reading science fiction, but if a writer uses science in fiction effectively, I simply can't get enough! I like realistic stuff, or at least things that appear realistic. I'm not really a fan of stories that place in completely imagined worlds.

      I wish I was good enough at math to be a physicist. Quantum chemistry is so fascinating to me! And that outer space stuff? Love it.

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  2. Writing Excuses just had a podcast about time travel that might interest some people.

    http://www.writingexcuses.com/2012/06/03/writing-excuses-7-23-time-travel/

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  3. This is really interesting, Aimee.

    I admit that physics are one thing my brain has a great deal of trouble wrapping itself around. But I found your explanations pretty simple to follow.

    I agree that time travel in fiction can open up some great themes. I really want to encourage you to continue your novel, when you're ready!

    My only experience with time travel is - premonitions. I have had those - a brief sense that something was going to happen and then it did. I don't know if that was just sychronicity, or if there is a way that the present and the future can connect, but it is really interesting to me!

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    1. Hmm, premonitions are pretty creepy, I think. I'm not sure they'd have much to do with time travel, though. The present and future connecting thing makes me think of the book Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut. One of my favorites (and one involving time travel I forgot to mention). In the book, there is no such this as time, really. Everything is happening all at once; everything has already been achieved. Times overlap, in a way, so I suppose that could lend itself to premonitions.

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    2. Yes, I've read of the concept that all times overlap or intersect. It's hard for me to wrap my mind around, but it's a really interesting concept.

      I don't find my own preminitions creepy. :) It's just a sudden feeling that something will happen, like someone calling me, and then it does. But that may have more to do with feeling connected to someone else, than with predicting the future.

      This is all so interesting!

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