Magazine article Skeptic (Altadena, CA)

The Chronology Projector Conjecture: The Mind Is Still the Safest Way to Time Travel

Magazine article Skeptic (Altadena, CA)

The Chronology Projector Conjecture: The Mind Is Still the Safest Way to Time Travel

Article excerpt

IN AN EPISODE OF THE ORIGINAL STAR TREK series, Dr. McCoy falls through a time portal in a city "on the edge of forever" and changes the past in a way that erases the Enterprise and her crew, with the exception of a landing party, Captain Kirk, and Mr. Spock, who must return to the past to fix what McCoy has undone. Time travel is a well-worn staple of science fiction writers, but not only does it violate numerous physical laws, there are fundamental problems of consistency and causality. The most prominent is the "matricide paradox" in which you travel back in time and kill your mother before she gave birth to you, which means you could not have been born to then travel back in time to kill your mother. In Back to the Future, Marty McFly faces a related but opposite dilemma in which he must arrange for his mother to date his father in order to ensure his conception.

One way around such paradoxes can be found in extremely sophisticated virtual reality machines (think of a holodeck), programmed to replicate a past time and place in such detail that it is indistinguishable from a real past (which one can never know in full in any case). Another option involves a multiple universes model of cosmology in which you travel back in time to a different but closely parallel universe to our own, as portrayed in Michael Crichton's novel Timeline, where the characters journey to another universe s Medieval Europe without any concern of mucking up our own chronology.

The fundamental shortcoming for both of these time travel scenarios is that it isn't really your past. A virtual reality time machine is simply a museum writ large, and transporting to some other universe's past would be like going back and meeting someone like your mother, who marries someone like your father, producing someone like, but not you--surely a less appealing trip than one in your own time-line. To make that trip you need the time machine of Caltech's Kip Thorne, who had his interest piqued in time travel when he received a phone call one day from Carl Sagan, who was looking for a way to get the heroine of his novel Contact--Eleanor Arroway (played by Jody Foster in the film version)--to the star Vega, 26 light years away.

The problem Sagan faced, as all science fiction writers do in such situations, is that at the speed of, say, the Voyager spacecraft, it would take about 490,000 years to get to Vega. That's a long time to sit, even if you are in first class with your seat back and tray table down. Thorne's solution, adopted by Sagan, was to send Ellie through a wormhole--a hypothetical space warp similar to a black hole in which you enter the mouth, fall through a short tube of infinitely curved spacetime that leads to an exit hole somewhere else in the universe (think of a tube running through the middle of a basketball--instead of going all the way around the surface of the ball to get to the other side, you tunnel through the middle). …

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