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SciFi 101: Time Travel Paradoxes, Relatively Speaking

Writers need to think twice before dipping their toes into the volatile waters of time travel, a tricky concept that works only some of the time. For every “Quantum Leap,” there is a “Timecop” (the series) or “Journeyman.” For every “Back to the Future,” there is a “Timeline.” This particular television season, “Heroes” slid to […]

Writers need to think twice before dipping their toes into the volatile waters of time travel, a tricky concept that works only some of the time.

For every “Quantum Leap,” there is a “Timecop” (the series) or “Journeyman.” For every “Back to the Future,” there is a “Timeline.” This particular television season, “Heroes” slid to record low ratings and “Journeyman” had the bizarre fortune of having all 13 episodes aired simply because the writers strike created an inability to schedule a replacement. In short, 2007 was not kind to time travelers.

For all of the interest in time travel, it is not surprising that Tim Kring would integrate the concept into “Heroes.” The problem is how he integrated it. I was heartened to hear Kring admit to some of the failures and ill-conceived ideas that lead to a season of “Heroes” that was a disappointing as it was predictable. No mistake was worse, however, than sending Hiro back to feudal Japan.

Kring admits Hiro was in the past too long. I disagree. Hiro should not have been in the remote past at all. Not only does Hiros time traveling violate the laws of physics, it creates paradoxes and plot holes that are simply too big to ignore, let alone accept.

Hiros time traveling seems to be unfettered — he can go where and when he pleases without consequences; therefore, everything that has happened could have been easily avoided. For example, Hiro, could travel back to Sylars childhood, kill him, and render nearly all of the events of Season 1 pointless. Or, he could go back to Japan and simply bury Adam/Kensai while he is in one of his drunken stupors. Such simple possible solutions to complexly developed plots could have been avoided by simply having some rules governing Hiros time traveling.

For instance, Hiro could have been restricted to time traveling only from the time he discovered his powers. A similar restriction is used with great effect in James P. Hogans vastly underrated novel “Thrice Upon a Time.”

In this novel, a computer is built that uses tau radiation to send messages back to itself, but it can only send messages to the point that the computer was in existence. While various timelines do emerge, they originate from the creation of the computer.

Not only is this logical, but it fixes a point in space and time that is not subject to change, keeping silly, simplistic possibilities like those possible in “Heroes” from surfacing.

As an alternative, Hiro could have been restricted to traveling within his own lifetime — the same rule that governed Sam Becketts travels in “Quantum Leap.” Since time essentially began for Sam at the time of his birth, this defining concept is logical and prevents the occurrence of some disturbing paradoxes. An exception occurred in the Season 5 episode, “The Leap between the States.” There Sam switched places with one of his ancestors, creating the uncomfortable possibility that he could be his own ancestor.

While this was a one-time departure for “Quantum Leap” Hiro apparently can regularly travel anywhere in the past or future with no apparent consequences. Despite the staggering change in character for Kensai, in which he becomes a villain instead of a hero, the viewers never do witness substantial changes in the present; such an oversight is sloppy and renders much of Hiros time traveling pointless.

Unlike “Heroes,” “Journeyman,” strangely enough, seemed to suffer from odd, random restriction that had little to do with time travel. Why could Dan only travel in and around the San Francisco area? Maybe Dan could only travel to places he had been, and maybe hed never been outside of San Francisco. Who knows? Perhaps that would have been explained had the series been allowed to develop its mythologies a bit more.

The last two episodes tied Dan and Livias time traveling to an astrological occurrence, which fails to address why they are bound by a random geographic restriction.

Both “Heroes” and “Journeyman” allow their heroes to see past and future versions of themselves. While this concept worked in the light and campy Back to the Future series, in serious science-fiction, it raises too many troubling questions. While I am not a scientist, I was taught, and still believe, that matter can only exist in one place at a time.

Therefore, using “Journeyman” as an example, when Dan sees himself, the same matter exists in two places at once. This simply cannot happen.

I once heard that every cell in the human body is replaced in a seven-year period — if that indeed is the case, Dans matter could be entirely different if the time traveling destination was more than seven years into the past. In this scenario, he could theoretically, see himself without his matter being doubled.

But what about the clothes he is wearing? Would the metal in his belt buckle vanish from its current natural state (most likely buried deep in a mine), or would the belt buckle simply vanish? Would a scrap of paper he brought back vanish, or would some part of a tree simply cease to exist?

While I love the concept of time travel, it works best when at least some concepts of modern physics are properly employed. “Heroes” seems to ignore both theories that govern the concept of time and the universe: the General Theory of Relativity and Quantum Mechanics.

While these two dominant theories are incompatible with each other, they do comprise the major schools of thought in this field and should not be ignored. When writers send heroes on time-traveling missions, they would be wise to understand the principles of time travel to avoid the mistakes made by the shows that have ended up on televisions scrap heap.

Homework
“The Elegant Universe” by Brian Greene
“A Brief History of Time” by Stephen Hawking
“Thrice Upon a Time” by James P. Hogan

Dan Compora is an associate professor at the University of Toledo, and contributes SciFi 101 twice monthly for Airlock Alpha. He can be reached at drdan@airlockalpha.com.

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