Top 5 Sci-Fi Time Travel Methods
There is no shortage of time machines in the world of science fiction. You could probably name a bunch of them off the top of your head, from H.G. Wells' iconic creation to such mainstays as Dr. Who's Tardis and Dr. Brown's flux-capacitated DeLorean. But just how many fictional time machines can you explain? In many works of fantasy and science fiction, the time machine is just a magical plot device. No actual science is thrown at the audience. Most of the time, no one asks for any. After all, you're probably not watching Life on Mars or Terminator Salvation for a lesson in theoretical physics. Plus, if you're writing time-traveling fiction, then skipping the science spares you the embarrassment of getting something wrong. Isn't it enough that you described 1997 as being a world full of flying cars and busty android life partners? Let's take a look at five examples of the plausible and ridiculous ways fictional TV and film characters have traveled through time.
5. Superman Spin Control
If we learned anything about the physics of time and space from Richard Donner's 1978 film Superman, it's that if you fly around the Earth really fast, you can reverse its rotation and roll back time. Although physicists agree that space and time are interconnected, you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone who would back the "science" behind reversing planetary rotation to turn back time. Far from saving Lois Lane's life, the feat likely would have caused global chaos. Slam on the brakes in a moving car and everything inside it continues moving forward. Now imagine this scenario on a global scale, only with oceans, mountains and weather systems continuing to surge forward at up to 1,000 miles per hour, depending on your latitude. Way to go, Superman.
Credit: AP Photo
4. The Voyage Home to 1986
The Star Trek universe is full of fantastic ideas: aliens with rippled foreheads, holodecks and more time travel than you can shake a stick at. According to the Star Trek Wiki, 50 episodes of the six TV series featured time travel, as did four of the 11 films. You'd think the space-time continuum would just be circling the drain after all that tinkering. Time paradoxes aside, Star Trek always flirted with real science. Take 1986's Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, for example. In this film, the crew of the Starship Enterprise send a Klingon Bird-of-Prey vehicle back to the 1980s by sling shotting it around the sun. The Star Trek slingshot method involves using the sun's gravitational pull as an accelerator to reach speeds necessary to travel through time. The premise falls in line with some theories about time travel and Einstein's theory of special relativity. The theory says if time slows the closer you get to the speed of light, then travel into the future -- or the past -- may be possible. One slight problem: faster-than-light travel is physically impossible. Plus, as Lawrence M. Krauss points out in The Physics of Star Trek, the gravitational field near the surface of the sun doesn't produce anywhere near the boost you'd need to go talk to whales in the past.
3. Trekking into a Black Hole
Paradoxical time travel isn't a thing of the past for the Star Trek legacy. The plot of the new film concerns two starships that are sucked into an artificial black hole, sending them 154 years into the past. While the time-travel method employed in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home depended on a far too weak gravitational slingshot, many physicists believe that a black hole might indeed provide the necessary portal to the past. Anything that crosses a black hole's event horizon heads toward an incredibly tiny point of infinitely compressed matter called a singularity. That's also one of the huge problems with the new Star Trek film's plot: What's to keep the two starships from winding up as one with the singularity? Physicists point to Kerr black holes as a less destructive alternative. These theoretical cosmic phenomena first described by Roy Kerr in the 1960s lack the matter-smashing singularity at the center, potentially making it possible to pass the event horizon and come out the other side -- in another time.
2. Donnie Darko, Creepy Rabbits and Wormholes
The 2001 cult favorite Donnie Darko spends most of its time exploring the possible effects of time-travel paradoxes and tangent universes on its characters, but it also features a portal through time: a wormhole. Also called Einstein-Rosen bridges, these hypothetical cosmic structures might offer a traveler the necessary means of not just taking a shortcut through space, but also through time itself. Einstein's theory of relativity states that mass curves in spacetime. The most common visual example of this concept is that of space depicted as a curved, two-dimensional plane. Think of a racetrack: If you're speeding around a curve, you're bound to that curve, but what if you could forge a new line of track between its two parallel sides? That's the idea behind a wormhole. If a mass on one side of the spacetime curve applies enough force and a mass on the other side of the spacetime curve applies enough force, then the two could meet, creating a tunnel.
Credit: AP Photo
1. Lost on a Time-Traveling Island
If you've watched ABC's "Lost," then you're probably used to things not making a lot of sense. A big reason for this is that the show's mysterious island bounces the characters around through time seamlessly. Seriously, by the end of the series, everyone will be lucky to make it off the island without becoming their own grandparent. Yet "Lost" at least makes an effort to prop up the fiction with a little science. According to blog analysis at Popular Mechanics, the science behind the show's time travel seems to depend on quantum mechanics, a mysterious substance in the ground called "exotic material" and possibly a wormhole. Might this buried, volatile substance produce the necessary energy to manipulate a breach in spacetime? To varying degrees, you could argue that this is all any writer can achieve when crafting a piece of time-travel fiction -- not counting writers who are actually from the future, of course.
In “Game of Thrones”, fans have experienced a lot of unlikely things. We won’t get into the details of who dies and who doesn’t, but suffice it to say that no major character appears safe. And sometimes people seem to survive by magic alone, such as the infamous event that led to three young dragons hatching when their eggs were baked in a funeral pyre.
But is there an astronomy story lurking somewhere amid the magic and the dragons and the “Winter Is Coming” proclamations? David Beers thinks so. The co-founder of Brimstone Audio (a guitar effects company) is a lifelong fan of reading fantasy books. He started reading and re-reading GoT shortly before the television series began in 2011. But it was only in the last four months that he saw astronomy connections.
Beers’ theory is lengthy (you can see it in detail at the bottom of this page), but this is what it says in a nutshell: about 10,000 years before the events of “Game of Thrones” began, a large comet whizzed by the planet and was torn apart by the planet’s gravity. One of the pieces struck one of the planet’s two moons, which blew the moon up. Then, debris from the collision fell onto the planet and caused an event that GoT fans know as the “Long Night”, when the Others (ice demons) nearly killed everyone. The other half of the comet, Beers believes, passes near the world as “The Red Comet” (which is repeatedly referred to as a sort of omen for part of the series).
“This entire celestial story has been cleverly hidden inside the myths and legends that appear in the books — one story is about a moon getting too close to the sun, cracking, and pouring forth dragons into the world,” he told Discovery News. “The dragons in this case are the the flaming meteors falling into the atmosphere after the moon was destroyed.”
To learn more about how plausible this is, Discovery News reached out to Russell Deitrick, a graduate student at the University of Washington who previously spoke about GoT, planets and astronomy at a neighborhood event called Astronomy on Tap. Deitrick pointed out that as cosmic collisions go, it’s pretty unlikely that a comet would have the force to destroy a moon (it’s a small object crashing into a very big one). And from a celestial dynamics perspective, it’s unlikely that the remaining comet fragment would come back to nearly exactly the same spot.
But other parts of the theory could be explained astronomically. For example, the “Long Night” sounds similar to the situation that occurred when a large object (such as a comet or meteorite) presumably crashed into the Earth about 65 million years ago, wiping out the dinosaurs. In the case of the generation-long Long Night, since the dust would only persist for a few years, he says perhaps the large impacts were spread out over several years and there were several shorter winters afterwards.
“Debris from the moon and comet would have impacted the surface of the planet as meteorites. Presumably, at least a few of these meteorites would have been large in size (very small meteorites burn up in the atmosphere),” he wrote in an e-mail to Discovery News.
“These larger impacts can have devastating climatic effects — first heating the atmosphere, causing wide-spread forest fires, and kicking dust, aerosols, and soot (from the fires) up into the atmosphere and sort of ‘blacking out the sky’, reflecting sunlight and causing long periods (years or so) of global cooling—analogous to nuclear/volcanic winter.”
Catastrophic collisions do happen in the solar system from time to time. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
And could these impacts also explain the long winters in GoT? Deitrick is skeptical, as the crashes would come at random times. And in the story, the characters seem to believe that a long summer is followed by a long winter, which implies something more regular may be at play. (This topic was in fact covered in an April Fool’s essay on prepublishing site Arxiv a few years ago.)
Deitrick added that one of the strengths of GoT is its ability to get readers interested in subjects that they may not have considered. And among the astronomical theories he has read, that of Beers stands out.
“This is one of the most interesting theories I’ve seen on the astronomical origins of GoT’s events and certainly the most meticulous,” he wrote. “I admire David’s attention to detail and his ability to find connections between the text and real world mythology and symbols (although, I have no idea if George R. R. Martin actually intended to draw such parallels or not).”
Beers added that from his perspective, Martin is cleverly creating his own mythology. In fact, mythology was how Beers got interested in astronomy (from an amateur perspective) in the first place. He’s now doing a careful re-reading of the series to parse all the astronomy metaphors he can, which he will share on fan forums as he learns more.
You can read more about Beers’ theories in these Westeros.org forum pages: