The Sciences

Time Travel Done Right: A Book Excerpt

Cosmic VarianceBy Sean CarrollFeb 3, 2010 1:42 PM

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From Eternity to Here addresses the problem of the arrow of time -- why is the past different from the future? But Chapter Six is all about time travel, and in particular the interesting version in which you travel backwards in time. Whether it's possible, what rules it would have to obey, and so on. And now -- even though I'm sure there aren't more than two or three of you out there who haven't purchased the book already -- you can get a sneak peek of part of that chapter. It's going to be the cover story in the March issue of Discover, and the story is already available online.

And here's a bit of multimedia bonus: to get the cool exploding-clock image, the intrepid editors worked with Biwa Studios to film high-speed video of exploding clocks, and you can see the whole videos online. They run the events forwards and backwards, just in case your personal arrow of time needs to be calibrated. One may ask, why is there a chapter about time travel in a book about time's arrow? Just couldn't resist the temptation to talk about everything related to "time"? In fact there is a deeper reason. In the real world, the laws of physics may or may not allow for closed timelike curves -- physicist-speak for time machines. (Probably not, but we're not as sure as we could be.) But apart from the difficulty in constructing them, time machines boggle our minds by offering up logical paradoxes -- what's to prevent you from traveling into the past and killing your parents before they met? There is a consistent way to handle these paradoxes, simply by insisting that they never happen. (And we're still hopeful that the folks at Lost adhere to this principle, regardless of the surface interpretation of last night's Season Six premiere.) The reason why that's hard to swallow is because we can't imagine anything that stops us from killing our parents, once we grant the existence of time machines. We conceptualize the past and future very differently -- the past is settled once and for all, while we can still make choices about what happens in the future. That, of course, is the arrow of time. At the heart of what bothers us about time-travel paradoxes is the difficulty of establishing a uniform arrow of time in a universe where time loops back on itself. Of course the easy, and probably correct, way out is to simply believe that time machines don't and can't exist. But disentangling the demands of logic from the demands of common sense is always a rewarding exercise in its own right.

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