Just my thoughts. I'm sure you have your own.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

9 Reasons why Time Travel, if it were possible, would still be impractical.

A few months ago, I came across an interesting article discussing the problems with time travel. I agreed with a number of the points and thought them to be humorously true, while there were a few other points I thought could use some refinement. So here’s my stab at the same topic, with a couple of extra points I added in for good measure.

9. You could potentially age much faster.

Of course, this is a selective problem—it depends on a number of factors. Since we still don't know if Time Travel is entirely possible, we don't know if the procedure of traveling through time would age us faster in the same way that stress does. Doctors say that individuals in high stress careers or lifestyles often 'age' faster than the average person. It's uncertain what sorts of physical stress a person would go through to break the time barrier, but the possibility is there that doing so could be taxing on us.

But outside of a theoretical spectrum, any trip through time, whether for a few minutes or a couple of years, would make you progress in age in a way that everyone else would not. When you return from a 6-month trip from feudal Japan, your parents, spouse, children, etc. will be the exact same age from whence you left; however, you will be 6 months older. Abuse the gift of time travel enough, and as the old song goes, you could very well end up being your own grandpa.

Why is this the case? From a physics standpoint, the body's aging process is completely unrelated to the revolutions of the Earth (days) or the location from the sun (years). Astronauts that have visited space or the moon are not any younger or older than they otherwise would be for having left Earth's orbit. The way we count time and the way our bodies age are two completely unrelated scales. An often overlooked fact is that the way we count time is relative to our astronomical location. Which also presents another risk for time traveling...

8. Getting the location just right.

In the book Lightning by Dean Koontz, the main character travels through time using some sort of mumbo-jumbo machine. The kicker, though, is that you can’t just push a few buttons and go wherever you want. It takes the character days using a complex computer system to get the ‘figures’ just right. He explains that, to properly travel to a day in time, you have to know where the Earth is located in the fathoms of space on that day—else you’ll just warp yourself right into an endless black vacuum and die on impact (arrival?).

This is just one example of how travel is handled. As eluded to above in point 9, we often use the terms ‘time’ and ‘space’ together, but view them separately. Truth is, if we did break the time barrier as a civilization, distance is just as much of a variable as time. (Even the most basic formulas in physics class often have both of those variables to determine something.) So, before you saunter back to Woodstock in 1969 to see The Who rock the grounds, you’ll need to know where specifically on the Sun’s orbit Earth is located, what side of the planet to warp to (since you obviously won’t want to end up in Asia somewhere), and a very specific point for good measure, since winding up in the middle of a tree isn’t very desirable either.

Time travel doesn’t seem as much fun when you turn it into a NASA math problem, does it?

“But those are problems we’ll iron out when we discover Time Travel. Once we have that down pat, it’s all smooth sailing.” Or is it…?

7. You have to come home for anything food/money related.

Let’s say you want to go to see England during the Elizabethan age—you know, catch a Shakespeare play when it was the rage, view some fine art during the time it actually was painted. You’ve planned it all out just like a normal vacation: Stay for a week, take in the local culture, grab some souvenirs. So you go to the local town’s inn and as for a room for the evening, dishing out an Alexander Hamilton. (That’s a $10 bill, for those who don’t know the funny haired men on your money.)

Depending on the inn’s reputation, you will either be laughed at or thrown in the local jail. See, funny thing about money—not only is it localized today, but even throughout history, it changes quite frequently. If you plan on doing anything at any point, you’re going to need money.

You remember that scene in Back to the Future II where Doc Brown pulls out a little briefcase full of different types of money and gives Marty some 2015 money? He’s on the right track. (How he got that money is anyone’s guess—more on that in a minute.) The United States has been around for about two-and-a-quarter centuries now. Did you know that the $1 bill has changed 12 times between 1862 and 1923? That’s an average of once every 5 years or so. Most of us have seen it change a few times in our lifetime as well. Imagine trying to use a 2002 $1 bill to pay for your tab at a 1920’s cafĂ©. Not likely they’re going to take it. They’ll probably look at it like it was Monopoly money.

Well, what about food? Food has been around ever since edible things. However, an interesting point made by anthropologists and archaeologists is that while the concept of eating is important for survival, what people eat has changed over the years, as has the quality of food. Want to go back and eat some food 1,000 years ago? There’s a better-than-average chance you’re going to get dysentery. Even if you go back just a few hundred years, our stomachs have an interesting quality that adjusts it to certain types of cuisines—if you give it something too radically different, it takes time to adjust. If you go from meat-eating to vegan, it might be a little hard on you. If you go from eating roast beef to mutton, you might never feel ‘fine’ again.

“Alright, already,” you say to yourself, “So I’ll have some issues with money and food. That still doesn’t mean I’m going to run into problems.” Well, that’s what you think…

6. No one knows who you are—and you can’t prove anything.

Let’s face it, going through time is like taking a vacation. But think about being on vacation somewhere. You’re a total stranger, true, but you still have some form of identification. If you stay in the country, you have your normal Driver’s License or Social Security Card or SOMETHING to let people know you’re legit. If you travel out of the country, it’s mandated you have a passport, which does pretty much the same thing. You’re probably picking up on the problem—Travel through time, and you just simply don’t exist.

“Cool,” you might initially think, “I’m like a Spook or something.” Except that no matter where or when you go to, there’s a better than 99% chance you’re going to end up in jail or dead.

Even if you go back in time in this country 10 years—your Driver’s License is expired and thus is not legitimate. “But people didn’t carry ID’s in the 1500’s,” you might argue. This is true. That’s why communities were so important—so that somebody knows who you are and can vouch for you. Strangers in pre-common sense times were the biggest target for thieves, because they had nobody to rely on, and the local law enforcement didn’t know them from Adam.

This gets back to the problem mentioned with Doc Brown above. It’s not even easy to go to another time (especially recent past or future) and get a job of any kind. Have you ever gotten a job without showing any form of identification? (At least a job that wouldn’t get you arrested for tax evasion or would break your back within 4 hours.) At the very best, the concept of time travel would provide you with a window to see how things were back or forward in time, but any interaction would be perilous to your freedom or life.

“Well, alright, but there are still little things I can do to use time travel to my advantage,” you snidely retort. “What about making money on interest? The whole concept is based on time—and I have the advantage of just skipping ahead.”

5. Going to the future to collect that interest? Not so fast.

This has been used as a story plot (or mentioned, at least) in dozens of stories where time travel is a possibility. Take the movie Time Chasers, where the following statement is made:

“You know, if you go back 100 years and deposit $100 dollars in a bank, then came back 100 years to the present… gosh, the interest alone would make you a millionaire!”

Ignoring the fact that this man has the worst math skills in the universe (I ran a quick amortization schedule—being generous and saying 2% interest in a savings account would garner you almost $700 after 100 years), this device has floated around in people’s minds for decades. Sadly, most people have never worked in the financial industry—because if they did, they could tell you it can never happen.

Bank accounts can be considered inactive if no contact has been given to the bank after a number of months or years. Once an account has been inactive for 5 years, an account is considered dormant and is subject to a number of money-depleting activities. Banks are allowed to charge fees on accounts while inactive, and dormant accounts can be seized by the state if certain guidelines are met. Disappearing for 100 years is almost a signed guarantee that those funds will be gone.

But let’s say you bank at the Totally Trustworthy and Awesome Bank—Guess what probably won’t exist 100 years in the future? The vast majority of banks created in 1911 have ceased to exist, and all banks have been purchased by less trustworthy and awesome banks since. While your money (at least now) is protected by the government if a bank fails, waiting 80 or 90 years to claim your money probably will be looked at oddly by the State. (Not to mention if 20-year-old you deposits $100 dollars, then 20-year-old you withdrawals the money 100 years later, that will most likely be picked up as ‘probable terrorist activity’ according to the PATRIOT act—no lie.)

“Fine!” you say out of desperation. “What if I just, like, go back 500 years and get something and bring it to the present and sell it as a mint-condition antique! Any problems with that?”


4. Law of Conservation of Energy and “bringing something back”

We get a little into physics now. You remember that famous formula by Albert Einstein? E=mc2? We have all quoted it since we were 6. But that simple formula would prevent you from doing exactly what you want—bringing objects back from the past/future.

How so? Einstein’s ‘Law of Conservation of Energy’ states that energy is “neither created nor destroyed”—simply ‘redirected’. Burn an ant with a magnifying glass? You’re simply transforming those little ant atoms into something else using heat energy. You haven’t destroyed an insect so much as transformed an insect into gas (which actually sounds pretty awesome).

So, let’s say we go back to Ancient Egypt and bring back a brick with a hieroglyphic on it. According to Einstein’s law, you have removed energy from one time and added it to a future time. Now, we don’t exactly know how the manner of time travel is going to work, but according to physics as we understand them now, your very existence in another time is in question, no less than the action you just performed.

This isn’t the whole ‘step on a butterfly and kill the dinosaurs’ time argument (though that’s an entire other chapter in the fallacy book). This is simple physics: You cannot remove energy from another time. It’s very possible that the discovery of time travel will change this law, or even make it obsolete. But there’s a much better chance that even if you can travel through time, only what you bring with you (self, clothes, etc) will be able to travel and come back—nothing else. So, sorry to burst another bubble for you.

Now that you’re completely dejected, you decide that you’re just going to do something simple. Let’s see what the Earth looks like in 30 years. Well, cross your fingers…

3. Boy, I hope everything is alright with the ozone in the future.

Do you know what the difference between Hiroshima, Japan, July 1945 and Hiroshima, Japan, September 1945 is? If you answered ‘a city that exists’ with ‘a city that is 60% crater’, then you’re right.

Now, imagine you lived in Hiroshima in July 1945 and you built a time machine. You kiss your wife and say, “I’ll be right back, honey. I just want to see how the flowers I just planted look in two months.” Now, imagine the look on your wife’s face when you come back with 2nd degree radiation poisoning from your short excursion.

See, the problem with wanting to know what the future holed is that we don’t know what will happen in the future. What if your time machine was on the top floor of the WTC South tower and you went from the year 2000 to the year 2002? Even if the land isn’t radioactive, the ground you were once on might not be there at all anymore. Go into the future, and it’s a dice roll whether the place you arrive will be at war, irradiated or even exists at all anymore.

And those are just the risks we can foresee. No one 50 years ago wondered if the Ozone layer was going to be a problem in the future. We have dozens of problems that could affect civilization that we never would have guessed 100 years ago. For all we know, the year 2112 will have a severe Godzilla problem, and here we are warping ourselves right into the middle of it.

And pray that you don’t get stuck in a Godzilla future, because…

2. More than a little bad if stolen.

Again, we don’t know exactly how this time travel process is going to happen. If science fiction has taught us anything, though, it will mean swirly portals and cool gadgetry. Tangible objects. You know, the kind that can be broken or stolen.

Of all of these points, this is the one that is used the most in stories that actually has time travel devices. It usually is a great issue for storytelling, because it creates drama and can be resolved by the end. But the only reason it gets resolved is because the story would not be as good if the good guy was stranded in front of Hannibal’s army while the bad guy gets the girl and the money.

But in all honesty, that’s about the way it probably would roll.

See, there’s really no recourse if you go to another time and the method of travel is disrupted. At best, at best, your hope is that someone recreates the means, perhaps even from scratch. Even if you were the inventor, if you go into the past, you most likely won’t have the means to remake it (assuming that you didn’t make it out of coconuts) and if you go into the future—well, we’ve discussed other issues that could be going on then. Like in Back to the Future, you’ll probably be spending months trying to fix all of the problems you made just in your initial jaunt through time.

The possibilities of problems are endless. But of all the logical problems, the cultural issues that could be faced, the last reason is perhaps the most unavoidable…

1. Just like all of our toys, eventually, it just gets boring.

“Oh, Come on now!” you say defiantly, because you already have a long track record of talking back to me in this article. “How on Earth could I ever get bored with Time Travelling?”

Very, very easily.

Are you bored with this article yet? Because I’ve used at least three different types of technological miracles in designing it (by 1990’s standards). If you would have even described what this article is to someone in 1985, they would be astonished. I used a word processor on my Dell computer to type it and spell-check it. I emailed it to our blog Editor. He posted it on the internet on our blog. All things that didn’t even exist 26 years ago. But you probably didn’t even think twice about any of that. It’s humdrum to you, because you have gotten used to these things existing. Things just simply get old.

Think about it. Imagine your favorite place in the world—a place you might have gone to on vacation before. Let’s say you’ve been planning it for a year—7 full days away. You had all of the days’ itineraries filled with fun and excitement: museums and attractions and lots of relaxing. After 7 days, you might even say to yourself how you wished you never had to leave. But deep down, you kinda miss being at home, where you felt grounded, where you were in control of things.

That’s the difference between a vacation and moving somewhere.

Where have you always wanted to visit? Civil War-era United States (for some reason)? Alright, so you go and you get to talk to lots of interesting people and do interesting things and take interesting pictures and eat interesting animals. How long do you stay before you realize that you’re a little homesick? One week? Three weeks? I guarantee it won’t be more than a month, even for an American History major.

Then you come back and are excited to go somewhere else. Perhaps visit ancient Rome. So you go there for a week. Then you come back and make plans for your trip to Ankor Wat when it was built. Eventually, you’re going to just run out of ideas and imagine yourself at home playing Rummy with your next door neighbor while American Idol plays in the background.

The truth of the matter is that what we really want is a new experience. But after a little while of experiencing it, the exhilaration dies down a little. That’s why musicians retire—not because they don’t like what they are doing, but because they’ve converted a hobby into a living, and they want to move on to something else. Sure, you might keep the time machine around for a rainy day, but in all honesty, it will soon sit in the corner not getting played with while you continue your World of Warcraft campaign and sell your Farmville vegetables.

Don’t believe me? Invent a time machine and prove me wrong.

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