The Near Impossibility of Time Travel

Oh yes, a great science fiction plot object.  My father’s favorite story line.  The “Time Travel” gimmick that entertains everyone from the Geek to the casual reader.

I am a big viewer of the “Nerd Channels” on television.  I like to watch the Science Channel and Discovery channel quite regularly.  I’ve given up on TLC as it has just become the decorator channel.  Although Discovery seems to be the Alaska channel now, but I digress…

I have always been interested in science.  No, not the junk science so many practice now days with their “assume that…” theories and such, and claiming them as facts.  I am talking about pure science.  The kind of real science politics, government funding and Al Gore can’t pollute into a false religion.

Don’t get me wrong, TV is not my only source of information.  I love to read as well, and have read more than just fiction.  While I don’t claim the mental fitness of Einstein, I do grasp the concept of relativity and for the most part, it makes sense to me.

Many times, when I see scientific and experimental concepts discussed about time travel, I only hear the theoretical and Earth-centric aspect of it being spoken of.  Things such as worm-holes, warping, and folding space come into the conversation.  These theories may have scientific merit, but they don’t have practical understanding.  I frequently see scientists in the world that concentrate on their fields exclusively, and frankly, are completely ignorant of many other scientific fields of study.  If there’s one thing I have learned as a computer professional, it’s that knowing hardware, software, and all technologies relating to the industry gives an edge to the quality of work offered as a programmer.  Those that only understand programming and have no idea how a CPU and its relating electronics work together will always be at a disadvantage and missing a very important point of view.  Science is the same way.  You may be nuclear physicist, but maybe, just maybe, knowing a bit about astronomy and geology might just help you in your field.

Back to time travel.  I hear a lot about the fundamentals of relativity being discussed in relation to time travel theories,  but I never ever hear the practical and obvious problems relativity brings to the issue.  Only the deepest theories are discussed, but never the problems they cause.

Let me lay it down, so to speak, for everyone to understand.  Let’s say someone figures out how to travel through time and makes a “Mr. TimeTravel” or “flux capacitor” device.  Yay for him/her!  Guess, what?  It still will be unusable.  They have only conquered the tip of the iceberg.  How?  The universe is not like a Hollywood movie, nor is the Earth sitting stationary in space.  Bending some laws to achieve time travel does not eliminate other laws.


Painting of Milky Way galaxy used as backgroun...

Image via Wikipedia

Consider for a moment that nothing in the universe is sitting still.  In fact, most, if not all of it is moving quite fast, blazingly fast.  You think you are sitting still on Earth reading this, but in reality this is happening:

  • You are traveling (if sitting on the equator) 1000 miles per hour as the earth rotates on its axis.  You have this great spinning force wanting to fling you off into space, but the Eath’s gravity keeps you firmly in your chair.
  • The Earth is orbiting the Sun, a simple star called “Sol”, at approximately 18.5 miles per second.  Pretty darn fast in and of itself!  The Earth should be flung out into space, but it and the Sun’s gravity keeps it comfortably in a stable orbit.
  • The Sun, “Sol”, orbits the Milky Way Galaxy‘s center at approximately 450,000 miles per hour, with a slight oscillation through the galactic plane.
  • The Milky Way Galaxy is (by most scientific estimates) traveling through space at approximately 1.3 million miles per hour.

OK, you now have this fancy-schmancy “Mr. TimeTravel” device or a flux capacitor, and you want to do some time traveling.  GREAT!  Now you need to solve the problems of distance.  If you want to appear even five minutes into the past, then you had better be wearing a space suit and have a REALLY fast space ship, because you aren’t anywhere near the Earth when you arrive.  You will appear at precisley the point where you left the Earth at that particular time.  You will also have the relative inertia of all of that speed from the Earth’s rotation, the Earth’s orbit, the Sun’s orbit, and the Milky Way’s speed all at once without the gravity to govern it.  In a split second after you arrive, you will be nowhere near where the Earth is going to be even in just five minutes worth of time travel.

Where you appear all depends on what direction you were heading when you left, and what direction the Earth was heading.  There is a chance you might end up inside the Earth itself or inside the moon or other object, if not out in space.  There’s no way you are landing on the Earth after you zap to another time.

So time travel may sound cool, romantic, and a great way to write a story.  I don’t think mankind will ever be able to actually experience it.  There’s just too much going against you.

7 Responses to “The Near Impossibility of Time Travel”

  1. [this is good] Time travel isn’t particularly practical anyway. So you go back in time? Try to alter the past and it does nothing because it has already happened. The future? You only see what would happen if all events currently in motion went as planed. The future changes all the time and is always uncertain. Why travel through time when we already are? The present travels through past to future constantly. Only reason I could see wanting to use time travel would be to observe the or to see the “creation” of the universe. Even then, it would be nothing more than a picture. All we have are theories and educated guesses. 

  2. Syrin from Wasilla Reply July 16, 2008 at 9:27 am

    [this is good] SuperSparky,
    Clearly GOD has it all under control! Constantly, man does NOT! Love this statement….. So when God says “Let there be light”.  He’s giving an instruction on organizing the materials necessary to form the solar system.
    Thanks- great read……

  3. I think if we could master a time machine adding a function to calculate putting you down in the same space you left from would be pretty easy.  The tardis doesn’t seem to have a problem with it.  Lets go with the wormhole theory.  Wormholes, theoretically, travel through space and time.  So, if you could manipulate one opening up at one spot in space time, you should be able to manipulate it opening up at the second set of coordinates. 

  4. Ignoring the Tardis remark 🙂 ….Seriously, opening a wormhole, if possible, considering you essentially need the power of a small start to even consider doing it, still would involve having an apparatus to keep it “traveling” with your relative position in the galaxy and another apparatus at the other end traveling relative to that star system’s position would be the only way to have a stable worm hole.  That would be considerably easier than trying to attempt to calculate the trajectory of both ends to keep them relatively (being the key word) still.Opening a stationary wormhole would mean the stars etc. would just zoom by its other opening.  Having an anchor on each end traveling with the galaxy/star system/orbits/ etc. would be the only way to seriously do it.If stationary, then you’d have to work out the trajectory of the other end to get the traveling time just right up to the millisecond, otherwise you’re stranded in space.Unlike science fiction, astronomical objects like stars and planets are not sitting still.  Think of it like this:You are a ship on a very large high flowing river with many eddies and sub-currents traveling in, what you perceive as one direction.  You want to throw a rope to another ship miles away traveling in a different direction relative to you and their own sub-currents and eddies in addition to the main river current.  Good luck in getting a rope to them, and that’s just a two dimensional model.Incidentally, the “science” in Doctor Who is the poorest I have seen in any sci-fi show and that’s sad.  The “cheese” gets old really quick.

  5. I understand the problem, but I just think that if we get to the point of actually being able to manipulate a worm hole the math of getting it to open precisely where we want it to open is going to be easy in comparison.  What about the time machine in the Time Machine.  It was basically a fast forward and rewind button.  The machine stayed in the same location only with things changing around it.  It was anchored to that single place.  I realize that this machine is slightly more scientific than the tartis, but who knows what dimensions we will be able to tap into in the future.  Dr. Who is fun, you just have to ignore physics. 

  6. Well, Billy Piper was cute…  My problem with the Doctor is there are too many Earth based alternate pasts and futures.  That gets old fast, and seriously, the Daleks are boring bad guys.  I haven’t seen an episode since Piper.As to the “fast forward” thingy…  hmmm… interesting perspective.  However, anchoring the machine to the Earth would require the Earth to participate in the journey as well.  Time travel would require velocity or space folding or something like that.  Being anchored to the Earth eliminates those possibilities, at least on an individual scale.Very interesting perspective though.  A+ on imagination!

  7. You should watch the episode “Blink,” as it was very good. 

Come on, you know you want to say something.

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