The grandfather paradox

Dad is my great grandson

Dad is my great grandson

Any lover of the “Star Trek” television series and films has heard of the problems inherent in time travel. Captain Kirk is concerned that a famous person is about to be run over by a carriage. Spock explains that the person is known to survive the accident and go on to write his famous treatise, so leave well enough alone. A Vulcan recalls the story of her

grandmother crash-landing on Earth, selling the design for Velcro to a manufacturer to raise money for an Earth boy to go to college, then being rescued. The stories abound in science fiction, perhaps culminating in Robert Heinlein’s short story “All You Zombies.” In it, a woman becomes her own mother, her own lover and her own abductor. In the final episode of “Star Trek: New Generation” the crew has to experience a rash of different time lines to find the right choice to prevent the end of Earth.

The basis of most conversations and creations related to time travel is the grandfather paradox, first appearing in 1943 in Rene Barjaval’s book Future Times Three. He proposes that if you build a time travel machine and travel back to your grandfather’s time and kill your grandfather before he marries, you commit suicide – you will not exist. But if you don’t exist, how can you build a time machine to begin with?

Since time travel is not yet achieved (we think), we have only theory to fall back on. One theory is that, because of the grandfather paradox, time travel is impossible. Or we could travel in time, but not change anything. If we tried to change anything, accidents or a change of events would cause the event we are trying to prevent to occur anyway. This assumes that small changes would occur in history, but the Big Picture would not change, as time resolves itself.

For instance, a time traveler goes back to 1944, infiltrates Hitler’s generals and convinces them to assassinate Hitler by blowing up his bunker. History prevails – Hitler is not in the bunker when the place is blown to smithereens.

Does the baby exist?

Does the baby exist?

You kill your grandfather before he marries, but he was not a good boy – your grandmother is already pregnant with your father.

While writers with great imaginations play with all the possibilities, physicists have actually gotten into the fray. Einstein’s theory of relativity suggests that there are closed timelike curves (CTCs), paths in spacetime making it possible to travel back in time. Presenting time as a fourth dimension, it has already been demonstrated with atomic clocks that time travels at a much slower rate in space as it does on earth.

A global team of physicists led by Seth Lloyd from MIT are actually performing experiments to prove the existence of these CTCs; they have arrived at a theory that time travel is possible as long as a paradox does not occur, much like teleportation through time instead of space. One could only travel back to one’s own time line “universe”. David Deutsch. On the other hand, theorized that time travel is only possible when traveling to a different past than the one the traveler remembers.

Quantum physicists suggest that at every point in time where we can make a choice, several paths exist, in parallel universes. Thus if we traveled back and changed a decision we would simply find ourselves in one of those parallel worlds. They even suggest that we can manipulate our futures by opening up these alternate choices.

According to Steven Gibbs, the paradox doesn’t exist. If you try to change the time line, all you do is split time and travel a new line, as in splitting a river. But like the river, the more you split it, the shallower the water, until there is no more and you stop. And it doesn’t explain how you could exist even in a different path if you killed your grandfather.

Some theorize that one could change events in the past unless those events are within the grandfather paradox. In any case, since the future would be changed, one’s memory would be changed as well, so the time traveler would not be aware that he caused any rift in history. Then, did he actually cause a change? Was Spock simply spouting his new-found memory of history?

This brings up the idea of free will. We believe that we choose the lives we lead. But are these lives actually being manipulated by another human being from the future? And if we can travel to the past, can we also travel to the future? Would knowledge of the future change our method of coping with the present? Or would knowledge of the future guide us as to what we need to do in the present?

A host of new questions arises if we assume that man could travel through time. Perhaps, as many scientists believe, it simply isn’t possible, or all we could do is observe what we already know. That would at least allow some of us to sleep at night. But it isn’t half the fun as science fiction authors can offer us in their brilliant hypotheses.

  1. James T Reilly on March 27, 2014 at 11:47 pm said:

The various ways in which different authors have handled time travel and the inherent paradoxes has always been fascinating to me. I have particularly enjoyed the “travel back to historical events” stories/books. One of my favorites in my younger days was the 1958 book “The Lincoln Hunters” by Wilson Tucker (which I got through the Science Fiction Book Club).

The first known time travel novel, by the way, was written in 1733 by Samuel Madded (“Memoirs of the Twentieth Century”) — I have never read it, but might have to try to find a copy.

As a kid, I also liked Poul Anderson’s “Time Patrol” novels, though I can’t remember if I read them all or not (he wrote 11 of them altogether).

And, of course, there’s always Robert Heinlein’s 1973 classic — and Oedipal — “Time Enough for Love”, which I listened to as an audio book a few years ago.

More recently, Audrey Niffenegger’s “The Time-Traveler’s Wife” (2003) added an interesting twist (unpredictable time travel resulting from a genetic defect).

Intuitively, I doubt that time travel is possible — unfortunately. It seems to me that time is a one-way street and that the best possible use of time travel — to go back and “fix” our past mistakes — is a matter of wishful thinking.

the illusion of reality

the illusion of reality


Captain Kathryn Janeway of ‘Star Trek Voyager’

Kathryn Janeway

Kathryn Janeway

In order to appreciate the character of Kathryn Janeway, Captain of the Voyager in the television series “Star Trek: Voyager”, one needs to look at the origin of the name and the aura of the Star Trek developers.

Gene Roddenberry, the creator of the original “Star Trek” series and godfather to all subsequent ones, was visionary and at first this was considered to be damnation for success. A black woman on the helm with a short skirt, at a time when no women were allowed on American naval ships, a Russian helmsman during the Cold War, and even a believable alien; these were all considered dangerous ground for the public medium. Character names were often taken from the names of producers and friends.

The Captain for the U.S.S. Voyager was originally named Elizabeth Janeway, after the author Elizabeth Ames Hall Janeway. By understanding a little about this brilliant and forward-thinking woman, we gain insight into the Janeway character on the Voyager. She was married to the equally intelligent Eliot Janeway, economic adviser to Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson. The two of them mingled with luminaries of the American government; Elizabeth even recommended Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying to justice William O. Douglas. Mrs. Janeway started out  with the liberal views of the 1930s and eventually became known for her feminist works of the 1970s. She even learned Russian so that she could tour the Soviet Union.

By reading her work, one can get a view of a person who understood the complex relationships between people and the particular problems of women in society – and women’s unique ability to handle the relationships. Some examples of quotes from Elizabeth Janeway include:

Elizabeth Janeway

Elizabeth Janeway

  • “Like their personal lives, women’s history is fragmented, interrupted; a shadow history of human beings whose existence has been shaped by the efforts and the demands of others.”
  • “It seems to me highly improbable that women are going to realize their human potential without alienating men – some men, anyway”
  • Growing up human is uniquely a matter of social relations rather than biology. What we learn from connections within the family takes the place of instincts that program the behavior of animals; which raises the question, how good are these connections?”
  • “In this nadir of poetic repute, when the only verse that most people read from one year’s end to the next is what appears on greetings cards, it is well for us to stop and consider our poets. . . . Poets are the leaven in the lump of civilization.”

With a person like this as the namesake of the U.S.S. Voyager Captain, it is easy to see that a lot of talent and insight could be attributed to the Captain and her management of a crew of Star Fleet officers, Star Fleet rejects, brigands and aliens.

Nonetheless, the series had a start worthy of a “Star Trek: Voyager” episode. Among the many talented women who auditioned for the role, Genevieve Bujold was cast. She immediately requested the character be renamed ‘Nicole Janeway’ (no one seems to know why). But as a feature film actress, Ms. Bujold was not prepared for the 12-hour days and the news interviews. She dropped out the second day of filming, leaving the entire set in shock.

Kate Mulgrew was brought in, and she suggested that the name should be Kathryn Janeway, which better suited her very-Irish looks than the name Nicole. Ms. Mulgrew attributed her command style to her upbringing as the oldest and bossiest girl in an Irish Catholic family of eight children.

With Kate Mulgrew on board, the Janeway character demonstrated the strength, negotiation capability, determination, creativity and diplomacy of the original Elizabeth Janeway. Kathryn Janeway had to get the best out of a stranded crew which included giving a second chance to her errant pilot, teaching an automaton how to be human (and why that’s a good thing), and encourage a computer-generated medico to sing opera. She had to keep her crew’s eyes on the goal, which was to make it through 75 years of trying to get home. The character eventually rose to the rank of Admiral and appeared in later Star Trek films.

In the usual thorough thinking of Star Trek producers, this is the Starfleet Personnel File for Kathryn Janeway:

STARFLEET PERSONNEL FILE: Janeway, Kathryn Rank: Admiral Current assignment: Starfleet Command; previously, commanding officer of U.S.S. Voyager

Full Name: Kathryn Janeway Home region: Indiana, North America, Earth Birthday: May 20 Parents: Admiral Edward Janeway (d. 2358) and Gretchen Janeway Siblings: One sister Education: Starfleet Academy graduate Marital status: Single (once engaged) Office: (2371-2378) U.S.S. Voyager, Deck 1 Ready Room adjoining Bridge

big bang theory meets creationism

Actual NASA photograph

the eye  of GodAt “first” there was nothing, or perhaps simply no being to sense anything. Then a profusion of colors no one saw. Then a sound, loud, piercing, deafening, if there had been ears to hear. The nothingness was filled with objects, some hard and huge, some liquid, some gaseous, all flying at untold speeds in all directions, yet rarely crossing each other’s path. As things started to slow down, different types of matter and non-matter started to cluster, mix, test each other, sometimes mingling, sometimes rejecting the coupling. In at least one instance, enough things merged to create a sentience.

I am.

What is around me? Let me reach, touch, learn…

I seem to be alone. I sense no other vibrations. I want to learn about me.

I sweep to one side, collecting a mix of things. Can I manipulate them? Ah, yes…forms. Round seems to be the nature of things which adhere to each other. I must keep this first object from drifting away. If I place it just so far from that bright object, it will not collide with other objects moving around me.

Let me play with this object for a while. I can fill those dents with the droplets floating around. Other things are starting to form in the unfilled area – green, slimy, textured, as far as I can sense.

Some of the things are moving. If I change them here and there, they become separate kinds of beings. They are feeding on the still objects – and each other. They make more of themselves as well. I wonder if they think? They make sounds, but I don’t understand them.

Let me see if I can manipulate one of these beings so we could communicate…doesn’t seem to want to…perhaps if I remove some of its features it would need me…

I am removing its fur and shortening its forelegs. I must work on an audible way for it to contact me…voice box. It’s speaking to me. It seems awed when I speak back; I can’t get its ears adjusted to hear me and still hear the other beings. I will speak to it, but I must whisper…

It thinks! I will make it an other; perhaps they will multiply like the other beings.

Success. They are making more of themselves. They communicate with me, tell me what they want. I don’t always get it just the way they want it; I too am learning how to use my facilities.

They argue with me and do things I don’t like. I created this toy, and they are taking it over. I have lost control of them, and I think they will kill my earlier beings.

As I look at this first experiment, testing my abilities, I see that I am growing, and I’ve made some mistakes. I need to move to another place and start again. They seem to be doing fine by themselves.

I’ll have to try to correct these beings when I’m more developed…

the true nature of science fiction

rocketThere are three genres in true science fiction. The first is epitomized by Jules Verne — that is the introduction of advanced or new science into the present world. All environments except the one are completely within the norm. Perhaps a writer would want to set the novel or story back in time to achieve this, but it would be the sign of a poor author, one who cannot see beyond the present technology, biology or geology. Verne was writing in the late nineteenth century, so his adventures into submarines, time machines and rockets to the moon were remarkable, as evidenced by the eventual emergence of many of his contraptions. In his ability to think through the ramifications and methods needed to achieve such things as travel under the sea, he could figure out what was lost and how to replace such things. The beauty of this format is not only the imagination of the creator, but as well the impact a new science would have on the current environment, whether the new science is secret or public.

The second genre, in my opinion, is the introduction of alien races. This might be done by humans travelling away from earth, as in the Star Trek television and movies series, or by the introduction of an alien race into the present circumstances. An excellent example of the latter would be Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land. This allows the author to envision the adaptability of the human race to advances in human technology and alien sciences. Or, in the case of the stranger, an alien’s adaptation to human values. It gives us a fresh viewpoint for our present ethics and government. To this day, new discoverers of this particular book “grok” the world around them.

The third genre would be the complete shift into the future, as exemplified by most of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series and Frank Herbert’s Dune series. This perspective allows the author to predict the growth of human nature, biology and civilization, while allowing the writer to admit to the “unchanging” parts of human nature and how they will impact the growth of human beings. Such concepts as a countdown for a launch, and the term “robot” come from such authors, who are scientists as much as they are writers.

A possible fourth genre would be time travel, since this might slide the observer into any of the three given genres. But again one would need to recognize actual human nature and possible impacts of the time travel experience.

Please note that at no time do I refer to dwarves, pixies or gladiators. Fantasy is fine and has its place in entertainment, but it is not science fiction, rather pure fiction. Historical fiction and horror have no place in the arena of science fiction as well. With all due respect to J.R.R. Tolkein, these do not challenge the imagination of the scientist.

In as late as the 1930s, science fiction was the stuff of dime novels. By the 1960s, the genre started to gain respect among literature reviewers, and the introduction of televised science fiction widened the audience. Now we have The Matrix and 2010: A Space Odyssey. With popularity comes knock-offs and it is now more difficult than ever to find a medium for science fiction with integrity.

Such is the current challenge to the science fiction writer – to find new ideas among the old, and to use discipline to keep the “rules” of the genre chosen intact.

At times it may seem impossible to envision the future, but one must remember that the same challenge actually faced all the successful science fiction writers, no matter what their times of existence.