Monday, December 24, 2012

Boy of Age 16 Asks Me about Relativity, etc.
16. What Is the Paradox about Time Travel?

Hand colored etching Mr. Fezziwig’s Ball by John Leech from A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
A Christmas Carol is considered to be one of the first depictions of time travel in both directions, as the main character, Ebenezer Scrooge, is transported to Christmases past, present and yet to come.

A friend of mine on Twitter, Aaron (a pseudonym), is an overseas, 16-year old boy, who seriously admires Albert Einstein and wants to become a physicist. He continually writes me (Ted, also a pseudonym) questions about the theory of relativity and related topics, and I am sending answers. In this series of blog posts, those questions and answers are reproduced with modifications. I am not an expert in the fields of physics related to relativity. So, my answers might contain errors. If you find any error, please do not hesitate to write a comment for the benefit, not only of the boy and me, but also of other readers.

Aaron: I think they say that there is a paradox about time travel. What is it?

Ted: Any theory that would allow time travel would require that problems of causality (the relationship between the cause and effect that the former should come before the latter) be resolved. From this viewpoint, the concept of time travel seems to give contradictions, examples of which are stated as paradoxes. One of the best examples is the grandfather paradox.

The grandfather paradox is a hypothetical situation in which a time traveler goes back in time and attempts to kill his grandfather at a time before his grandfather met his grandmother. If he did so, then his mother or father never would have been born, and neither would the time traveler himself. In that case, the time traveler never would have gone back in time to kill his grandfather. This is in contradiction to the assumption at the start.

This paradox has been used to argue that backwards time travel must be impossible. A number of hypotheses have been postulated to avoid the paradox, such as the idea that the past is unchangeable. However, any of those hypotheses has not become an accepted theory because the theoretical possibility of time travel itself is unknown.

To write the above explanations, I referenced the Wikipedia pages of "Time travel" (Ref. 1) and "Grandfather paradox" (Ref. 2). So, if you want to learn in more details, you can consult those pages.

Aaron: It's amazing. Now, I have an idea about how to go backwards in time. Time is like a line and flows in one direction, like a river, and we can go in both directions, in a river. This means that we can also control ourselves in time. If we can go back in time, we can kill Hitler and make the future without stupid World War II. But, I have to find how this is possible in a theoretical way. What do you think? Is it funny?

Ted: Your idea is appealing. However, it does not seem to be a physical idea about how to go backwards in time, but I'm afraid that it is an idea about what you would like to do if you could go backwards in time. Further, only killing Adolf Hitler would not prevent the World War II totally. You may need to kill also Benito Mussolini in Italy and Hirohito in Japan and to change all the factors related to nationalism or imperialism and international tensions of those days.

[Next day, Ted again wrote to Aaron, writing as follows:]

However, your idea also included a good point. If you go backwards in time not to kill your grandfather but to kill Hitler, you can escape the paradox of your not being born. Thus, your idea is a good step toward the solution of the paradox.

I compared your idea with Novikov self-consistency principle. This principle was proposed by a Russian (and former Soviet) theoretical astrophysicist and cosmologist, Igor Dmitriyevich Novikov, in the mid-1980s and have been regarded as an important contribution to the theory of time travel (Ref. 3). I have just learned it from Wikipedia.

According to this hypothetical principle, the only possible time lines are those entirely self-consistent. So, anything a time traveler does in the past must have been "part of history all along." Your idea is partly similar to this principle, in the successful removal of the inconsistency about the time traveler's birth, though killing Hitler is inconsistent with the real history. You can have confidence in your ability of thinking about physics.

  1. Time travel, Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia (December14, 2012 at 23:29).
  2. Grandfather paradox, Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia (December17, 2012 at 08:09).
  3. Novikov self-consistency principle, Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia (November 26, 2012 at 03:04).
(Originally written from July 29 to 31, 2011)

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