Time Travel in Avengers: Endgame

A still from Oren Bell’s brilliant interactive timeline for Endgame as a multiverse movie. He disagrees with both writers and directors on the ending – check it out on his site here

With the new time travel-centric Marvel TV series Loki about to debut, I thought it was time (ha) for another dabble in the genre with a look at 2019’s Avengers: Endgame. (SPOILERS for those who somehow have yet to see it). To no-one’s surprise, the writers of Endgame opted to wrap up both a 20+ film long story arc and a cliffhanger involving the death of half the universe by recourse to that old chestnut of time travel (an old chestnut I love though!). It did so in a superficially clever way, comparing itself to and distancing itself from (quote) “bullshit” stories like ‘Back to the Future’ and ‘The Terminator’. The more I’ve thought and read about it though, the more I realise that it’s no more scientific in its approach than those movies. “No shit” I hear you say, but there are plenty of people out there who are convinced that this is superior time travel storytelling, and possibly even ‘makes perfect sense’. In reality, although it ends up mostly making sense, this is perhaps more by luck than judgement. I still loved the film, by the way, I’m just interested in how we all ended up convinced that it was ‘good’ (by which I mean consistent and logical) time travel, because it isn’t!

tl;dr – Endgame wasn’t written as a multiverse time travel story – although it can be made to work as one.

Many, myself included, understood Endgame to differ from most time travel stories by working on the basis of ‘multiverse’ theory, in which making some change in the past (possibly even the act of time travel itself) causes the universe to branch. This is a fictional reflection of the ‘Many Worlds’ interpretation of quantum mechanics in which the universe is constantly branching into parallel realities. As no branching per se was shown on camera, I assumed that it was the act of time travel itself that branched reality, landing the characters in a fresh, indeterminate future in which anything is possible. My belief was reinforced by an interview with physicist Sean Carroll, a champion of this interpretation and a scientific advisor on the movie. I was actually really pleased; multiverse time travel is incredibly rare (the only filmed attempt I’m aware of was Corridor Digital’s short-lived ‘Lifeline’ series on YouTube Premium). I’m not really sure why this is but regardless, the idea certainly works for Endgame as time travel is really just a means to an end i.e. getting hold of the Infinity Stones. I wasn’t the only one to assume something along these lines, which is why many were confused as to how the hell Captain America ended up on that bench at the end of the movie. If, as it seemed to, the film worked on branching realities, how could he have been there the whole time? If he wasn’t there the whole time and did in fact come from a branch reality that he’s been living in, how did he get back? Bewildered journalists asked both the writers and the directors (there are two of each) about this and got two different answers. The writers insisted that this was our Cap having lived in our timeline all along, although they later admitted that the directors’ view might also (i.e. instead) be valid, i.e. that he must have lived in a branch reality caused by changes made in the past. W, T, and indeed, F?

There is a good reason for this. The directors’ view is actually a retcon of the movie as written and filmed. Endgame is actually a self-consistent universe that you can’t alter and in which, therefore, time-duplicate Cap was always there. There is a multiverse element, but as we’ll see, this is bolted onto that core mechanic, and not very well, either. Let’s look at the evidence. The writers explain their take in this interview:

“It’s crucial to your film that in your formulation of time travel, changes to the past don’t alter our present. How did you decide this?

MARKUS We looked at a lot of time-travel stories and went, it doesn’t work that way.

McFEELY It was by necessity. If you have six MacGuffins and every time you go back it changes something, you’ve got Biff’s casino, exponentially. So we just couldn’t do that. We had physicists come in — more than one — who said, basically, “Back to the Future” is .

MARKUS Basically said what the Hulk says in that scene, which is, if you go to the past, then the present becomes your past and the past becomes your future. So there’s absolutely no reason it would change.”

What these physicists were trying to tell them is that IF time travel to the past were possible, either a) whatever you do, you have already done, so nothing can change or b) your time travel and/or your actions create a branch reality, so you’re changing this, and not your past. Unfortunately the writers misunderstood what they meant by this and came up with a really weird hybrid approach, which is made clear in a couple of key scenes involving Hulk where the two parallel sets of time-travel rules are explained. As originally written and filmed these formed a single scene, with all the key dialogue delivered by the Ancient One. First, the original version of those famous Hulk lines that they allude to above (for the sake of time/space I won’t bother to repeat those here): 

ANCIENT ONE

Of course, there will be consequences.

HULK

yes…If we take the stones we alter time, and we’ll totally screw up our present-day even worse than it already is.

ANCIENT ONE

If you travel to the past from your present, then that past becomes your future, and your former present becomes your past. Therefore it cannot be altered by your new future. 

This is deliberately, comedically obfuscatory, but is really simple if you break it down. All they’re saying is that you may be travelling into the past, but it’s your subjective future. If you could change the past, you’d disallow for your own presence there, because you’d have no reason to travel. In other words, you just can’t change the past, and paradoxes (or Bill & Ted-style games of one-upmanship) are impossible. On the face of it this dictates an immutable timeline; you were always there in the past, doing whatever you did, as in the films ‘Timecrimes’, ‘Twelve Monkeys’, or ‘Predestination’. In keeping with this, the writers also claim that Captain America’s travel to the past to be with Peggy is also part of this. How? We’re coming to that. Most definitely not in keeping however is, well, most of the movie. We see the Avengers making overt changes to the past that we’ve already seen in prior movies, notably Captain America attacking his past self. How is this possible given the above rule? If it is possible despite this, how does 2012 Cap magically forget that this happened? The answers to both questions are contained in the next bit of dialogue: 

HULK

Then all of this is for nothing.

ANCIENT ONE

No – no no, not exactly. If someone dies, they will always die. Death is.. Irreversible, but Thanos is not. Those you’ve lost have not died, they’ve been willed out of existence. Which means they can be willed back. But it doesn’t come cheap. 

ANCIENT ONE

The Infinity Stones bind the universe together, creating what you experience as the flow of time. Remove one of these stones, this flow splits. Your timeline might benefit, but my new one would definitely not. For every stone that you remove, you create new very vulnerable timelines; millions will suffer. 

In other words, because the Stones are critical to the flow of time and because later on a Stone is taken, the changes to the past of Steve’s own reality are effectively ‘fixed’, creating a new branch reality where he does remember fighting himself and the future pans out differently without changing his own past. We can try to speculate on what would have happened if the time travellers had made changes to the past and then a Stone hadn’t been taken, but this is unknowable since every change to what we know happened does get branched. Either the writers are lying to us, they don’t understand their own script, or – somehow – the taking of the Stones is effectively predestined, forming another aspect of the self-consistent universe of the movie. Logically of course, this is, to use the technical quantum mechanical term, bollocks. Events happening out of chronological order in time travel is fine; cause and effect are preserved, just not in the order to which we’re accustomed. However, you don’t get to change the past, then branch reality, then imply that the earlier change is not only retrospectively included in that branch, but is also predestined! This is a case of the cart before the horse; the whole point of branched realities is to allow for change to the past – it should not be possible to make any change prior to this point. The very concept is self-contradictory. If you can’t change the past, you can’t get to the point of taking a Stone to allow for a change to the past. The only way this works is if we accept that you can make changes, but as per the nonsense Ancient One/Hulk line, your present… “…cannot be altered by your new future.” Unfortunately, the writers have established rules and then immediately broken them in an attempt to avoid falling into the time travel cliche of pulling a Deadpool and stopping the villain in the past and yet retain the past-changing japes of those exact same conventional time travel movies. Recognising that the new branched realities would be left without important artefacts, they then explain how these ‘dark timelines’ are avoided:

HULK

Then we can’t take the stones.

ANCIENT ONE

Yet your world depends on it.

HULK

OK, what if… what if once we’re done we come back and return the stones?

ANCIENT ONE

[Then] the branch will be clipped, and the timeline restored.

Note that this is further evidence of the writer’s vision; if reality branches all the time, there’s no way to actually ‘save’ these timelines – only to create additional better ones. If reality only branches when a Stone is removed, putting it back ‘clips’ that branch as they explain. Still, on balance this interpretation is seriously flawed and convoluted. Luckily the version of this same scene from the final draft of the script (i.e., what we saw play out) helps us make sense of this mess (albeit not the dark timelines; they are still boned, I’m afraid!):

ANCIENT ONE

At what cost?

The Infinity Stones create the experience you know as the flow of time. Remove one of the stones, and the flow splits.

Now, your timeline might benefit.

My new one…would definitely not.

In this new branch reality, without our chief weapon against the forces of darkness, our world would be overrun…

For each stone you remove, you’ll create a new, vulnerable timeline. Millions will suffer.

(beat)

Now tell me, Doctor. Can your science prevent all that?

ASTRAL BANNER

No. But it can erase it.

Astral Banner reaches in and grabs THE VIRTUAL TIME STONE.

ASTRAL BANNER (CONT’D)

Because once we’re done with the stones, we can return each one to its own timeline. At the moment it was taken. So chronologically, in that reality, the stone never left.

These changes have two significant effects (other than removing the potentially confusing attempt to differentiate being willed out of existence from ‘death’):

1) To move the time travel exposition earlier in the movie to avoid viewers wondering why they can’t just go back and change things. 

To achieve this they added the obvious Hitler comparison (it may not be a comparison that this was a minor plot point in Deadpool 2!), along with pop culture touchstones to help the audience understand that this isn’t your grandfather’s (ha) time travel and you can’t simply go back and change your own past to fix your present. This works fine and doesn’t affect our interpretation of the movie’s time travel.

2) To de-emphasise the arbitrary nature of the Stones somehow being central to preventing a ‘dark’ timeline by pointing out that they’re essentially a means of defence against evil. 

This is more critical. We go from ‘the Infinity Stones create the experience you know as the flow of time’ to ‘creating what you experience as the flow of time’, which I read as moving from them creating time itself, to simply the timeline that we know (i.e. where the universe has the Stones to defend itself). This provides more room for the interpretation that removing a Stone is simply a major change to the timeline, like any other, that would otherwise disallow for the future we know, and so results in reality branching to a new and parallel alternate future. Still, I really don’t think that improving time travel logic was the main aim here, or even necessarily an aim at all. The wording about how the Stones ‘bind the universe together’ may have been dropped as simply redundant, or possibly to soften the plothole that not only the ‘flow of time’ but also the ‘universe’ are just fine when the Stones all get destroyed in the present-day (2023) of the prime reality. If the filmmakers truly cared about their inconsistent rules, they had the perfect opportunity here to switch to a simple multiverse approach and record a single line of dialogue that would explain it without the need to change anything else. Here’s the equivalent line from Lifeline:

“Look, your fate is certain. Okay? It can’t be undone. Your every action taken is already part of a predetermined timeline and that is why I built the jump box. It doesn’t just jump an agent forward in time, it jumps them to a brand new timeline. Where new outcomes are possible.”

Anyway, back to that head-scratcher of an ending and the writer’s claim that Cap was always there as a time duplicate in his own past. They say this is the case because it’s not associated with the taking of a Stone. I have checked this, and they’re right; it’s the only change to the past that can’t be blamed on a Stone. There’s also no mention in the script (nor the alternate scene below) of alternate universes being created prior to the taking of a Stone. So, per the writers’ rules, Cap (and not some duplicate from another reality) is indeed living in his own past and not that of a branch reality. This was the intent “from the very first outline” of the movie, notwithstanding the later difference of opinion between writing and directing teams. To be clear, everyone involved does agree that he didn’t just go back (or back and sideways if you believe the directors) for his dance raincheck – he stayed there, got married and had Peggy’s two children. Which inevitably means that Steve somehow had to live a secret life with a secret marriage (maybe he did a ‘Vision’ and used his timesuit as a disguise?) and kissed his own great niece in Civil War (much like Marty McFly and his mum). 

You can still choose to interpret Steve’s ‘retirement’ to his own past as a rewriting of the original timeline that alters Peggy’s future (i.e. who she married, who fathered her kids etc). Alternatively, you can believe the directors that Cap lived his life with the Peggy of a branch reality and returned (off camera!) to the prime reality to hand over the shield. But neither of these fits with the original vision for the movie that you can’t change your own past and it doesn’t branch unless a Stone is removed. There’s another problem with the writer’s logic here. Cap only gets to the past by having created and then ‘clipped’ all the branching realities. This means that the creation and destruction of these branches also always happened and is also part of an overarching self-consistent universe. Except that they can’t possibly be for the reason I’ve already given above; we’ve seen the original timelines before they become branch realities, so we know something has in fact changed, and there can’t be an original timeline for Cap to have ended up in his own past!

Conclusions

So, Endgame as written and even as filmed (according to the writers) is really not the multiverse time travel movie that most of us thought. It’s a weird hybrid approach that you can sort of mash together into a convoluted fixed timeline involving multiple realities but not really. It actually makes less sense than the films that it (jokingly) criticises and handwaves all consequences for time travel. Luckily, it can be salvaged if we overlook the resulting plothole of Captain America’s mysterious off-camera return and follow the interpretation of the directors. That is, that there’s no predestination, the Avengers are making changes, but every significant change, (i.e. one that would otherwise change the future, like living a new life in the past with your sweetheart) creates a branch reality. Not just messing with Stones. This isn’t perfect; how could it be? It’s effectively a retcon. But it’s easily the better choice overall in my view. Why wouldn’t this be the case? It’s only logical. The only serious discrepancy is the remaining emphasis placed upon the significance of the Stones, which I think can be explained by the Ancient One’s overly mystical view of reality. She focuses on the earth-shattering consequences for messing with the Stones simply because she knows the gravity of those consequences. She doesn’t explicitly rule out other causes of branches. It likely doesn’t matter that they’re destroyed in the subjective present of the prime universe, because the ultimate threat she identifies is Thanos, and he’s been defeated, along with the previous threats that the Stones had a hand in, including of course ‘Variant’ Thanos from the 2014 branch (meaning that branch doesn’t have to contend with him and gets its Soul and Power Stones back). Of course, this interpretation has some dark implications: If significant changes create branches, then when Cap travels back to each existing branch to return each stone, reality must be branched again. The Avengers have still created multiple new universes of potential suffering and death without one or more Stones, they’ve just karmically balanced things somewhat by creating a new set of positive branches that have all their Stones. Except for, again, the new Loki branch. 

For me, the directors’ approach, whilst imperfect, is the best compromise between logic and narrative. It’s not clear whether they somehow thought this was the case all along, or whether they only recognised the inconsistencies in post-production or even following the movie’s release. The fact that the writing and directing teams weren’t already on the same page when they were interviewed tells me that, simply, not enough thought went into this aspect of the film. Why should we believe them? Well, the director’s role in the filmmaking process traditionally supersedes that of the writer, shaping both the final product and the audience’s view of it. Perhaps the most famous example is Ridley Scott’s influence on Deckard’s status as a replicant. You can still choose to believe that he is human based on the theatrical cut and ignoring Scott’s own intent, but this is contradicted by his later comments and director’s cuts. There’s also the fact that subsequent MCU entries suggest that the Russos’ multiverse model is indeed the right one. Unless Loki is going to be stealing multiple more iterations of Infinity Stones, the universe is going to get branched simply by him time travelling. If so, this will establish (albeit retroactively) that the Ancient One really was just being specific about the Stones because of the particularly Earth-shattering consequences of messing with their past (and the need to keep things simple for a general audience). It would also pretty much establish the Russos’ scenario for Captain America; that he really did live out his life in a branch reality before somehow returning to the prime reality to hand over his mysterious newly made shield (another plothole!) to Sam. Where he went after that, we may never know, but I hear he’s on the moon

Time Travel: the ending of ‘Twelve Monkeys’

‘I’m in insurance. Just to be clear, that means I’m a scientist here from the future to obtain a sample of the original form of your doomsday virus so that survivors in the future can reclaim the surface of the Earth. Clear?’

Something a bit left-field, but still about BS and history (sort of) and another in a series of time travel-related posts. One of the greatest time travel stories ever is the original Twelve Monkeys (1995); I love it. It’s an absolutely flawless, self-consistent time loop with a wonderfully bleak ending where (spoiler alert………….) the hero dies and fails to prevent the end of the world. However, it isn’t actually as bleak as it seems. The whole point of the movie, which some people have missed, is that the outbreak cannot be prevented. To do so would prevent the very future that sends James Cole back in time in the first place. What the future scientists *can* achieve is to obtain a sample of the virus to engineer a cure for the survivors in the future. They dub this an insurance policy of sorts, hence the future scientist – the ‘Astrophysicist’ in the credits and the script – introduces themselves as ‘…in insurance…’. Some take this literally, perhaps a deliberate jibe at the incompetent future rulers; she wasn’t even a trained scientist – just some business type (this argument has taken place, amongst other places, on the Wikipedia article ‘talk’ page)! This is not the case. The woman on the plane is definitively the scientist we see in the future, and she is a key part of the plan to save what’s left of humanity in the future, not in the past.

If the apparent age of the actress herself (who does not wear age makeup or even sport grey hair in the future scenes) doesn’t make this clear, the available drafts of the film’s script, dated June 27 1994 and February 6 1995, do. The future scientist is meant to appear the same age as he (given the late dates of the scripts, they must simply have not bothered to change the scientist’s gender after Carol Florence was cast in the role) is in the future scenes; ‘…a silver-haired gentleman…’. 

INT.  747 CABIN – DAY

  1. PETERS closes the door to the overhead luggage rack containing his Chicago Bulls bag and takes his seat.  Next to him, a FELLOW TRAVELER, unseen, says…

FELLOW TRAVELER’S VOICE (o.s.)

It’s obscene, all the violence, all the lunacy.  Shootings even at airports now. You might say…we’re the next endangered species…human beings!

CLOSE ON DR. PETERS, smiling affably, turning to his neighbor.

  1. PETERS

I think you’re right. sir.  I think you’ve hit the nail on the head.

  1. PETERS’ POV:  the FELLOW TRAVELER, a silver haired gentleman in a business suit, offering his hand congenially.  DR. PETERS doesn’t know who this man is, but we do.  It’s the ASTROPHYSICIST!

ASTROPHYSICIST Jones is my name.  I’m in insurance.

EXT.   PARKING LOT/AIRPORT

As YOUNG COLE’S PARENTS (seen only as sleeves and torsos) usher YOUNG COLE into their station wagon, the boy hesitates, looks back, watches a 747 climb into the sky.

 

FADE OUT:

 

The Astrophysicist we see in the final cut likewise looks no older in the future than she does in the past. Although the date of the future scenes is never given, we are looking at a minimum of 30 years from 1996; Jose specifically mentions ‘30 years’ in the closing scenes, and Bruce Willis is very clearly at least 30 years older than his child actor self. This is a Hollywood movie with a 30+ million dollar budget; they could have afforded a little more latex if they had wanted to change the intent of the script.

The real clincher though is the wonderful documentary ‘The Hamster Factor’, which you can find (illegally of course) on YouTube. I’d encourage watching the whole thing, but from 45 minutes in we hear, despite director Terry Gilliam’s misgivings, the filmmakers’ clear intent that this scene is indeed a ‘happy ending’:

 

‘…a shot which has caused considerable conflict between Terry and Chuck. Chuck wants to follow the original script which ends with young Cole in the airport parking lot. As far as Terry is concerned though he has his final shot; the shot of young Cole in the airport witnessing his own death. …from early on reading the script and in discussions I’ve always felt that the ending of the film would take place in the airport between Railly and the boy, their eye contact, I mean, that’s why I started the film with, on his eyes, and end on his eyes, and the boy is touched, scarred, damaged by what he’s just seen, something that’s going to stay with him for the rest of his life. The scene that then came after that, was a scene in the airplane where Dr Peters and his viruses meet the astrophysicist and we know that somehow, the astrophysicist will get the virus and will be able to save the human race. [there is then a short clip of Jones the astrophysicist on the plane with Peters]. There was an argument that we needed that scene because otherwise Cole’s death would have been in vain, that he wouldn’t have achieved anything; this way we the audience can see that he has achieved something, that his death has led them to the virus and he saves the future, and um I was convinced that was all nonsense anyway, it was unnecessary and emotionally it would weaken the emotional ending.’

 

Note that although Gilliam talks about ‘reading the script’, the aeroplane ‘happy ending’ scene was definitely in there from at least a year before filming began; Gilliam as director was proposing that they should leave it out as it might be ‘giving too much away’, but producer Chuck Roven (and no doubt others, given the difficulties experienced with test audiences) were insistent that it remain. Later in the documentary, Mick Audsley (sound editor) explains the tricky balance being struck between giving the audience enough information or too little. We see Gilliam and others in the edit, watching first the scene of young Cole seeing older Cole die, and then the scene on the plane. Audsley even laughingly asks if this scene might actually be a setup for a sequel (!), something which Gilliam denies immediately before explaining that they are preparing two different edits for test audiences, one that ends on young Cole’s face, the other with the plane scene. As he puts it; ‘There are definitely two camps here on this one about whether that detracts from the ending or enriches it a little bit by tidying up certain plot.’ Then Gilliam states outright that ‘…she’s actually come back from the future, and Cole effectively has led them to this point…’ to which Audsley (at least, I think it’s him, it’s said off-camera) admits that this ‘didn’t come through’ for him. According to Gilliam, ‘quite a few people’ didn’t get it either. So if you were one of those people, don’t worry; you are in good company!  

On the ‘somehow’ of the means by which the future scientists will retrieve the sample from Peters (which definitely is unclear), I actually suspect that the handshake is also meant to represent the scientist willingly contracting the virus herself to obtain the virus sample by physical contact. This would be consistent with the Terminator-style naked time travel that we see; she couldn’t bring back a phial of virus, but she could contract the virus and bring herself back. Alternatively, perhaps there is a means of bringing back a sample without killing herself (assuming no actual virus has yet been released, she could even achieve this, er, drug mule style… I’ll say no more than that). The important point is that whether or not the scientists thought they might be able to stop the outbreak, they had a contingency plan to use the pinpointed location, time, date and ID of the perpetrator to obtain a sample and at least have a chance of engineering a cure. Although it isn’t clear how the unmutated virus would help them combat the mutated future strains, but still, the filmmakers are clear that this is the ending. It’s ambiguous enough, and the plan desperate enough, that you can still read it as the beginning of the end of humanity if you wish. For me it’s the right balance of bleakness, but I can see why many, including Gilliam himself, wanted the movie to end on young Cole watching himself die as a futile loop is completed.

Time Travelling Tourists and Out of Place Artefacts – Time Travel 101

Sigh.

My original plan for this piece was to tackle two history and archaeology-specific aspects of time travel, but in the process of researching it, I’ve ended up writing a basic guide to ‘real’ (i.e. theoretical) time travel, for which, see below. Still, my main focus is to tackle what have become known as ‘Time-Travelling Tourists’ (TTT) and ‘Out-Of-Place-Artefacts’ (OOPArts) such as the c.80 BC Antikythera Mechanism. The former are mostly outside my remit, as such characters are invariably supposed to have originated from our own future, rarely seem to spend much time in our own past, and are coming back to warn of us something or other (the laughably fake ‘John Titor’ is the grandfather of them all). Having said that, we actually do have some strong pieces of evidence against the idea that time travellers have visited us from the future. Famously, theoretical physicists (notably Stephen Hawking) have held parties for time travellers (invitations going out only after the party has happened), and no-one turned up. Obviously there are lots of problems with that sort of stunt; plenty of reasons why people might not break cover. More compellingly, people have actually looked online for time travellers. No, not cranks like ‘John Titor’ (by the way; JOHN TITOR – JOHN connor from the film TermInaTOR, anyone?) but people typing things that they could not possibly have known at that time (using Google Trends and Twitter searches) and also (like Hawking) inviting time travellers to respond to them (from the future, creating anachronistic messages obviously, not just ‘yes, I am a time traveller!’). This had the advantage of only requiring the transmission of information back in time, not people (which would be more difficult). They came up completely empty on both counts (which, by the way, I can’t help being disappointed by). Finally, there’s a real show-stopper for TTTs that I deal with at the end of this article, one which applies to all forms of time travel that we have so far conceived of.

Let’s move on to OOPARTs, which are more firmly within my proverbial wheelhouse. As a jumping-off point, I took this article from Time Travel Nexus (who have some great material on TT fiction, even if some their authors are a little too ready to believe the ‘real thing’) as a case study of sorts. There is also this recent article at Ancient Origins, but it’s behind a paywall (I can’t be sure that it postulates time travel, but I’d be surprised if it doesn’t given the remit of the site and the track record of author Ashley Cowie). The big problem with TT claims surrounding these artefacts is that they are usually unfalsifiable. There’s no way to prove the negative, and the onus should be upon the claimant. However, having spent a LOT of time reading about TT theory, I don’t think people realise just how impossible it really is, despite periodical news headlines to the contrary.

Basically, time travel into the past is impossible. That might sound like a bold statement, but hear me out. There are hypothetical ways to achieve backwards time travel, but they are even less likely to happen than interstellar space travel. You should really watch this fantastic lecture by theoretical physicist Sean Carroll and/or read this short article, but to summarise the state of the time travel art, there are only a handful of ways that scientists can even conceive of achieving backwards time travel. These are (each with links to firstly a simple explanation, and then the original academic paper in brackets);

 

1). Tipler cylinders (Frank Tipler, 1974). Create a 100km+ long 10km wide cylinder of exotic matter, as dense as the sun, rotating extremely rapidly. You’d also have to find a way to even approach it without being killed in order to fly around it in a spacecraft to go back in time. There’s an interesting predecessor of these in Van Stockum’s 1937 version (covered in these Kip Thorne lecture notes) which differed in being made of ‘dust’ and being necessarily of infinite length (and therefore not physically possible). It’s the weakest of the three.

2). Cosmic strings (J. Richard Gott, 1991) – Find and somehow modify/relocate two of these equally hypothetical objects, 10 million billion tons per cm dense and stupidly long (infinitely so, if the universe is indeed infinite in size), and somehow get them moving past each other very, very quickly.

3). Wormholes (Kip Thorne et al, 1988). Find or create a wormhole and somehow stabilise it with more exotic matter (with ‘negative energy’). Move one end near a black hole or neutron star or accelerate near the speed of light for a period of time in order to get one end of the hole effectively into the future (by aging differentially). You’d then be able to go the other way through the wormhole to back in time. This seems to be our best hope, and yet achieving all of this would be no mean feat. Thorne himself lists the many reasons why Stephen Hawking was probably right about his ‘Chronology Protection Conjecture’ in this easy to read article (see here for Hawking’s original, less easy to read one). Spoiler alert – there’s a good chance that even attempting this solution would cause the wormhole to self-destruct; ‘…an explosive flow of gravitating fluctuational energy through the wormhole at precisely the moment when time travel is first possible — at the moment of time machine activation.’

 

All three of these are theorised to produce ‘Closed Time-Like Curves’, the only agreed upon mechanism in theoretical physics for time travel, but a mechanism that is still not proven to even exist. To quote one paper, ‘it is Aside from this issue, and those already listed above, there are some pretty serious drawbacks to all three.

A quick aside – there’s also another theoretical method that you don’t often come across in fiction, which is just going really, really fast. Although more straightforward than the above three, it’s still very confusing. You can read about it here, along with a good explanation of what ‘tachyons’ actually are (beyond being a go-to SF technobabble word). There is apparently a maximum backward time travel limit of just one year, and that’s if you can achieve a speed of 10 times the speed of light. Unfortunately, it is quite simply impossible to travel faster than light, hence the mental gymnastics that physicists have had to resort to in order to come up with the ‘big three’ above. However, I’d love to see it done in fiction, partly because of the bizarre visual effects that would result in showing multiple (not just present and future versions) of the time machine visible at the same time.

So, back to those ‘big three’. Firstly, none of them has ever been even proven to exist, let alone observed in nature. They would have to be discovered and manipulated or made from scratch, and then exploited. That’s the first hurdle. To do this would then require infinite amounts of energy or ‘negative energy’. Not ‘lots’, not ‘more energy than we’ve ever generated previously’, not ‘energy levels requiring cold fusion’ but literally infinite amounts of energy. In other words, an impossible amount. Physicist Ken Olum says that all known hypothetical methods would require the use of negative matter or matter with negative energy which, if it even/ever existed in sufficient quantities, would blow up the universe.

You’d then have to work out how to safely navigate the wormhole or other gravitic anomaly without being “spaghettified” by the tremendous forces involved. Let’s throw this into the overall unimaginable engineering challenge of finding or making these theoretical features in the first place, manipulating them into position and, in the case of wormholes, enlarging and stabilising them such that they can be traversed. Not to mention engineering and building the spacecraft and equipment to attempt all of this, and of course to convey passengers to the finished ‘time machine’ (also known as ‘the easy bit’).

 

To quote Carroll;

‘We can imagine making time machines by bending spacetime, but we don’t actually know a foolproof way of doing it.

Nor do we have a proof that it can’t be done.

The smart money would bet that the ultimate laws of nature simply don’t permit travel backwards in time.’

 

Carroll, Olum, Thorne and Hawking’s pessimistic views are further supported by another proof by Kay, Radzikowski and Wald (1996) that says essentially that the laws of physics will break down as soon as the time machine is activated. Here’s another quote from Kip Thorne, champion of the wormhole time machine;

‘When we physicists have mastered the laws of quantum gravity (Hawking and I agree), we will very likely discover that chronology is protected: the explosion always does destroy any time machine, when it is first activated.’

 

Hawking himself puts it best when he states his ‘chronology protection conjecture’ at the end of the original article;

‘The laws of physics prevent the appearance of closed time like curves.’

The final kicker is that, even if we can engineer one of these machines, *and* power it, *and* if it actually works, we would only ever be able travel back as far as the moment that the time machine was activated. The movie ‘Primer’ (which is excellent, but rather flawed), gets this right, as does my personal favourite ‘Cronocrimines’, but precious few others do because of the narrative limits that this choice places on events. Ironically perhaps, our single best bet for time travel would be some ‘arbitrarily advanced civilisation’ (as the theoretical physics and philosophy literature tends to call it) having created a time machine for us that we can use. Of course, if they had done so, it would be a long, long way from us, requiring a long, long journey and super-advanced spacecraft of our own to even begin to think about making use of it.

All of this (especially that last point) rules out the Antikythera mechanism as an out-of-place artefact, and in fact all other ‘OOPArts’ and indeed all time-travelling tourists into the bargain. It is all, frankly, bollocks – and makes a mockery of real history. Why is it so hard for us to accept that one person could have achieved something that was within their theoretical ability to produce, and yet so easy to accept something (time travel) that may not even have a theoretical basis? It’s pretty depressing. We even have other evidence for advanced technology of this sort from the period, notably that made by Archimedes. It’s not as though this thing was beyond the ancients either conceptually or technically. Even the superficially modern-looking gears have been shown to be made using hand tools. Although I suppose that wouldn’t rule out a ‘time traveller’ teaching ancient people how to make geared mechanisms, without having access to steam or electrical power. But why not foot or animal-powered machinery? For that matter, why no future metallurgy (the mechanism is wholly copper alloy and wood)? Why no actual (say) 19th century clock buried in some ancient stratigraphy? Why is the mechanism manually operated and not spring-powered? Why not teach them how to make screws? Why are there no out of place personal effects from whoever taught them? There’s no actual evidence of time travel here, just a piece of technology that they COULD, in fact, have made without any future knowledge? To quote from the article linked above; ‘The surviving features of the Antikythera Mechanism, particularly the lunar anomaly mechanism, support the idea that our proposed planetary mechanisms were within the engineering capacity of the makers of the Antikythera Mechanism—but only just.’ That article does a great job of explaining the astronomical/astrological functions of the mechanism, as does this superb lecture from former Science Museum curator Michael Wright (there’s a short explanation from him here, although it’s very low res). See also this Skeptoid podcast. In another blow to the idea that it could only have been made with future knowledge, all of it is also consistent with what we know of ancient Greek knowledge – there is nothing there that we didn’t already know that they knew. The mechanism has been thoroughly studied by actual academics since the 1950s, initially culminating in the article ‘Gears from the Greeks. The Antikythera Mechanism: A Calendar Computer from ca. 80 B. C.’ by Derek de Solla Price (Transactions of the American Philosophical Society Vol. 64, No. 7 (1974), pp. 1-70). Needless to say, none of the many people who have seriously studied the thing think that it is beyond the capabilities of the ancient Greeks.

Regardless, the mechanism remains an absolutely wonderful feat of engineering and craftsmanship. No doubt something similar will come to light in the future, only to be dismissed by cretins as proof of time travel rather than of the long tradition of human ingenuity.

So there you are – Doc Brown was, unfortunately, a quack.

Where’s She Hiding the Flux Capacitor?

Must be a Roman’ SIM card…amirite?

This has to be the weakest attempt at viral self-promotion I have ever seen (if you’re using Chrome the embedding doesn’t work – see the Youtube video itself instead). The daftie narrating the video (complete with full name and plenty of face-time) shows a clip from a 1928 Charlie Chaplin movie showing a woman walking in the background with her hand held up to the side of her head. She also appears to speak at one point.

It’s a textbook argument from incredulity. Because “nobody can give [him] an explanation”, he’s decided that the woman (or is it a man – nothing like insulting long-dead strangers) is a time traveller. Here’s his intro to the video;

“This short film is about a piece of footage I (George Clarke) found behind the scenes in Charlie Chaplins film ‘The Circus’. Attending the premiere at Manns Chinese Theatre in Hollywood, CA – the scene shows a large woman dressed in black with a hat hiding most of her face, with what can only be described as a mobile phone device – talking as she walks alone.

I have studied this film for over a year now – showing it to over 100 people and at a film festival, yet no-one can give any explanation as to what she is doing.

My only theory – as well as many others – is simple… a time traveler on a mobile phone. See for yourself and feel free to leave a comment on your own explanation or thoughts about it.”

Leaving aside that by his own admission, this was a DVD special feature – not some lost piece of film he “found”, there is so much wrong with this conclusion that I barely know where to start. The sheer stupidity of the claim, plus the fact that he has short films to promote, makes me hope that this really is just a cynical piece of marketing. I do wonder though that he hasn’t convinced himself on some level that he really believes it. The phrase on the header of the page;

‘Imagination is more important than knowledge.’

…is pretty frightening. Imagination is vital in my opinion, but knowledge is sacred.

I’ll just list a few of the reasons why this video is BS:

  • How would a mobile or any other type of wireless communications device FUNCTION in a past where no network infrastructure (or orbiting satellite) exists?
  • Why would an otherwise flawlessly period-clad ‘time traveller’ draw attention to his/her self by speaking into an obviously out-of-place device?
  • Why does the gentleman in front of her not react to this behaviour?
  • If we assume from the woman’s dress that she’s intending to blend in, why would she make her anachronistic phonecall whilst walking down a street, oblivious to the bloody great old school film crew across the way? Why walk though the middle of a movie premiere?
  • Why would they make use of a hand-held phone? Why not a hands-free set or Bluetooth headset?
  • The mobile phone he describes is an object of the first decade of the 21st century. As time travel has yet to be invented or even theorised, we have to assume that a time traveller is from the far future. Why the hell would they be using a device like that? There is no reason to suspect that communications devices will remain in the format, size, and mode of operation of an iPhone. If anything we’ve seen them grow in size in the last five years.

So, if it’s not a cellphone, why would an old woman be holding any palm-sized device to her head (if, indeed, she’s holding anything)? One excellent suggestion from the Youtube comments is this little beauty. Exactly the sort of item that this guy discounted out of hand in his video – an ear trumpet. But not the stereotypical ‘Allo Allo’ musical-instrument shaped ear trumpet, but a more high-tech and portable device. There are many other possibilities, but this is the most elegant solution. And it doesn’t necessitate the abandonment of science as we know it.

Some commenters on Youtube have objected that one would not talk into what is effectively a hearing aid. One obvious, obvious answer, You Tubes, is that she’s talking to someone out of shot. The very fact that she’s using the aid suggests that she’s trying to hear something further away. Or perhaps she’s just mumbling to herself? Or, since we’ve already accused her of looking like a man, could she not be a bit of a mentalist?

Even if this really were ‘unexplainable’ – why on earth jump to the conclusion that we’re watching a time traveller? It’s utterly unsupportable and runs counter to everything we know about history and science. But it does get you a lot of hits on your Youtube channel, and a lot of visits to your website where you are coincidentally pimping your own filmmaking efforts.

There but for the grace of God(dard)…

People who subscribe to alternative views of history, or for that matter anything generally thought of as “paranormal”, are often regarded as gullible or stupid. In fact the human mind and senses are highly fallible, and without critical thinking skills literally anyone can end up “drinking the kool-aid“. Teachers, academics, presidents, the CIA and British Intelligence have all bought into baseless ideas that are no more valid than the bloke down the pub who swears that dogs can’t look up, yet seem to make perfect sense to them at the time.

And the rest of us in turn, because of our respect and admiration for authority figures and professional people in general, are more likely to sit up and take notice. But this is fallacious reasoning, and to argue that something contrary to established knowledge might be genuine solely on this basis is to appeal to false authority. We should be just as sceptical about claims made by authority figures, and this does not require that we belittle their recognised achievements in their respective fields.

Flight into the Future!
With this in mind, let me relate the story of Air Marshal Sir Robert Victor Goddard, Royal Air Force. With a distinguished military career and a knighthood behind him, it will have come as a surprise to many in 1975 when he claimed in his autobiographical book ‘Flight Towards Reality’ that he had travelled in time [edit – June 2021, thanks to Sarah for pointing out that the tale originates in the book, not the earlier newspaper article (later a movie) ‘The Night My Number Came Up’]. The story goes that in 1935, his Hawker Hart light bomber encountered a storm somewhere above an abandoned RAF airfield near Edinburgh, later re-activated as Drem. Goddard saw yellow-painted aircraft and a modern monoplane; neither of which were then in RAF service. The mechanics he could see were wearing blue coveralls instead of the RAF brown de rigeur in 1935. The dilapidated buildings had been renovated and more constructed. The implication of these apparent discrepancies is that Goddard had been propelled forward in time by around four year, as by 1939 the airfield would have been populated with the yellow-painted Hawker Harts (by now relegated to training duties) and Airspeed Oxford monoplanes of 13 Flying Training School.

The Evidence
This, like many paranormal claims, is rather difficult to explain if taken on face value. We have no idea how closely this version of events corresponds with what actually happened that day, and not because of any deceit on Goddard’s part. Without doubt he believed what he was writing; it was completely real to him, and he lived through the events in question. Why even question the word of an honourable military professional? Well, like all of us, he was fallible, and his impeccable credentials did not qualify or prepare him to deal with paranormal experiences. In addition, the stakes here are high, and so must our standard of evidence be. If what’s described really happened, it has earth-shattering implications for the way we understand the universe. No evidence of time-travel, nor even a theoretical basis for it has been found.

Unfortunately, no corroborating reports were made of a swirling vortex appearing in the Firth of Forth, and no physical evidence generated. We have only Goddard’s anecdotal account to go on, and I have to note that this was written sixteen and then forty years after the fact (the article, then the book). The possible (but more boring) explanations are myriad; he may have misremembered the year of the incident or aspects of what he saw on the ground at the time. Both seem unlikely for a trained military pilot, but the post hoc construction or modification of memories is a very real issue for psychologists and oral historians. Rather more likely, given the elapsed time between incident and report is that he misinterpreted what he saw on the ground.

The three Avro 504N trainers Goddard specifies had ironically been replaced in RAF service by 1935; 13 FTS certainly didn’t operate them, yellow or no. The other aircraft, the “high-tech” monoplane, was a configuration as old as the biplane. Flight testing of the new breed, including the famous Hawker Hurricane was underway that very year. Goddard later supposed that he saw a Miles Magister trainer, which first flew in 1937, but the first Miles monoplane was airborne in 1933. Nonetheless, it is admittedly unlikely that any of these aircraft, anachronistic or not, could have been parked at Gullane/Drem in 1935; though not “completely useless as an airfield” as one source puts it, it was essentially disused.

A Rational Explanation
My own offered scenario is that after the blind-flying and violent manoeuvring brought on by he storm, Goddard was seriously disorientated and ended up above a completely different aerodrome. Air navigation in the 1930s was still achieved by dead reckoning; map and compass, and required that landmarks were a) visible, and b) correctly identified. Otherwise one could very quickly end up way off course. If Goddard wasn’t over Drem, where was he? The most likely candidate for me is Renfrew Aerodrome, then home to the Scottish Flying Club. Not only did the club make use of Avro 504s, but other civil aircraft were regular visitors. Many of these would have been brightly coloured, and monoplanes were in common use. In fact an antecedent of the Magister Goddard thought he saw was photographed at Renfrew that very year. From the air they would have been indistinguishable. And as maintenance staff were civilians, the objection to prematurely blue RAF overalls would no longer apply. Although Renfrew is on the wrong side of the country (70 miles away from Drem), such a deviation in course is far from impossible in a 400-mile cross-country journey like Goddard’s. Though somewhat unlikely in ordinary circumstances, I would venture that this version of events is nonetheless rather more likely than the physics-defying mid-air appearance of a door into the future.Because of the credibility lent to Goddard’s story by his service history and status, it continues to be occasionally and uncritically reported, most recently in a wholly credulous article in the Scottish local magazine “East Lothian Life”. The events even made it onto the big screen in a 1955 film starring Michael Redgrave and Denholm Elliott, and just might have inspired the fantastically poor 1980s time-travel film, “The Final Countdown“. (Worth a look to see F-14 Tomcat jets dogfighting with Second World War aeroplanes).

A bonus ghost story…
After leaving the RAF and writing about his hair-raising flight, Goddard went on to be a noted figure in the UFO community, coining the term “Ufology“. He’s also supposed to have taken a photograph of a ghost. Given the obvious similarity to the chap next to him save for the service cap, the most likely explanation for this is a simple double exposure on a relatively primitive camera. Having realised he was not wearing his cap (the “ghost” is bare-headed), he replaced his cap after the photographer had already opened his shutter and before the plate was fully exposed (several seconds). The effect was fully understood, and used to create amusing images.

What can we learn from the experiences of people like Goddard? That even the most intelligent, professional, reliable, capable and rational people can in the right circumstances lapse into magical thinking. By learning about critical thought and scepticism we can strive to avoid this, whatever our professional and personal backgrounds.