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You have 2 time travels: Choose wisely
Jan 13, 2009, 8:37p - Imagination

If you could travel to any 2 points in time, to where and when would you go?

This question popped into my mind as I was wandering the snow-cleared paths of MIT today. I had taken a break from my lab to contemplate the fine points of associative and non-associative learning (with little luck), when I saw a few plump squirrels ambling through the snow. It was freakin' cold and I was all bundled up, and here were these furry creatures wandering around and climbing trees, naked as the day they were born. Of course they have fur and we don't, but why did we lose our fur? Or did we even have any to start with? When did humans (or some other species) first start wearing clothes? Wouldn't it be cool to answer that question just by hopping back in time and taking a look?

Then "pop", the idea for this little time travel game came into my head.

At first, it seemed sort of trivial. We've all watched too many time travel movies (the Back to the Future trilogy, Terminator series, and the classic Time Machine, just to name a few), but have we ever really considered the possibility? This is more of a thought experiment, an exercise in imagination, yet one that may reveal a whole lot about a person's interests and character. Think of it like you're rubbing the magic lamp and getting 3 wishes, except here you rub the magical clock and get 2 time travels.

The basic rule of the game is this: You can travel to any 2 points in space and time. All you need to specify is the date and location (think universal GPS coordinates). You can travel to the future, or you can travel to the past. You can travel to other planets, but if you die when you get there, sorry (you aren't invincible, you're just the same as you are now). You can only take your magical clock, the clothes on your back, and as much as you can carry. When you travel to a time point, you can stay there as long as you want, and time will move forward as usual.

To make this more than just your standard time travel game, here are some things you can't do:
  1. You can't change anything in the current past or current future, but you can change things in present time based on your knowledge of the current past and current future. For example, you can't go to Dallas on the day of JFK's assassination and stop the assassination, since all of this has already happened. But you can go to the future, find out the right answers for a test, and come back and ace the test. This simplifies away a bunch of time travel paradoxes, and focuses you on one of the key themes: observation.

  2. You can't specify an event (e.g. the end of the world, the return of the messiah). All you can specify is a date and a location. You can look up an event in a history book and specify the date, but if the history book happens to be wrong, sorry, you've used up 1 of your time travels. You could travel to a point far in the future, look up an event in their history books, and then travel to that point. This would use up both your time travels.

  3. You don't have to use up both time travels. If you just want to travel to 1 time point and live the rest of your life there, that's fine.

  4. You don't have to travel in time. If you just want to space travel to the closet of your current crush, so you can watch them in their sleep, that's fine too.

So to where and when would you go?

Maybe you would go to your own death? You could time travel 150 years into the future, and with some work track down the time and place of your death. You could then use this information to avoid your own death (e.g. avoid getting on the plane) or living a healthier life (e.g. getting that cancer screen done a few years earlier).

Or maybe you're a history buff, and you want to be there when the American Revolution gets started. You could whisk back to the ride of Paul Revere and watch history unfold.

Or maybe you want to check out the life of Jesus, so you go back to Bethlehem and begin stalking him from the moment he's born. Better yet, you go back 9 months to see if Mary truly was a virgin. You could be there when Jesus walks on water, feeds the crowds with 2 loaves of bread, and the countless other miracles the Bible says he performed. You could watch his crucifixion, and then wait at the cave to see if he comes back to life. You could take your digital camera, snap a bunch of pictures and videos, then bring them back for the world to see what actually happened (whatever that might be). Maybe pluck a hair sample for DNA sequencing when I got back. Pretty cool.

Or maybe you would want to go back to the age of dinosaurs, to admire those magnificent extinct beasts. Or maybe you'd go back to the time before humans wore clothes, and figure out why the hell we started. Or the time when humans were about to evolve, observing the various hominid-like species, Neanderthals and the like, and seeing which one wins out in the end. These trips would be somewhat risky, as you don't have an exact time to go to, and the movement of the earth's plates might swipe out the ground beneath your GPS' feet. But depending on your risk persuasion, they might be worth it. You also just have your life to live - if you go back in time and stay for awhile, you'll probably end up living a shorter life, what with no medicine and all.

But why be so exotic? Perhaps you'd rather go to the future, watch the stock market prices or sports game results, then come back and make a ton of money? Here again there wouldn't exactly be a guarantee, as your investments might perturb the market so that the future isn't the one you observed it to be. But small investments here and there are likely to pay off.

Or maybe you're a romantic, and you want to be there when your parents first meet, just to see how it all unfolds?

I think one question in particular is significant: Would you come back to present day? Or would you rather live your life in a whole new time or place?

I guess it depends on how far in time and space my first time travel took me. If it was far from here, I suspect that I would come back, as I didn't really enjoy living in Japan for 9 months or spending a month in survival school. I usually end up getting far too lonely, being in such a foreign place.

I think the Jesus idea is what I would go for, though just for the later part of his life that the Bible talks about. Wouldn't want to spend 30 years and lose all that time here in my present life. One thing, though, is that I'm so skeptical of the Bible that if I saw that it was all a hoax I might just feel like I had wasted my magical clock. But maybe it would be worth it if I could share it all with the world in the end.

How would you use your magical clock?

Read comments (3) - Comment

anonymous - Jan 21, 2009, 6:41p
i would like to travel back to time before the universe was created..

nikhil - Jan 21, 2009, 7:18p
ahh... but where would you land? what would be your GPS coordinates? if your GPS coords didn't exist at that point in time, i'm not sure you'd be able to successfully travel to then..

Basil Rush - Dec 21, 2009, 12:57p
Forwards definitely to start with, then perhaps backwards to take corrective action if forwards scared me.

I'd love to know what happens to us all in a thousand years time. Whether we survive another ice-age, whether we ever understand that elegans worm properly let alone develop some strong-AI.

I'm not sure I'd spend much time researching what happens to little old me. Though if I end up in the future and there's some way of extending my life further I suspect I'd have to take the opportunity.

Now the grid reference and exact date are going to take some serious consideration.

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