Sunday, September 27, 2009

Teaching People in the Past

Recently, Matsby wrote about how much he disliked Quantum Leap, largely because of times when they wouldn't stick to their own rules. Love it or hate it, at least the show got people thinking and talking about the possibilities of time travel.

For example, in one episode Sam Beckett teaches the song "Peggy Sue" to Buddy Holly. But when you think about it, the only way that Sam Beckett could know the song is if Buddy Holly came up with it on his own. If the only reason Buddy Holly knew the song "Peggy Sue" was because Sam Beckett traveled back in time to teach it to him, and Sam Beckett couldn't know the song unless Buddy Holly created it on his own, then the song should never exist.

Maybe Buddy Holly came up with the song on his own, but later in life. That means that Sam Beckett's time travel just meant that Buddy Holly came up with the song earlier.

It reminds me of Star Trek IV, where the Enterprise has traveled back to the 1980s to bring some whales to the future. To get them out of a jam, Chief Engineer Montgomery Scott (aka Scotty) gives the formula for "Transparent Aluminum" to some scientist. The formula for transparent aluminum wasn't discovered until far into the future.

When Dr. McCoy (aka Bones) chastized Scotty for giving away the formula and potentially messing with the timelines, Scotty said "How do you know he didn't invent the thing?" Dr. McCoy seems satisfied with Scotty's answer and they carry on with presumably no tangible effect on the timeline.

What Scotty doesn't realise is that if that guy actually was the guy to invent transparent aluminum, then we have the same sort of paradox: that guy couldn't have invented it unless Scotty gave it to him, but of course Scotty wouldn't know the formula itself unless that scientist had invented it on his own. Transparent Aluminum couldn't exist.

The only way to avoid the paradox is if that scientist did invent it on his own, but later on, so Scotty just helped him invent it earlier. Or if some other scientist had invented it in the original timeline, but in this new timeline he doesn't bother because it was already invented. In this case, it was only "invented" because Scotty gave it to the first scientist, making yet another paradox.

If this isn't a paradox, then you could essentially create anything - anything at all! Go back to the past and teach an inventor how to create something, and then it'll be created, giving you the knowledge to give it to the inventor. In fact, you could even use this to invent the time machine itself.

I guess in the end what I'm saying is that if you ever travel to the past, don't teach anyone anything.


Matsby said...

Yeah, it's called an Ontological Paradox. I was just thinking of writing a post about this, so this post is perfect.

Essentially a time loop created making it so there's a question about the true origin of the thing.

It's one of those things in Time travel stories that drives me crazy. Grandfather Paradox? Fine. But Ontological Paradox - kind of bugs me.

brian said...

but you could think about it like distant future events that actualize the only past event that then leads back to this same future

Miss Tree said...

A similar event takes place in the Doctor Who children in need special (check it out, youtube) where the Doctor meets a past version of himself, and is able to prevent an explosion in a very complicated way. Of course, he did not work it out on the spur of the moment, or in advance, but the past version of himself had simply remembered what he had done/was going to do. Paradox!