Studio 360: The Science and Fiction of Time Travel

Time travel as a scientific concept has been with us at least since the 19th century publication of H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine. But is it a real possibility? And how plausible are fictional portrayals of it? Kurt Andersen, host of the radio show Studio 360, interviewed science writer Dave Goldberg and science fiction writer Connie Willis about time travel in fiction, in film, and in real life, in a live-to-tape show at WNYC’s Greene Performance Space on Tuesday night.

Although Willis and Goldberg were the major draws, the show also featured a few other acts. Grammy Award-nominated singer Janelle Monáe performed four energetic and heavily choreographed songs, including some from her 2008 album Metropolis: The Chase Suite. Monologist Mike Daisey came to us as a visitor from “quite some time in the future,” and answered audience questions about the technology that was, he told us, now ubiquitous, from the ending of the TV show Lost to the grandfather paradox. (“Who does that?” he exclaimed. “Who goes back in time and kills their grandfather? People who do that have a way of removing themselves from the gene pool.”)

But this event was particularly exciting for me because of the two writers. I’m lucky enough to work with Goldberg in my day job and I’ve been a big fan of Willis’s writing since I was a teenager. Both have time travel-related books coming out in early 2010: Goldberg’s A User’s Guide to the Universe, with co-author Jeff Blomquist, and Willis’s Blackout, her first novel since the Hugo and Nebula Award-nominated Passage.

Goldberg is an associate professor of physics at Drexel University, and his upcoming A User’s Guide to the Universe is an irreverent overview of popular questions about physics. According to Goldberg, time travel is very much a legitimate field of research in physics. The best model for traveling through time involves wormholes, or holes through time and space. No one’s ever seen one, but it’s possible they could be manufactured. You could anchor one end of a wormhole in time and space, then fly around with the other one for a while before bringing it back to the original location: one end of the wormhole is now in the past and the other in the present.

Is time travel impossible, though, as it’s been imagined in so many books and movies? “Impossible is a very strong word,” said Goldberg. Time travel would require a lot of energy, but “splitting the atom was something that would have seemed impossible” not too long ago for the same reason. Stephen Hawking famously doubts the possibility of time travel, largely because our present isn’t crowded with time tourists from the future. Goldberg pointed out that the wormhole theory of time travel explains this—you couldn’t go back in time to before the time machine was built. Wormholes aside, would it be easier to travel to the future or to the past in a traditional time vehicle? Of course it’s easier to travel to the future, Goldberg said; we’re all doing it all the time.

Connie Willis needs no introduction, but in case you’ve been living under a rock: she’s been publishing science fiction for over three decades and has won multiple Hugo and Nebula awards for both novels and short fiction. Her upcoming duology, Blackout and All Clear, deals with time travel, as do many of her previous works. She thinks she first became interested in time travel because she’s hopelessly neurotic and always rethinking things she’s said or done. It was natural for her to think about going back to the past and “remaking it, redoing it.”

Andersen noted that most early SF features characters traveling to the future, but Willis’s mostly go to the past. “And they travel back in time before the time machine,” she added. So why doesn’t Willis just write historical novels? Because, she said, although she loves the history part, too, a time travel novel is very different from a historical novel. Someone who travels back to the past “instead of just living through it, actually has a perspective on it.”

Willis read a short excerpt from Blackout, which returns to the future world of her novels like Doomsday Book and To Say Nothing of the Dog. Mr. Dunworthy is back, as is Colin from Doomsday Book, now a teenager. Like her Hugo and Nebula Award-winning novelette “Fire Watch,” Blackout and its sequel All Clear will be largely set during the London Blitz of WWII (and Oxford in 2060). Readers beware: Blackout apparently ends on a terrible cliffhanger.

After interviewing them separately, Andersen then had some questions for both the scientist and the science fictionist. In Willis’s novels, time travel is the responsibility of historians, who now study the past by going there. But in real life, who would control time travel? Willis’s answer: “No one. No one is trustworthy enough to handle it.” Goldberg guessed that the inventor of time travel will probably be an insane megalomaniac. As for the time they’d most like visit, Willis’s first love was the London Blitz, which is not much of a surprise to those of us familiar with her work. It’s “an absolutely idiotic thing to say,” she admits, but the time period still enchants her, and she can’t think of any better time to visit. Goldberg, on the other hand, would definitely go to the future, to find out “whether it’s aliens who destroy us in the future, or robots… or just mutants.”

The “grandfather paradox” (can you go back in time and kill your own grandfather?) is a famous one in science fiction, and one that’s been explored in many stories. At the end of the evening, Andersen asked both Willis and Goldberg to explain their solutions to this paradox. Goldberg said that there are two ways to resolve it, “the nice way or the ugly way.” The ugly way is alternate universes: if you go back in time and kill your grandfather before he produces your parent, a separate universe is created in which he dies, although the original universe, in which he lived and you were born, still exists. This solution is “ugly” because there should be no difference between traveling through time and traveling through space. There’s only one physical reality, so there must be just one timeline. The “nice” resolution to the problem? You just can’t do it.

This is the solution Willis uses in her books. Her time-traveling historians have introduced the word “slippage” into our vocabulary: the difference between your intended destination in time and space and where you actually end up. For example, she explains, anyone who tries to go back to Munich in 1938 intending to kill Hitler will just find themselves, say, in London in 1946 instead. Hitler’s effects on the world are too profound for his death not to have an significant effect on the future. (I finally got to ask her a question I’d been wondering about for a while: what if someone intending to kill Hitler just went back to 1928 and waited around ten years? Even then, she told me, the machine just wouldn’t let you do it.) However, Willis hinted that in her new novels, some characters are afraid that they’ve actually changed the future—something assumed to be impossible before this. We’ll have to wait until next year to find out whether they’re right.

The show was taped for broadcast, but the airing date hasn’t yet been announced. You can visit the Studio 360 website for updates.

Over to you, Tor.com readers: if you could go anywhere in time and space, where would it be? Past or future or just last week?


Ellen B. Wright lives in New York, where she works in publishing and takes an excessive number of pictures. If she could travel in time, she’d probably go to next year so she could read Blackout already.

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