Fictional methods of time travel

Fictional methods of time travel are those which are either well beyond our current scientific understanding, or would clearly not work given the boundaries imposed by physical laws.

This page outlines some of the fictional methods found in books and movies featuring time travel.

Fictional methods of time travel:

  • Use of a Flux capacitor
  • Flying around the Earth at high speed
  • Mental time travel

  • The Flux Capacitor (Back to the Future)

    The flux capacitor was the time travel engine used in the time machine in the Back to the Future film trilogy.

    Fictional time travel method: flux capacitor
    Click to enlarge image. Image source:

    Details of the flux capacitor were not disclosed during the movie but we do know that its energy requirement was so great that it needed 1.21 gigwatts of electricity to operate. It was housed in a DeLorean because

    “…if you’re gonna build a time machine into a car, why not do it with some style?” – Dr Emmett Brown, Back to the Future, 1985).

    The graphic to the left is taken from the Back to the Future wiki, and suggests a possible working mechanism for the flux capacitor, though to be honest I think this is pretty far fetched and a piece of fiction in its own right! In short, the flux capacitor is a temporary storage device for the flow of time. Positive energy is converted to negative energy which opens a wormhole which is accessible at exactly 88 mph.

    Still. The flux capacitor has almost become one of the iconic engines of time travel, despite it’s huge energy requirements!

    Flight around the Earth at high speed (Superman)

    In the first of the Superman movies, Superman flies around the Earth (equatorially in a cyclonic direction) at great speed. We see the Earth slow down in its regular sidereal rotation, stop, then start to rotate in the opposite direction, leading us to believe that time is flowing backwards on Earth.

    Fictional time travel method: Superman turns the Earth backwards
    Superman flies around the Earth causing it to spin backwards and reverse time. Image courtesy:

    Indeed, we see that the events which had previously taken place rewind (cars which were in forward motion now drive backwards, dams which had disintegrated reassemble, and crucially for Superman, dead people come back to life). Superman is now able to act so that after he flies around the Earth again in the opposite direction (and the spin of the Earth and the flow of time is restored to normal) an alternative future is played out.

    Well, he is Superman!

    Although Superman was outside the Earth’s atmosphere and flying in space, it is important to note that he is not in orbit. The speed at which he flies is too great for the gravitational acceleration of the Earth to hold him in orbit – he is therefore applying a huge external acceleration to keep him flying around the Earth and not arcing away from it.

    Given the resulting time travel effect, you might wonder whether the Earth has temporarily taken on extra mass, and the time travel arises in a similar way as that which occurs with a tippler cylinder where mass, revolution and time are intrinsically linked. The question is therefore…is the reversal of the Earth’s rotation the cause of the time reversal, or a symptomatic effect of it?

    I believe that in this case the Earth’s mass didn’t increase because we didn’t see any increase in the local gravity which would have otherwise occurred. The mechanics of the time travel are therefore more probably related to the direction of the Earth’s rotation than the more scientifictional tippler cylinder.

    So can objects in fast orbits around massive objects be subjected to time travel? I think the clue is that Superman provided an energy input to circle the Earth, whereas objects held in orbit are purely reactionary.

    Mental mind travel

    Is the passing of time all in the mind? Jack Finney first presented this idea in his (dreadful) book “Time and Again“, and it’s since been used in other pieces of fiction such as “Somewhere in Time” and “The Mindtraveler“.

    The premise is simple – that by altering the state of mind, one can be transported in time. Whether this is physically, or in an unattached ethereal state depends on the fiction – i.e. in the mind (or the imagination) of the writer 🙂

    There is not necessarily a lack of a physical time machine; indeed, the brain could be considered to be the time machine itself, albeit with some mechanical augmentation. Or human evolution (The Map of Time) / genetic mutation (X-Men: Days of Future Past). Or pure self conviction (i.e. self hypnosis).

    Personally, I find using the mind as a time travel method the most realistic, and indeed, quantum jumping may well be a step in this direction! Perhaps in the not so distant future, this entry will move out of the “fictional methods of time travel” section! 🙂

    Some would argue that we are all time travelers as we remember the past, and can plan for the future. According to this research this ability may not be restricted to humans, but also extend to the animal kingdom. Time traveling animals…now there’s an interesting thought!