A decision back in time

Do we have a free will when we make a decision with time travel? Is the past fixed, and the future a set fate or destiny? The linear model of time doesn’t account that knowledge of the future affects the past, when even logic would suggest that is so. Alternative (multidimensional) models, such as those given by quantum mechanics would perform better. The future is yours. So is your history!

A thermodynamic solution

Lightning follows the simplest route through the sky; the path of least (electrical) resistance. A river flows from inland to the coastline in a similar fashion, flowing where hydrodynamic friction is minimal. It costs less energy.

Maybe linear time flows in a similar fashion, following the easiest route, costing the least energy.

Time for lightning!
Does time flow like lightning?

There is an argument that the arrow of time can only move in one direction due to the second law of thermodynamics which says that entropy must always increase or stay the same. Entropy is the degree of disorder; a measure of chaos.

This is to say, that given any process it’s always easier to attain a disordered state than an ordered one. For example, it’s easier to sprinkle sugar into a cup of tea and let it dissolve, than it is to crystallise the sugar back out of the tea and collect the sugar crystals and put them back into the sugar bowl.

What this means in relation to time travel is that time is uni-directional; it can only move in the forwards direction because moving backwards would mean a decrease in entropy and that’s thermodynamically speaking, illegal.

An alternate history

I recently read a discussion on a forum which centered on a couple of members who expressed a wish to go back to their past and change it so that they could relive a new life. I made a comment that changing our past may cause the creation of a new timeline, or a new multiverse where an alternative version of ourself would indeed live a new life…but that the original version of us would still exist and not experience that ‘new’ life.

My comment was followed up with an insightful view on human nature, that “…we have a tendency to “make the same mistakes” over and over”.

When I read that, I wondered whether this is because of the “the past is the past and cannot be changed” nut which cannot be cracked, or whether it’s simply the easiest route to follow.

“An easy route…”?

It’s easier to fall with gravity than it is to climb against it. It takes less energy; it’s the easiest path, or ‘decision’.

Why do we make a certain decision? We take factors into consideration, weigh them up and make a decision based on the information at hand.

Even though the decision itself may be difficult (or following through with it), the answer is essentially the ‘easiest’ path to follow because it’s the outcome after the factors have been weighed and measured. By definition, it’s the correct solution, simply because it’s the outcome of the decision making process, whether it’s been made with our head or with our heart.

The easiest route for one person may not be easy for someone else.

Here’s an example. What shape fits into a round hole? Circle, square or triangle?

There’s an expression that “you can’t fit a square peg into a round hole”. So we’d say a circle.

And this is what we teach our children. At the same time, they might find it easiest to hold the sides of a triangle or a star rather than a smooth circle, and wedge that into the hole. They choose the easiest solution for themselves.

A case for free will?

Dr Cox said that time travel is like finding a teapot in orbit around Venus. There’s nothing in the laws of physics to prevent it, it’s just extremely unlikely.

This is sounding statistical!

On a statistical footing, Stephen Hawkins in his book The Grand Design puts forward the idea that on a physical and chemical basis, there is a pre-known outcome in every decision. Momentum, energy, pathways, velocities and reactions etc. of the atoms, molecules and neurons in our brain all follow a prescribed – and therefore predictable – course. Thus, every choice we make has an inevitable outcome. It’s already been made.

In reality, there are so many billions of factors and environments (i.e. variables in the ‘decision equation’) as well as the sheer multitude of combinations and permutations, that effectively a decision cannot be reasonably predicted – and so we lump them all up and call it “free will”.

But free will can be dealt with on a semi-statistical / empirical basis. For example, it’s more likely that a vegetarian will choose to eat a salad for dinner tonight than a roast chicken. The vegetarian has a free will, but we can predict his answer reasonably well.

But let’s say that the lettuce is teeming with disease-ridden caterpillars. The vegetarian wants to go back and inform his younger self to stay clear of the lettuce.

Would his going back in time, armed with this new information gleaned from hindsight (or foresight, in this case) alter the original decision and allow for a new history (and self) to be created?

How likely is it the vegetarian would choose the chicken? Or would he still go for the salad but try to pick out the caterpillars? After all, he is a vegetarian. (And please note, I’m not saying here that vegetarianism is a wrong decision).

In these posts about the importance of history (Part 1 | Part 2) I pointed out how knowledge of the past can significantly affect how we might choose to behave in the present.

decision making with time travel
Do we have a free will when making a decision with time travel?

Knowledge of the history can and does affect the present and the future. These states in time are not wholly independent from each other, they’re cross related…which can be difficult to describe in a linear model of time.

Likewise, the idea that knowledge of the future affects the past wouldn’t fit into the linear model well either. This misfit is the ontological paradox, yet it wouldn’t exist in a multidimensional model of time, such as could be afforded through a quantum description.

Quantum mechanics turns the linear model on its head. The set laws of classical physics don’t apply when it comes to quantum scales so it might not be the case that every particle is predictable. A quantum particle can exist simultaneously in two states, in two places and at two times, for example. It gives Schrodinger’s cat a fighting chance.

The ‘easiest’ solution, then, now operates on more dimensions than the linear time line. Predictability is thrown out of the window and into orbit around Venus with its friend, the teapot.

Free will triumphs. And time travel? It’s looking like it will open up the opportunity for alternate histories and futures which may well have already played out. The past need not be set, and the future need not be predefined as our destiny or fate.

The future is yours…so is your history! Go grab them!


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Is energy released in time travel?

A huge obstacle in time travel is the vast amounts of energy needed to power it. What if we could borrow and pay back energy by moving it through time?

A thermodynamic conundrum

One of the biggest obstacles in time travel is summoning the vast amounts of energy required to power it. I’ve often wondered whether we could use the energy from one time and return it in another during the time travel expedition the same way as we move physical objects around according to our transient desires.

So far it would seem not; the laws of thermodynamics mean that there cannot be a creation (or destruction) of energy and moving it from one time to another (forwards or backwards) is essentially the same thing (removing it from one time is ‘destruction’ and replacing it in another time is ‘creation’).

Looking at it another way, does time travel imply that there is a creation or destruction of energy? Perhaps thermodynamics hints at the importance of direction, at least in the temporal field.

A matter of direction

Most of us have probably heard about the direction of time, or time’s arrow. In these cases the direction is linear, that is to say, forwards, backwards or if we’re being creative, sideways.

Equally creative, but perhaps more conventional given the motion of hands on a clock, have we ever considered a rotational direction of time?

Image courtesy: Google images.
Image courtesy: Google images.

In H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine (or was it that b***dy Baxter’s The Time Ships), the Time Traveller talks of a twisting of the spatial and temporal dimensions so that all 4 dimensions are transposed and travelling through time could be done so as easily as easily as travelling through space. Give or take a bit of nausea.

(Yes, it was Baxter. I remember now; he [appears to have] nicked the idea of rotating of the 4 dimensions (and inducing sickness from centrifugal and Coriolis forces from Poul Anderson, or at least the rotational aspect from Michael Moorcock’s Flux. )

It seems to me that if we’re going to play about with thought experiments and how time moves (or at least, how we move through an otherwise static time), then we should at least pay a bit of homage to the idea that it might twirl about!

Indirectly, my wife and I recently had a conversation which lead to these kind of musings.

I’ll say upfront that the conversation wasn’t directly related to time travel or even about time…but it did involve a clock. Note the manly pink colour, but please recall that I am a father of 2 daughters!

Rotated clock
Does time have a rotational direction? 10 o’çlock, 1 o’çlock or quarter past?

A few nights ago my wife exclaimed surprise that the bedside clock still worked even when the battery is put in with the knobbly bit on the wrong way reversed polarity. “Even the light comes on!”

Why wouldn’t it? In a general and simple electrical case (e.g. one without diodes), it’s not the direction of flow of electricity that makes light light or clocks tick (that’s an expression…digital ones don’t!) – rather, it’s the flow itself.

[Aside: an economist friend of mine once told me that the value of money is unimportant – it’s that it changes hands. Not spending a million dollars is the same as not spending 1 dollar. Movement, or flow, of money is important…though in this case the direction is important too…we’d rather receive a million dollars than part with it!]

My wife (who I should add, didn’t marry me for my money!) said that given all the warnings in the instruction manual about taking care to observe the correct polarity, she’d expected the clock to simply not work. Or blow up spectacularly.

At the very least, that it might run backwards.

Whilst this wouldn’t explain the workings of Edward Page Mitchell’s The Clock that went Backwards (which was a wind up Grandfather clock), the comment did lead to the usual cart-before-the-horse question: was our hypothetically backward running pink clock marking a backward motion of time, or was it actually driving it?

And if I can milk the driving metaphor, was our reverse polar battery the equivalent of the flux capacitor in the Back to the Future DeLorean time machine?

Now that the horse is well and truly trailing the cart, my wife and I turned to thinking about the local effect of a backward trip in time. As local as the battery squeezed in its compartment with the knobble against the spring.

In the usual case, the battery discharges and powers the clock. The corollary, if we’re going back in time, is that the battery is now charging – electricity is coming out of the clock and into the battery.

But if the battery isn’t discharging, then it can’t be powering the clock to drive the time backwards, and that means it should be discharging. We have the classic Grandfather Paradox…nullifying our speculative thought experiment!

Well! Paradoxes such as these are common place in time travel, so perhaps we’re on the right track…

But something else is at odds here – power is required to push time forwards (or to maintain it’s ambient rate of natural progression), and now it looks like energy is released in time travel when we go backwards!

This sounds counter-intuitive, but I wonder if it’s something else entirely…I think the clue is in the battery not being charged but recharged – the energy it spent in pushing time forwards is now being paid back.

It’s a subtle difference, but this idea of a return can be taken further in the case of time itself in that it’s not a backward motion of time but a return to some state of equilibrium, like an aeroplane doesn’t expend energy to fly downwards, but returns to the ground and gives up energy doing so.

This seems to be more in line with thermodynamic principles where energy is required to bring order and expended to return to chaos, and indeed…we have a battery with increasing energy.

A reversal of time is an increase in order(!)…the matter of the universe, going back in time, will become more ordered. Perhaps, into a singularity rather than an expanding universe.

So what’s all this got to do with rotational time?

Well OK, you got me! Clock hands rotating the wrong way doesn’t signify a rotational time direction any more than a digital clock counting backwards signifies time going backwards. Does it?

Maybe we’ll never know. If time is going (or rotating) backwards now how would we know? It would be normal to us; the definition of a direction would be a matter of convention.

I can’t help thinking though, that a time might introduce some twirling about, some seemingly random changes in direction, or loops or somersaults to avoid those pesky time travel paradoxes we’d have with a linear motion in time. And it would be a much cleaner solution that just making up a new multiverse to get out of the conundrum.

Don’t you think?

Well, we’ve talked and thunk ourselves into a tighter and ever decreasing circle, and like the Time Traveller, probably feeling quite dizzy and nauseous from it!


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