Time Travel Thoughts

I’ve been bugged by a quote bouncing around in my head for the last few days: “The second hand always moves forward.”

I think a head coach for a college basketball team said that several times in the heat of the last period of a game (maybe March Madness, I don’t know) about 8 or so years ago. I’m not sure why I’m preoccupied by this lately. I googled the statement “The second hand always moves forward” and could only find stories which tended to contradict it, at least when it comes to actual clocks.

Sometimes second hands don’t always move forward. Sometimes they get stuck or even tick backward. I’ve never heard of that.

That led to thoughts about my own experience of time and how it has changed over the last several months since I retired. I often sense time moving faster forward than I’d like. I guess that makes some sense because I’m not getting any younger. I think of a TV commercial which uses a song sung in French. I finally looked it up on the internet and it turns out the tune was originally done by Edith Piaf. In English, the title of the song is “No Regrets.”

I have some regrets and I marvel at anyone who doesn’t. But I never get a sense of time moving backward.

Anyhow, this led to wondering about time itself, specifically about time travel, which makes sense in the context of regrets. I don’t wallow in regret but like anybody I occasionally wonder what it would be like if I could time travel back into the past and do things differently.

Time travel is a confusing subject and I don’t understand any of the physics behind it. The paradoxes of time travel are interesting, though. I read a few articles on line about them. One entitled “5 Bizarre Paradoxes of Time Travel Explained” by Peter Christoforu on the web site Astronomy Trek made the subject fun and somewhat more accessible to me.

I thought about the time travel element in the movie Men in Black 3. Agent J travels back in time to kill the young Boris the Animal before the older Boris can kill Agent K and lead an invasion of earth in the future. If I understand Christoforu correctly, this might be an example of the Let’s Kill Hitler Paradox. If Agent J is successful, then he wouldn’t have a reason to return to the past in the first place. But Men in Black 3 probably treats the time travel idea in a farcical way, just like its farcical treatment of the whole idea of aliens.

Christoforu described a story which rang a bell. It’s toward the end of the article under the section heading “Are Time Paradoxes Inevitable?” The story is about a paleontologist who time travels back to the dinosaur era to shoot pictures of the giant reptiles. He doesn’t take any samples because it would likely alter the future. When the scientist returns to his own time, everything has changed. There are no humans and the world is wild. He can’t understand why until he looks at the bottom of his shoe, on which there is a crushed butterfly.

The reason this interested me is that there is a very similar story, published in 1952 by Ray Bradbury, entitled “A Sound of Thunder.” It was about a big game hunter who hired a safari company guide who used a time travel device to carry them back to the days of dinosaurs. Before departing, items in the agency displayed signs in English with typical English spelling. The hunter, although he was allowed to try to kill a dinosaur, was told not to touch anything else. However, on return, the agency was different. The signs showed dramatically different spelling, not typical English at all. On the bottom of the hunter’s shoe was a dead butterfly.

Anyway, I gather the main idea, according to Christoforu, rests on something called the Butterfly Effect, in which trivial changes can cause dramatic upheaval over the course of history.

I saw this on TV as well, maybe it was The Ray Bradbury Theater. That aired in 1989. It was made into a film in 2005, which did poorly and which I didn’t see.

The point is that you can do a lot of harm by interfering, even a little bit, with the past. Maybe it’s not so bad being without a time machine and believing that the second hand always moves forward.

Author: James Amos

I'm a retired consult-liaison psychiatrist. I navigated the path in a phased retirement program through the hospital where I was employed. I was fully retired as of June 30, 2020. This blog chronicles my journey.

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