What is it?
I need to travel several days into the past to avert a terrible calamity!
I get it. Say no more.
Have you been getting a lot of these with the election?
So you can help? You can send me back to stop this?
Well, maybe. I know we've messed around with time travel before.
Also this time.
One of my favorites. But in those cases, we kind of glossed over just how scientifically improbable time travel actually is.
Come on. People travel through time all the ... time.
In fiction, sure. But that's because writers are astounding hacks. If you actually look at the way time travel is presented in most stories, you can see how ridiculous it is. People accelerating unpopular cars up to a modestly high speed. Falling down clock-lined wormholes. Haunted fortune-telling machines. All preposterous. You might as well mash some plutonium into a VCR and hit rewind.
Where the f**k is someone supposed to get a VCR?
Exactly! There's just no conceivable mechanism for travelling back in time that we can come up with which passes even a basic sniff test. "Something something wormhole" is literally the most plausible method we've got.
OK. So let's knock together a wormhole.
As insanely difficult as that might be, it still might be the easy part.
What are you assuming will happen if you go back and change the past?
I'll save the world?
OK. But if the world was saved, would you still go back in time to save it?
You're talking about paradoxes.
Yeah. That's the classic problem with time travel: Either it's logically impossible, or results in all of reality exploding into stopwatches or something. There is one possible way around that, whereby in traveling back in the past and changing it, you end up in an alternate universe. But that just means the new universe you're in is good, while the crappy one you just left remains doomed.
Yeah. Nice work, idiot.
Another unsatisfying solution to the paradox issue is that you might travel back into the past and find that you can't change anything at all. Maybe it's because everyone ignores your prophecies, like some modern-day Cassandra. Or maybe it's just that everything you do only reinforces the event you're trying to stop.
Wouldn't that imply the Universe fated this to happen?
Maybe? Oh! Here's another problem: Maybe you've already done it. Maybe you've already traveled back in time and fixed things, and this is the good future.
There's no way this is the good future.
How could you know? I know you're all bound up in the horror of what just happened, but is it possible something worse could come about? What if you went back in time to kill Hitler, and that left the door open for some even worse dude to destroy the world in his place?
But this future sucks!
There are worse ones out there, certainly. But let's be fair, there are better ones available as well. Which brings us to the greatest risk of all.
You know, I've never actually seen that.
Neither have I. I just think about it every day.
So what's the problem with timecops, then?
Let's assume time travel is an actual thing, and we slingshot you around the Sun or whatever into the distant past of early November, and you actually affect the flow of past events, thus changing the present. That would change the future as well. The implications of that are huge. Just as an example, it might potentially make someone suddenly not exist.
Those people in the future have a vested interest in it not changing. If you have a time machine, then they almost certainly will as well, and will have every incentive to send Belgian martial artists into the past to stop you.
Well this sounds hopeless.
It's not. We just have to stop using fictional methods, and go straight for the hardest science there is.
Is ... is it love?
It's not love. It's special relativity. By travelling at a very high speed -- as close to the speed of light as you can -- you will experience time dilation. A one-month trip for you could bring you back to Earth after, say, four years have passed.
That sounds like precisely what I need.
OK. Well, the only fuel source which can feasibly make a rocket go that fast is antimatter. Do you have a bunch of antimatter on hand?
Yes, of course.
I want you to be very sure here, because I suspect what you may have there is regular matter. Just touch it for me. Run your fingers through it or something.
Did your hand and also everything within the nearest mile or so explode?
Yeah, that's regular matter. Hmmm.
Doesn't feel like this is going to happen, does it?
Nope. Congratulations, I guess. Having admitted that and accepted the present for what it is, you no longer need to travel several days into the past to avert a calamity. Should you require any further advice, please consult our guide, So You Have To Live Through A Calamity.
Chris Bucholz is a Cracked columnist, and an expert at looking for the easy way out. As the author of the amazing novels Freeze/Thaw and Severance, he thinks you should definitely go buy both of those now. Join him on Facebook or Twitter.
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