On the Impediments to Time Travel ~ an essay by Alyson Woods

Theme statement: Time travel is impossible. Stop even thinking about it!


For the past 140 years, the imagineers of western civilization have dwelled unrealistically on the idea of traveling through time (forward or backward) to observe or even change events. It’s never going to happen. For millennia, in fact, as far back as ancient India, humankind has contemplated the possibility of escaping the procession of hours, days, and years (which is to say escaping mortality), but it hasn’t panned out, has it. You can stop waiting.

Argument No. 1. The most hackneyed time travel story has a modern man (almost always a man) heading back in time with the aid of a machine of some kind to kill Hitler, or some other evil man (almost always a man). We are cautioned by thinkers with too much time on their hands that we must never kill Hitler on a time travel mission because we will unleash unintended consequences that will cause even worse outcomes. It’s hard to imagine worse outcomes than the Holocaust, but let’s say for the sake of argument that there are some. The point is, if you can’t even kill Hitler, why bother going back in time at all?

Argument No. 2. In physics, experts like Stephen Hawking are fairly certain that time travel is impossible. Hawking seems like he knows what he’s talking about, so I’m inclined to trust his spin on all of this. True, quantum mechanics is strange enough to accommodate some far-fetched theories having to do with wormholes and other cosmic anomalies, but where are you supposed to stand, waiting to get picked up by the mouth of some wormhole? And can you tell it where and when you want to travel to? Probably not.

Argument No. 3. Mind-bogglingly, if you were able to travel back in time, you would be leaving the present. That would alter the present, potentially causing unanticipated problems. Matter is neither created nor destroyed, as I understand it, but what happens to your matter if you go back in time and leave the here and now — the only observable level of reality — where matter abides? Is all your stuff still here?

Argument No. 4. We know that time travel isn’t possible now, but if it were to become possible one day, people from the future would have already have dropped in on us. Perhaps they would have an interest in making sure that Donald Trump never becomes president. Well, it happened. If they tried to stop it they failed. Also, to protect themselves, they’d have prevented climate change and global warming by nudging us toward reasonable actions and policies and away from fossil fuels. Global warming is bad for them because it might cause them never to be born, but they must not have discovered how to time travel or they’d have taken care of this by now. Or they’re not there at all. Because, global warming.

Argument No. 5. If traveling to the past were possible, you’d likely never get back to the present. People back then were much less sophisticated than us, so they’d probably kill anyone who popped up saying they were from the future. Come to think of it, we’d probably kill someone from the future too, thinking they weren’t really from the future but were instead madmen or aliens. Aliens are much more possible than time travel, and they are universally upsetting because they know a lot more about how the universe works than we do and are therefore threats to our survival. They might take advantage of us. And, in a weird way, aliens are actually time traveling from the past because it must have taken light years for them to get here. Think it through.

Argument No. 6. Traveling to the future isn’t very wise because we might learn something about human progress that will terrify us, such as that human progress stopped somewhere along the way. And traveling to the past runs the risk of meeting famous figures from history or the arts and coming away disappointed. What do you talk about? I’d like to meet Shakespeare, for instance, but it would be devastating to find out he was basically a front for three or four noblemen like Bacon and de Vere. You think those guys would want to meet with some science nerd from the 21st century? No way.


From these arguments it’s clear that time travel has never and will never exist and we should therefore stop thinking about it. It’s a charming fantasy that we could somehow go back to earlier times and prevent the mistakes that cause trouble for us now. How nice to coax Harry Truman away from those A-bombs. How dear to get in there and keep John Lennon from meeting Yoko Ono. Worthy goals, but, alas, never to be.

Instead we have to concentrate on our present problems and solve them with the tools at hand. I could make a list, but we all know what needs to be done.

It’s just a matter of putting one foot in front of the other and not looking back.

Alyson Woods is from Kansas and spends her free time contemplating why.