The Time Lords

It’s not just scientists working to master time travel – Dr Nikk Effingham and Dr Al Wilson are considering the philosophical implications.

Dr Nikk Effingham and Dr Al Wilson

Ask a Birmingham alumnus what they understand about time travel and you’ll probably find the conversation will quickly turn to television shows or films such as Doctor Who, Back to the Future or The Terminator. The concept of turning back the clock to try and change the future is popular in fiction and, according to Dr Nikk Effingham and Dr Al Wilson, science fiction has actually helped drive forward the academic study of time travel for more than 100 years. 

Al, a Birmingham Fellow in the Department of Philosophy, is working with Department Head Nikk on a research project entitled ‘Probability and Time Travel’ – investigating issues around assigning probabilities to various different time travel scenarios, rather than simply discussing whether time travel is possible at all. ‘It seems very unlikely that there will be any usable form of time travel at any point soon,’ says Al. ‘So we are not interested in that side of things – you need to be talking to physicists researching quantum teleportation for that. For the purposes of our research we are asking hypothetical questions: supposing time travel is possible, how might it work and how likely might it be?’

Nikk offers one example of the kind of question they are deliberating over: ‘If time travel is possible, then there would also exist the possibility that time travel would be spontaneously created by someone coming back in time to hand you the blueprint to make a time machine. You would then follow the instructions, build the machine and go back in time to that moment, and complete the loop. ‘But where did the information on the blueprint come from? What was the probability of that loop occurring – and is there a greater chance of it occurring if you are Stephen Hawking than if you are Joe Bloggs?’

The idea of ‘completing the loop’ is touched upon in films like Back to the Future and 12 Monkeys. Hollywood has also utilised alternative theories about time travel, revolving around the idea that for every choice you make, a universe exists in which the other choice was played out. This ‘what if?’ or butterfly effect theory has proved fertile ground for science fiction stories where it is played out to change the course of history – from HG Wells’ 1923 novel Men Like Gods through to various episodes of Star Trek and entire television series such as Sliders and Fringe.

While such works of fiction invariably create their own ‘rules’ to suit their needs, the popularity of such stories  demonstrates how time travel has always been able to intrigue and stimulate debate. As Al acknowledges: ‘This project has the ability to capture people’s imaginations; it’s why we use time travel to get people thinking in introductory philosophy classes. ‘The project has been more successful than we expected and we will be applying for further funding. If you want to think about the metaphysics of time travel, Birmingham is as good a place as any in the world.’

This feature was originally published in 'Old Joe', the University of Birmingham Alumni magazine