Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Movies: Advice for time travelers, Part 2.

This is the second post in an increasingly goofy geek out over time travel initiated by the flicker Triangle. It picks up pretty much where the last on left off, so you might want to check that one out first.

In the last post, we discussed two possible interpretations of what's happening to Jess Prime in the flicker Triangle: supernatural punishment and an infinite time loop. Unfortunately, for the would be chrononaut worried about getting stuck in time, neither of these scenarios have a satisfactory exit strategy. In the case of supernatural intervention, you'll just have to hope whatever is screwing with you decides to stop. There's nothing you can do. Though even that's better than the second alternative. If you're stuck in a perfect loop of time - an eternal return scenario - then not only is there nothing you can do, there is literally no escape. In the former situation one can always hold out hope that the gods get tired of tormenting you. Happily for Jess Prime, we also discussed why she cannot be stuck in a perfect time loop. So there's still some hope for her and chrononauts that may find themselves in a similar situation.

So now that we've determined what isn't happening to Jess Prime, what is?

To explain Jess Prime's situation we need a different model of time travel. In fact, I think we need elements from two models: one to explain how the boat travels through time and one to explain why Jess Prime's fate is not strictly bounded by the principle of self-consistancy.

First, let talk about how the boat travels through time. From what we actually see in the flick, the Aeolus appears to be a Depression Era ocean liner. It has no crew or passengers. Despite the lack of a crew, the engines seem to work fine. When we first see the Aeolus, it is moving along under its own power and smoke is rising from its stacks. The clock's onboard have stopped (as does Jess Prime's watch, though none of the watches of the other members of Boat Party Prime have stopped, suggesting that Jess has already made this trip enough times that her watch has died on her). We know that, on the boat, one perceives time as rolling forward, but from the perspective of people not on the boat, you're traveling backwards in time.

From a theoretical standpoint, traveling backward in time is a lot tricker than traveling forward. Most models that account for the possibility of traveling back in time require mucking around with elements of mindwarping cosmic craziness that, as far as I can tell, are not a factor in Triangle. Physicist Kip Thorne has proposed that the curvature of space-time theoretically allows for the possibility of taking a "short cut" that is, in essence, so fast you could take a roundway trip that ended before you left. But that presupposes travel on a scale that dwarfs anything we could do on one of Earth's oceans. Another, somewhat similar theoretical option involves moving around two "cosmic strings" - infinitely long strands of hyperdense material left over from the earliest days of the universe and woven throughout time space - in a loop that would allow you to arrive at the place and time of your departure. Finally, Thorne and physicist Mike Morris showed how wormholes, theoretical tunnels in the fabric of space-time much beloved as plot cheats by sci-fi creators, might allow for travel to the past. Though the presence of a wormhole would, in theory, appear as a massive malformation of space. If it was large enough to travel through, than it would be something you could see with the naked eye. Jess Prime encounters no such distortions on the Aeolus.

So basically, we need a way to get an oceanliner stuck in a time loop without punching holes through space-time or fitting the ship with a warp drive. Luckily, a quirk in quantum mechanics does all this for us without us so much as breaking a sweat. For our answer we return to the work of Igor Novikov (who along with Thorne cooked up the self-consistency principle) and the concept of the "jinni" - or an item that, through a loophole in quantum mechanics, has a looping world line. I've used the term "world line" before without explaining it. Essentially, a world line is a single unbroken experience of time-space. You're life is your world line. Most objects, like yourself, have a single world line that continues in a relatively stright line from the past to the future. (Actually, because space time isn't flat, our world lines warp ever so slightly, but our experience of space-time is so similar to everybody elses around us, and their experiences are so similar to ours, that we do not notice any warping effects.) But some objects, called jinni (as in genie, as in "I dream of") have a loop for their world line. These objects have no begining or end. They appear fully formed and continue on until the collapse of the universe maintained against entropy by injections of energy from the universe itself. In theory, the vast majority of jinni would be marcoscopic. There's no limit to the size of a jinni, but the larger a jinni is, the more energy it requires from the universe to ward off the effects of entropy. This makes macroscopic jinni unlikley. Unlikely, but not impossible.

I propose that the Aelous is a macro-jinni. It was, through a quirk of the laws of the universe, created as an underway Depression Era oceanliner off the coast of Florida. This makes for some trippy consequences - for example, the Aelous was never built and launched, no band ever played the drums in the ballroom, no captain ever steered her, the food members of Boat Party Prime find aboard was never actually harvested and prepared - but it also explains some mysteries about the ship. First, where's the crew and passengers? There never were any. That's why the ship doesn't look like a bunch of panicked folks hauled ass off there in full woman-and-children-first mode.

How could the ship still be running after some eigth decades of non-crewed operation? The Aelous, like Jess Prime, can be considered to have a frame of reference to the time traveling shenanigans that are afoot. From within its frame of reference, cycles are experienced linearly. This goes back to the aging problem we discussed in last post: Just as Jess Prime ages throughout a cycle that other experience as a spen of just a few hours, the ship is decaying throughout the cycles. It is the victim of entropy. It uses up fuel, parts get worn down and break, sea water corrodes the hull and seeps in. In the immortal words of the Talkig Heads, "Things fall apart. It's scientific." Consequently, time loop or not, the ship should be a wreck. But, as a jinni, the Aelous has a little trick Jess Prime doesn't have: the universe regularly injects energy into the Aelous time loop system to reverse the ravages of entropy. The ship is a power vampire sucking energy from the universe. I must admit, I'm not quite sure wht a cosmic hotten up looks like, but if I had to guess, I'd imagine it would look something like a giant Perfect Storm grade disturbance that comes in advance of the ship, followed by extreme placidity around the ship itself. (Which raises questions: What happens to the universe becuase it is losing this energy to support a macro-jinni? Is the Aelous eating up stars? Are there babies who are never born, never concieved because the Aelous sucked up some energy? Could it eventually drain the resources of the enitre universe? Who knows?) Becuase the ship draws energy from the universe to fight entropy, it regularly gets the reset button hit on it. Unlike Jess Prime, it is actually starting over on a regular basis.

This entropy reset partially explains the Problem of the Piles mentioned in the previous post. Why do certain elements in the flick show the cumulative effects of multiple cycles, such as the stack of dead Sallys, but other things seem to be perpetually the same, such as the seemingly unending supply of shells for the skeet shooting rifle? Part of the answer is that being onboard the marco-jinni lets you travel through time, but only the jinni gets the benefit of the entropy reset. In the example mentioned, Sally Prime and All Sally Other Points on the Loop is traveling through time, but she isn't getting the an entropy reset (which, presumably, would resurrect her). But the shotgun shells were part of the ship at its moment of creation. They appear again every time the ship resets.

That still leaves a hitch in our Problem of the Piles: Why are certain elements of the flick that are clearly not a part of the macro-jinni not piling up? For example, we've got more dead Sallys than brains, but there isn't a enormous puddle of blood under the hook where Victor Prime and Victor +1 get the back of their head impaled. What up with that?

This question leads us to the second time travel concept we need to explain Triangle: the Many-Worlds Interpretation, or MWI. To grossly simplify one of the most absurdly complicated notions in the history of human intellectual endeavor, the basis of MWI works like so: Heisenberg's uncertainty principle states that you cannot know the position and velocity of a particle at an arbitrary level of accuracy. The fuzziness isn't a property of some failing on our part to measure with suitable exactness, but a property of reality itself. It's wobbly in some respects. This wobbliness is usually negligible when you get to a macro scale, where all the weirdness of the universe comes out in the wash. But it is still always there.

Because the basic building blocks of reality are hazy, when you're crunching quantum equations - like you do - the results allow you predict the probability of particles appearing at certain positions. In some interpretations, this leads to the proposition that there are different worlds, alternate world histories, where the particle appears in each position in a given world. We should note here that many physicists feel that the hypothesis of unobservable alternate dimensions violates Ockham's Razor, the guiding philosophical principle that the theory that involves the least novel elements is probably the best one. (There are other objections too, but we won't go into them, mainly because we're talking about a movie here rather than trying to prove a quantum theory hypothesis. Lighten up Francis.)

Now, as I said, most of this subatomic wackiness comes out in the macro wash, but some a couple of famous thought experiments show how this submicro sloppiness can impact that macro world. Most famously, there's Schrödinger's cat, the famous thought experiment in animal cruelty (sorry dear readers, sometimes you just have to imagine killing a fictional animal - it's called science) in which a cat is placed in a box with an apparatus that will either drop a vial of lethally poisonous gas or will not based on the vague quantum action of a radioactive trigger device. According to quantum mechanics, in essence, the math suggests that both cat-death and not-cat death are happening until the box is opened up and observed. Schrödinger actually concocted this thought experiment as an assault on quantum mechanics, but his living dead cat has become something of a mascot for the paradigm of MWI. Considered through the lens of MWI, Schrödinger's experiment causes what some physicists would call a decoherence: the world line, or history of the universe as it is experienced by people within it's frame of reference, splits into two branches, one in which the cat died and one in which the cat lived. Each of these is equally the real world, but the two don't intersect. The sense that there is a single "real world" is a product of the observer's relative frame of reference.

(An even more mind-shattering version of this experiment involves "quantum suicide," which simultaneously kills the person involved and makes them, from the relative frame of reference of the other alternative, becomes invincible to the method of death involved. As trippy as this notion seems, it weirdly mirrors the narrative of Triangle. Jess Prime survives while other Jess's die not because of her luck or will to survive - after all, there are an untold number of equally real alternatives where she is slaughtered - but because the continuity of our observation of her requires we follow a world line where she survives whatever is thrown at her. In fact, the quantum suicide problem is basically the key to the unlikely survival of every final girl in every horror film ever made.)

Here's the final proposal: The wackiness that Jess Prime is experiencing is a product of the fact that the macro-jinni Aeolus gives her a unique frame of reference from which she is aware of at least three different world lines at any given time. When Jess Prime (or any of her counterparts) travels in the jinni's time loop, they do not simply loop back to their own timeline. If that were true, the self-consistency principle would rear its ugly head. Instead, she's getting ported over to a similar, but alternate version of events. She's Schrödinger's Jess Prime, branching off along decoherences, watching and influencing things as they play out in a similar, but not exactly matching way. When she encounters other versions of her, they aren't from her past. Rather, they're from alternate world-lines.

This explains a handful of the problems in the flick. For example, Jess Prime can kill an earlier version of herself (Jess -Prime) and not vanish. The somethings pile up in the flick while others don't because every trip through the narrative plays out differently. There's no reason to think that, say, nine times ago, Jess Prime lost her locket or that she hit a seagull on the way to the ditch Jess -Prime's body every time. She's clearly killing Sally nearly every trip through, but she fate of the other characters must be less stable or we'd see pools of blood all over the ship.

Why do all these Jessi from different worlds end up on the same ship? I must admit, that's a bit of a puzzle to me. Perhaps it is a product of the macro-jinni's energy sucking ways. Constantly fighting the entropy of an infinitely repeating ocean liner is a big task for one universe. But a potentially infinite number of universes could handle it, no problem.

Regardless, for the stranded time traveller, this is actually really good news. The biggest upside of the whole MWI is that it is free of self-consistency. A time traveller ported over to another branch of world-line has no history to screw up. They could, to dig up the classic example, go and kill their grandmother (actually an alternate world version of their grandmother) and happily go on living within that world as the freaky time traveller dude who kills old ladies. After all, your history, now safely independent of your actions, becomes no longer relevant. (In fact, some granny hating time traveller could go kill your granny too, it wouldn't matter to you as you've been decohered - you've been observed in another world, so you're real there and that's all you need.) This means that you can operate with freedom and break the pattern without paradox anxiety.

If this is so, then why doesn't Jess Prime break the pattern. As strange as this sounds, she isn't creative enough. In the immortal words of Walt Kelly, "What we have here is a failure to imaginate." Jess Prime seems to repeat the same general pattern simply because she never thinks of anything else to do. The offs the same folks, takes the same trips, makes the same errors, and so on because she's convinced herself that if she could just perfect the pattern, she'd be out. But it is her very determination to go through the pattern that is dooming her to its repetition.

Don't be like Jess Prime. Imaginate like a son of a bitch.

What do you do if you are a time traveller and you appear stuck in a loop?

Step 1: If you've gone through one full cycle, you're not really in a loop. As a test, make a pile somewhere. Pick an arbitrary place and dump a single, insignificant object on it. Place a penny on the table near your front door or something. If you're in a branching pseudo-loop, you'll have a pile of pennies before too long.

Step 2: In the otherwise forgettable Incident On and Off a Mountain Road, our heroine's significant other gives her a piece of survival advice: "When all else fails, try crazy."

"What if crazy doesn't work," she asks.

"Crazy always works," he replies.

You're already stuck in a freakin' time loop. Time to break out the crazy. The implications of the MWI have freed you from paradox, so go nuts. Meet yourself and try to talk things out. Avoid going back home and runaway and join the circus instead. Stop in the middle of a conversation for a masturbation break. Shoot the wrong people. Do anything that is something that you wouldn't have ever done before. You can break the pattern, you just need to outcrazy yourself to do it.

That's my advice to you. Do the pile check. If that works, go nuts. It's that weird and easy.


Anonymous said...

Why the need for the pile check? Going crazy should always be an option.

Sasquatchan said...

For multi-worlds, you gotta mention Jet Li's "The One" ..

Sasquatchan said...

And I think the contrarian answer is crazy doesn't always work.. In Ground Hog Day, Murray tried crazy a number of times to no avail eventually having to figure out through repeated trial/error what he needed to do to get out..

CRwM said...

The contrarian answer ignored the first part of the plan.

The go crazy thing would only work if you've successfully done a pile test. Creating a small pile shows that you're free from the self-consistency trap and are operating within an alterable context.

In Groundhog Day, Murray couldn't have successfully completed a pile test because his day restarts every morning. It's a different time travel paradigm. You can go crazy whenever you want, but it won't affect anything unless you're in a MWI situation and you can break the pattern.

The Igloo Keeper... said...


CRwM said...

olleh niaga.

Anonymous said...

Isn't going crazy already a pile test in itself? In a "Groundhog day" scenario everything will be rest anyway and otherwise going crazy was the way to go all along.

CRwM said...


In a MWI scenario case, jumping straight to crazy wouldn't hurt. You'd just skip to pattern breaking.

However, in other cases, it might. In Groundhog Day, for instance, not getting the odd moral of the trap delays Murray's character's escape from the trap. Insomuch as lost time - Murray would be "aging" even if only in the sense that his noggin is filling up with more and more memories - is a negative, going crazy without knowing what it may or may not do caused harm.

That's why I suggest some non-drastic test of the situation first. But if you're feeling particularly bold, go ahead and freak out, amigo.

Shon Richards said...

Jess seemed a bit fixated on killing as a solution. I think it was a good peek into what kind of woman she really was.

I think your Jinni theory is pure genius. That is a very fascinating concept, and it actually explains a lot.

By the way, have you seen the Spanish movie, 'Time Crimes'?

Scrymarch said...

Hey, Greg Egan's novel _Quarantine_ has another take on this if you want to continue your fictional MW quantum theory binge. It has a few more of the wires showing, as per genre convention (ie it's SF rather than horror).

Also, if the ship is a jinni but the fuel is not, how is the fuel getting refilled? Is that just the most literal way in which the universe is feeding energy into it, ie, periodically another tankful of hydrocarbons appears? (And we thought Peak Oil looked messy when we where just using it up ourselves, let alone having freaky many world time travelling artifacts sucking it up in the relative present.)

I also like the implication that the ship is some sort of freaky organism that has evolved in the nutrient rich crevasses of the multiverse.

CRwM said...


I have not seen Time Crimes, though I'm on a time travel kick of late. Should I add it to my queue?

CRwM said...


Thanks for the Egan hint. I must admit to complete ignorance of his work, but I am most definitely on a time travel and its implications bender of late. I'll look into it.

Shon Richards said...

'Time Crimes' has a similar loop, which starts when a man stumbles onto a time experiment happening close to his house. I enjoyed it at the time but now it feels like a rough draft compared to Triangle. If you like time travel, you should check it out.

Paul said...

OK, based on the fact that you found this interesting enough to write two full posts on it, I decided to watch it. So why don't I feel like I saw a coherent, completely interesting movie? I think it's down to the way the ending was fumbled. Your entire thesis, which makes fascinating reading by the way (more interesting in its own way than the movie) is based on Jess being an aware protagonist, attempting to overcome the loop she's trapped in. So why, in the FINAL MINUTES, did the creators of Triangle see fit to introduce a Spooky Taxi Driver as deus ex machina? If Jess had run from her crash, flagged down a cab and begged to be taken to the harbour, in a crazy rush to jump the yacht and try to make things come out right this time, I'd buy it. The Carnival of Souls-type dreamy vagueness of this ending negates any illusory free will that Jess could otherwise have possessed. I waited through the whole movie in a state of impatient watchfulness (partly because I found it mildly dull, on a shot-by-shot basis, up until the alley full of Sallys, the film's one and only really original moment - which is fine, many horror movies don't even have one), waiting for something to chew on, and when they finally gave me something, in the final furlong, they really snatched it away again... Disappointing, but not disheartening, just a bit odd and fumbled.