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Pondering Time Travel and the Butterfly Effect

Published:Sunday | July 19, 2015 | 7:00 AMKarl Salmon

I was recently at a luncheon with a client when the discussion digressed to a hypothetical and thought-provoking chit-chat. The question was posed:

"If you had the choice, would you go back in the past to meet your ancestors and revisit specific events, or would you go into the future to meet your grand-offspring, and, while you are at it, assess your growth and development?"

The choices were very interesting because they tempted the fate of meddling in forgone events, which could possibly reshape one's past, present, and future state. The responses were varied: from "I think I would leave well alone", to "Had I known then what I now know".

Rumour has it that curiosity killed Miss Thomas' puss. But let's face it, it is the quest for satisfaction and perfection that sometimes drives the inquisitive mind to venture far beyond its own boundaries.

Time travel is a fictional concept of movement between periods of past time and future time. It has been on man's bucket list of fantasies for centuries, and our fascination was further aroused with the help of block buster movies like Austin Powers, Terminator, Star Trek, Back to the Future, and Planet of the Apes.

The Butterfly Effect is a chaos theory resulting from changing the events of one state to cause a drastic change in another state. The term was coined by the metaphorical example of the development of a hurricane caused initially by the flapping of a butterfly's wings.

Hence, the assumption of time travel is that if you go back in the past and change even the slightest event, the Butterfly Effect will cause a drastic chain reaction that alters the course of history. The period of time when you originally left would not be the same when you returned. So, could you have made a different choice in your past and have its consequences appear in the present? That's quite an intriguing thought.

For example, you went back to high school and in the final exam you changed that wrong answer to the correct one. Your final mark made you eligible for a scholarship to a top university. You come back to the present and you are now a brain surgeon. Or you are now incarcerated, serving 10 years behind bars for a white-collar crime. Who knows where this result would have taken you? It's a very important point to note that the outcome could very well be either positive or negative.

This is a similar situation for the future-time traveller. Let's say you travelled to the future and saw your now-grown-up daughter or son in an abusive relationship. You then returned to the present and took the time and effort to have that rascal of a partner "mysteriously disappear". Well then, what is the guarantee that your child's alternative choice in partner would not render a similar or worse outcome?

There are cases where, if you change the past, you invariably create a paradox in time travel. That is, it contradicts the theory that would not allow time travel to exist.

For example, you constantly hear your parents arguing, and in the heat of the moment, you wish they had never met. So, you travel to the past and have each of them court different partners. The dilemma you now face is that you cannot return to the present because there was never a union between your parents in the first place for you to have been conceived. In essence, you do not exist.

Time travel is a fascinating theory. The discussion goes well with a glass or two of red wine.

So my question to you is, if you had the gift of travelling in time, and you do not like your present state, or you encounter unfavourable events in the past or future state, would you leave well enough alone, or would you tempt fate and meddle?