Hello,

We noticed you're browsing in private or incognito mode.

To continue reading this article, please exit incognito mode or log in.

Not an Insider? Subscribe now for unlimited access to online articles.

A View from Brad King

The Past is the Past, or You Gotta Believe

Science fiction plots took a serious hit yesterday when two professors, using quantum mechanics theory, moved a step closer to showing that even if we could figure a way to travel through time – we couldn’t change the past. While…

  • June 21, 2005

Science fiction plots took a serious hit yesterday when two professors, using quantum mechanics theory, moved a step closer to showing that even if we could figure a way to travel through time – we couldn’t change the past.

While I was fascinated by the article (and implications), the idea of the discovery got me thinking about the role of science in our current world.

First, though, let’s get to the discovery. This from the story on RedNova:

‘It would appear that things were happening which you could not control, which just do not allow you to alter the past in a way that would be inconsistent with the future you came from.’ Professor Greenberger added:

‘Once something has happened, the effect is that it kills the other possibilities because there is this feedback into the past. The past is determined. The future is still undetermined, which is consistent with our ideas of free will. It is a nice philosophical solution.’ Their findings solve the conundrum which has puzzled scientists for years: if a time traveller can change the past, could he jeopardise his own survival?

In The Fabric of the Cosmos, Brian Greene wrote about this conundrum and the String Theory problem created by an interchangable past and future. (Since the equations appeared to work both backwards and forwards, it suggested that all of time was fluid – and not an arrow, which is how we perceive it.)

And that takes me to the end of my understanding about String Theory.

However, it does raise an interesting question about the scientific process, one which Greene addresses in light of trying to marry quantum equations with real-life perceptions. What takes precedent: Our perception of how we believe reality works? Or the math that may redefine our perceptions in ways that we literally cannot comprehend on a macro level?

I’ve always been comfortable with the idea that the ‘answers’ to these questions would be beyond our perception. It makes sense. I wouldn’t expect to ‘get’ everything. The universe is too large. But those answers do leave themselves open to very easy attacks, since the obvious response is, ‘But I don’t see it.’

And that is what frightens me because we see this assault on science all around us, from the creationist arguments in Kansas to the White House’s denials about global warming.

It’s as if we, as a people, believe we have a divine right to perceive all of the answers before our very eyes (as if faith in science is somehow less important than faith in religion). And, absent any visual proof, disbelievers in science feel emboldened to cast aside new findings because they can’t be ‘seen’ (or more likely, because they don’t fit into a political framework for one’s beliefs).

I wouldn’t argue that science is the end-all, beat-all for answers. Much of what I read about high-end mathematics and physics borders on the religious. In many respects, I think the two are fused together in at least one fundamental area: the search for who we are.

Want to go ad free? No ad blockers needed.

Become an Insider
Already an Insider? Log in.
Want more award-winning journalism? Subscribe and become an Insider.
  • Insider Plus {! insider.prices.plus !}* Best Value

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    Everything included in Insider Basic, plus the digital magazine, extensive archive, ad-free web experience, and discounts to partner offerings and MIT Technology Review events.

    See details+

    Print + Digital Magazine (6 bi-monthly issues)

    Unlimited online access including all articles, multimedia, and more

    The Download newsletter with top tech stories delivered daily to your inbox

    Technology Review PDF magazine archive, including articles, images, and covers dating back to 1899

    10% Discount to MIT Technology Review events and MIT Press

    Ad-free website experience

  • Insider Basic {! insider.prices.basic !}*

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    Six issues of our award winning print magazine, unlimited online access plus The Download with the top tech stories delivered daily to your inbox.

    See details+

    Print Magazine (6 bi-monthly issues)

    Unlimited online access including all articles, multimedia, and more

    The Download newsletter with top tech stories delivered daily to your inbox

  • Insider Online Only {! insider.prices.online !}*

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    Unlimited online access including articles and video, plus The Download with the top tech stories delivered daily to your inbox.

    See details+

    Unlimited online access including all articles, multimedia, and more

    The Download newsletter with top tech stories delivered daily to your inbox

/3
You've read of three free articles this month. for unlimited online access. You've read of three free articles this month. for unlimited online access. This is your last free article this month. for unlimited online access. You've read all your free articles this month. for unlimited online access. You've read of three free articles this month. for more, or for unlimited online access. for two more free articles, or for unlimited online access.