Stephen Hawking’s internment service is scheduled to take place at Westminster Abbey, Broad Sanctuary, London, on Friday July 15 at 12 PM. Members of the public who wish to attend may apply here; there are 1,000 open spots and attendees will be randomly selected. But those who apply may notice an oddity. When asked for date of birth, the chart runs to 2038. This is not a typo.
Stephen Hawking believed that time travel to the past was theoretically possible (you can read a lecture of his on the topic here, in language that’s quite approachable, even for the layman). The author even went so far as to throw a party for time travelers in 2009 to see if any might arrive. (None did). There are a variety of theories on why this might be so, over and above the obvious “Time travel to the past isn’t possible,” including the idea that time travel to the past is possible, but that it cannot be used to travel to a point before time travel to the past was possible.
In this theory, if time travel was somehow miraculously invented in 2020, you’d be able to use it to visit the past of 2020 in 2070 — but nothing could take you to a point before. Time travel to the future, in contrast, is known to be theoretically possible, provided you find a way to reach the relativistic speeds required. A better way to frame the problem is to say that we know, based on our current understanding of the laws of physics, that the laws of physics allow for travel to the future, while all theories of how one might travel to the past are much more vague.
A spokesperson for the Stephen Hawking Foundation said, “We cannot exclude the possibility of time travel as it has not been disproven to our satisfaction. All things are possible until proven otherwise. But so far we have had applications from all round the world, and we do mean round — there are no flat-Earthers here.”
The chance of time travelers showing up at Hawking’s funeral are low, and the chance of them revealing themselves, one might assume, are even lower. In virtually all science fiction, time travel is shown in just a handful of ways:
- One person/group is attempting to change the timeline, while another person/group acts to prevent this. (Terminator, Star Trek: First Contact)
- A person/group attempts to remove an object from the timeline without changing history. This basic plot can also be used to remove information that was known in the past, but lost in the future, without the difficulty of transporting whales at warp speed inside a Klingon Bird of Prey.(Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home)
- A person/group attempts to change the timeline to avert catastrophe. (X-Men: Days of Future Past)
In most of these cases, characters avoid telling anyone they’re time travelers to the maximum extent possible. But Hawking apparently didn’t find this particularly persuasive, noting in the lecture above that “even if there were sound reasons for keeping us in ignorance, human nature being what it is, it is difficult to believe that someone wouldn’t show off, and tell us poor benighted peasants, the secret of time travel.”
My Own Theory
I’ve had a theory on this topic for years but never had a chance to share it. Let me say up front that I’m sharing this in jest, rather than as a serious scientific concept. In fact, my understanding is that most physicists don’t believe time travel of the sort I’m going to describe is possible in the first place. But just for the fun of it, here it is.
Study history long enough, and you’ll discover there are some incredible coincidences in our timeline. Stanislav Petrov, the Soviet officer who disobeyed direct orders and his own training by refusing to report that the United States had launched nuclear missiles at the Soviet Union back in 1983, wasn’t even supposed to be on duty that night. Petrov was not a combat-hardened soldier, but an engineer. He troubleshot computer hardware for a living. When his board lit up with signals that indicated an American launch, he cleared the error. And then, incredibly, he cleared it again when new launch signals appeared from multiple locations in North America. Petrov may have single-handedly prevented nuclear war. Soviet doctrine of the day taught that computers were infallible and were to be trusted in all circumstances; far from being rewarded, Petrov was reprimanded.
Everyone knows that the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand kicked off World War I. Less well-known is the fact that the first two bomb-throwers refused to act and the third scored an indirect hit. Ferdinand survived. After completing a series of remarks the Town Hall of Sarajevo, Ferdinand decided to change his schedule and visit the wounded survivors of the earlier bomb attempt. The driver was to follow the Appel Quay to the Sarajevo Hospital, but was not informed of this. As a result, he turned off Appel Quay on to Franz Josef street, following the plan for Ferdinand’s original visit, which took them past Schiller’s delicatessen where Gavrilo Princip was waiting. Ferdinand’s driver was notified of the direction change near the delicatessen and stopped the car to reverse it almost directly in front of Princip’s position. Princip fired from five feet away. World War I was the result.
And while the “evidence” for this last one is a bit weaker, I’m a longtime Titanic buff who can’t resist tossing it in. Why did the Titanic sink? It hit an iceberg. But it might not have sunk in the first place, had seaman David Blair not walked off with the key to the storage locker where the lookout’s binoculars were kept. (The relative impact of this is disputed, but Lookout Frederick Fleet, who first spotted the iceberg with the Mark I Eyeball, believed it would have made the difference). Alternately, the ship might’ve survived if First Officer Lightoller had hit the iceberg head-on rather than attempting to pass it. And, of course, the passengers might’ve been saved if the SS Californian hadn’t ignored its emergency rockets. But the sinking of Titanic had an enormous impact on ship designs, lifeboat regulations, and popular culture. The sinking of Titanic didn’t invent the phrase “women and children first,” but it popularized and embedded it in public consciousness.
The Titanic raises steam and heads into history. This is the last known photo of the vessel.
And as a point of reference, don’t even get me started on “The Wreck of the Titan: Or, Futility” an 1898 novella about a fictional luxurious ocean liner, the Titan, an 800-foot ocean liner (Titanic: 882 feet, 9 inches) with a maximum speed of 25 knots (Titanic: 22.5 knots), with a displacement of 45,000 tons (Titanic: 46,000 tons), designed as a triple-screw steamer without enough life boats, described as “unsinkable,” and which sinks in the North Atlantic, in April, at night, after hitting an iceberg.
The practical explanation for this, of course, is that the author of that novella had extensive knowledge of ships and seagoing. But as a fun thought exercise (again, not a serious theory), I like to imagine that these moments of sheer coincidence, in which events play out the way they did because of incredibly unusual coincidences, might be the only evidence of time travel left to us. For want of a nail, indeed.