As if we needed proof that the Internet is a culture in its own right, we now have our own various folklores playing their way across cyberspace. Like most sources of good science fiction or fantasy, they usually provide a meaningful paradox. The John Titor saga, as played out on the Internet a few years ago, fulfills all the requirements of a cracking good yarn.
For those of you not in the know, John Titor is the name assumed by a self-confessed time traveller from the year 2036. Active in various Internet chat rooms from early November of the year 2000 to March 24, 2001, when he announced that he would be leaving our time and returning to his own, he showed up on Internet discussion boards calling himself "Timetravel_0," claiming to have travelled here via a military time machine that incorporates artificially created black holes in its technology. The time machine schematics, which were posted on the Net along with photos, do indeed seem theoretically feasible and involved, far more involved than one would expect from a half-baked hoaxer. Titor went into some detail describing the invention of such technology (which involves work being carried out at the CERN laboratory in Switzerland - a name which should be recognised by readers of Dan Brown's Angels & Demons, the prequel to The Da Vinci Code). If it were not for these intricate details, the entire saga would probably have been summarily dismissed as a tawdry Terminator-type rip-off. Titor is (was/will be) a military man, sent back to 1975 to take possession of a 'tweaked' IBM 5100 computer which can help solve the timeout error problem due in 2038. He swings by the millennium as the culmination of a 'promise' to his grandfather, who was on the original IBM engineering team in 1975. What the 'promise' consisted of was not made public, but may have involved circumventing the expected Y2K problem at the end of 1999.
One of the first questions asked of him was, as you would imagine, about how he managed to travel back through time. His answer, given verbatim from an on-line archive of his posts, sounds feasible, at least to a layman:
Time travel is achieved by altering gravity. This concept is already proven by atomic clock experiments. The closer an observer is to a gravity source (high mass), the slower time passes for them. Travelling at high speeds mimics this effect which equal the twin paradox of faster than light travel. However, this type of gravity manipulation is not sufficient to alter your world line. The basic math to alter world lines exists right now. Tipler first described a working 'time machine' through his theory of massive rotating spheres. Certain types of black holes also exhibit the 'time travel' abilities of Tipler cylinders. Kerr was one of the first to describe the dual event horizons of a rotating black hole. As with Tipler's cylinders, it was possible to travel on a 'time-like' trip through a Kerr black hole and end up in a different world line without being squished by the gravity of the singularity. The mass and gravitational field of a micro-singularity can then be manipulated by 'injecting' electrons onto its surface. By rotating two electric micro-singularities at high speed, it is possible to create and modify a local gravity sinusoid that replicates the effects of a Kerr black hole. For those asking how come a micro-singularity doesn't swallow the Earth or want to know details about the size, stability, mass, temperature and resulting Hawking radiation from such a thing...those details I must keep to myself.
The last few words reek of a cop-out...however one can assume that, if he is for real, he does not want anyone from this time building their own machine according to his specifications. Various photos and photocopies of the time travel machine schematics can be viewed here.
Describing life in 2036, he says:
I remember 2036 very clearly. It is difficult to describe 2036 in detail without spending a great deal of time explaining why things are so different. In 2036, I live in central Florida with my family and I'm currently stationed at an Army base in Tampa. A world war in 2015 killed nearly three billion people. The people that survived grew closer together. Life is centred around the family and then the community. I cannot imagine living even a few hundred miles away from my parents. There is no large industrial complex creating masses of useless food and recreational items. Food and livestock is grown and sold locally. People spend much more time reading and talking together face to face. Religion is taken seriously and everyone can multiply and divide in the heads.
Much of the post-apocalyptic imagery utilised by Titor seems to have its genesis in the classic book, Alas Babylon, by Pat Frank, first published in 1959, which David Brin has called 'instrumental' in forming his vision of nuclear war and subsequently influencing his book The Postman. There is also a sneaking suspicion about some of his references, such as: when asked, "Are you able to control where you go or is it random?" he replies:
Yes, it can be controlled. However, the distortion unit has operational limits. Imagine your path through time is through a cone. The farther away from the center of the cone, the more differences you will see in the world line. The C204 (his model of time machine) begins to 'break away' at about 60 years. This means the level of confidence drops rapidly after 60 years of travel and the world line divergence increases. In other words, if I wanted to go back 2000 years and meet Christ, there is a better than average chance I would end up on a world line where he was never born. The computer units and gravity sensors 'record' your trip and you are quite easily able to return to your point of origin. I am aware that research is being done on faster units with more accurate clocks. I imagine that they will be able to go back farther with a higher degree of divergence confidence.
Answers like that hark straight into the science fiction genre—specifically Michael Moorcock's Behold the Man! The next answer could have been taken directly from the screenplay of Terminator II:
Q: What effects are caused on the immediate area where the gravity has been distorted after you leave it and when you arrive? Are there permanent effects left on the land such as electromagnetic disturbances in that area?
Timetravel_0: The only real physical trace is a large chunk of ground missing from the point of origin and a large pile of dirt at the destination. The gravity field surrounds a small portion of the earth under you and takes it along for the ride. There is really no way around this.
Titor talks about a lot about paradox, specifically citing the so-called 'grandfather' paradox:
Suppose you could go back in time, let's say several decades, and found your grandfather when he was two years old. In his house, you could grab a knife and stab him to death. He doesn't get the chance to have children with your grandmother. Therefore either your mother or father doesn't get born. Your parents can't give birth to you because one of them don't exist. You could never have been born and don't even exist. But could your grandfather have been killed by someone who doesn't exist? He must have lived through his childhood. This would allow you to exist if this is the case. Seemingly you can go back in time to commit the murder if you are born but then you would never have been born. And so on and so on. This situation is not consistent with itself. It doesn't make sense and can't possibly happen.
I, for one, would not even consider the idea of killing my grandfather. The very thought seems counter-productive! However, Titor also talks about Everett's Many Worlds theory as a possible solution to the conundrum:
A parallel universe might be created when you seem to change the past... Imagine if time itself was just like a tree. The different branches show different ways events could have happened. Every time we decide to do or not to do something time splits. Even if we are not aware we decided something it have affects. Quantum physics reveals a many worlds theory like this. Conclusion - since this parallel universe is not really your past (despite its first appearance) anything you do there does not affect you. You can prevent a version of yourself from being born because you are not really related to anyone there. They just look very like your family and friends. You are not home! You may be somewhere that looks like the place you live but a different universe in quantum physics is a completely different reality.
...Temporal space-time is made up of every possible quantum state. The Everett Wheeler model is correct. I have met and/or seen myself twice on different world lines. The first was a training mission and the second is now. I was born in 1998 so the other 'me' is 2 on this world line. There is a saying where I come from.... Every possible thing that can happen or will happen has already happened somewhere.
This may also go some way to explaining why he did not foresee 9/11 or anything to do with international terrorism, but seems focused on a coming civil war in America:
...the fact that I'm here makes it different. I've also noticed little things like news events that happen at different times, football games won by other teams...things like that. I would guess the temporal divergence between this world line and my original is about 1 or 2 percent. Of course, the longer I am here, the larger that divergence becomes from my point of view.
At one point, Titor references caesium clocks, saying that his time machine uses one:
I would equate the 'future' GM distortion units to their current jet engines. The first one worked great but they can always make it better. The C204 unit uses 4 caesium clocks. The C206 uses 6 caesium clocks but they use an optical system to check the oscillation frequency. This makes the world line divergence confidence much higher.
Titor does not seem to have heard of the hydrogen maser clock, which is the latest version of a hyper-accurate timepiece.
So, was John Titor a bona fide time traveller, a well-meaning, lateral-thinking, politically-motivated spin doctor with a background in speculative science, or perhaps a separatist militant intent on creating internal pressures within the United States? Since his disappearance, there has been the inevitable profusion of impostors all over the Net, most making blatant attempts to cash in on the enigma left in Titor's wake. Yet, because of events in America concerning the passing of the Patriot Act, not everyone is ready to relegate the saga of John Titor to the X-files of conspiracy theory.
I don't want to linger on the possibility of John Titor's story being true, partly because the possibility scares me. Titor said that he was born in 1998, which makes him 38 years old in 2036. Children alive now will, according to his scenario, live through the civil war and later nuclear devastation to rebuild the world. The CERN facility's Hadron Collider, apparently integral to the invention of time-travel, comes on-line this year, pushing the scientific frontier further into the realms of what most people still think of as science fiction. It is what happens within this domain during the next few years that will provide the key to Titor's enigma. Some have postulated that, if Titor was who he claimed, he may already have changed our timeline enough to avoid the very future that he has foretold. By tinkering with the inception of the computer age, and bypassing any millennial glitches caused by Y2K, the future may indeed have been altered enough to veer us away from his particularly dire version of the future multiverse. Which brings us to the question of what exactly his postings on the Internet have done to change the course of history. And, indeed, why bother to post all over the Net if you can complete your mission without doing so?
Who can know? All things considered, does it really matter? A little over one hundred years ago, in 1895, H. G. Wells' classic story The Time Machine was first published in book form, beating Einstein's Special Theory of Relativity by ten years. It is Einstein who is credited with describing time as 'the fourth dimension', yet it was actually Wells who wrote, in The Time Machine, that "there is no difference between Time and any of the three dimensions of Space, except that our consciousness moves along it."
In a literary progression of the premise, Robert Heinlein's story By His Bootstraps portrays a protagonist who stumbles upon a time travel device brought back to the present by a visitor from the far future. Our hero steals it and sets up home in a deserted stretch of time, constantly worrying about being found by the old man from whom he stole the time machine in the first place. One day, many years later, he realises that it is he who is the old man, and carefully arranges for his younger self to appropriate the time machine. This narcissistic, paradoxical view of time travel is taken to its extreme in David Gerrold's story The Man Who Folded Himself. Then Carl Sagan came up with the wormhole featured in his novel, Contact, published in 1985. Shortly thereafter, Saganís wormhole theory was revised by Kip Thorne (who had been a consultant on Sagan's book project) to incorporate the notion that a wormhole which takes a shortcut through space-time can just as easily link two different times as two different places. Indeed, it is more than likely that any naturally occurring wormhole will link two different times.
However, there is really no way that any of us, trapped as we are in our own single version of the multiverse, can know what is ultimately true and what is not. As further scientific discovery further muddies the waters of physics, we must be content, for now, to extrapolate on the infinite possibilities of such a delicious paradox and explore the subject, along with the world's brightest science fiction writers, within the realms of our own imponderable imaginations.