TIME TRAVEL, PARALLEL UNIVERSES & THE BUTTERFLY EFFECT – ELLIN CURLEY

I am fascinated with the concepts of time travel, parallel universes and the Butterfly Effect. Fortunately for me, there are several TV shows today that deal with these things. One is Timeless and another is The Flash. The Flash is a Marvel comic based series in which the hero can run so fast that he can bend time. He can move both forward and backwards in time. Timeless follows a government team of time travelers who have to keep going back in time to prevent the ‘bad guy’ from messing with major past events and drastically changing the timeline.

In both of these shows, each trip back in time results in an altered present. In each, a seemingly random individual who is important to one of the main characters, is either dead in the present or was never born and no longer exists in the present timeline.

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This brings up the Butterfly Effect, a theory popular with time travel enthusiasts. The theory, mostly used in science, states that a small change can result in a large, unrelated change down the road. In everyday life, this means that unimportant decisions, like whether to go out to dinner or eat in, can lead to very different ‘storylines’ in your life.

There is both a movie and a play that depicts the parallel universes created by a minor life decision. The movie is “Sliding Doors” from 1998 and stars Gwyneth Paltrow. It tracks the different careers and love lives that the heroine would have if she a) catches a particular subway train or b) misses the train. For example, if she catches the train, she also gets home in time to catch her boyfriend in bed with another woman. If she misses the train, she also misses this tryst. Her life takes very different paths depending on that fluke of timing.

butterfly-effect-cartoon

The play was a musical called “If/Then”, starring Idina Menzel. The show follows the heroine’s parallel lives if she either chooses to go to lunch with friend ‘A’ or if she chooses to go to a play with friend ‘B’ instead.

Interestingly, in both the movie and the play, the heroine ends up with the same ‘love of her life’, just at different times in her life. Her career paths diverge but I think most people like to believe that some people are ‘destined’ to be together. The Jewish concept of ‘Beshert’ says that every soul is a half soul and that there is another person in the world who is their perfect ‘other half’. So in time travel shows, many aspects of life are allowed to be affected by chance. But we don’t seem to want to accept that chance can also change the big things in life, like true love.

TimeTravelSome time travel writers have a different theory. They talk about the fact that the past ‘resists’ change. Rather than believing in the Butterfly Effect as it relates to time travel, many believe that at least the major events in history are more predestined and less susceptible to change. It might seem easy to keep a major past event from happening, especially if small changes in the timeline can eventually result in big ones. But time writers feel that events, like WWI, the assassination of JFK, or the sinking of the Titanic, will find a way to take place no matter how hard you try to prevent it. You might want to read Stephen King’s brilliant book “11/22/63” about attempting to go back in time to prevent the JFK assassination. It was also made into a mini series, but the book is much better.
I guess it is easier to accept the idea that relatively small things, like the details of an individual’s life, are changeable and not ‘meant to be’. Maybe this is because on a small scale, cause and effect is more linear and knowable. On the other hand, historians are still arguing about the multiple and interrelated causes of the Civil War.

delorean time machineMy grandfather was hit by a truck and killed when he stepped off a curb too soon at the age of 88. I used to obsess about what led him to that exact spot at that exact time. I used to imagine the tiny things he could have done differently that would have gotten him to that spot even a second earlier or later.

For about a year after that, I would imagine each time I reached a curb, that it could be my last moment on earth — if the stars were so aligned. Maybe this is the root of my love for some of these theories.

19 thoughts on “TIME TRAVEL, PARALLEL UNIVERSES & THE BUTTERFLY EFFECT – ELLIN CURLEY

    • If/Then was not about time time travel per se. It was about the different paths your life can take with every decision you make. It isn’t even postulating parallel universes. It’s just saying that there are many ‘forks in the road’ in your life and you never know which one will be life changing.It could be something as minor as what to do this afternoon – go to a play with one friend or out to lunch with another.

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  1. Well done post. 🙂

    It is interesting how the the term butterfly effect has morphed into a time travel trope. As the cartoon strip you posted shows, butterfly effect was originally about chaos theory. The idea that chaotic systems contain very subtle forms of order and that , for example, a butterfly flapping wings in Japan could cause a storm in the Gulf of Mexico.

    A variation on this idea first appears in “A Sound of Thunder” by Ray Bradbury. The death of a single butterfly triggers monumental changes in the distant future. I suppose it was “inevitable” that the two concepts would be fused in movies. 😀

    The television show Frequency ( just cancelled) has done an interesting approach to altered timelines. We see interacting timelines – daughter in our present communicating with her father in the past. Information alters the events, shifting events in the future. The daughter remembers both tracks.

    Are you familiar with Uchronia ? – it has a very up-to-date list of fiction and non-fiction dealing with alternative history.

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    • I saw the movie of ‘Frequency’ but never watched the TV show. Isn’t a key issue whether the person in the altered timeline remembers the other timeline? The best time travel/butterfly effect book I’ve read is Jack Finney’s Time and Again. It’s a great romance, history of New York City and time travel story. I’ve read everything by Finney and love his work.

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      • With the TV show the key is an ongoing communication. As the daughter relays information to the father, his actions subtly modify the daughter’s timeline. It is a Schrodinger approach, her timeline is altered, she has a double set of memories. She perceives both timelines. The ongoing plot thread has been, in saving her father from death, it put her mother in the sights of a serial killer. The parallel narratives and ethical choices are beautifully executed. Unfortunately, not a large enough target audience to maintain the series.

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  3. I also have always been fascinated by these theories. Sliding doors is one of my favorite movies for this reason. I would love to see that play and I’ve often thought about these concepts in everyday life.

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    • I think about these concepts too. I often look back to see what would have happened in my life if one thing had been different, one choice had gone the other way, etc. It’s a fun exercise.

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  4. Intriguing thoughts there Ellin. What also comes to mind is Einstein’s quote that “God does not play dice with the Universe.” This, to me, would imply some sort of grand design. However, the thought of playing around with certain incidents by some how fiddling with time is a great thought to ponder.
    Leslie

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    • Another great piece, Ellin!!
      I really like time travel entertainment. We’ve watched “The Flash” and put it on hold for a bit. Haven’t seen “Timeless” but we’ll check it out. One of my favorite movies is “Time After Time”. I like it because of the story line and the happy ending. It’s one of Malcolm McDowell’s few good guy roles. I’m one of the few who never watched “The Time Tunnel” series back in the 60’s. So, I am absolutely loving it now on ME-TV.. It’s like Mickey Dee video food but I’m hooked. Too bad it didn’t have a long run.
      Almost forgot, I thought “11.22.63” was superb!! I’m not a King fan but his writing was eloquent.
      Thanks, Ellin!!

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      • Have you read any of Jack FInney? He’s one of my favorite authors and all he writes about is time travel. My favorite book in the world is his “Time and Again” about turn of the 20th century New York City. Real history and photos of old NEw York as well as a wonderful romance and time travel story.

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    • If you haven’t already seen it, watch both seasons of ‘Outlander’ on Starz. It is all about trying to change the result of one battle in 18th century Scotland and at the same time, making sure that someone today still gets born. It involves time travel and history and a great and sexy romance between two gorgeous actors.I highly recommend it. It starts slow but hang in there. It’s worth it.

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  5. Since you didn’t mention them, I’m better that you haven’t read (or listened to on Audible) Jodi Taylor’s “St. Mary’s” series. The first one is “Just One Damned Thing After Another: The Chronicles of St Mary’s, Book 1.” There are seven books, with another coming out in February and 5 or 6 short stories, most of which are free for Kindle from Amazon. Historians traveling in time to chronicle major events. Often absolutely hilarious. British. They are probably my all time favorite time travel series. And she has a lot more planned. They are also very good as audiobooks. I have the whole set.

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