Time Travelers on the Web

by | Nov 23, 2010 12:08 PM ET

Can you spot the time traveler in this photo? (Hint: There isn't one).

Normally, I summarize the TechStuff podcast topics in a single blog post at the end of the week but Monday's topic deserves special attention. Chris and I talked about a few photographs, forum posts and videos that some people say are evidence that we will eventually figure out how to travel through time. That's an extraordinary claim and it requires extraordinary evidence. So how does the evidence stand up to scrutiny?

First, let's look at this image from the reopening of the South Fork Bridge in British Columbia, Canada, circa 1940.  Most of the people in the photo are dressed in conservative clothing. The men, with one exception, are wearing suits and ties. That one exception caused a bit of a kerfuffle on the Internet. On the right side of the photo stands a man wearing what appears to be modern sunglasses. He sports a sweater and has something on his shirt underneath. His hair style also seems unusual. But don't jump to conclusions just yet.  This blog post on fogotomori does a good job at examining the photo and offering up explanations for the perceived anachronisms.

Now let us turn to the matter of George Clarke and his astonishing discovery of a time traveler captured on film. Mr. Clarke works in the film industry -- his production company is called Yellow Fever Productions. Mr. Clarke was watching some bonus footage on the DVD for Charlie Chaplin's "The Circus" when he noticed something odd. A newsreel about the film's premiere captured images of a woman walking through the frame with something held up to her face. She appeared to speak just before walking out of frame. Mr. Clarke's conclusion was that this woman must be communicating on a cell phone, which means she was from the future! Here's the video:

There are some questions that any skeptical person must ask about Clarke's claims. Why would a time traveler go through all the trouble of disguising herself in era-appropriate clothing only to whip out an anachronistic device? And why do it at a film premiere, which is about as public an event as you can imagine? And how would the communication device work when there are no cell phone towers to link up to? And couldn't there be a simpler explanation for the woman's behavior?

The answer to that last question is a resounding yes. There are several alternative explanations for the woman's behavior and most of them don't involve breaking the laws of physics as we understand them. The Christian Science Monitor offers one such alternative theory -- she was using a hearing aid. Mr. Clarke's video leads off with a bit of self-promotion for his film production company, which has prompted some bloggers to suggest this is all just a publicity stunt.

TechStuff also covered the story of John Titor, a supposed time traveler from 2036 who ventured back in time to 1975 to pick up an old computer and then visited the year 2000 before heading home to his own time [One question that springs to my mind: In 2036 we can build a working time machine but we can't rebuild a computer from 1975?]. Titor explained in Web forum posts that his time travel machine used gravity to manipulate time and that he passed between parallel dimensions. That means the 1975 he visited wasn't really his own world's past -- it was just a parallel version of 1975. This gets around some of the causation problems of time travel. But Titor's big predictions for the future haven't come true and he often avoided answering simple questions on the forums. It's far more likely that Titor was someone having a little fun and expressing some social commentary than an actual visitor from an alternative future.

The point of this post is really just to illustrate that critical thinking is an important skill. It helps us determine truth from fiction. Conversations about time travel can be fun diversions and even lead to insights about how our universe works. But it's also important that we try to maintain an objective and scientific perspective on extraordinary claims or we risk falling for scams and hoaxes.

In conclusion, I'll leave you with this video about a man in his 30s who claims to have met a 70-year-old version of himself through the miracle of plumbing. I wish I were joking. And don't forget to follow TechStuff on Twitter and Facebook!

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