Friday, May 22, 2009

Poll: Can time travelers change history?

Last week, as I watched the season finale of Lost, I observed what I believe to be an irreconcilable paradox. Here is the essential background for the non-Losties out there (as absent from spoilers as I can make it):
  • Lost takes place on an island with special properties.
  • John Locke is a character who becomes "unstuck" from time on the island. On the show, he and other characters helplessly travel from 2004 to 1954 to .... to 2007 to .... to 1974 until Locke figures out a way to stop the time from skipping.
  • In 2004, John Locke was proclaimed the leader of an island group, The Others.
  • Richard Alpert is an adviser to The Others, providing guidance to the leader, who is John Locke until he disappears on his haphazard time travel journey.

Confused? That's ok. Most people who watch Lost are perpetually confused, but that's most of the fun. Now, here's the paradox:

In 2007, Richard Alpert gives John Locke a compass, telling him to give it back to Alpert the next time Locke sees him (that's in 1954... Locke is skipping back and forth in time).

In 1954, John Locke gives Richard Alpert the compass to prove that he is special. Richard believes him, especially when he disappears again.

But then in 2007, Alpert gives the compass back to Locke and so on... ad infinitum. This is all fine and dandy, but here's my question: When/how was the compass made? That compass has no starting point in time. Ordinarily, I would chalk this up to something that the writers of the show overlooked, but the Lost writers have been extraordinarily good at not burying themselves in paradoxes. I'd be interested in hearing what you think in the comments below.

Later in the finale, I was struck by a more general question. I decided to make it the question of the week.

Can time travelers change history?

The poll is on the sidebar. A simple Yes or No answer would suffice, but I am also interested in hearing your comments on the idea of time travel. Clearly, this is not a real world issue, but it is nice to be fanciful sometimes!

Vote early, vote often, encourage your friends, and your friends' friends to vote. Polls close on Friday 29 May 2009 at 1:30 PM Chicago time.

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