Time Travel in the Classroom: Using Science-Fiction to Combine Science and Humanities

One of the highlights of my teaching career to date has been co-teaching a course on time travel this semester. Of course it is fun to co-teach with my dear friend, Jack Waddell (I have previously advocated for collaboration in scholarship). And time travel is just an inherently fun idea. But, more than the purely “fun” parts, the course simply works, bridging the gap between science and humanities in an organic and easily digestible fashion.

First off, how does the course work?

Jack is a physicist and therefore takes care of the physics of what time might look like in a real world context. Yes, time travel is a real thing, both predictable and measurable. In 1906 Albert Einstein more-or-less invented the idea of special relativity, by which time dilation (or the slowing of time) occurs when objects approach the speed of light. But special relativity only works in contexts with no gravity. Einstein detailed his ideas of general relativity in 1915 for those situations, the general rule being more gravity means more time dilation.

Delving into these ideas means teaching the students some pretty advanced physics that they would not otherwise encounter until graduate school, most likely. The physics stretch the students (and instructors!) a great deal intellectually. But it is all quite fun, honestly. You get to see your world and universe in an entirely different way, challenging your very conceptions of how the universe functions. The ideas are not all abstract, either. For example, if gravitational time dilation were not taken into account, GPS satellites would be off by about 15 additional meters each day. Over the course of the year, those coordinates would be off by more than three miles!

The course does more than simply cover high-level physics concepts, however. It also uses science fiction to question how time travel, whether theoretical or speculative, might operate in real life. We are not the only people to do such things, of course. Kip Thorne, the physicist famous for being the science adviser to the 2014 film Interstellar, has speculated about how wormholes might work (even if he thinks they might not be theoretically possible) and how those could potentially be used to time travel. Science fiction has a great place in the classroom too.

Interestingly, fiction about time travel began long before scientists started to ponder the idea in earnest. Washington Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle” (1819)was not the first fiction to incorporate a time travel element, but it was perhaps the first very popular one. H.G Wells was the first person to use the word “time machine”in his 1895 book of the same name. (Both works are in the public domain, so read away!) This year we have also gotten into some more modern fiction, including some bona-fide sci-fi classics: Ray Bradbury’s “A Sound of Thunder” (1952), Robert Heinlein’s “‘—All You Zombies—‘” (1958), and Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War (1974). 

On top of fantastic written fiction, we are also viewing a number of movies that include time travel. Some of the films, like the previously mentioned Interstellar or Primer (2004), are quite serious. Others, like Back to the Future (1985) and Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989), are playful and lighthearted. But all combine questions of what might happen if science fiction became science reality.

And that is where I come into the picture. (Please do not misunderstand me that Jack is incapable of tackling such subjects—far from it—but I have to justify my existence somehow.)

At the local comic convention this past year, the 2017 Spa Con, Jack and another one of our physicist colleagues, Brian Monson, were part of a panel on teleportation. During the panel, Brian suggested that one of science fiction’s real benefits was that it allowed us to work out ethical quandaries inherent to science and technology. And he is right there.

With our time travel course, Jack and I try to get students to realize that scientists need arts training, and artists would be better off with some science training. Interdisciplinarity is not merely a trendy academic buzzword. It is a better way of organizing our thoughts and allows us to answer questions that we never would have even asked had we stayed rigidly fixed to our own disciplinary boundaries.

Who is to say that Asimov did not get it right when he devised his “Three Laws of Robotics”? Or that HBO’s new series “Westworld”cannot help us better understand the ethical conundrums associated with artificial intelligence? This is something more than the fearmongering present in most Michael Crichton works (which I adored as a child, so please do not take this critique just as bashing). Instead, if our technological development is going to continue apace with its speed over the last hundred years, how will we handle that as a society? Obviously there could have been more discussion about the morality of technology like the atomic bomb. But the recent congressional hearings into Facebook show that more benign technologies also raise a host of ethical problems with real world consequences.

So, when we have our students learn about the physics of time travel, we want them to be able to do more than just calculate γ (gamma, or the coefficient used to determine time dilation in special relativity). And when we show them fun movies, we want them to get more than just a laugh out of it. When we have our students write their own science fiction, we want more than just to stimulate their creative processes. 

What we really want is for students to think synthetically and recognize that science, ethics, and fiction are not as separate as might get portrayed in popular culture. Creating good citizens in the future will require thinkers adept at moving between each of these modes of thinking and combining insights in ways that improve understandings in each individual discipline. 

Saying that humanities and science should be taught together is not new. The fact that we are teaching this course at the Arkansas School for Mathematics, Sciences, and the Arts says that. But, hopefully our course shows that science fiction can be an ideal vessel to do so. As our students have learned, time travel science and fiction are less about how our world works and more about how we should fit into it with each other.