For All Time

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The film adaptation of Audrey Niffenegger’s bestselling novel, The Time Traveler’s Wife, hits theaters this weekend. For those unfamiliar with the premise, it concerns a Chicago librarian named Harry (Eric Bana) who suffers from a rare genetic disorder that causes him to live on a constantly shifting timeline, shuttling back and forth between past, present and future with no control over this unusual quirk.

This understandably throws a wrench into his relationship with Clare (Rachel McAdams), who must cope with his sudden disappearances and re-appearances as best she can over the course of their marriage.

Let’s leave aside the fact that no genetic disorder could possibly cause this kind of anomaly in the space-time continuum. We’re talking about fantasy, after all, which demands a certain willing suspension of disbelief.

That said, according to Drexel University physicist Dave Goldberg, the time travel science in the film is surprisingly consistent with what physicists have to say about how time travel should work, were it possible. He’s written a fun analysis on this topic for Slate, in honor of the movie’s release (as well as a forthcoming book with Jeff Blomquist, A User’s Guide to the Universe: the Perils of Black Holes, Time Paradoxes and Quantum Uncertainty, due in March 2010). An excerpt:

“In a rule-abiding time travel narrative, there are no parallel universes — just a single timeline. The Time Traveler’s Wife follows this rule to a T, and there is a significant online presence dedicated to diagramming the unique entangled history of Henry and Clare.”

Of course, a fictional world can set its own rules, and need only be internally self-consistent. But it’s nice that at least one physicist out there appreciates that The Time Traveler’s Wife gets it mostly right. You can read more about the rules of time travel here and here, so when you get to the theater to see the film, you can appreciate even more fully the cinematic vision on the screen.

The statements and opinions expressed in this piece are those of the event participants and do not necessarily reflect the views of any organization or agency that provided support for this event or of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.