Warp Drive Time Machine: The scifi short "Telescope"

The entire universe in blog form
Nov. 2 2013 8:00 AM

Telescopes as Time Machines

The future, or the past? Using space to look back in time.

Photo from the video, "Telescope"

One of the weirder concepts in astronomy is that telescopes are like time machines.

Phil Plait Phil Plait

Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death From the Skies!  

Light travels at a finite speed — it’s incredibly fast: 300,000 kilometers per second — but finite nonetheless. It takes a second or so for light to get from the Moon to Earth, eight minutes to reach us from the Sun, and over four years from the nearest known star. When you start talking cosmic distances, those numbers reach into the billions of years.


So when we use a telescope to look at some distant object, it’s as if we’re seeing it in the past. It’s fun to think about, but eventually the obvious question arises: If I could travel out into space and look back at the Earth, would I be able to see it as it once was?

The answer is: No. You wouldn’t be able to outrun the light the Earth is sending out now, so you can never see photons that left the Earth before you did.

But what if you could go faster than light? And then you could go out, say, hundreds of light years, turn around, and see the Earth as it was centuries ago?

That’s the premise of the lovely and melancholy short science fiction film, “Telescope”.

Interesting. I like how this was done; especially the spinning ring bit. Just a cool little bit of imagination. Incidentally, I was watching the end credits and noticed what looked like Orion and the Pleiades in the star field. They looked weird, distorted... and I wondered if they were changed to represent the stars as seen from 160 light years away from Earth. I sent a note to Collin Davis, who directed the movie. He told me they did indeed take a star catalog and change it, but just to make it “look cool”, and not to be accurate. That’s OK by me, but I wonder how many other people would notice?

Anyway, this idea of seeing into the past isn’t new; for one thing it was done in the original Star Trek series episode “The Squire of Gothos”. That too is OK, though; not all ideas are new, but if they’re told well and have something new to say, then it’s worth the effort. I thought “Telescope” evoked a solid emotion, and did it in an engaging, if bittersweet, way.

But is the premise possible? Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but: No. The problem with faster-than-light travel (or FTL for us scifi dorks) is that physically it’s like being able to travel into the past, and that’s a big no-no in physics. In this Universe, effect follows cause, and FTL travel would turn that on its head. The reasons behind this lie in the roots of relativity, and you can find explanations all over the web, at varying levels of headache-inducement (Sean Carroll has a technical page on it, Wikipedia has a simpler one, as well as one just on FTL, and you can find tons more with a simple search).

Mind you, FTL isn’t like going faster than the speed of sound, which some folks used to claim was impossible. The problem there was an engineering issue, not a physical one; we knew things could travel faster than sound, it’s just that building a plane to do it is hard. In the case of FTL we run up against a barrier that has to do with the very fabric of the Universe and causality.

Not that I would rule it out entirely; I prefer to leave some wiggle room, even if only at the 0.0001 percent level. I want to think FTL is possible — to travel the stars, to see all the wonders of the Universe up close! — but I try not to let my desires interfere with my knowledge. That is the very opposite of how science, and reality, work.

But it does make for a nice story.

Tip o’ the dew shield to Janna O’Shea.



The Democrats’ War at Home

How can the president’s party defend itself from the president’s foreign policy blunders?

Congress’ Public Shaming of the Secret Service Was Political Grandstanding at Its Best

Michigan’s Tradition of Football “Toughness” Needs to Go—Starting With Coach Hoke

A Plentiful, Renewable Resource That America Keeps Overlooking

Animal manure.

Windows 8 Was So Bad That Microsoft Will Skip Straight to Windows 10


Cringing. Ducking. Mumbling.

How GOP candidates react whenever someone brings up reproductive rights or gay marriage.

Building a Better Workplace

You Deserve a Pre-cation

The smartest job perk you’ve never heard of.

Hasbro Is Cracking Down on Scrabble Players Who Turn Its Official Word List Into Popular Apps

The Ludicrous Claims You’ll Hear at This Company’s “Egg Freezing Parties”

  News & Politics
Sept. 30 2014 9:33 PM Political Theater With a Purpose Darrell Issa’s public shaming of the head of the Secret Service was congressional grandstanding at its best.
Oct. 1 2014 8:34 AM Going Private To undertake a massively ambitious energy project, you don’t need the government anymore.
Atlas Obscura
Oct. 1 2014 10:32 AM The Corpse-Lined Hallways of the Capuchin Monastery Catacombs
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 30 2014 12:34 PM Parents, Get Your Teenage Daughters the IUD
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Sept. 30 2014 3:21 PM Meet Jordan Weissmann Five questions with Slate’s senior business and economics correspondent.
Brow Beat
Oct. 1 2014 10:44 AM Everyone’s Favorite Bob’s Burgers Character Gets a Remix You Can Dance to
Future Tense
Oct. 1 2014 10:27 AM 3,000 French Scientists Are Marching to Demand More Research Funding
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Oct. 1 2014 7:30 AM Say Hello to Our Quasi-Moon, 2014 OL339
Sports Nut
Sept. 30 2014 5:54 PM Goodbye, Tough Guy It’s time for Michigan to fire its toughness-obsessed coach, Brady Hoke.