Neil Tyson and I talk time travel

By Phil Plait | June 14, 2011 1:30 pm

A few weeks ago I was in New York City to attend NECSS, a skeptic meeting. While I was there, I swung by my pal Neil Tyson’s radio studio to record a couple of episodes of his wildly popular "Star Talk Radio" show. The first episode, dissecting science at the movies, is archived here on Discover Magazine.

The second, Time Travel at the Movies, aired over the weekend and is now archived as well. Neil, comedian Leighann Lord (standing next to me in the picture here; producers Helen Matsos and Leslie Mullen are to the right of Neil), and I talk a little bit about the science of time travel (relativity, killing your grandfather before he met your grandmother, and so on) before diving into the way it’s used and abused by Hollywood.

I had so much fun recording this! Neil and Leighann are fun and gracious hosts, and it’s always great to talk about movies and science. If you’re a scifi dork — and face it, you read my blog, you are a scifi dork — then I think you’ll like this.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, Geekery, Humor, Science

Comments (25)

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  1. Congratulations to Joel Watts! | Exploring Our Matrix | June 14, 2011
  1. Why just a scifi dork? What if I am an all around dork?

  2. TJ

    Re: time travel in movies, have you read this site:

  3. Mike


    All around dork? Nah…

    Don’t you know about the discovery of Dork Matter? It’s the stuff that causes us geeks to congregate at parties and conventions.

    And then there’s Dork Energy. That’s the stuff that causes all others who aren’t geeks to accelerate away from us at parties and conventions.

  4. Keith Bowden

    [dork mode]
    I resent that, I am not a scifi dork, I hate skiffy! I like science fiction, which may be abbreviated as simply SF.
    [/dork mode]

  5. That’s so cool, exactly what I’ve been thinking about recently! And I had an idea why grandfathers paradox should not exist and wrote it down in my blog

    Just please don’t laugh, I’m not that good at physics as you or Mr. Tyson or Hawking :)

  6. Sean H.

    Me? A science fiction dork? Never! My costumes that I wear to conventions are awesome, nothing dork about them… Okay, I have to get back to finishing this costume. If you see a pretty decent Tom Baker-era Doctor Who at Dragon*Con that is about a foot too short feel free to say “hi.”

  7. Gonçalo Aguiar

    lol Phill said he is lazy. How did you do your PhD being lazy. I will start my PhD by January 2012 about Silicon Photomultipliers applied to high energy astroparticle detection so I need to know how did you manage.

  8. The Mutt

    Does the Future exist? If so, we’ve had millions of years to invent time travel.

    Why haven’t we heard from any time travelers? Not even by accident?

    Temporal Prime Directive?

    That never works.

  9. Thameron

    If you are going to talk seriously about time travel you may as well talk seriously about magic next and FTL travel after that.

  10. Neat. By the way, I have to ask, how does Tyson feel about that SMBC cartoon about him?

  11. Pete Jackson

    I’ll post something clever about this yesterday.

  12. David H

    That was a fun show, Phil – there’s a great chemistry between the three of you :)

  13. Michael W

    Great talk, Phil.

    (I don’t consider that MJ Young site mentioned above worth reading, unless you’re a fan of the very specific set of invented RPG rules he uses to talk about time travel. It’s not based on reality – inasmuch as any discussion of time travel can be!)

  14. Nigel Depledge

    @ David H (13) –
    Wait, what?

    I thought Phil and Neil were astronomers, not chemists? ūüėČ

  15. Carl

    The weirdest thing to me about time travel in the movies is this: nobody seems to be interested in the utterly stunning philosophical implications. The physics may be stunning, but the metaphysics are absolutely breathtaking.

    For example, in a typical movie or TV show, some people are dead… and then time is changed, so they are no longer dead! What does that even mean? If there is an afterlife, what happens to the no-longer-dead person’s afterlife experience? What does it even mean to no longer be dead? The “killing your own grandfather” paradox pales into insignificance compared to unkilling your grandfather.

    And what about when you travel into your own past so that there are two of you? What does that say about the nature of consciousness or the existence of a soul? And what does traveling into the future imply about free will? If you see the consequences of your future decisions, whose will exactly made those decisions if the events haven’t happened to you yet?

    And yet, if you watch an episode of (say) Star Trek with time travel in it, it’s as if the protagonists say to each other, “Well, we restored the Enterprise, brought the captain back to sanity, and erased millions of deaths. Let’s never speak of this again.”

  16. Josh

    I don’t have time to listen to that today but I’m visiting family this weekend so I’m burning both podcasts on CD (I’m probably one of only ten people in the country without an ipod) and I’ll listen to them while on the road.

    Hopefully the time travel podcast will make time pass by faster…

  17. rob

    hey Phil, you calling us dorks? lol.

    i resemble that remark!

  18. SLC

    One movie that is not usually mentioned is, “The Final Countdown.” The plot here is that the modern aircraft carrier Nimitz, operating in the Central Pacific near Pearl Harbor, is transported back in time to December 6, 1941 through a freak weather event. The plot illustrates the dilemma that faces the notion of time travel backwards, namely should the captain order his aircraft to attack the Japanese fleet heading towards Pearl Harbor and sink it, thus preventing the attack that took place on December 7, 1941?

  19. mike burkhart

    I call myslef a scifi addict and there is no treatment for it witch is good. As for time travel , I mentioned the “granfather pradox” before on this blog. But hears another : what if I only go back 1 minute in time ,would I meet myself? would there be two of me one from the past and one from the future? and would there be any problems ? If I went ahead into the future and meet myself or found out about my future would I like what I find? could I change my future ? Carl I would leave questions about the afterlife to the Religous realm , this is one thing that science can neather prove or disprove maybe the only way to findout is to die. I like the Final Countdown , the thing is with all of that modern weapontry that one carrier could of sunk the entire Japanese fleet. Also I found it educational : before I saw it on tv I always wondered how they land aircraft on an aircraft carrier now I know .

  20. jamey johnson

    Three great recent time travel movies you didn’t mention
    Timecrimes (spanish)
    Summer time machine blues (japanese)
    I love a well done time travel movie and hate when they don’t think it through, these three movies do a great job and are a lot of fun.

  21. BradC

    My favorite time travel movie is “12 Monkeys”, which I consider the quintessential example of a “can’t change the timeline”-style time-travel movie. It also has one of those “trying to change an event is what actually causes it” twists. Plus, I just love Brad Pitt’s depiction of the crazy man in the asylum.

    Mentioning it might get my man-card revoked, but another good time travel “chick flick” was “The Time Traveler’s Wife”. In this one, it is the *character himself* that has something wrong with him, where he will suddenly and without reason leap through time (without clothes), either to the past or to the future, for a couple hours, then jump back to the present. Excellent romance, but have a box of tissues handy :). Also of the “can’t change the timeline” style.

    Watching a time-travel movie, I’m always trying to quickly determine which “bucket” it belongs to (“branching time”, like Back to the Future or Terminator, or “fixed timeline” like 12 Monkeys). Until you mentioned Groundhog Day, I didn’t really consider it in the same category, but I guess you could describe “time loop” movies as a third category of time travel movies (the ST: TNG episode “Cause and Effect” was of this type).

    Excellent podcast!!

  22. mike burkhart

    Just thought of another time travel pradox.If I build a time machine and try to go to the past it would disapear ,why? because I built it in 2011 and as I travel back to a time before the machine was compleat it would disasmble it self reverting back to the way the machine was before it was compleat as I was building it. The only way around this is if I built a time machine that would send me back but not travel with me (like the Gardian of Forever in Star Trek)

  23. Nigel Depledge

    Carl (16) said:

    And what about when you travel into your own past so that there are two of you? What does that say about the nature of consciousness or the existence of a soul? And what does traveling into the future imply about free will? If you see the consequences of your future decisions, whose will exactly made those decisions if the events haven’t happened to you yet?

    I think I know why these questions don’t get addressed.

    How can you formulate the questions in such a way that they can be meaningfully resolved?

  24. Mike Turner

    just wondering if you’ve seen “Primer”
    its one of my favorite films and i think the best film that involves a lot of advance science
    and some fun lines like “hey man are you hungry? i haven’t eaten since later this afternoon”


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