Tag Archives: bootstrap paradox

Continuum and the Bootstrap Paradox

Continuum’s present timeline seems to be littered with objects from the future. This is hardly surprising considering it is a time travel show. Objects like Kiera’s CMR, the Quantum Time Traveling Device, the drug Retrievanol better known as “Flash” and that other mysterious device whose purpose we are yet to learn all exist in a time when they should not as they have not been created.

Alec Sadler (Erik Knudsen) is arguably the inventor of many of these devices. Or, at least, he will be in the future. If present day Alec “invents” these devices by examining them, can he lay claim to their invention? It really comes down to, did he do the work necessary to bring those ideas to fruition? The answer is more complex than you would think and poses some serious problems in physics. This problem is known as the bootstrap paradox.

The Bootstrap Paradox

"By His Bootstraps" by Robert A. Heinlein was originally published in the October 1941 issue of Astounding Science Fiction under the pen name Anson MacDonald.

“By His Bootstraps” by Robert A. Heinlein was originally published in the October 1941 issue of Astounding Science Fiction under the pen name Anson MacDonald.

The bootstrap paradox is a time travel paradox in which an object or information can exist without ever being created. The object or piece of information is sent back in time where it is retrieved and to become the very object or piece of information that was brought back in the beginning.

One example would be a famous author who goes back in time to give his collected best-selling works to his younger self. His younger self sells those works to a publisher and becomes famous. The now older author then goes back in time to give his manuscript to his younger self.

The term originates from the expression “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps” and was used to describe the time-travel paradox in Robert A. Heinlein’s story “By His Bootstraps”. In Heinlein’s story the protagonist, Bob Wilson, recreates a notebook of translations belonging to his future self. At the end of the story, he wonders who actually compiled the notebook as he prepares to give the book to his younger self in the past.

The young and future best-selling author may feel nothing is wrong with this but to some of us, it seems as if he is cheating. Though it can be argued that the young author, left on his own, will eventually produce the work that he becomes famous for, he has not yet created that work. He is not just claiming ownership for something he never worked on but copying it. This is why it seems like cheating.

Bootstrap Paradox

“I think… the Second Law… of Thermodynamics… says these glasses… should not exist. But… they do, Bones.”

All of the author’s best selling work and Bob Wilson’s notebook of translations have no point of origin because no one has actually created any of it. It all exists in an endless time-loop. As matter and information can not exist without being created, it is paradoxical that it would exist inside the loop.

This becomes even more difficult to consider when we consider physical objects. The Second Law of Thermodynamics states that entropy increases over time meaning that any object brought back ages, will eventually break down and decay. This means that no object will be the same when brought back and can not become the same object in the future.

A time loop also poses a problem with determinism. As every action must occur in exactly the same way each time for the loop to exist. No one can act in a way to do something different. There is no free will in this scenario.

Understanding Continuum’s Bootstrap Paradox

Bootstrap Paradox

Head Frelancer Catherine explains the nature of time in Continuum.

Though it seems that the laws of physics conspires against young Alec to prevent him from taking advantage of his older self’s work and inventions, it doesn’t. At least not in the way we understand the show’s physics. We know at the start of Season Three that time is not immutable. It can change depending on a person’s actions to not only give rise to new branches but to eliminate old ones.

This branching timeline idea means that both objects and information can travel between timelines thus resolving the paradox. In an original timeline, Alec Sadler, played by William B. Davis, was the genius that created the inventions of the late 21st century. All the inventions that Alec creates now have a point of origin or creation. It’s just in another timeline.

When someone travels back in time, they can bring any objects or information with them and create a new timeline. This means that a younger Alec can use information from an alternate future to recreate technology in his own time line without violating any laws of physics. He can, for example, use information from Jason and dead Kiera’s CMR to recreate his medical monitoring wrist band, Halo.

Multiple timeline also solves the problem of determinism. In a loop, everyone must continually do everything that happened before without deviation and with no apparent free will. A new timeline means people’s choices will shape the outcome and events in the future.

Who’s the Original?

Hirsute from A.J. Bond on Vimeo.

In “Minute of Silence”, (Season 3, Episode 9), Carlos Fonnegra (Victor Webster) shows Alec the dead Kiera frozen on ice. “You and me. We’re originals,” he tells Alec. But are they? It’s not surprising that Carlos would make such a statement or even think it. We all like to think we are original or special in some way. In reality, neither he nor this timeline’s Alec are originals. They are just copies.

In A.J. Bond’s time traveling short story, Hirsute, a young time traveler tries in vain to solve the problem of time travel. Deciding that if a solution exists, he will simply go back in time and give himself the answer. To his surprise, nothing happens. No one comes to visit. Maybe time travel is impossible.

The next scene replays exactly as before but this time someone comes back with the answer. Excited to see his older time traveling self, the young physicist claims a victory. Or tries to. His older time traveling self tells him that he did nothing and hasn’t invented time travel. The older and hairless time traveler is the original.

So as much as Carlos would like to believe that he is the original and not some copy, he is wrong. I wonder who is going to break it to him.

Time Loops and the Paradoxes of Continuum’s Time Travel Physics

The season finale to Continuum leaves the viewer with lots of surprises and questions that are sure to keep them engaged until Season Three begins in 2014. While Season Two doesn’t specifically answer questions regarding the rules to time travel used in the show, it does provide some hints and insights on what might be happening. If anything we can be certain that the rules are going to be as complex and interesting as the plot so far. To get up to speed you should read my first article, “The Wibbly-Wobbly of Continuum“.

Future Alec sends everyone back

We learn at the end of Season One and the start of Season Two that the future Alec (William B. Davis) is responsible for sending everyone back in time. It also turns out that there is a specific reason for sending Kiera back – to either prevent the future from happening or to prevent him from going down a certain path. It is apparent that future Alec regrets many of the things that have taken place when he tells his son, Jason (Ian Tracey), “Liber8 wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for me. Perhaps they are just a manifestation of my conscience.”

But Kiera’s presence isn’t without problems. Escher/Marc Sadler (Hugh Dillon) berates Kiera when he tells her

“You carry destruction in your wake, you’re the time bomb.”

Given that Escher is a former Freelancer, he may have some insight from his former occupation. Warren (Adrian Holmes), one of the enigmatic “Freelancers”, also hints that Kiera’s presence is an “anomaly” and a “glitch in the continuum” and it appears that Warren was ready to kill Kiera to “fix” things.

This raises several questions. If Kiera is a problem, why was she sent back in the first place? Did future Alec know of the trouble she would cause when he sent her back? In Season One, we witness the the “first” meeting between the future Alec and Kiera and it seems that he knew who she was. So while this was a first time meeting for Kiera, it certainly isn’t for Alec.

We Know Things can change

Freelancers and Continuum

Kiera meets with fellow time traveler Jason, who informs her that he’s being followed by other time travelers from the future he calls “Freelancers.”


One of the mysteries behind the show’s time travel physics is whether there is a single timeline or multiple ones. If there is a single timeline, for events to happen as they are supposed to, they must follow the Novikov self-consistency principle. This principle asserts if an event exists that would give rise to a paradox, or to any “change” to the past whatsoever, then the probability of that event is zero.

This means that for the events that leads up to Liber8’s trip back in time, then all the events in the past need to lead up to that one event. Alec can’t decide not to send Liber8 back in time as doing so ironically creates the corporate run future. In short, this makes it impossible to create time paradoxes which is different from a multiple timeline scenario where anything can happen. In this case, when Kiera and Liber8 arrive in 2012, they create a new timeline that has no impact on the timeline they came from.

In “Second Thoughts” (Season 2, Episode 3), Jason tells Kiera about the Freelancers and that Escher is also one of them. It’s not clear if Jason knows that Escher is his grand-father but it is likely. He seems to think that Escher is dangerous and not a person to be trusted. Jason also tells Kiera that:

“You know, you won’t be the same person when you left”.

This is one of the clues that might be telling us that we are dealing with a single timeline. If a person was to return to the 2077, they might take the place of their “double” and that person’s memories will eventually be replaced by new memories of the new timeline as if the old one never happened.

This gives credibility to the “time loop” theory of a single timeline. But the implication of a single timeline has always been that for the events that lead Liber8 to arrive in 2012, then everything must lead up to them being sent back in time in 2077. Jason could be saying this doesn’t have to be the case; everyone doesn’t have to follow a particular script.

The fact that things can be changed becomes all the more clear in “Second Truths” (Season 2, Episode 6). Kiera solves and stops a serial killer whose case file was unsolved in 2077 in future. Using information gleaned from the future is an example of the Bootstrap Paradox where information sent back from the future becomes the very information that was brought back in the first place.

The Bootstrap Paradox is problematic as it implies that the information was never created. It exists specifically because the loop occurs. This episode is important because it establishes one thing — paradoxes are possible in the Continuum Universe. This means that we don’t have to stick to Novikov even if we are dealing with a single timeline.

As her memories remain unchanged upon solving the case, then according to Jason, she won’t experience any changes to her memories until she returns to 2077. The events of her examining the unsolved cold case in the future have been wiped out and no longer exist. We don’t know what events have replaced of that day. All we know is that it didn’t happen. This has some profound repercussion for Kellog.

What this means if or when she returns, remains to be seen. The multiple timeline scenario posed one problem. If 2077 Alec sends Liber8 back in time, he can never achieve his plan to stop the dark path the world has taken as he will only change the history of an alternate Universe.

The time loop scenario poses a similar problem. If all the events must happen in a way that must lead up to Liber8’s “execution”, then there is no way Alec can change the past. Allowing paradoxes to be a part of the show’s time travel physics solves that problem and allows Alec to hatch the plan he needs to save the world.

Garza kidnaps a young Alec

In “Second Wave” (Season 2, Episode 10), Jasmine Garza(Luvia Petersen) kidnaps young Alec on the orders of his future self. It seems this was future Alec’s contingency plan in case the corporate controlled future appears imminent. Unfortunately, it seems that in an act of desperation and frustration, Garza jumped the gun and acted prematurely.

Continuum Time Travel Alec and Jason

In 2077, the older Alec tells his son Jason of his plans to send Liber8 back in time to stop the corporate controlled future.


It seems that this isn’t the only plan the future Alec has put in motion. In the season finale, “Second Time”, we learn that Jason is his son and not his father as previously believed. In this scene, future Alec says:

“Because you will inherit my failure if I don’t succeed and I don’t wish that on anyone”

Could it be that he means that if he fails and is killed, Jason will be wiped out of existence when he returns to the future?

It also seems that a time traveler won’t feel the effects of his actions until he returns to the future timeline. Jason tells Kiera that:

One day, you’re going to wake up and wonder if any of it really happened.

This may mean that once they return to the future, they not only replace their future selves but eventually take on the experiences and memories of that time line as if they never went back in time.

This provides some insights to the “A Test of Time” (Season 1, Episode 5) episode when the young girl believed to be Kellog’s (Stephen Lobo) grandmother is killed by Travis. Whether this girl is really Kellog’s grandmother or not is never answered but we always assumed that as Kellog didn’t pop out of existence then Kellog was mistaken. It turns out that if Maddie (Olivia Ryan Stern) really is Kellog’s grandmother, he may pop out of existence upon his return to the future.

This also has some repercussions for Kiera herself. In the last few episodes of Season 2, Kiera has become almost obsessed with returning to 2077 and to be with her family despite Alec explaining that so many changes have happened that the future she knows may not even exist. Her best bet at ensuring the existence of her family is to stay in 2013 and see her predicament through.

What happens in the future doesn’t stay there

It would seem that whether there is one universal time-line or multiple ones lies somewhere in the middle. Escher calling Kiera the “time bomb” and Warren referring to her as a “glitch” indicates this. It seems that Kiera’s very presence is problematic.

Kiera’s presence also makes you wonder who the Freelancers are and their true goals and mission. According to Jason, humanity’s history has been guided by this enigmatic group as they seed the past with the technology that enables mankind to make the next leap froward; another example of the Bootstrap Paradox. When Warren describes his mission to Jason, we are lead to believe that the Freelancers might be the good guys — the equivalent of time cops.

But Jason believes this group is bad and might comprise individuals who manipulate history for their own benefit. It’s not clear whether Jason knew of the Freelancers before his meeting with Warren in 2077 or he picked up information about the group when he arrived in 1990. We were lead to believe that Jason’s arrival in 1990 was accidental but could his father have sent him back to investigate the circumstances of his birth and find out more about the Freelancers? Could he have discovered the existence of rogue Freelancers like Escher in the process and hence the reason why he believes his grand-father is dangerous?

As future Alec knows of the Freelancers, this could mean that this isn’t the first time any of this is happening. Not only does he know of the Freelancers from past experience but it may have happened several times in the space-time continuum — he just doesn’t “remember” it. Escher may have gone back in time to start Pyron, thereby creating the catalyst that will lead to the eventual creating of Sadtech and the dystopian corporate controlled future. This also leads young Alec to create the time-travel device and start the “family business”.

As the Freelancers are known to “interfere” in humanity’s development, it could mean that the Freelancers meant for the corporate controlled future to happen. This isn’t without consequences. Alec, realizing the horrible mistake he has made, sends Liber8 back in time to prevent this. But if the future is changed by events in the past, how would he know he has succeeded or that he even made an attempt in the future? The best way is to send a message in a bottle and this is where Kiera come in. He uses Kiera’s Mark 4 polymeric nano-composite body armor to save that message and this is where the time loop theory becomes intriguing. If this has happened before then he can send the information he needs to change the future. He can send his past and future selves the information they need, telling them what worked and what didn’t.

Time Travel in Continuum

Kiera is held prisoner in Continuum

In an unknown location and time, Kiera is held prisoner by the Freelancers with her fellow time travelers, their fates uncertain.


It seems that Contonuum’s time travel physics utilizes a single timeline. Travel back in time creates a new timeline that wipes out the old one. In several episodes, we see Kiera being dragged to a futuristic holding cell. At first, we are lead to believe that this might be a hallucinatory effect of future Alec uploading a file into Kiera’s memory but it seems that these hallucinations are very real and might be a Freelancer controlled prison.

We are never told where or even when this prison cell is. All we know is that the Freelancers are kidnapping other time-travelers. What they do with them after they are captured is anyone’s guess. If they return them to their proper place in the time line, could Kiera’s nightmares be a result of her remembering her traumatic capture from a previous time line? Or maybe she is remembering some event that is supposed to happen. The revived Curtis Chen (Terry Chen) offers no clues.

In the season’s finale, Warren and Curtis talk about “this timeline”. This indicates that the events with Liber8 and Kiera have happened several times. Exactly what the Freelancers do with their prisoners is unanswered. Do they “reinsert” them or do they keep them captive? Can we expect several prison cells all holding different versions of everyone? Are these doppelgangers connected in any way?

Fans of the show know that there is nothing easy when it comes to understanding the show. The seemingly basic premise of the “evil” Liber8 fighting to stop the distopian future hides a much deeper plot. By allowing paradoxes to be a part of the show’s physics, it appears that a much deeper plot exists — a battle between Alec and the Freelancers and where their battle is a game of chess played across space and time. The question is, are everyone just pawns or is there a bigger eventual battle where everyone plays a part to come?