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
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.
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
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?
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.