Tag Archives: Novikov self-consistency principle

The Wibbly Wobbly of Continuum

The series Continuum is a time travel science fiction TV show that follows the adventures of City Protective Services (CPS) law enforcement officer Kiera Cameron (Rachel Nichols) as she attempts to stop the self-proclaimed freedom fighters known as “Liber8”. It is easy to dismiss many science fiction shows dealing with time travel for the simple reason so many of them are done badly. Continuum is different in that there is an underlying mystery. A big part of that mystery is the motivation of an older Alec Sadler (William B. Davis) and the principles on which Continuum’s time travel is based.

The Continuum World of 2077

Continuum LogoIn 2077, the future of this world is both a distopian and Orwellian. World governments have somehow failed and, by implication, we assume so too has democracy. This has given way to a corporate controlled government that monitors and records every moment of a person’s life. People are born indebted and indentured to  the Global Corporate Congress until they pay off their life debts.

Among the largest corporations in the North American Union and possibly the world is SadTech, owned by Alec Sadler — a genius responsible for inventing and developing much of the technology we see in the world of Continuum. This hasn’t only made Sadler one of the richest men in the world but possibly one of the most powerful.

In an attempt to end the corporation’s rule over the people, Liber8 leader, Edouard Kagame (Tony Amendola) attempts to bring down the Corporate Congress by blowing up the building where a scheduled meeting is to take place thereby killing all 20 members. To Kagame’s surprise Sadler is the sole survivor. Sadler gives Kagame a time travel device to allow Liber8 to escape into the past; Sadler’s full intentions are unknown.

Upon arriving in 2012, Kiera meets and befriends a younger Alec Sadler (Erik Knudsen) who is coming to terms with the loss of his father and has decided to follow his father’s work and research. The beginnings of much of the “tech” that Keira uses was developed by Alec’s father. The young Alec posits two likely time traveling scenarios, both of which have their roots in physics. Evidence for both scenarios has been presented over the course of the first season and they both seem equally valid. The first is a “time loop” where conditions can not be altered. Everything that is happening has already happened and will give way to the future that Kiera knows. The second is an alternate time line and the very presence of both Kiera and Liber8 have altered Continuum’s 2077 future.

Time Loop

The first possibility is the “time loop” where the older Alec, knowing of his interactions in 2012 with Kiera, deliberately sends her back in time. This fulfills the events in the past and allow the future to progress in the way it has. All the events we see in 2012 have already happened and none of the Continuum characters can deviate from that. In a sense, everything is preordained. One of the most tantalizing clues, though unrelated, clues is the presence of Mr. Escher, the unknown head of the high security government agency, Section 6, who vouches for Kiera to the Vancouver Police Department.

Time Loop hypothesis for Continuum

“Ascending and Descending” is a lithograph print by the Dutch artist M. C. Escher which was first printed in March 1960. This perpetual loop illustrates the concept of the time loop used in Continuum.

This name may be a hidden clue that supports the the Time Loop theory. It may  Continuum’s writers way of telling viewers which of the two theories are correct. The name may have been taken from the Dutch artist, Maurits Cornelis Escher or M.C. Escher, who is best known for his mathematically inspired artwork. Escher was known for his depictions of impossible realities, especially those that related to infinite loops in some way. The “Ascending and Descending” litographic print is an artistic depiction of the “Penrose stairs“, an impossible object created by Lionel and Roger Penrose . The reality bending idea of the Penrose Stairs was used in the 2010 movie “Inception”.

Visual Time Loop in Continuum using a Mobius strip and ants

The ants crawl along a Möbius strip. This is another illustration of the principle of a time loop in the TV series Continuum.

In addition to impossible objects, Escher’s art also features insects. One of his paintings, Möbius Strip II (Red Ants), shows an ant walking along a surface with only one side — a Möbius strip. This strip looks very much like the infinity symbol. If an ant was to start at one point on the strip it will eventually return to that same point. We can create a Möbius strip of our own by twisting one end of a strip of paper by one half-turn and gluing the ends together. This object was dicovered independently by August Ferdinand Möbius and Johann Benedict Listing in 1858.

If this name is really a clue, then it add credibility to the time loop hypothesis. It could also mean that the reason that the older Sadler sends Keira back into time isn’t just to preserve the future but because he has to; he knows and recalls his interactions with this time traveling cop in his past.

This raises the question, can Kiera or Liber8 do anything to change the future? Does it mean that every little action, from the coffee they drink in the morning to the time they go to bed at night, has already been scripted? Can they do anything that might create a time paradox?

To resolve the problem of time paradoxes, which is permitted in some solutions of Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity, Russian physicist Igor Dmitriyevich Novikov came up with his self-consistency principle . In simplest terms, the Novikov self-consistency principle says that 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 it is impossible to create time paradoxes.

Some may find this idea unpalatable as it interferes with our ideas of free will and destiny. Does it mean that Kiera and Alec and all of Liber8 are doing nothing more than following a script from which they can never deviate? Well, not entirely. The Novikov self-consistency principle does not imply that time traveler have no free-will. It just says that the results of their actions can not produce inconsistent results. Kiera can choose what to have for lunch but not stop the bombing of the building even if she tried. If she succeeded, her actions would be inconsistent with how events unfold in the future.

Alternate Timelines & the Many Worlds of Continuum

Alec also considers the possibility that Kiera’s and Liber8’s presence may have altered the time line making the fate of 2077 is uncertain. But what does that mean for the inhabitants of 2077 if Liber8 or even Kiera make a change in the present? Do they “blink” out of existence just like old Biff Tannen in Back to the Future II? No, they don’t have to and quantum mechanics may provide an answer.

To resolve some of the strange results observed in quantum mechanics, physicist Hugh Everett came up with his Many-Worlds Interpretation in 1957 . In this version of quantum mechanics, at every single instant of the tiniest portion of a second the Universe is splitting into countless billions of parallel universes. Thus our Universe branches out in which every possibility exists. The arrival of Kiera and Liber8 in the past results in a a new branch and a new alternate reality. This idea was seen in the 2009 Star Trek reboot. This spells bad news for Kiera as she can only travel to the future of the new time-line she is already in. Getting home or to the timeline she came from is an impossibility.

So which is it?

It’s difficult to say which of the two hypotheses are true as the series has given evidence to support either hypothesis. In “A Test of Time”, Kagame decides to test these theories of time travel. If Liber8 were to kill Kiera’s grandmother, then the threat posed by this future cop would literally cease to exist. While Kiera manages to save her grand-mother, Matthew Kellog’s (a former Liber8 member) teenage grandmother is killed in a confrontation between Kiera and Liber8.

Matthew’s continued existence provides no clear answers as Alec explains at the end of the episode. While we are certain who Kiera’s grandmother was, we are not quite sure in Kellog’s case. For all we know, Kellog could have been mistaken about the young girl’s identity and she was never his grandmother. The young girl could also have been Kellog’s grandmother and though she died thus preventing Matthew’s future birth, Kellog’s journey through time might protect him from this causality paradox. It does mean that the future can be changed which gives Liber8 even more incentive to succeed.

The good and bad guys in Continuum

If the future is a bad place to live and Kiera is trying to preserve the future, does that mean she is the bad guy? Liber8’s methods and motivations, while they are extreme, are to free the world from a tyrannical and oppressive system from ever taking place. Both sides are fighting to save the future they believe in. Liber8 seeks to create a better world while Kiera is trying to preserve her family’s existence. Neither knows if that is even possible.

It all comes down to one man, the older Alec Sadler and his ultimate goal and motivations. Young Alec discovers at the end of the season finale that he is the reason that Kiera is now living in the past. Did he send Kiera and Liber8 to save the future or to preserve it? Whatever the answer, we are going to have to wait for the answer in future episodes.

Further Reading