Skepticism

Afternoon Inquisition, 4.24

It’s Friday! To celebrate, someone has given you a time machine! HANDY!

You can go back in time for exactly one hour and make a change to the past. What would you do and why? How would you expect things to be different when you got back to the present day?

P.S. Yes, this isn’t a very original question. But you were thinking “I’d kill Hitler” so you’re not that original either. :)

Masala Skeptic

Maria Walters (a.k.a. Masala Skeptic) has spent a lot of time in ‘furrin parts,’ including Hong Kong, Trinidad, and Pittsburgh. Although her passport is from India, she’s spent most of her adult life in the United States. She currently lives in Atlanta and has an unhealthy affection for science fiction, Neil Gaiman and all things Muppet.

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61 Comments

  1. I’d teach my 14 year old self that the tall, skinny, awkward girls in high school turn out to be the best looking once you hit mid-late 20’s.

    On that note, “Things I’d teach my 14 year old self” would make a good AI.

  2. I’d go back to 1914 and prevent Gravrilo Princip’s assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, thus defusing the powder keg that led to World War I, thereby preventing the horrific Treaty of Versailles, thereby preventing the rise of Hitler and, by extension, World War II, thereby halting Soviet Russia’s postwar consolidation of power, severely lessening the impact of the Stalinist/Maoist genocides, as well as the theft and murder resulting the string of petty dictators rising from the chaos of the Cold War. Hellz yeah.

    Of course, by preventing the postwar baby boom, I might inadvertently change the very fact of my existence, but it would be totally worth it.

  3. Hmm, there are a lot of historical events that could be changed but it’d be hard to do anything history-changing in the span of an hour. Take the Hitler example. Dropped into Germany 70-odd years ago, would you be able even to locate Hitler in an hour?

    There’s also the option of changing your own personal timeline, which might be easier, if more selfish. It’d be fairly straightforward to print off a stock market history to hand over to your younger self, along with a chronicle of personal pitfalls to avoid.

    Maybe you could gather up some useful information (e.g. polio vaccine, transistor, laser, high-temp super conductor, lithium ion batteries, thin-film solar cells, the structure of DNA) and hand it over to some institution that would make good use of it. It’s likely that would have the most positive effect on both yourself and the rest of the world.

    On the other hand, it could backfire and you could return to a dystopian present overrun by killer robots with Austrian accents.

  4. I was going to say something about releasing weakened strains of major diseases in the Americas circa 1000 BCE, so that the Native Americans would have a fighting chance when the disease ridden Europeans showed up.

    Then I saw that James Fox had a much better answer:

    @James Fox:

  5. Anything more than a handful of years ago could have all kinds of unforseen consequences.
    Maybe I’d take the extra hour to play a game of Chrononauts or three…
    Or maybe, more seriously, I’d take some of the most current deadly disease research and give it to some researchers, a decade or two ago, who could do something with it earlier. Any further back than that and I risk causing myself not to exist.
    …of course, I’d be removing the reason for my own action, causing a paradox anyway. Hmm.
    Maybe I’d go back and ask Einstein what he’d do with the same opportunity? Should be interesting, anyway.

  6. @nuxi: I’m sure there are many sci-fi books where this has happened. I’m reminded of Michael Moorcock’s steampunkish novel “Warlord of the Air” where without World War I and the events that followed, the colonial powers had the energy to keep a hold on their colonies in Africa, Asia, and India. So by 1970 you had a world that was in some cases better (peace in Europe and Asia, free healthcare and high-technology in the first world) but in the colonies, and places like China, things were bad if not worse than in our 1970. In America, I think segregation was still present, for an additional example. But airships instead of planes were the preferred means of travel in 1970, which is a plus in my book.

  7. If we’re able to control our location as well as the time I would transport myself back to to 1560 on the island of Mauritius. Capture a few sets of breeding Dodo’s, pop back to the future. Next thing you know – delicious Dodo egg omelettes for everyone!

  8. I misread the premise as “You can go back in time exactly one hour to make a change to the past.” You know, as in going back to 3:00 this afternoon. And as I’ve managed to get through the last 60 minutes without a single regret, I’m stumped for an answer.

  9. I would go back in time to the very first time I had ever had sex, I would push my former self aside and go at it so as not to awkwardly embarrass myself as I did back then. Of course this would probably interrupt the space/sex continuum, only resulting with me coming back to find myself hopelessly addicted to midget porn and hot dogs.

  10. In the interests of not screwing up the timeline too much, I would probably choose to convince myself a month ago that I should have started writing that essay two weeks earlier. That way I could continue to exist, not prevented anyone else from existing, *and* have gotten an A in Pre-Socratics.

  11. Kill Hitler? Pedestrian!

    I’d ensure that Hitler got enrolled into art school, like he originally planned.

    Or I’d go back to the Cretaceous and stomp on the first butterfly I find, just to see what happens.

  12. Stop Chernobyl. This way, there would be less anti-nuclear sentiment, and there would be an earlier established base of nuclear power, and thus more investment into fusion, and well, generally solve our power problems.

    Hah! That’s different.

  13. I would go back to November 2, 2000, to Palm Beach County, at 5 in the morning. I’d have a prepared stack of fliers explaining how the butterfly ballot works, and I’d spend the hour running from retirement home to retirement home, scattering them all over the place.

    Or I’d just go back to the moment when the county officials came up with the ballot design, and ask them if they didn’t think it would be less confusing to have all the names in a regular list.

    I think this is obviously the correct answer to the question.

  14. You wouldn’t need to kill Hitler. Go back to when he was a baby, kidnap him, bring back to the future and drop him off at an orphanage. A Jewish orphanage if you’re into irony. Of course this assumes that Hitler was the CAUSE of WWII and not part of the tidal wave of history leading to WWII. Without Hitler, someone else may have filled that void, someone just a little less crazy who might have WON the war, or at made it a draw.

  15. I would probably be horribly selfish. I’d convince my 15 year old self to stop being so damn irrational and start working on getting into a premed program (at the time I was working on getting into rabbinical school).

  16. Go back and take some polaroid snapshots of God Creating The Earth, and maybe a couple of Him Designing the Eyeball. Then sneak the pics into the sarcophagus of an as yet un-unearthed Egyptian. Then plant some clues so that the tomb would soon be found by archeaologists. When I got home, buy a bunch of beer and watch the fun.

  17. I can never play this game without getting bogged down by the paradoxes or the potential to make my life (or anyone else’s) worse.

    So… I would back to this morning and remind myself to wear a belt so that my jeans wouldn’t be falling off thus embarrassing me and entertaining my coworkers.

  18. JESherman:

    … someone just a little less crazy who might have WON the war, or at made it a draw.

    ok. I loved The Man In The High Castle . I loved Thor Versus Captain America. I loved Turtledove’s alternative history series about the lizard-like aliens that showed up during WWII.
    But the Soviet Union was waaay too freaking big for Germany to have any serious hope of controlling it. The USA’s factories could produce more planes, more jeeps, more tanks, more almost anything, in a month than the Third Reich could in an entire year. Britain’s navy dwarfed the German Navy. Britain could also draw on the populations of its colonies for soldiers.
    The Germans winning that war would have practically required keeping Russia, the USA, and maybe even Britain out of it. That would limit what the Germans could have done. Czechoslovakia would have been a nice prize though. Really, the Nazis were extremely fortunate to get as far as they did.

  19. I’d go back in time to last Wednesday when I had the Salmon Quiche with Cous Cous for lunch. In retrospect, I should have gone with my first instinct and had the Grilled Tuna Steak with Feta Cheese Salad.

    Oh, the things you let slip by…

  20. I know it is boring, and not snarky, but I would go back and listen to my grandmother. REALLY listen to her, and not be such a little shit. Just sit and let her talk for an hour, and then hug her and smell her.

    I miss her every day. I am actually tearing up.

    Stupid Skepchick!!

  21. I’d kill Hitler. Honestly, how could you do anything else. Millions dead, the world broken. I would go back and find little baby hitler and strangle him in his crib. “Oh, but maybe that will make the future worse.” Oh fuck that noise. He was a terrible person. Given the chance I would kill his gather and mother while they were fucking and before he was born. Shit I would kill his grandparents on both his mother and father’s sides.

  22. If only it were possible to go back in time and replace Jesus with “The Dude” from ‘The Big Lebowski’. Would Christianity be any different… would people be more laid back? Eh… probably not. Still, I like the idea of replacing various historic personages with The Dude. He may not exist in real life, but his spirit lives on inside me.

    Fine, I’ll just kill Hitler, or Stalin, or whatever… geez.

  23. Ha, I read the question as “what would do if you went back an hour in time,” in which case I would have insisted on setting up a better ramp so my dad didn’t get run over by a giant puppet, and would have remember to make the turn for that good Vietnamese place.

  24. I’d change nothing,

    It’s prime directive sort of thing…

    I’d watch my future GF playing, as a child, and tell her that she should just keep on going just like she is.

    Then, I’d transport over to Canada, and kick my future ex-wife right in the groin. (Just kidding).

    You know, if I could have stood it, April 7th (at exactly 3:52 PM, but who’s counting) would have been 19 years of beautiful, carnal bliss.

    Something to think about…

    rod

  25. I’d stay out of all the potentially world changing acts. You never know what might result.

    So I’d give myself a few pointers on why being more social and less of a procrastinator is smart. Oh, who am I kidding, I’d consider and reevaluate and put off going until I accidentally get hit by a bus.

  26. @llewelly:
    “Then I’d rule the world with my arm of spiral-shelled cephalopods.”

    I should think an arm like that would make it pretty difficult to masturbate with a kitten.

    I’d go back to my senior year of high school and explain to myself that the college recruiter that came to see me was actually handing me an incredible opportunity, and not somehow trying to rip me off. It wouldn’t make the world a better place, but the question didn’t forbid selfishness. And yes, I would hope that things were different when I got back to the now.

    This was actually my second choice, but I can’t think of a way to stop my mother from taking up smoking with only an hour to work with.

  27. @Imrryr: That would be frickin’ sweet. I’m sure Christianity wouldn’t change all that much, but instead of “God be with you”, they’d say, “the Dude abides”. So when we bid our friends farewell, we could tell them, “dudebide”. How awesome is that?

    Also, clearly, we need to replace Hitler with the Dude.

  28. I think I’d go back to my 18-year old self and tell me that everything was going to work out OK. Just hang on and don’t do anything drastic or irrevocable.

    @heidiho: I think we all have a few moments like that we’d like to go back to and…reinterpret? Revisit?

  29. Can I take something with me? If so, I’d go find DaVinci pre-puberty, and hand him a college Physics book. Or, that being non-doable, my girlfriend suggests going back to kill Helena, Constantine the Great’s mother, hence, no Edict of Milan, hence, Christianity remaining a persecuted peoples.

  30. dmikeyj: That would only delay the inevitable. You gotta go back a little further.

    If I could take back something, I’d translate a couple of basic chemistry texts (along with how to make gunpowder and the basics of muskets) and a few histories that mention what Christianity was going to do between 300 and 1500 AD into ancient Celt and drop them on a guy named Caratacus about 35 AD… just before the second Roman invasion of Britain.

    Okay… so I minored in ancient history. :)

    It’s probably a useless gesture, but it would be nice if there was something I could do about keeping Christianity from turning into a world-wide forest fire back in the early days. The above might help… might not, but it would be interesting to see what would happen.

    If I couldn’t take back anything, I think I’d go back to somewhere around the time Jesus was supposed to be wandering around preaching and give him a piece of my mind.

  31. @Joshua: I can see it now: After I replace Jesus with The Dude I’ll go forward in time to see the alternate future I’ve created. When I get to 1998 and turn on the TV there will be a news report about how Christians are protesting and burning copies of The Big Lebowski because of the “unrealistic and offensive” portrayal of their messiah by Jeff Bridges. …It’s definitely going to require more Dudes to create the world I want to live in.

  32. I would go back to new president Reagan circa 1981 and show him that this new gay cancer will impact the entire planet in ways he cannot imagine, convince him to pour some money into the CDC and take it seriously…..Of course, in that universe I would not have my job today but that’s a risk I’m willing to take :)

  33. I guess if I was prevented from killing Hitler. (that would suck) I would go back to 1990 and tell my 18 year old self that there were jobs in computers and that the recession wouldn’t last forever. That way I wouldn’t drop my computer science major would have gone off to silicon valley. Made millions and would be funding an international chain of skepchick strip clubs. You would have to admit that you didn’t believe in god to get a skepchick lap dance.

  34. I think I’d hide Fritz Haber’s chemistry notes: without the ability to synthesise ammonia and hence nitrates, Germany wouldn’t have been able to make explosives and WW1 would have been a lot shorter…

  35. Hmmm, this is really hard. Because if we stop the rise of Christianity, Islam takes over the world, and visa versa. I’d have to enlist the help of a co-conspiritor (is that spelled right?) and have one of us kidnap mohammed’s mother, and the other take out mary. We bring them back with us, jesus/mohammed get born in the present, and all the other religions continue to exist.

    Of course, in the nuclear age, everyone hates everone else, so we all drop the bomb on everybody, so we all come back to a barren planet. But, hey, we have at least both genders, so we can repopulate the world, and we are right back where we started.

  36. RE: llewelly
    You are probably right in saying Germany with an Alternate Hitler would have still lost the war. But that’s supposing an Alternate Hitler would have even started a war. Or what if Alt-Hitler became an ally of Stalin, as Real Hitler did for a sort while? Real Hitler marched into a number of palces before starting a war. What if Alt-Hitler stopped just before a war was declared and then bided his time? And how would this have affected the Holocaust?

  37. How about “absolutely nothing” for an answer? Since I have no way of reliably predicting the long-term implications of any change, I have no way of knowing if any proposed change would make the world better or worse.

    Without that knowledge, it would be unethical to act.

    By way of example, take the “I’d kill Hitler” trope. First, you have no guarantee that the Nazi party wouldn’t find some other figurehead and perpetrate the same (or worse) evils. It’s not like Hitler was the only anti-Semite in Germany. Perhaps Hitler coming to power meant that some other, more powerful bastard never got his chance.

    Second, the horrible tragedy of the Holocaust did result in some good: international attention to the issues of anti-semetism (and racism in general). What kind of world would we live in today if we didn’t have such a powerful example of “ethnic cleansing” to point to? Would we have come as far as we have?

    Finally, the war that was precipitated as the result of Nazi Germany’s aggression led to dramatic advances in energy research, medicine, transportation, and communications. Would governments have been willing to spend the research dollars if there hadn’t been a war?

    I’m not saying any of these things means that it was good that the tragedies surrounding Hitler occurred: just that world-changing events (even awful ones) have both bad and good outcomes, and you can’t really predict what would have happened if Hitler had never come to power. If you can’t predict it, you can’t know whether it would have been an overall better outcome.

    And this applies to even the simplest event.

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