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Clean Slate

How to deal with the three main problems with time travel

By Roderick MakimPublished about a year ago Updated 11 months ago 15 min read
Clean Slate
Photo by Vitor Paladini on Unsplash

There were three main problems with time travel, as far as Rebecca was concerned. Or Dr Rebecca Heinen, AO, PhD, DPsych, BBiosc and MAIMS (Research) as was written in the header of her various academic papers. Or Bec, as her ex-husband used to call her (and probably still did, not that Rebecca figured she ever had any reason to find out). Or ‘…a polarising figure’ as The Scientific Method called her, when reviewing her most recent findings in the field of multi-chemical brain-pattern augmentation.

‘Dr Heinen seems incapable of separating the worth of the idea in and of itself, from the practical effect of how that idea might play out, if actually implemented. Her supporters (who are vociferous) love to point out that her ideas are brilliant – in a world sadly lacking in brilliant ideas – while her detractors (who are abundant) say her ideas are not practical – in a world sadly lacking in practical solutions to real and dire problems. In short, she is a romantic who falls in love with an idea and then allows the lowly masses occupying the rungs below her on the scientific ladder to deal with all the hassle and bother about worrying over whether or not that idea is at all workable or useful. None of this is to say that Dr Heinen’s recent work in the field of multi-chemical brain pattern augmentation is anything less than brilliant. While the use of various drugs (legal and otherwise) to alter brain-chemistry to improve quality of life is not at all new to science, Dr Heinen certainly takes the idea in new directions and her (untested) theories are certainly interesting. However, it is the considered opinion of this journal, that if Dr Heinen merely applied her brilliant intellect to the problems of, say, climate change or resource depletion, she could…’

What exactly the esteemed editors of The Scientific Method thought she could do, Rebecca never cared to learn. She had read enough. She closed the link that a colleague had sent her, and once more concerned herself with the three main problems of time travel.

Or rather, the one main problem with time travel, considering she had just solved the first two.

She glanced down at her notepad, where she still wrote everything out by hand before she committed anything to her laptop.

1. Time / space: the earth is moving through space at 107,226 km/h. If you went back in time for even one day, you would also have to physically move approximately 2,600,000 km in space, or you would find yourself very quickly expiring in the vacuum of space, once you got back in time in the first place.

2. Communication: go back even 400 years in an English-speaking country and the differences in language, vocabulary usage and accents would result in severe difficulty in understanding and being understood by the people you encounter. Add problems with customs and manners and social cues and you have little chance of convincing anyone of anything except that you are insane. And that is somewhere they speak English. Try going back to Shang Dynasty China or the fall of Babylon and see how far you get trying to communicate with anyone.

3. Ethics: what sacrifices inherent to time travel / changing the past are acceptable?

The first two problems solved themselves, once she figured out the particular mechanics of how to time travel in the first place, but she still allowed herself a momentary satisfaction. Two solutions at once. How was that for dealing with the hassle and bother of solving the practical problems of a world in dire need of practical solutions? For what was time travel but for the ultimate solution to the practical problems of the world? The ability to go back and change things for the better, for the whole world.

The fools of The Scientific Method could never see the forest for the trees. She hadn’t stated outright the main outcome of her research, because she knew nobody would believe it, but she had left all the clues in there for anyone with the wit to see them.

Dr Rebecca Heinen AO, PhD, DPsych, BBiosc and MAIMS (Research) had discovered the means of time travel:


More specifically, a very particular combination of chemicals, in very particular amounts, taken in a very particular order. Do that, and your consciousness could travel through time.

It began with her studies into psilocybin and depression. Well before magic mushrooms had become the cause célèbre of various decriminalisation advocates, due to their use in treating clinical depression, Rebecca had already mapped out all the various short and long-term effects of psilocybin on the various parts of the brain, as well as the nervous system.

Over the years, while she worked on numerous other projects, the idea of fixing problems in the human brain via the use of various chemicals became almost an obsession. In the course of years of research, however, she kept hearing the same thing, again and again from people whose brains came under the influence of certain chemicals.

There was a constant refrain from the subjects of her medical experiments, as well as those recreational users she interviewed as part of her studies. That we are all one energy. Part of the one energy of life that cannot be created nor destroyed, only changed into different forms of energy. That taking certain chemicals could take you into that one energy, the energy of all life throughout all of time.

Over much experimentation, Rebecca found a combination of chemicals that could transport your own particular energy – your consciousness – to see other places. Other times. First by joining the one energy of all life throughout all time, and then redirecting the flow of energy to end up in a particular time.

Now, after much, much more experimentation, she had found the combination that would allow your energy to join and then subsume the energy of another person in that place. A simple redirection of energy into another particular person.

Into another particular time.

Take this particular combination of chemicals, in a very particular amount, in a very particular order, and you would wake up in the mind of someone living at some chosen time in the past.

This transportation of consciousness through time, rather than physical transportation of your body, obviously solved the first major problem of time travel in that there was no longer any need to also move physically through space as well as time.

Moving into the mind of someone in the past also solved the second problem. With access to all the workings of that person’s brain, including memories, language and instincts, you would have no problem at all in understanding and being understood by the people of your chosen time.

This still left the third problem, however, and after years of thought Rebecca felt she was no closer to solving it. Aside from the ethical dilemma of the butterfly effect in which any change to the past, no matter how small or well-intentioned, could result in vast, unforeseen and possibly disastrous consequences in the future, Rebecca was also disturbed by the mechanics of her working version of time travel.

The taking over of another person’s consciousness and using their memories, languages and skills for your own personal ends without their consent…no matter how altruistic those ends were, it was incredibly difficult for Rebecca to justify the means.

There were only two possible solutions, as far as Rebecca could see. Firstly, only go back to times within your own life. While it was true that your past self had not consented to your future self coming back and taking over their consciousness, the fact that it was still something you were doing to yourself helped Rebecca justify the idea somewhat. At the very least, it turned a clear negative into more of an ethical grey area.

The problem with this approach is that Rebecca simply couldn’t see how going back to any time within her own past would make a big enough difference to the massive and varied problems of the world today to make the whole operation worth it, from an ethical perspective. The earth was dying, and the rot had set in before Rebecca had even been born. No, to make a positive difference big enough to justify the risk of unforeseen consequences and the invasion of another person’s mind, Rebecca would have to go back decades, maybe even centuries before her time.

So, the second possible solution was to carefully work out in advance the one time in human history when the most good could unequivocally be done by a single person for the future of the species in particular and the whole of the earth in general.

But when was that time?


‘Everybody knows the war is over

Everybody knows the good guys lost’

Rebecca hummed to herself. It was an old song that her father used to listen to when she was a teenager. And after several meetings with eminent historians over the past few months, the lyrics of the song never seemed far from her mind.

How many times had the good guys lost, over the course of human history? Which time was the ultimate expression of that? Which time was the time she should return to, in order to place humanity on a lighter path?

How far back would she have to go?

And how would she decide, when the expert historians themselves couldn’t agree?

One strident critic of all things Rome was adamant that the Punic Wars and the fall of Carthage was the point things could have been different – the Second Punic War and Hannibal’s campaign in Italy, to be precise.

“We have been propagandised into believing the Romans were the good guys, but they were absolute villains. A maniacally vicious, violent and hyper-masculine culture bent on conquest and colonialisation came to dominate the future path of civilisation for all of Europe, leading directly to almost every social ill you can care to mention on the planet today,” the historian said, growing red in the face and voice pitching high to a crescendo.

Another historian she talked with, however, laughed so hard at that particular theory that Rebecca worried the man might have a heart attack.

“The Romans were no more vicious or bloodthirsty than any other people of that time, and Carthage was bent on conquest and colonisation while Rome was still just a little town on the Tiber, surrounded by bigger enemies,” he said, when he finally stopped laughing.

“Really, we would be far, far worse off without the Romans. At a time most of the world worshipped kings as gods, the Romans held yearly democratic elections, with peaceful transfer of power after each election for hundreds of years. Well, until the Republic finally fell apart, of course. Some very violent elections, that century. And of course, during the Empire years things got a bit strange, what with emperors being worshipped as gods…it just goes to show, we are never as far as we think we are from savagery and ignorance…anyway, what was your question, again?”

The third historian Rebecca contacted calmly pointed out that during the Mongol invasions of Asia and Europe, approximately 11% of the total population of the world at the time was killed – “…and that’s not including all the lives destroyed, but not killed. Mutilations, enslavement, rape…if you wanted to change one thing in history that would result in the biggest net benefit to the people alive at the time, you could certainly do worse than stopping Temujin before he became Genghis Khan.”

“Genghis Khan and the Romans? All these idiots are overthinking it,” said the fourth, the author of the world’s biggest selling school textbook on modern history. “Forget about when the good guys lost. How about when the good guys won, just not quickly enough? Just go back and kill Hitler and stop WWII. Easy. Sometimes something is the obvious answer because it’s obviously correct,” he said.

“That idiot is underthinking things, as usual,” said the fifth, author of the world’s second-biggest selling school textbook on modern history. “To stop WWII, you don’t kill Hitler. You go further back and stop WWI. Much easier. Just prevent one of the most preventable, most staggeringly unlikely sequences of events in all of history, save Archduke Franz Ferdinand and two of the most destructive, evil wars in all of human history simply don’t happen. Stalin’s Russia and Mao’s China don’t happen. The Cold War doesn’t happen.”

It was enough to give Rebecca a headache. To cheer herself up, she took herself along to the office of Professor Turner.


“Fear,” said Professor Turner.

“It all starts with fear. Fear, and then madness. Homo Sapiens – a species locked in solitary confinement on prison of rock and water hurtling through space…utterly alone for millennia. No wonder we went mad. How much fear could have been avoided by the simple determinant: we are not alone? To be alone is to go mad, and when you look at the history of humanity (both good and ill) it is a history of sheer, utter madness.”

Professor Turner was an excitable little man with woolly white hair, who Rebecca had never actually seen outside of his cluttered little office in the university. She suspected he spent most of his life in here, happily emersed in his stories from people long ago. He was a Professor in Folklore and Mythology, and no-one had any idea what his first name was. He was simply Professor Turner, or just Turner, if you were friends.

“Turner, is this about your Neanderthals?” Rebecca asked.

“Of course it is,” Professor Turner replied.

Rebecca knew better than to ask her friend whether or not the Neanderthals were an area outside of his expertise in mythology and folktales. He had his own unproven (perhaps unprovable) theory about Neanderthals as the basis for all human myths about elves, giants, trolls, tuatha dé danann …other life similar to human, but not quite human.

“So many cultures had this common story. About people who were here before us. People who were now far off, on the edges of things, or else gone entirely. Think about the very earliest Homo Sapiens in Asia and Europe, coming up from Africa and finding these new people here before them. Of course, they would tell stories about them. And over thousands, tens of thousands of years of stories around campfires, the oral tradition of human knowledge for most of human history, of course those stories became something more suited to my field of expertise. Myths and legends. But it all came from the one story.”

“The story of the Other. The Older. The Ones Who Were Here Before. The Stronger. The Wiser. The Better. And in many ways, the Neanderthals were better. From Portugal to Central Asia, during the ravages of an Ice Age they survived and thrived. They were bigger than us. They were stronger than us. They had bigger brains, and so were probably smarter than us. Judging by how early they were burying their dead with tokens to show how much they cared, they were more empathetic than us. They were more peaceful than us. The only thing we had over them was that we were more vicious. We came, we saw, we conquered. We wiped them out!” Professor Turner shouted, jumping around his cluttered little office as he acted out the scenes playing in his mind. It was something he did unconsciously whenever he got excited about something (which was often) and Rebecca found it endearing.

“But just think,” he continued, having had a moment to calm down. “Just think…if we hadn’t wiped them out, if we had mixed more with them, learned from them and helped them learn. Grown with them, together, as complimentary species…how much more we could have been. Think about how human history might not have been one of madness and fear.”

“Think how much better we could have been.”


Back in her apartment that doubled as her laboratory, Rebecca couldn’t stop thinking about Professor Turner’s theory. While she had never given any credence to the idiots from The Scientific Method, in one of their observations about her they were close to the mark. It was a romantic idea, that saving the Neanderthals would save humanity, and it appealed to her greatly.

And the more she thought about it, the more it appealed. She took out her notepad and pen and started jotting down her thoughts.

Save the Neanderthals / Save Humanity

1. Pro: going back so far would genuinely solve (by changing) all the terrible things humanity has done over the past 40,000 years. Clean slate. There’s a lot to be said for the idea of a clean slate.

2. Con: no guarantee that humanity + neanderthals won’t continue doing terrible things, either together or separately. In fact it is as close to 100% certain as can be that this will be the case. Still, that is the problem with any time I go back to. Changing one thing for the better is no guarantee that other terrible things won’t happen anyway.

3. Con: potential flaws with companionship theory – Turner might be more right than he knows about the potential of humanity to be better with the addition of another human species with which to share the planet, but not for the reason he thinks. He’s coming from the companionship angle, suggesting the very psychology of humanity would have been improved by having a fellow species around. I’m not as convinced of that as he is, as I’m not sure there is any noticeable improvement in the temperament of zebras simply because horses also exist.

4. Pro: competition theory – on the other hand, I’m far more convinced on a competition level. Having a strong competitor around would force humanity to evolve and innovate and invent much faster. The arc of history bends towards innovation, which in turn bends towards liberation. How much faster could humanity have arrived at agriculture, cities, science and democracy or women’s suffrage if those early millennia were spent NEEDING to be better because we actually had some competition around?

5. Pro: Turner might also be absolutely correct in his companionship theory, of course. That would be nice. Either way, there’s no way to know without testing.

6. Pro: in the event that time travel has been invented by anyone else, it’s unlikely I will run into interference from other time-travellers trying to change things. Most of them will be trying to kill Hitler or make themselves rich. I’ve never heard anyone else thinking about going this far back, for this purpose.

7. Con: I would still be running into the ethical issue of taking over another person’s consciousness. I think, at last, the idea that I could be changing literally all of human history for the better is enough of a good to outweigh that particular evil.

8. Con: at the end of the day, I would still just be one person, alone in the past in a world I could only navigate thanks to another person’s memories and language. Even with all my knowledge, I could quite easily fail. How can one person save an entire people from extinction?

9. Pro: I really want to do it.

10. Con: I have no idea what could happen.

11. Pro: I have no idea what could happen.

In the final tally, the ‘pros’ had it by 6 to 5.


Rebecca carefully measured out the very particular combination of chemicals (both legal and otherwise), down the final microgram.

Earlier in the day, she had been a mass of nerves, her stomach and brain writhing in mad patterns like leaves tossed into whirlpool. Now, in the lab, in the place she felt most comfortable, doing the thing she felt most comfortable doing, she felt calm.

At peace.

One way or another, this was going to change everything. And if it was going to be done, at least she would have some control over it.

In this same, strange spirit of calm, she began taking the very particular combination of chemicals, in their very particular amounts, in their very particular order. As she did, a thousand thoughts began flowing through her mind. All the things that were about to be changed.

40,000 years of human history. All the wars, murders, horrors. And all the love, triumphs and innovations. All the dark and all the light, all about to be changed. All about to be replaced by new darkness and (hopefully) much brighter light. All the people whose existences were about to be snuffed out. All the friendships. All the families. All the songs that would never be sung. All the stories that would nev-

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About the Creator

Roderick Makim

Read one too many adventure stories as a child and decided I'd make that my life.

I grew up on a cattle station in the Australian Outback and decided to spend the rest of my life seeing the rest of the world.

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Comments (2)

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  • Andrei Z.8 months ago

    Interesting concept! Also an enjoyable read! I've got few questions tho. 1. How indeed is she planning to save/preserve Neanderthals? Being merely a single person (and doubtly any authority over there 40,000 or so years ago). 2. How does consciousness transfer happen? Is it an irreversible process? What happens to the host's consciousness? What happens to the time traveller's body? How actually the time traveller is able to choose a target inside of which they are going to jump? Especially in the era of no-name First Humans? Or would it be a random process?

  • Dane BHabout a year ago

    This is really well structured, and it's clear you've got a background in academia somewhere because BOY HOWDY were those debates well-rendered, and your journal article was ON POINT.

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