In the twenty-eighth chapter of The Science of Discworld II, we learn about emergent dynamics and time travel paradoxes. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to read Discworld.
As I said in the last review, I figured that Pratchett was poking fun at tropes we frequently see in time travel stories, and I don’t think I was wrong, per se. It’s just that chapter twenty-eight provides more context to what’s going on in this book and what it means that history is not a singular line from one thing to another. Well, in hindsight, you probably could draw some sort of line (maybe a zig zag), but what I understood of the notion of emergent dynamics suggested that even in hindsight, this is all way more complicated than most of us can ever understand.
Which is sort of the point, isn’t it? That’s why we craft stories, why we name historical periods, and why these things always happen after the fact. They have to. We begin to craft narratives for these complex systems to understand them, but I love that the authors pointed out that this doesn’t always work as easily as that. The whole bit with the idea of “predicting” a cat actually helped me a lot in understanding some of the more complicated science here. Like, on the surface, that seemed to be an absurd idea because HAVE YOU MET CATS. But that’s not really what it means, and thus, I actually understood what was meant by a cat’s behavior being an “emergent property” of the complex system that is a cat! And you could apply that to humans, too, couldn’t you? We are certainly complex systems.
And we certainly try to simplify anything complex, too, and that was the initial flaw in the wizards’ plan. They thought that there was a simple narrative at work, and they just had to change a single thing to guarantee that Shakespeare would reappear in Roundworld in exactly the way he had before. But Roundworld is an immensely complex system as a whole, and then England is a complex system, then the city, then the community that surrounded Shakespeare, then Shakespeare himself… I suspect that’s the main reason why it took so many efforts to get the Roundworld Shakespeare back on track.
It’s also deeply related to the practice of alternate histories, too, and I was pleased to see it brought up within the text. Writers often do thought exercises and experiments with history to determine whether the past or future can change or it’s inevitable. And in the case of this book, it wasn’t inevitable that Shakespeare would always exist. Indeed, many alternate worlds were explored in which humanity was derailed through various means, so that would put this text more in line with Stephen Jay Gould’s feelings on alternate histories.
But what about paradoxes? The last part of the chapter addresses the various ways in which paradoxes might exist, but also that current scientific thought doesn’t actually rule out the possibility of time travel. Which is so fascinating to me!!! We’ve certainly not devised a means for it, and I am not sure I would trust humanity with it unless it was for purposes of observation only. Seriously, we’re awful, and it would probably only be a matter of time before someone unraveled time out of greed. Well, would that happen? Or would that person only change an alternate timeline, and that’s why we have never experienced the ill effects of time travel? That’s an intriguing idea, and it’s definitely fun to think about.
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