Theoretical Physicist Sean Carroll on Writing about Time Travel

By Jason Boog Comment

seancarroll.jpgTime travel is one of literature’s most popular themes, but very rarely do writers get a chance to consult with a theoretical theorist about their stories.

Today’s guest on the Morning Media Menu was Sean Carroll, a theoretical physicist at Caltech in Pasadena, California. His research covers theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. On the show, he discussed his new book, From Eternity to Here: The Quest for the Ultimate Theory of Time. Conversation topics included: the daily life of a theoretical physicist, science in movies and books, and Lost predictions.

Press play on the embedded player below to listen. The show will be archived around the network. You can listen to all the past podcasts archived at or download episodes for free on iTunes. Click here to download the MP3 version.

For all the science fiction eggheads in the audience, Carroll scrutinized the use of time travel in Lost–a useful discussion for any writer who experiments with time travel.

He explained: “In season six, they seem to have two different timelines going on at the same time. It will be very interesting to see if they reconcile those–like one of them collapses or it was just a dream or something like that. I’m not sure what the philosophy of time travel is on Lost right now. But of course, that’s what keeps the show interesting.”

After the jump, Carroll answered the burning question. For a theoretical physicist, what would be the most satisfying ending for Lost?

He pondered the ending of Lost: “The idea of an alternate timeline is one that you can bend over backwards to try and justify with quantum mechanics and modern physics … I’m glad that the first timeline didn’t go away, because that’s true–there’s no way to make a set of universes go away from a physics point of view… I’m not quite sure what the relationship between these two universes is. It will be very interesting to see–do they merge? Maybe one of them proves to be unsustainable–the problems spin out of control and that one isn’t as real as the original one. I’m really not sure. I’m not able to come up with an obvious way to tie these loose ends together, which is why I’m a theoretical theorist and not a writer on the show.”

Carroll also mentioned an upcoming film: “My friend Kip Thorne from Caltech is actually working on a movie script for Steven Spielberg where they want to make a movie that is really respectable from a theoretical physics point of view. I tell people my favorite recent movie [from a scientific perspective] is Iron Man. Not because the science is particularly realistic, but the scientific method is realistic.”