The Power of a Paradox: A Lesson About Time Travel from SyFy's 12 Monkeys (Part II)

Check out Part I for an interview with 12 Monkeys co-creator and showrunner, Terry Matalas.


Science fiction is just that: fiction. The question of how much actual science is needed to support a great science fiction story is a subjective one. This is a challenging task for any writer, especially those responsible for bringing to life some of our favorite science fiction stories, including the time travel classic 12 Monkeys and its latest incarnation, the TV show 12 Monkeys currently airing on the SyFy channel. At its heart, 12 Monkeys is a story about predestination versus free will. It challenges us to think about space, time, and the natural laws which serve as the framework upon which our entire universe is built.

Matter tells space how to curve. Space tells matter how to move.” – John Wheeler

In Part I, we spoke with Terry Matalas, showrunner and co-creator of SyFy’s 12 Monkeys about how time and time travel work in the 12 Monkeys universe. Here, we explore whether any of this is actually possible in our universe.

Dr. Katarina Jones (played by Barbara Sukowa), created a way to time travel and heads Project Splinter (Credit: Ben Mark Holzberg/NBC-Universal)


12 Monkeys-style time-travel

On the show, most of the world’s population has been decimated by a terrible plague intentionally set in motion by individuals determined to destroy the world as we know it. In the future, talented physicists led by Dr. Katarina Jones discover the means to travel to the past. They believe that by sending someone to the past they can stop the plague before it even begins and save mankind. 

If space-time can be bent far enough by objects with large mass, it can bend to form a closed timelike curve. Image credit: “Spacetime curvature” by Johnstone is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported. Image modified by Jennifer Lovick.

As captivating as this sounds, is time travel actually possible? Surprisingly, yes and no. The feasibility of time travel is grounded in our understanding of how space and time relate to one another. Space refers to the three dimensions which make up the physical world. We often think of our world as being four-dimensional: three dimensions of space and one of time. When Albert Einstein posited his Theory of Special Relativity, though, people began to think about space and time as being facets of the same thing [1]. Space-time, then, describes all the dimensions of the reality in which we exist. Since we can't easily wrap our minds around a four-dimensional world, we tend to simplify it by envisioning space-time as a fabric, which can be bent by objects with mass. In the Theory of General Relativity, Einstein suggests that objects with great mass and thus large gravitational fields are capable of causing space-time to bend. If an object has a large enough gravitational field, it can literally put a dent in space-time so deep that it actually tears and forms a closed loop. In this scenario, an object will follow a path that ultimately brings it back to its original starting point. Because this loop exists outside of space, it is known as a closed timelike curve (developed by logician Kurt Gödel). Some believe that closed timelike curves could allow for time travel – the trouble is in finding objects with large enough mass and gravitational fields to do the job [2, 3].

“Time is an abstraction, at which we arrive by means of the change of things; made because we are not restricted to any one definite measure, all being interconnected.” – Ernst Mach

And what about time? It's relative. According to Einstein's Theory of Special Relativity, space and time are literally relative (for more on how this actually works, check out our article on the basics of time travel here). Time is something that can change relative to the observer; it is not a constant. And how does time relate to space? According to Gödel, time may exist as a coordinate direction in four-dimensional space, something we can move through just like we can move through space. Alternatively, physicist Ernst Mach suggests that time may be nothing more than a measure of things going on in three-dimensional space. More recently, scientists like Davide Fiscaletti and Amrit Sorli propose something a little bit different. Time may exist in two different ways: one, as fundamental time, time which can be thought of as a fourth dimension and exists whether it is observed or not. Second, as emergent time, time which is more fluid and interacts with the observer, a phenomena which emerges out of the complexities formed by three-dimensional space [4]. If our perception of time is a consequence of events which take place in the three-dimensional world, how does this affect our ability to understand events that we experience? Is time truly a measure of material changes, simply keeping track of what we perceive as linear time? Or, as it’s implied in the 12 Monkeys universe, is time able to affect the material world?

“People like us, who believe in physics, know that the distinction between past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.” – Albert Einstein

Different ways we can conceptualize time: linear versus closed causal loop. Original artwork by Jennifer Lovick.

Let’s imagine, though, that space-time really can bend to form a closed timelike curve and that we could actually travel through time to the past. The idea that space-time can form a loop has immense implications for how we think about events that take place in our world. If space-time exists in a closed loop, determining cause and effect (did A cause B or B cause A) is impossible. It's like trying to answer which came first: the chicken or the egg? Or which evolved first: the predator or the prey? the hyena or the monkey? You can’t determine where the beginning or end of the loop is, which raises a lot of questions about the immutability of our world. How much free will do we actually have? These are fundamental issues that are raised in a scenario called the causal loop or predestination paradox. Paradoxes are situations which seem impossible because they appear to violate rules which govern the natural world, like causality [5]. In a predestination paradox, the actions of a time traveler in the past ultimately cause the event they are trying to prevent from occurring [6]. For instance, in Back to the Future, the traveler’s fate is predetermined because their actions in the past are what make it possible for them to time travel from the future to the past in the first place. In this case, time seems to be set in stone. On 12 Monkeys, though, Matalas suggests that maybe time isn't as rigid as we think it is, that changing the past really can alter the future (see part I of this series). This is a fun science fiction way to think about how the universe may preclude paradoxes. Intriguingly, some physicists actually suggest that the universe has a ‘self-correcting’ mechanism that prevents paradoxes from ever occurring in the first place. So potential paradoxical events may arise, but things have a way of working out – a reason why we have yet to meet any time travelers from the future, as an example – Mother Nature finds a way to prevent it from happening [7]. Perhaps, as SyFy’s 12 Monkeys implies, there’s more out there about the universe that we have yet to understand.


12 Monkeys Season Two airs Mondays at 9/8c on SyFy. Need to catch up? Watch episodes of Season Two here. Season One is available now on Hulu. 12 Monkeys will return for a third season in 2017.

Jennifer Lovick (@drjkyl)
Senior Editor, Science in Entertainment, Signal to Noise Magazine
PhD, Molecular, Cell, and Developmental Biology


[1] “What is Spacetime, Really?” Stephen Wolfram Blog, 2015. Web. 6 June 2016.

[2] “Main topics: special and general relativity.” The Physics of the Universe, 2009. Web. 13 March 2016.

[3] “The relativity of space and time.” Einstein Online, 2016. Web. 13 March 2016.

[4] Fiscaletti D, Sorli A. Perspectives of the numerical order of material changes in timeless approaches in physics. (2015). Foundations of Physics DOI: 10.1007/s10701-014-9840-y.

[5] Lobo FSN. “Closed timelike curves and causality violation.” Classical and Quantum Gravity: Theory, Analysis and Applications, chap 6. (20w08). Nova Sci. Pub.

[6] “5 Bizarre Paradoxes of Time Travel Explained.” Astronomy Trek, 2012. Web. 13 March 2016.

[7] Wilkins A. "Physicists reveal how the universe guarantees paradox-free time travel.” i, 20 July 2010. Web. 13 March 2016.