William & Mary

Meta- and theoretical physicists talk time travel for ‘Back to the Future Day’

  • Not so fast:
    Not so fast:  W&M philosophers and physicists weigh in on time travel.  Graphic by Rachel Follis
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Here it is, Oct. 21, 2015, and no one’s taking a hoverboard to the skate park on their lunch hour. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t celebrating “Back to the Future Day,” the day 30 years in the future that Doc Brown and Marty McFly visit in “Back to the Future II.”

So to honor the iconic 1985 film series, W&M News asked William & Mary philosophers – metaphysicists – and scientists – theoretical physicists – whether it’s possible to really go back to the future, plus a bunch of other stuff about movies, time and how their disciplines deal with these mysteries.

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In the physicists’ corner is Professor Marc Sher, whose research interests include theoretical particle physics and cosmology – theory of electroweak interactions, Higgs phenomenology, cosmological phase transitions, astrophysics and supersymmetry. Recently, he was the National Science Foundation’s program director for high energy theory and cosmology.

He’s also the subject of a 2013 article with this breezy headline: “The Higgs boson looks just like Marc Sher said it would. Now what?” He helped explain the Higgs boson to the world.

Josh Erlich, Class of 2017 Associate Professor of Physics, joins Sher. Erlich’s research is focused on particle physics and cosmology beyond the Standard Model, plus applications of string theoretic principles to other branches of physics. Erlich is concerned with extra dimensions, supersymmetric gauge theories, the interplay between gauge theories and strings and alternative interpretations of cosmological data. With Sher, he is a member of W&M’s High Energy Theory Group. He's also an administrator of the Small Hall Makerspace, where surely students are working on turning a DeLorean into a time machine.

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On the philosophy side is Chad Vance, visiting assistant professor, who specializes in the metaphysics of modality and truthmaker theory, but also has interests in ethics, epistemology, early modern philosophy and philosophy of religion. He’s also got one foot in the science camp: His undergraduate work was in astrophysics.

Joining him is Aaron Griffith, assistant professor of philosophy. Griffith’s research is primarily in metaphysics (truth, truthmaking, grounding, time, freedom) and Kant's Critique of Pure Reason. He also has interests in social ontology, feminism, philosophy of race, phenomenology and philosophy of religion. He’s currently working on a paper, “Obligations to Future Generations and the Metaphysics of Time,” which is what probably prepared him to talk about “Back to the Future.”