Vincent Donofrio and Marisa Tomei in "Happy Accidents"

I’ve been reading some articles about time travel; it’s a good way to make your head spin without the aid of alcohol.

The subject came up because we watched “Happy Accidents,” with Marisa Tomei and Vincent Donofrio. In this film, released in 2000, Tomei plays Ruby Weaver, a woman chronically unlucky in her relationships with men. She thinks her luck has changed when she becomes involved with Sam Deed (Donofrio), until he tells her that he is a traveler from the future – specifically from the year 2470.

VINCENT DONOFRIO

Sam claims that he saw Ruby’s picture when he was living in Dubuque, and that he traveled through time, to Brooklyn, in search of her – though he doesn’t say why. As any person would, Ruby initially thinks Sam is either joking or deranged, but Sam won’t budge off his story. Ruby is particularly disturbed by a notebook in which Sam has repeatedly sketched the face of a woman — he claims it’s Ruby’s face — and written the words Chrystie Delancey — he claims she’s his “contact,” another time traveler who was assigned to give him his orientation when he arrived in the past — that is, the present.

This tale grows quite intense; in fact, I was surprised to see it listed on IMDb as a comedy, because there’s nothing funny about it.  It keeps us guessing whether we’re watching a fantasy in which Sam is telling the truth, or a tragedy in which Sam is either playing mind games with Ruby or is insane.

Underlying the story itself is the paradox that the notion of time travel to the past always poses — the question of causality. Namely, if time travel to the past were possible, would the time travelers, either by their mere presence or by their overt actions, change the course of events, change the future.

Donofrio and Tomei

I don’t think this movie did very well at the box office, but it’s a worthwhile property. The story is compelling, Tomei and Donofrio are both magnetic, and there are strong supporting performances by Tovah Feldshuh as Ruby’s mother, Holland Taylor as Ruby’s therapist — a pivotal role, and Nadia Dajani as Ruby’s best friend.

Several years ago, I read a book entitled The Physics of the Impossible by theoretical physicist Michio Kaku. In that book, Kaku explored some ideas that have been presented over the years in science fiction literature, films, and TV shows, and organized them according to how plausible they were. As I recall, he concluded that under the known laws of physics, time travel into the past was impossible and time travel into the future was possible, but not likely to become reality for many many years. If you’d like to see a somewhat comprehensible explanation of Albert Einstein’s view of time travel, click HERE.

BUSTER CRABBE as Flash Gordon

BUSTER CRABBE as Flash Gordon

I once saw a cartoon panel taped to the wall outside a psych professor’s office at Kean University. A man of middle age was slumped in an easy chair in what seemed to be a state of depression. His wife stood over him, hands on her hips, and addressed him more or less as follows: “What I can’t understand is why you would read a book called ‘Oblivion and the Abyss’ in the first place!”

Well, I just got around to reading “Physics of the Impossible” by Michio Kaku, who is a theoretical physicist. In this book, which came out last year, Kaku discusses the possibility that various achievements that human beings have imagined and even tinkered with will become practical realities. We’re talking here about such things as teleportation, telepathy, time travel, invisibility, and visitations from “outer space,” concepts that have been the fodder of science fiction from Jules Verne to Flash Gordon to Star Trek.

I don’t know why I was disappointed; I think I already knew the overall thrust of what Kaku would say. Certain of these concepts – invisibility and teleportation, for example – are not contrary to the known laws of physics and may be achievable within a forseeable amount of time, where what is forseeable might be measured in hundreds of years. (I’m oversimplifying this.) Others, such as travel to other galaxies, are not contrary to the known laws of physics but are beyond the capabilities of a civilization of our rudimentary level of advancement. Still others — perpetual motion and travel into the past, for example — are contrary to the known laws of physics and impossible, period.

SATURN

SATURN

Intellectually, I’m not surprised, but I’m disappointed nonetheless. I would rather have continued nursing the fantasy, born while I watched Flash Gordon and Doctor Zarkov matching wits with Ming the Merciless, that some day, somehow, I would board a space-going vessel and leave the gravitational pull of this planet, at least for a long weekend.

But Kaku has taken the wind out of my sails, if I may be allowed the metaphor, and I look with a twinge of melancholy at the images of Saturn and her moons being transmitted by the Cassini craft — and particularly the one in which Alpha Centauri gleams in the perpetual night sky far beyond the great planet’s rings (http://saturn.jpl.nasa.gov/index.cfm).

MING THE MERCILESS Charles Middleton

MING THE MERCILESS Charles Middleton

A friend of mine told me a couple of years ago that her employer had reserved a place for her on a voyage into space as soon as such a thing became available to consumers. That would have been all right as far as it went, but the trip envisioned would have been a little more than 300 miles each way. My ambition far exceeded that, and Kaku has made it clear that I was deluding myself.

Well, it was a relatively short time ago that some of the ideas that Kaku fools around with — such as an electron that can be in two places at the same time — were not only unknown but unimagined. So rather than put my vacation to Alpha Centauri out of my mind, I’ll put it on hold. After all, I’m only 66 years old. In the meantime, I still have to see the Grand Canyon.

CASSINI VIEW OF ALPHA CENTAURI OVER THE RINGS OF SATURN

CASSINI VIEW OF ALPHA CENTAURI OVER THE RINGS OF SATURN