If a Time Machine Could Take You Anywhere for One Day, When/Where Would You Go?

Thanks to reader Michael M. from Houston for today’s question. Here’s how Michael put it:

I often find myself wondering: if I could live for any single day in the history of mankind (from anyone’s point of view), what day would I choose to live?

DT24 - Time Machine - PFor example, November 22, 1963 and from the point of view of a spectator in Dallas. I don’t buy into the conspiracy theories, but it would be weirdly fascinating to see what happened and how it all played out — maybe take a look around the grassy knoll or follow Lee Harvey Oswald’s exit from the book depository.

Or July 21, 1969 and from the point of view of Neil Armstrong himself as he walked on the moon.

Or maybe I’d be Abraham Lincoln on the day he delivered the Gettysburg Address. We all practiced that speech in school, so how awesome would it be to actually give it!

Or I could be a visitor to the Roman Senate on the Ides of March. Begin the day by exploring ancient Rome and then end it by watching one of the most important assassinations in the history of the world. Popcorn optional.

I think part of the rule has to be that you can’t meaningfully interfere with what happened on that day — otherwise we’d probably all be morally compelled to go back in time and kill Hitler circa 1929.


I’m going to make two adjustments:

1) I’ll add a follow-up question about which date you’d pick in the future. So let’s say this: You have a time machine that allows you to enter a specific date and location, and you’re taken then/there for one day (it teleports you to the location too). You arrive at 6am and 18 hours later, at midnight, you’re safely returned to the present day in your home. It can be used once to bring you to the past and once to the future. Then it disappears.

2) I like the idea of actually being in the eyes of a person in history, but let’s say you can also choose to just be you plopped down there if you want to.

A couple other notes:

  • Like Michael said, when you’re in the past, you can observe or interact with anyone you want, but you won’t affect anything about the modern world. In other words, the day you spend there will cease to exist once you return to 2015—once you return, the original day that actually happened will again have happened. Your presence in the alternate time has no consequences.
  • Likewise, assume there’s no risk to you—you can abort the mission at anytime if you’re being harmed, and if you somehow die, all it does is abort the mission and you’re returned safely home.
  • One of the time machine’s talents is it drops you off automatically dressed in clothing fitting of the time, so you can choose to blend in and quietly observe if you want to. But you can also bring objects from 2015 and choose to reveal yourself as not normal if you want to. That’s your choice.


Tim’s Answer:

Buried in a post right now, so perfect time to write a really long response here.

1) The Past

Annoyingly hard. Some possibilities:

  • Go back to a time before humans, to like 80 million BC, to experience a world without humanity. And to see dinosaurs. But my suspicion is I’d get there and wouldn’t be able to find any dinosaurs, or if I did, it would be cool for 10 minutes and then they’d be eating some grass and I’d remember that dinosaurs were just animals and animals are incredibly boring.
  • Go back to 40,000 BC to a place with ancient human tribes. Again, worried about the boring factor. I’d watch them sit around the campsite and there’d be a couple dead animals there and some kids would be playing and everyone would be unattractive and I’d realize that this was a bad choice.
  • Athens around 350 BC, when both Plato and Aristotle were alive. Concern here is that I’d be on some little street and there would be guards who wouldn’t let me go up to the Acropolis and I’d ask them if I could go meet Aristotle and it would be the equivalent of showing up at the Oscars and asking a police officer if I could go in and meet George Clooney. Was Aristotle inaccessible? Unclear. Even if not, maybe no one would know where he was? Not a time you could call someone. At least here, in the worst case scenario, I’d be in Athens during its heyday and it would be deeply interesting to walk around all day and keep saying to myself, “I’m in BC.” But since this is a hypothetical time machine, I’m sure I could just ask it to put me in an Aristotle classroom and have that just happen and I could watch him teach. Still slight boring potential when I realized I could have done anything and I end up in fucking class.
  • Definitely agree with Michael about watching Caesar get stabbed. Super exciting. And being in Ancient Rome for the day would be fascinating. Kind of a bold move, but under Michael’s “you can be a historical figure” rule, it would be pretty cool to be Caesar on that day. Except again, you might have a moment of reflection as the 12th knife is being wedged into your ribs that you could have done anything with the time machine and this was the decision you made.
  • Anything related to Jesus. Assuming Jesus existed, which I think he probably did, I can’t imagine a bigger starstruck situation. I’d really want to talk to him and ask him questions about his mission and what he thought his impact on history would be. If he really were crucified, watching that would be quite the experience too, just to know how big a deal this was gonna be. But it might also be stressful to watch actual humans be crucified and give me nightmares for a while after.
  • Would be dramatic to go to the spot where the first European ship showed up on the coast of “the New World” on the day it got there. In the morning, before they arrived, I could walk around the area and see what a pre-Imperialism American civilization was like, and then when the boats arrived I could watch how haggard and shitty everyone looked after sailing across the ocean for months. Then I could watch the initial encounter, which must have just been bizarre.
  • Would be fun to watch Da Vinci actually paint the Mona Lisa on one of the days he spent all day working on it. But you’d have to be careful because if he saw you he’d freak out that there was someone in his house and he’d stop painting.
  • Back to the “being someone” thing, it would be incredibly fun to be Hitler for a day and just act super silly and watch everyone’s reaction. Like I’d be Hitler on the day of one of his impassioned speeches except I’d just get on the mic and sing the “Always have to steal my kisses from you” song or “Be Our Guest” from Beauty and the Beast to a stunned crowd.

I was gonna pick the Jesus one but I just changed my mind to the Hitler one.

2) The Future

Here it’s just a matter of how much you want to know and how baffled you want to be.

Going only 30 years into the future would be insanely interesting. The world might be totally different, but I’d also still probably understand things enough to quickly be caught up to speed. The world would still (probably) have the countries I was used to, I’d understand the language, and I could connect the dots enough to really get how our next three decades end up playing out. You’d learn a ton, but it would (probably) still leave a lot of mystery about where humanity is headed and the nature of the universe. We still might have a Fermi Paradox and it still might be a pre-ASI world.

Going 100 years in the future would undoubtedly be beyond belief—the technology we’d have, the things we will have learned, the way our present era will look through the clarity of 100 year hindsight… And while 30 years from now, the culture might resemble that of today, the culture of 100 years from now—the social norms and taboos, the music, the advancements in philosophies on life and happiness—would be vastly beyond our world and amazingly enlightening to learn about. I’m tempted to choose 100 years. 30 years has the possibility of being cool but not that cool, while 100 years would most definitely blow your mind.

It would, of course, be tempting to just go for it and pick 500 years or 1,000 years or something outrageous like 50,000 years in the future. But my worry is A) that humanity won’t be around, which would be so, so, so depressing, B) that I’ll learn of our demise or something else that will kind of ruin the rest of my life back in the present, C) that I simply won’t be able to comprehend the world then, and I’ll spend the whole day baffled and confused and just not get it.

It would be hard to not choose 1,000 years ahead because just imagine how interesting that would be. But I’d probably go with 100 years ahead—the year 2115—because that seems both boggling and potentially fathomable, while also leaving at least a reasonable chance that humans still exist.1 (I’d also take note of which companies to make sure I invested in over the coming decades.)

I think there’s an argument to just skip going to the future, since the downside of going might be higher than the upside—but nahhhhhh.

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  1. I’m probably doing the thing I said not to do in the AI post and likely vastly underestimating the future.

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