... And then we'd blow their minds!
August 8, 2010 2:14 AM   Subscribe

What kinds of pranks and/or practical jokes could a time traveller pull on people from the past without changing history?

My son and his friend were riffing on time travel scenarios tonight, talking about different kinds of pranks/practical jokes/etc. they could pull on people from the past if they were to travel back in time equipped with modern technology. They got far enough into their discussion to decide on the caveat that "it can't be anything that would change the future, or change history" (i.e. nothing that would set in motion any kind of investigative process that would cause the people of the past to discover anything any earlier than they would have already discovered it).

I hope my explanation of the parameters makes sense. Before they fell asleep, my son and his friend were jotting down different ideas for a storyline of sorts, and I told them I'd ask the hive mind for additional avenues to explore.
posted by amyms to Grab Bag (22 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
Well, a practical joke would seem more disruptive (for humans) than say, stepping on a single insect, and look how well that turned out.
posted by blueberry at 2:22 AM on August 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

I remember a Terry Pratchett novel that had archaeologists uncovering dinosaur fossils holding "No Nukes" signs.
posted by robotot at 2:34 AM on August 8, 2010

Any of these could work.

What you probably want are strange/silly things that actually happened. If they really did happen, then you're not changing history. And it could be a way to expose how random luck shapes our world.

Or you show up in photographs out of time. But be sure to dress almost appropriately, like the time traveling hipster in that photo.
posted by Harry at 2:55 AM on August 8, 2010 [2 favorites]

A time traveler returns to the time of Christ, dresses up as JC and pulls pranks using advanced, futuristic technologies he brings with him, such as:

• a handheld fermentation vessel that turns water into wine
• nanobots that repair optic and inner ear nerve damage, bringing sight to the blind and hearing to the deaf
• advanced antibiotics that cure leprosy

Nothing about history would change in our shared timeline. People who believe in supernatural phenomenon would believe in the same magic. Technology's progress would continue unabated.

I imagine you could do this trick with any noted historical figure who were recorded to have performed the equivalent of magic tricks, which were later considered supernatural and could have easily been performed with technology from a modern or futuristic age from which a time traveler would be travelling.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 3:05 AM on August 8, 2010 [5 favorites]


Not so much a practical joke, though, as a somewhat pathetic attempt at establishing control over a docile and confused population.
posted by Sara C. at 5:30 AM on August 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

The 24th century philosopher Geordi La Forge reportedly said, in one of the presumably non-canonical novels (or rather, reportedly will have said, or is going to have - ah, skip it):

"This is why time travel always gives me a nosebleed."
posted by randomkeystrike at 5:43 AM on August 8, 2010

Hand out fake winning lottery tickets to everyone who worked at Chernobyl on April 26th, 1986 at 1:22am.
posted by WhiteWhale at 6:08 AM on August 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

Claiming to blot out the sun by knowing when an eclipse was due (e.g. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court).
posted by Obscure Reference at 6:35 AM on August 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

Yeah, but what if they tell someone about how they won the lottery before getting blown up, and that person (after evacuating the area?) attempts to follow up with whoever runs the local lottery? Couldn't that conceivable change the timeline?
posted by Sara C. at 6:38 AM on August 8, 2010

i'm just terrified that time travel + invisibility cloaks have been invented in the future, and people are traveling back in the past to laugh at me while i'm masturbating.
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 7:02 AM on August 8, 2010 [12 favorites]

Chernobyl blew up at 1:23. I guess you would have to time it just right...
posted by WhiteWhale at 8:52 AM on August 8, 2010

This is pretty well pure speculative chatfilter. The mechanism for time travel, if it even is possible, is currently unknown. It's entirely possible, if time travel is possible, that past history is pretty well set and that to a greater or lesser degree nothing a time traveller does could significantly alter the course of events. See for example Terminator The Sarah Conner Chronicles or (so far anyways) the most recent season of Eureka. On the other hand stories also abound of time travellers stepping on a single insect 200 million years ago and as a result Insects/Apes/Cats/etc. rule the world. On the third hand you have RAH multi-verse concept where in every choice breaks both ways splitting off alternate universes every time.
posted by Mitheral at 8:56 AM on August 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

To my mind, the fail inherent in pretty much all future-to-now time travel scenarios is that we (humans, that is) can't help but imagine a future wherein the basic laws of physics, time, causality etc are the same as now ... but they can't be, because once you can travel in time (certainly to do anything other than purely observe) you are necessarily messing with the fabric of so-called reality. So it becomes arguable that, for such a future to exist, they (post-humans that is) must have moved beyond something as basic as being flesh and blood carbon based lifeforms ... and so on.

It's a brain bender for sure. And leaves me thinking there's no proper answer to your question.
posted by philip-random at 9:28 AM on August 8, 2010

You can mess with anyone who is about to die right? So go warp yourself back in time to about 30 minutes before the plane crashes (killing all on board) and go nuts. I'm pretty sure this kind of idea is the basis for more than a few novels / movies.
posted by maxpower at 11:58 AM on August 8, 2010

Perhaps the practical joke could have a delayed effect, so that it wouldn't be discovered until the present day ("present" from the point of view of the time travellers)? Imagine that the people of the year 3000 are going to hunt down the Voyager probe and return it to Earth. Unbeknownst to them, a group of pranksters went back in time and replaced the artifacts on the probe with obvious fakes (the golden record of noises of Earth was replaces with a CD of someone burping for an hour. The picture of a naked man and woman was replaced with a Penthouse centerfold, etc). Imagine the chuckles when the probe is retrieved and opened.
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 12:06 PM on August 8, 2010 [2 favorites]

Well, in the basic "you go back in time and can effect the future" scenario, everything you do in the past would affect the future. For example, pulling a simple prank on someone might put them in a bad mood, so they go get drunk and meet a girl that would have ended up with someone else and you end up wiping out an entire branch of a family tree.

posted by delmoi at 1:50 PM on August 8, 2010

I have written stories on this subject.

Case in point The Rude Man
posted by The Whelk at 2:24 PM on August 8, 2010

(meaning strange lines and rock patterns are people from the future fucking with us, that and leaving watches in places that should be sea beds, etcz)
posted by The Whelk at 2:26 PM on August 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

Also, the huge gaps in art history are fertile ground for planting will-be-obvious-to-the-future fakes
posted by The Whelk at 2:27 PM on August 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

(in my actual story, the TTers go back and replace holy relics with 21st century kitsch or re-creations)
posted by The Whelk at 2:28 PM on August 8, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks for the answers. Lots of food for thought here.
posted by amyms at 6:58 PM on August 8, 2010

Give the kids a copy of A Yankee in King Arthur's Court to read. I think they'll enjoy it.
posted by exphysicist345 at 11:13 PM on August 8, 2010

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