Okay, maybe I’m not smarter. But I’ve come up with an alternate method of getting Marty McFly back to 1985 from 1955 which I think is not only safer, but far more practical. And because of this I believe Doc Brown at least owes me a nod of approval.
For those of you who didn’t grow up in the 80′s or have just plain lived under a rock your whole life, I’m of course referring to the film Back to the Future, one of my all time favorites. In it, Dr. “Doc” Emmett Brown (PhD) has outfitted a DeLorean DMC-12 automobile with his personal invention, the “flux capacitor” which allows the vehicle to travel back and forth through time. Unfortunately, the process of time travel requires obscenely vast amounts of energy. In the original movie, Doc initially fulfills this requirement by triggering an atomic reaction which feeds power directly into the time machine’s flux capacitor. The atomic reaction itself is fueled by weapons-grade plutonium that he stole from Libyan terrorists prior to the events that took place in the movie. Well, to make a long story short, Doc’s friend Marty goes for a joyride in the DeLorean and gets himself stranded in the year 1955 without extra plutonium to fuel a return trip. He ends up enlisting the help of 1950′s-era Doc Brown to find an alternate means of powering the time machine’s flux capacitor so Marty can return to his own time.
It’s a great story and the movie is highly entertaining. However, I can’t help but think that 1955 Doc’s method of fueling the flux capacitor by harnessing the power of a lightning bolt is just plain silly. I know, I know – suspension of disbelief and all that. Okay, fine. Like I said, BTTF is one of my all time favorite movies, so I’ll go easy on Doc.
Still, there are a number of problems which I feel make the lightning option undesirable:
1) Timing. How in the eff does Doc manage to synchronize the exact moment of the Clock Tower lightning strike with the impact of the DeLorean’s lightning rod on the cable connecting to the tower? According to teh intarwebs, the average lightning strike lasts all of 30 MILLIONTHS of a second (30 microseconds). The flier Doc bases his plan on merely states the clock will be hit at 10:04pm on Saturday, November 12th, 1955. That’s not much precision when dealing with an event that happens in the microsecond range. Putting that aside, even with GPS, hyper accurate velocity monitoring, and no other external influences present (in other words, performing this in a modern day vacuum chamber lab), I still believe it would be impossible to do. Somehow Doc and Marty manage to accomplish it with a wind-up alarm clock and the DeLorean’s speedo though. Sounds like a job for the MythBusters…
2) Channeling the output of the lightning strike. In the movie, Doc does it with what looks like heavy gauge copper welding wire. Impossible. Lightning would destroy that. Maybe someone with a stronger background in electrical theory can help confirm or correct this though. Still, even if it were possible, how does Doc regulate the flow in such a way that only 1.21 gigawatts is supplied to the lightning rod on the DeLorean?
3) Environment. Somehow the streets of downtown Hill Valley are empty the night that Doc sends Marty back to the future. Indeed, the only person who seems to take any notice whatsoever of the cabling Doc has strung across the street and up to the clock tower is a corrupt policeman who accepts a bribe to stop asking questions. I guess everyone else was busy at the Enchantment Under the Sea dance. Even so, Doc and Marty have to conduct their business in a very narrow / confined public place. We even see at the end that Marty doesn’t have enough room to safely decelerate from 88+ MPH and he ends up crashing into a theater at the end of the street. What if a car were driving down that street at the exact same time Marty reemerges in 1985? SPLAT! Call an ambulance – Marty just took out a mini van full of blind kids on their way back to the orphanage.
4) Scheduling. Doc’s “let’s capture lightning” scheme all counts on a very precise timetable. If Marty is unable to repair the damage he did by saving his father from his maternal grandfather’s reckless driving and later Marty’s own skateboard shenanigans with Biff, there really isn’t much point in going back to 1985. In other words, both Doc and Marty are under the gun pretty much the entire time Marty is in 1955.
Okay, so how can all these challenges be overcome? Simple – with an airplane. Wait, what? Yes, an airplane. Let me explain. In my own solution, Doc would still use lightning to power the flux capacitor. He just wouldn’t do it in the middle of downtown Hill Valley. Instead, he would mount the DeLorean securely inside the belly of a cargo plane. All he’d have to do is pack Marty and the DeLorean in a crate, mount his lightning catcher on the outside of the plane, then fly around in search of the thunderstorm that hit the Clock Tower. We know that Doc is rich, so chartering a cargo plane should be easy enough. The other aspect of initiating a time travel event, achieving a velocity of at least 88 MPH, would also be solved, as would the environment and scheduling factors I noted above. The only witness would be the pilot (assuming Doc couldn’t pilot the plane himself). As for the scheduling dilemma, neither Marty nor Doc would be under the gun to get Marty home by the time lightning struck the clock tower. Heck, they could take their sweet time getting Marty’s mother and father hooked back up if they wanted to. Thunderstorms aren’t exactly rare.
The only problem I don’t envision my method resolving is the channeling and regulation of the lightning strike. Even with modern cabling and equipment, I have no idea how to regulate lightning (which averages 1 TW per strike by the way) down to the fictitious 1.21 gigawatts that the hungry little flux capacitor requires. Perhaps it’s tolerant of overcharging. Maybe the system that converted the original nuclear option into a usable electrical charge could be modified to accept a direct feed from lightning. Who knows.
Anyway, that little tidbit aside, I think my plan could work. Doc could mount parachutes onto the DeLorean so it would land safely when it rematerialized back in 1985, or he could just have Marty bail out with his own personal chute and let the DeLorean crash to the ground below. If Marty went back to 1985 early enough, he could simply warn Doc about the Libyan attack and avoid the whole 1955 thing altogether. But then his father would go back to being a wimp working under the oppressive thumb of Biff, his mother would revert to being a depressing drunk, and Marty wouldn’t own that sweet ass Toyota 4×4 anymore…
So, does anyone out there think they can come up with something better? Sound off in the comments!