Bootstraps Paradox Time Travel Theory Explained Simply (with pictures)

Time travel is a fun way to explore new possibilities and alternate outcomes to events that have already occurred. However, some aspects of time travel break the laws of physics as we know it. Known as paradoxes, these occurrences are normally caused when someone disturbs the flow of time (normally in the past) that would cause a contradiction in someone or something’s existence. (normally in the future) These paradoxes can cause things to appear into reality with no rhyme or reason, or a long chain of events that would cause major change in our history. A great example of this is none other than The Bootstraps Paradox theory.


The Bootstraps Paradox is a theory in time travel in which an object, or piece of information exists without ever having an origin or starting point. It is as if the object was ‘self-created’ and is is stuck in limbo with no beginning or ending.

Broken Down

Imagine you had a time machine, and you used said time machine to travel 20 years into the future. Upon arriving into the future you meet with your mother who gives you a piece of art.

You take that art piece back to the present day and give it to your present day mother

She cherishes this piece of art and holds onto it for 20 years. It is here where your past self. arrives and your mother gives you (your past self) the piece of art once again. Remember, this is the past you’s first time traveling into the future, and it’s their first time receiving the picture. This creates a never ending cycle of you receiving the painting from your future mother, giving it to your present mother and your mother holding onto it, just to give it to you once again. The question is, where did this piece of art come from? Who painted it? How did this painting come into existence?


The origins of this theory are founded in the 1941 short story written by Robert A. Heinlein, called “By His Bootstraps”. The story follows a character named Bob Wilson and his journeys through a time portal, as well as the paradoxes he encounters. In one part of his adventure Bob travels to the future and finds a notebook with translations from English to a brand new language that the people of the future Earth now speak. With the power of this notebook he uses the new language to establish himself as chief of the new world and becomes a king. Through the years he finds that the notebook has become old and is beginning to wither. In response to this, he creates a new journal with this new language being translated into English. It is then revealed that the journal that Bob created is actually the same one that his younger self finds and essentially, the same one he used to come to power. The paradox comes from the journal. If he was the one who used the journal to become chief and was the one who wrote it, how was this information known to anyone in the first place? How is it that this book exists if the only person who has ever handled it was Bob himself?

Uses in other media

Another story book that uses the Bootstrap Paradox is the novel written by David Gerrold “The Man Who Folded Himself.” In this case the main character receives a time travel belt from an ‘Uncle Jim’. It is later revealed that he actually is ‘Uncle Jim’ (Just an older version of himself) which brings the same question as before. Where did the time belt come from?


The Legend of Zelda, Ocarina of Time is another interesting story that uses the Bootstrap Paradox. During the Song of Storms quest, Link finds a crazed man rambling on about how a child taught him the Song of Storms and now he can’t get it out of his head. He teaches Link the song, but when Link goes to the past it is revealed that he is actually the one who taught the man the song in the first place. So the man taught Link the song, just for Link to then teach him the song. Once again this begs the question of who is the song’s original composer?  

One final example of the Bootstrap Theory is the most recent from the others. Anyone who watched Family Guy should know that Stewie has invented a time machine. In fact many episodes have centered around him, and usually Brian, as they travel through time to fix mistakes that they usually cause. In the 16th episode of the 9th season, “The Big Bang Theory” Stewie and Brian end up launching themselves outside the space-time continuum with Stewie’s time machine. This essentially means they exist outside the laws of physics and reality. With Stewie’s return pad not working, he decides to overload it, in hopes of causing an explosion that will blast them back into reality. This plan appears to have worked, but it is then revealed that this blast Stewie causes is actually ‘The Big Bang’. In short, Stewie was created by the universe so that he could use his time machine to create the universe. In this sense the universe had no start or origin and exists only within the physics of itself.

In Closing…

There are plenty other examples of this theory. In fact, an episode of Doctor Who has The Doctor explain this exact same paradox. Can you think of any other paradoxes that have used the Bootstraps Theory? Perhaps there’s even a TV show or book you know that utilized this theory and you didn’t even know about it. Leave comments so I can know!