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I have made a fairly simple time machine. It works by ... well that's not important. It can send one user back in time (up to two hundred years). This person can appear anywhere they want on this planet, carrying what ever they physically can, but can only stay there for two minutes before getting shot forward in time (to the present day, once again any place they choose). (They cannot cease to exist through this action, because ... well that's not important either, just trust me...)

My question is thus: What is the smallest change one could make within the past two hundred years to save the most lives? Remember it has to be accomplished within two minutes. Also you are unable to leave anything behind, only the changes you have made, and the memory of you (where applicable) will stay behind.

Please hurry, I have much to do and so little time...

EDIT

Addendum: It was only a matter of time before it would happen. There were plenty of signs we missed. We were foolish.

Luckily, their coming coincided with the day I completed my machine. A work fifteen years in progress... We held off stage two testing it until we had a plan.

Finally, after months of horror, squad 7 captured one of them. Over a hundred men died that day...

The captive was rushed to our last refuge... An old mine well hidden so that we could stand a chance... Twenty of the worlds brightest [admittedly, not such a great feat anymore] waited here. Waiting for this very day. One had never been captured before...

But alas, it was a trap. Fire rained from the roof as our last hope crumbled. Without exception, their presence indicates death. Our weapons are more useless against them than...than... oh bother...

My machine will allow me one chance (this time) to travel back to make a change. On the topics of weapons I know next to nothing. I have 120 seconds so I must do an action as I do not have enough time to convince anyone of the impending doom. My only hope, the morbid thought that keeps me going is that if I can save enough lives we can last for longer this time. Time we need to formulate a plan.

We have concluded that lives == time. Therefore Stage one of my plot is to save as many lives as I can. The more people we have when they come, the longer it will take for them to get to us.

Whether in this revision or the next we will come up with a plan. We just need time; and for that we need people...

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closed as too broad by chasly from UK, Thucydides, JDługosz, Frostfyre, congusbongus Aug 17 '15 at 0:54

Please edit the question to limit it to a specific problem with enough detail to identify an adequate answer. Avoid asking multiple distinct questions at once. See the How to Ask page for help clarifying this question. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

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    $\begingroup$ Are answers being graded based on gross or net? There's a lot of things that can be done to save a bunch of lives by disrupting things so completely that entirely different wars get fought. That would save the most lives, but cost other lives in return. $\endgroup$ – Cort Ammon Aug 16 '15 at 15:33
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    $\begingroup$ Just before you go, please learn a history. Just a tiny bit: xkcd.com/1063 $\endgroup$ – Pavel Janicek Aug 16 '15 at 16:22
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    $\begingroup$ If you prevent them to die at "x" moment they will still die later. You can't save anyone on the long run. Not only that but your actions (example killing Hitler) will have unpredictable consequences and you might end up "killing" more people that way. $\endgroup$ – Vincent Aug 16 '15 at 17:08
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    $\begingroup$ You could help Hitler become an artist and thus lead him on the path he wanted when he was young. As far as I know, you wouldn't be breaking any laws there - merely potentially offending some artistic sensibilities. $\endgroup$ – HDE 226868 Aug 16 '15 at 18:32
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    $\begingroup$ Convince Marx to take up arts and crafts. $\endgroup$ – user11737 Aug 16 '15 at 19:05
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Assassinations are fastest

Since we only have a two minute window to work with, convincing someone to change their course may prove incredibly difficult. Besides, the kind of changes we would want to make in the target are very difficult to make in just two minutes. (Probably easier in highly religious people because you can show up as an angel and make a command.)

Karl Marx

Marx' writings have had a huge influence on world events leading to the creation of at least two different brands of communism and effected the lives (and deaths) of over a billion people. Because of Marx' writing, Vladimir Lenin took down the Tsar. Mao took over China. Stalin gained control of the USSR, lots of people died. Preventing Stalin alone will save tens of millions of people.

Others may write the same kind of things that Marx did but it we have no way of knowing who or when.

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  • $\begingroup$ He had such a wide influence, even in his early adult life, that it would be best to eliminate him as early as possible. $\endgroup$ – Michael Hampton Aug 17 '15 at 0:33
  • $\begingroup$ You can't leave anything behind--no modifying his books. $\endgroup$ – Loren Pechtel Aug 17 '15 at 0:57
  • $\begingroup$ @LorenPechtel If I understand correctly, you could modify his book, but you'd have to create the change in those 2 minutes. $\endgroup$ – Sumyrda Aug 17 '15 at 4:41
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    $\begingroup$ The question is if a world without Karl Marx would have been so much better. Sure, no communist regimes, but maybe no worker rights and social security either. $\endgroup$ – Philipp Aug 17 '15 at 11:05
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    $\begingroup$ I doubt he matters. His original manifesto was irrelevant during the Spring of Nations. The revolution in Russia did not look like supposed (the communist revolution was supposed to start in top industrial country, not poor, agrarian Russia) There were plenty other philosophers from this time with similar views (Engels! ;) ), violent anarchists... This would not matter. $\endgroup$ – Shadow1024 Dec 20 '16 at 17:45
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Everybody's talking about preventing wars, so let me mention something else, medicine.

You could take all of current medicinal knowledge and carry that to 200 years back. This could potentially save millions of life. Major epidemics such as cholera, typhoid, flus would be terminated before they started.

We are talking about 200 years back, so that is 1815. That was when the cholera outbreak started. Other major epidemics of past 200 years-

  • Cholera
  • Plague
  • Flu (This alone could save 50-100 million lives)
  • AIDS (You can't eliminate it but possibly reduce the severity)

And more recently-

  • Swine flu
  • Ebola

Now, the two minute rule is hard to abide by. Maybe you could take a big book of current medicine and place it somewhere where it will receive attention. Maybe at the house of some medicine researcher. Or a science fiction writer where it will generate more interest.

It will probably be ignored at first, But if it is well written and actual events start matching, it will generate interest. Of course, this is all speculation, and the events aren't certain, but that's always the case of time-traveling.

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    $\begingroup$ The time-traveler can't leave anything behind him, not even a sheet of paper. It's hard to explain a medical breakthrough in 2 min. It may not be completely impossible, but I have a hard time imagining it. $\endgroup$ – Babika Babaka Aug 16 '15 at 20:50
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    $\begingroup$ @SpaceLizard Seems like I didn't read it carefully enough. $\endgroup$ – Rohcana Aug 16 '15 at 20:57
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    $\begingroup$ If you could somehow prevent the outbreak of the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic, you could potentially save between 50 and 100 million people. Of course, we don't know where it started so that is perhaps a problem. $\endgroup$ – Pimin Konstantin Kefaloukos Aug 16 '15 at 21:09
  • $\begingroup$ "You know nothing, John Snow!" - Sanitation Movement by extra Credits disproves this as, even with evidence, people still outright refused to believe John Snow's theories on cholera $\endgroup$ – Raisus Sep 16 '16 at 9:38
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Prevent the assassination of Archiduke Franz Ferdinand, it may prevent WWI and by extension WWII and Hilter rise to power (and also change a lot of other historic events, but I'm don't know enough about history to say which ones).

Your Time Traveler just have to go to Gavrilo Princip's home on the morning of the assassination and either kill him, put him to sleep for the rest of the day, or steal his gun.

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    $\begingroup$ I'm under the impression that the tension was building up in any case and would have likely eventually spawned the war. $\endgroup$ – WhyEnBe Aug 16 '15 at 15:49
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    $\begingroup$ @WhyEnBe The conflict would have been very different, it would have involved different countries (or the same but at different scales), its progression would have been different, it would have had other front lines, different game-changing events, etc. Even if you don't manage to stop it, you'll still alter its course, prevent Hitler rise to power and WWII. You could also do the classic "Let's kill Hitler" story, but it's been done too many times before... $\endgroup$ – Babika Babaka Aug 16 '15 at 15:59
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    $\begingroup$ Or this: xkcd.com/1063 $\endgroup$ – Thucydides Aug 16 '15 at 16:44
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    $\begingroup$ @Anachor It's better to prevent WWI too (or at least try). $\endgroup$ – Babika Babaka Aug 16 '15 at 18:54
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    $\begingroup$ WWI would have occurred in most scenarios some way or another due to rising tensions in Europe at the time, and few small changes would have prevented it. If you were to affect this part of history, the best course of action would be to ensure Germany had a very swift victory. This would prevent a large number of deaths in WWI, all of WWII, and possibly influence the rise of communism in Russia and China that lead to many deaths from starvation in those countries, although how it would influence it I don't know. $\endgroup$ – Asraelite Aug 16 '15 at 18:55
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If you were to go back and convince China to avoid choosing the One-Child-Policy, it would save 400 million lives, by their numbers!

(Probably not quite what you intended with the question, but I always have fun poking at metrics like that. It's notoriously difficult to create a good objective definition of "good," especially when time travel is involved)

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    $\begingroup$ Wouldn't that lead to having much more over-population issues, potentially devastating the country. $\endgroup$ – WhyEnBe Aug 16 '15 at 15:46
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    $\begingroup$ Would it? That's really the trick of time travel, you NEVER know what will do best. In theory, the best thing you can do by this metric is to find something which increases the world population in one way or another. However, you never know when that would cause starvation or wars... or even when stopping a war could cause starvation! $\endgroup$ – Cort Ammon Aug 16 '15 at 15:49
  • $\begingroup$ True enough.... $\endgroup$ – WhyEnBe Aug 16 '15 at 15:50
  • $\begingroup$ Now, if I can travel fluidly back and forth to have more control over the ripples of the butterfly effect.... then the options get really interesting, but it'd probably take more than 2 minutes to do anything useful. $\endgroup$ – Cort Ammon Aug 16 '15 at 16:11
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    $\begingroup$ I was actually thinking the opposite; bring birth control pills. That'll 'save' lots of people from dying. $\endgroup$ – Mazura Aug 16 '15 at 19:20
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Looking at this list linked by SpaceLizard I think your best bet would be to kill Leopold II of Belgium.

Since the rest of Belgium wasn't interested in colonization, he might be one of the few targets where killing one person might kill the whole Idea. Without him ~10 million people might have been saved because nobody would have started the rubber slavery in Congo.

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Is not clear to me if in your question you are referring about human lives, or if with "lives" you are meaning live forms. also could be useful to know how accurate can be the machine at moment (if you can decide where/when to be, how accurate can I decide to be in seconds? hours? kilometres? millimetres?). Is very important about the potential of changes to do due you only have two minutes.

Any way, from a general point of view, either you are talking about human life or all life forms, you can check the history and review moments that had critical impact in how people think and make decisions about how must be handled the "life" (people/forms) and do the respective checks of the history records and the real past, and after that do the respective changes. Is very important to remember that there is a big difference between history records say about the past and the "real" past, and to remember that the history is plenty of moments of big importance around big events, but the sum of "small" changes with different grade of importance to the persons/events is difficult/impossible to track by the history, and are the real process that result/impact the "big moments". So if you return several times and check several times, you can build an very important knowledge about the tiny changes to do or avoid (for example, amplify/reduce special/small inputs/outputs received of other main/incidental acts/moments that feeds crucial people/moments that will build/take ideas/projects/decisions/acts related with dramatic changes/impacts to the "life" that you are referring).

In other/fewer words, you can not know just reading/wondering about history moments. you must use the time machine and travel the necessary times to know the "real" events/process that "needs" be "tuned" in order to know the answer/s of your question. Is my opinion.

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  • $\begingroup$ The first paragraph here could be adapted into a comment on the question. $\endgroup$ – HDE 226868 Aug 16 '15 at 18:33
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I am wonder if the scenario of to save millions of people in the past from events that now we know about the past will not create in the future famine, disease and death of much more millions of people (by for example wars water/food/ground/wellness scarcity). I think that will be better the education about impact/danger of the overpopulation, and the sustainable consumption of resources.

How? maybe writing a text or book, or/and some other support of media content that must be made on that moment (with a machine/system that can create in that moment the message, using resources/systems of that time (ink, water, sun, paper, etc)), and the message can be left in specific/special places (or everywhere if you can travel several times), with content associated with the evidence about events that will happen in the future and also knowledge about how to handle/change the future in a sustainable ways.

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    $\begingroup$ You can't leave stuff in the past. You'd have to create it in those two minutes for it to stay. $\endgroup$ – Sumyrda Aug 16 '15 at 22:07
  • $\begingroup$ thanks @Sumyrda, you are right, you can't leave stuff, but maybe can you make stuff in the past with things of that moment? I mean if you can kill somebody, or make some medicine (like other ideas proposed), you can build other things like a message using resources of that moment or/and a machine brought from the future for to build the message. $\endgroup$ – moonw Aug 16 '15 at 23:10
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If you simply want to preserve numbers regardless of politics, ethical considerations or anything else, you could kill Einstein. Then the atomic bomb wouldn't be made. It wouldn't be dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima and many Japanese people would have survived.

A uranium gun-type atomic bomb (Little Boy) was dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, followed by a plutonium implosion-type bomb (Fat Man) on the city of Nagasaki on August 9. Little Boy exploded 2,000 feet above Hiroshima in a blast equal to 12–15,000 tons of TNT, destroying five square miles of the city. Within the first two to four months of the bombings, the acute effects of the atomic bombings killed 90,000–146,000 people in Hiroshima and 39,000–80,000 in Nagasaki; roughly half of the deaths in each city occurred on the first day. During the following months, large numbers died from the effect of burns, radiation sickness, and other injuries, compounded by illness and malnutrition. In both cities, most of the dead were civilians, although Hiroshima had a sizable military garrison.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atomic_bombings_of_Hiroshima_and_Nagasaki

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  • $\begingroup$ That's only a few hundred thousand lives. If you are assuming a technology would not exist if the originator was killed, it would be better to kill the designer of the weapons used by soldiers in the wars. $\endgroup$ – adelphus Aug 16 '15 at 18:15
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    $\begingroup$ The point is that someone else would have designed the weapons. It's doubtful that anyone else would have discovered Einstein's results until WW2 was well and truly over. That's the problem with this kind of question. There aren't enough constraints - there's no real way of judging the answers against each other. $\endgroup$ – chasly from UK Aug 16 '15 at 18:27
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    $\begingroup$ That's also ignoring the fact that the US would've invaded Japan if those bombs hadn't have been available (and worked) - Most estimates I've read put the possible death toll of an American invasion of Japan in the millions. $\endgroup$ – HammerN'Songs Aug 16 '15 at 21:18
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    $\begingroup$ @HammerN'Songs these estimates are spread by the US, and they don't hold up well if you take a look at the fact that japanese surrender was already being negotiated before the two nukes were dropped. Also, Japan was already almost starved to death. So, millions of dead US soldiers could only have occured through excessive use of friendly fire. $\endgroup$ – Burki Aug 17 '15 at 13:58
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    $\begingroup$ @Burki Some of the Japanese government was indeed trying to negotiate surrender, but some of the leading military figures were intending to keep fighting no matter what. Remember that the Japanese soldiers generally fought in that very manner - preferring death to suicide. Also, even after the bombs, some officers tried to stage a coup to prevent the surrender order from being given. I'm not convinced that they would've surrendered as quickly without the bombs, and it wouldn't have taken very many battles to surpass the bombs in casualties. $\endgroup$ – HammerN'Songs Aug 22 '15 at 0:02

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