To understand time travel or the possibility of time traveling, first, you need to understand what is time?
Time is the fourth dimension that constitutes our space. Time flows forward but we perceive time relative to our position and movement in the space. This makes time a “variable” entity and therefore something that can’t be called fundamental to our Universe.
Time travel stories are common in fiction and has been the central theme of many books, television shows, and films. For ages, various time travel theories and concepts have baffled the human mind. What is, after all, a good and plausible time travel theory? We’ll explore this questions in depth here.
Maybe there are several possible and correct theories. Read what is time to first grasp the understanding of time, the fourth dimension of our world. Time travel is different from precognition, visions from the future or past, telepathy or any form of ESP. Time travel is not about just receiving information from some other time but the ability to move forward or backward in as a participant in the chain of events (and not just being a passive observer).
Time being the fourth dimension of space-time, is the most complicated and mysterious dimension. Look, the space is easy to visualize and navigate. You can take a step forward and a step backward. You can take a step to your left and a step to you right. You can climb the stairs (going up) and you can climb down the stairs (coming down). But time is not like space? Even though the three dimensions of space and time are treated equally, at-least mathematically, the interesting thing is in the real world, you have no control over time.
If you do not want to interfere with space, let’s say for an argument sake, you can stay in your bed and not move and you can say your location is the certain longitude and latitude on this earth (which is in the space). But, whether you like it or not, whether you close your eyes or pretend to sleep or not breathe, time keeps moving. It doesn’t wait or ask for your permission. It is completely independent of you and it affects you, every moment. Whether you are consciously aware of the time or not, time keeps moving.
But this is not the only problem. There is a bigger unresolved mystery. Since the big bang, time is moving in the forward direction. It has no sideways or backward flow. Time only moves in one direction and that is towards the future. The past is set in stone with every passing second. But can we travel to the future? Can we travel back in the time? If we can travel to a future time, does that mean, everything is pre-determined? Are we all merely an actors acting our predetermined roles? If we can travel to the past and cause a change in the future (or present time), does that mean, we are living in a Multiverse (multiple Universe)?
Time Travel Theories
Over the years, there were numerous claims of time travel announced. Here are some of them:
Forward Time Travel
Some ancient myths depict moving forward in time. In Hindu mythology, the Mahabharata mentions the story of King Raivata Kakudmi, who travels to heaven to meet the creator Brahma and is shocked to learn when he returns to Earth that many ages have passed. The Buddhist Pāli Canon mentions the relativity of time.
In the Payasi Sutta, one of the Buddha’s chief disciples, Kumara Kassapa, explains to the skeptic Payasi that, “In the Heaven of the Thirty Three Devas, time passes at a different pace, and people live much longer. “In the period of our century; one hundred years, only a single day; twenty four hours would have passed for them.”
In the Japanese tale of “Urashima Tarō”, first described in the Nihongi (720), a young fisherman named Urashima Taro visits an undersea palace. After three days, he returns home to his village and finds himself 300 years in the future, where he has been forgotten, his house is ruins, and his family has died.
In the Talmud, Honi ha-M’agel sleeps for 70 years and awakes to find his grandchildren have become grandparents, and his family and friends have died.
In the utopian novel Louis-Sébastien Mercier’s L’An 2440, rêve s’il en fût jamais (“The Year 2440: A Dream If Ever There Were One”), the protagonist is transported to the year 2440. A popular work, having gone through twenty-five editions since its appearance in 1771, it describes the adventures of an unnamed man who discusses with a philosopher friend the injustices of Paris, then falls asleep and finds himself in a future Paris.
Washington Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle” (1819) depicts a man who takes a twenty-year nap on a mountain, waking up in a future where he has been forgotten, his wife has died, and his daughter has grown. Sleep is also used as a means of time travel in H.G. Wells’s The Sleeper Awakes, in which a man wakes up after a two-hundred year hibernation.
Backward Time Travel
Like forward time travel, backward time travel has an uncertain origin. Samuel Madden’s Memoirs of the Twentieth Century (1733) is a series of letters from British ambassadors in 1997 and 1998 to diplomats in the past, conveying the political and religious conditions of the future. Because the narrator receives these letters from his guardian angel, Paul Alkon suggests in his book Origins of Futuristic Fiction that “the first time-traveler in English literature is a guardian angel.”. Madden does not explain how the angel obtains these documents, but Alkon asserts that Madden “deserves recognition as the first to toy with the rich idea of time-travel in the form of an artifact sent backward from the future to be discovered in the present.”
In 1836 Alexander Veltman published Predki Kalimerosa: Aleksandr Filippovich Makedonskii (The Forebears of Kalimeros: Alexander, son of Philip of Macedon), which has been called the first original Russian science fiction novel and the first novel to use time travel. The narrator rides to ancient Greece on a hippogriff, meets Aristotle, and goes on a voyage with Alexander the Great before returning to the 19th century.
In the science fiction anthology Far Boundaries (1951), editor August Derleth claims that an early short story about time travel is “Missing One’s Coach: An Anachronism”, written for the Dublin Literary Magazine by an anonymous author in 1838. While the narrator waits under a tree for a coach to take him out of Newcastle, he is transported back in time over a thousand years. He encounters the Venerable Bede in a monastery and explains to him the developments of the coming centuries. However, the story never makes it clear whether these events are real or a dream.
Some consider Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol (1843) to be one of the first depictions of time travel in both directions, as the protagonist, Ebenezer Scrooge, is transported to Christmases past and future. However, these might be interpreted as visions rather than as time travel because Scrooge experiences the time periods as an observer rather than as a participant.
A clearer example of backward time travel is found in the popular 1861 book Paris avant les hommes (Paris before Men) by the French botanist and geologist Pierre Boitard, published posthumously. In this story, the protagonist is transported to the prehistoric past by the magic of a “lame demon” (a French pun on Boitard’s name), where he encounters a Plesiosaur and an apelike ancestor and is able to interact with ancient creatures.
Edward Everett Hale’s “Hands Off” (1881) tells the story of an unnamed being, possibly the soul of a person who has recently died, who interferes with ancient Egyptian history by preventing Joseph’s enslavement. This may have been the first story to feature an alternate history created as a result of time travel.
One of the first stories to feature time travel by means of a machine is “The Clock that Went Backward” by Edward Page Mitchell, which appeared in the New York Sun in 1881. However, the mechanism borders on fantasy. An unusual clock, when wound, runs backwards and transports people nearby back in time. But the author fails to explain the origin of either the clock or its abilities.
Enrique Gaspar y Rimbau’s El Anacronópete (1887) may have been the first story to feature a vessel engineered to travel through time. Andrew Sawyer has commented that the story “does seem to be the first literary description of a time machine noted so far”, adding that “Edward Page Mitchell’s story ‘The Clock That Went Backward’ (1881) is usually described as the first time-machine story, but I’m not sure that a clock quite counts.”
H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine (1895) popularized the concept of time travel by mechanical means.
Time Travel Theories
Some theories, most notably special and general relativity, suggest that suitable geometries of spacetime or specific types of motion in space might allow time travel into the past and future if these geometries or motions were possible. In technical papers, physicists generally avoid the commonplace language of “moving” or “traveling” through time. “Movement” normally refers only to a change in spatial position as the time coordinate is varied. Instead, they discuss the possibility of closed timelike curves, which are world lines that form closed loops in spacetime, allowing objects to return to their own past.
There are known to be solutions to the equations of general relativity that describe spacetimes which contain closed timelike curves, such as Gödel spacetime, but the physical plausibility of these solutions is uncertain. Relativity predicts that if one were to move away from the Earth at relativistic velocities and return, more time would have passed on Earth than for the traveler, so in this sense it is accepted that relativity allows “travel into the future.” According to relativity there is no single objective answer to how much time has really passed between the departure and the return, but there is an objective answer to how much proper time has been experienced by both the Earth and the traveler, i.e., how much each has aged (see twin paradox).
On the other hand, many in the scientific community believe that backward time travel is highly unlikely. Any theory that would allow time travel would introduce potential problems of causality. The classic example of a problem involving causality is the “grandfather paradox”: what if one were to go back in time and kill one’s own grandfather before one’s father was conceived? But some scientists believe that paradoxes can be avoided, by appealing either to the Novikov self-consistency principle or to the notion of branching parallel universes.
Time Travel Themes
Changing the Past
The idea of changing the past is logically contradictory and results in a grandfather paradox. Paul J. Nahin, who has written extensively on the topic of time travel in fiction, states that “even though the consensus today is that the past cannot be changed, science fiction writers have used the idea of changing the past for good story effect”. Time travel to the past and precognition without the ability to change events may result in causal loops.
Alternate Future, History, Timelines, and Dimensions
An alternative future or alternate future is a possible future that never comes to pass, typically when someone travels back into the past and alters it so that the events of the alternative future cannot occur, or when a communication from the future to the past effected a change that alters the future. Alternative histories may exist “side by side”, with the time traveler actually arriving at different dimensions as he changes time.
The butterfly effect is a notion that small events can have large, widespread consequences. The term was coined by mathematician Edward Lorenz who suggested that a massive storm might have its roots in the faraway flapping of a butterfly’s wings. One example of how extreme it can be seen in Ray Bradbury’s 1952 A Sound of Thunder where the killing of a single insect millions of years in the past drastically changes the world. The butterfly effect has found its way into the popular imagination, for example in the 2004 movie The Butterfly Effect, where the protagonist’s small changes to their past result in extreme changes later on.
Communication From the Future
Communication from the future as a plot device is encountered in various science fiction and fantasy stories. Forrest J. Ackerman noted in his 1973 anthology of the best fiction of the year that “the theme of getting hold of tomorrow’s newspaper is a recurrent one”.
An early example of this device can be found in the H.G. Wells 1932 short story “The Queer Story of Brownlow’s Newspaper”, which tells the tale of a man who receives such a paper from 40 years in the future.
The 1944 film It Happened Tomorrow also employs this device, with the protagonist receiving the next day’s newspaper from an elderly colleague (who is possibly a ghost). Ackerman’s anthology also highlights a short story by Robert Silverberg, “What We Learned From This Morning’s Newspaper”. In that story, a block of homeowners wake to discover that on November 22, they have received the New York Times for the coming December 1. As characters learn of future events affecting them through a newspaper delivered a week early, the ultimate effect is that this “so upsets the future that spacetime is destroyed”.
The television series Early Edition, inspired by the film It Happened Tomorrow, also revolved around a character who daily received the next day’s newspaper, and sought to change some event therein forecast to happen. A newspaper from the future can be a fictional edition of a real newspaper, or an entirely fictional newspaper.
John Buchan’s novel The Gap in the Curtain, is similarly premised on a group of people being enabled to see, for a moment, an item in Times newspaper from one year in the future.
During the Swedish general election of 2006, the Swedish liberal party used election posters which looked like news items, called Framtidens nyheter (“News of the future”), featuring things that Sweden in the future had become what the party wanted.
A communication from the future raises questions about the ability of humans to control their destiny. If the recipient is allowed to presume that the future is malleable, and if the future forecast affects them in some way, then this device serves as a convenient explanation of their motivations.
In It Happened Tomorrow, the events that are described in the newspaper do come to pass, and the protagonist’s efforts to avoid those events set up circumstances which instead cause them to come about. By contrast, in Early Edition, the protagonist is able to successfully prevent catastrophes predicted in the newspaper (although, if the protagonist does nothing, these catastrophes do come about). Where such a device is used, the source of the future news may not be explained, leaving it open to the reader or watcher to imagine that it might be technology, magic, an act of a god etc.
In the H.G. Wells story, the author writes of the newspaper that “apparently it had been delivered not by the postman, but by some other hand”. As in It Happened Tomorrow and Early Edition, no explanation is offered for the source of the future news. Ackerman suggests that “the longer that authors mush on with the tale of… the next-week’s-newspaper-now, the more difficult it becomes to pull a new rarebit out of the hat”.
Precognition has been explored as a form of time travel in fiction. Author J. B. Priestley wrote of it both in fiction and non-fiction, analysing testimonials of precognition and other “temporal anomalies” in his book Man and Time. His books include time-travel to the future through dreaming, which upon waking up results in memories from the future. Such memories, he writes, may also lead to the feeling of déjà vu, that the present events have already been experienced, and are now being re-experienced.
Infallible precognition, which describes the future as it truly is, leads to causal loops, a form of which is explored in Newcomb’s paradox. The movie 12 Monkeys heavily deals with themes of predestination and the Cassandra complex, where the protagonist who travels back in time explains that he can’t change the past.
See also: time loop and list of films featuring time loops A “time loop” or “temporal loop” is a plot device in which periods of time are repeated and re-experienced by the characters, and there is often some hope of breaking out of the cycle of repetition. Time loop is sometimes used to refer to a causal loop, but these two notions are distinct. Stories with time loops commonly center on the character learning from each successive loop through time.
Further information: Temporal paradox Many time travel works explore the topic of disrupting causality leading to time paradoxes. One of the most commonly referred to in time travel literature is known as the grandfather paradox. Many works of fiction explore what would happen if a time traveller went back in time and changed the past, for example if they killed their own grandparents.
Time Travel to the Past in Physics
Time travel to the past is theoretically allowed using the following methods: Traveling faster than the speed of light The use of cosmic strings and black holes Wormholes and Alcubierre drive
Faster-Than-Light (FTL) Travel
According to the theory of relativity, a signal or matter moving faster than light from one point to another would appear in some inertial frame of reference as moving backwards in time. This is a consequence of the relativity of simultaneity in special relativity, which says that in some cases different reference frames will disagree on whether two events at different locations happened “at the same time” or not, and they can also disagree on the order of the two events.
Technically, these disagreements occur when the spacetime interval between the events is ‘space-like’, meaning that neither event lies in the future light cone of the other. If one of the two events represents the sending of a signal from one location and the second event represents the reception of the same signal at another location, then as long as the signal is moving at the speed of light or slower, the mathematics of simultaneity ensures that all reference frames agree that the transmission-event happened before the reception-event.
However, in the case of a hypothetical signal moving faster than light, there would always be some frames in which the signal was received before it was sent, so that the signal could be said to have moved backward in time. And since one of the two fundamental postulates of special relativity says that the laws of physics should work the same way in every inertial frame, then if it is possible for signals to move backward in time in any one frame, it must be possible in all frames. This means that if observer A sends a signal to observer B which moves FTL (faster than light) in A’s frame but backward in time in B’s frame, and then B sends a reply which moves FTL in B’s frame but backward in time in A’s frame, it could work out that A receives the reply before sending the original signal, a clear violation of causality in every frame.
An illustration of such a scenario using spacetime diagrams can be found here. The scenario is sometimes referred to as a tachyonic antitelephone. According to special relativity, it would take an infinite amount of energy to accelerate a slower-than-light object to the speed of light. Although relativity does not forbid the theoretical possibility of tachyons which move faster than light at all times, when analyzed using quantum field theory, it seems that it would not actually be possible to use them to transmit information faster than light.
There is also no widely agreed-upon evidence for the existence of tachyons; the faster-than-light neutrino anomaly had opened the possibility that neutrinos might be tachyons, but the results of the experiment were found to be invalid upon further analysis.
Special Spacetime Geometries
The general theory of relativity extends the special theory to cover gravity, illustrating it in terms of curvature in spacetime caused by mass-energy and the flow of momentum. General relativity describes the universe under a system of field equations, and there exist solutions to these equations that permit what are called “closed time-like curves”, and hence time travel into the past. The first of these was proposed by Kurt Gödel, a solution known as the Gödel metric, but his (and many others’) example requires the universe to have physical characteristics that it does not appear to have. Whether general relativity forbids closed time-like curves for all realistic conditions is unknown.
Wormholes are a hypothetical warped spacetime which are also permitted by the Einstein field equations of general relativity, although it would not be possible to travel through a wormhole unless it were what is known as a traversable wormhole. A proposed time-travel machine using a traversable wormhole would (hypothetically) work in the following way: One end of the wormhole is accelerated to some significant fraction of the speed of light, perhaps with some advanced propulsion system, and then brought back to the point of origin.
Alternatively, another way is to take one entrance of the wormhole and move it to within the gravitational field of an object that has higher gravity than the other entrance, and then return it to a position near the other entrance. For both of these methods, time dilation causes the end of the wormhole that has been moved to have aged less than the stationary end, as seen by an external observer; however, time connects differently through the wormhole than outside it, so that synchronized clocks at either end of the wormhole will always remain synchronized as seen by an observer passing through the wormhole, no matter how the two ends move around.
This means that an observer entering the accelerated end would exit the stationary end when the stationary end was the same age that the accelerated end had been at the moment before entry; for example, if prior to entering the wormhole the observer noted that a clock at the accelerated end read a date of 2007 while a clock at the stationary end read 2012, then the observer would exit the stationary end when its clock also read 2007, a trip backward in time as seen by other observers outside. One significant limitation of such a time machine is that it is only possible to go as far back in time as the initial creation of the machine; in essence, it is more of a path through time than it is a device that itself moves through time, and it would not allow the technology itself to be moved backward in time.
According to current theories on the nature of wormholes, construction of a traversable wormhole would require the existence of a substance with negative energy (often referred to as “exotic matter”). More technically, the wormhole spacetime requires a distribution of energy that violates various energy conditions, such as the null energy condition along with the weak, strong, and dominant energy conditions. However, it is known that quantum effects can lead to small measurable violations of the null energy condition, and many physicists believe that the required negative energy may actually be possible due to the Casimir effect in quantum physics.
Although early calculations suggested a very large amount of negative energy would be required, later calculations showed that the amount of negative energy can be made arbitrarily small. In 1993, Matt Visser argued that the two mouths of a wormhole with such an induced clock difference could not be brought together without inducing quantum field and gravitational effects that would either make the wormhole collapse or the two mouths repel each other. Because of this, the two mouths could not be brought close enough for causality violation to take place.
However, in a 1997 paper, Visser hypothesized that a complex “Roman ring” (named after Tom Roman) configuration of an N number of wormholes arranged in a symmetric polygon could still act as a time machine, although he concludes that this is more likely a flaw in classical quantum gravity theory rather than proof that causality violation is possible.
Other Approaches Based on General Relativity
Another approach involves a dense spinning cylinder usually referred to as a Tipler cylinder, a GR solution discovered by Willem Jacob van Stockum in 1936 and Kornel Lanczos in 1924, but not recognized as allowing closed timelike curves until an analysis by Frank Tipler in 1974. If a cylinder is infinitely long and spins fast enough about its long axis, then a spaceship flying around the cylinder on a spiral path could travel back in time (or forward, depending on the direction of its spiral). However, the density and speed required is so great that ordinary matter is not strong enough to construct it.
A similar device might be built from a cosmic string, but none are known to exist, and it does not seem to be possible to create a new cosmic string. Physicist Robert Forward noted that a naïve application of general relativity to quantum mechanics suggests another way to build a time machine. A heavy atomic nucleus in a strong magnetic field would elongate into a cylinder, whose density and “spin” are enough to build a time machine. Gamma rays projected at it might allow information (not matter) to be sent back in time; however, he pointed out that until we have a single theory combining relativity and quantum mechanics, we will have no idea whether such speculations are nonsense.
A more fundamental objection to time travel schemes based on rotating cylinders or cosmic strings has been put forward by Stephen Hawking, who proved a theorem showing that according to general relativity it is impossible to build a time machine of a special type (a “time machine with the compactly generated Cauchy horizon”) in a region where the weak energy condition is satisfied, meaning that the region contains no matter with negative energy density (exotic matter).
Solutions such as Tipler’s assume cylinders of infinite length, which are easier to analyze mathematically, and although Tipler suggested that a finite cylinder might produce closed timelike curves if the rotation rate were fast enough, he did not prove this. But Hawking points out that because of his theorem, “it can’t be done with positive energy density everywhere! I can prove that to build a finite time machine, you need negative energy.” This result comes from Hawking’s 1992 paper on the chronology protection conjecture, where he examines “the case that the causality violations appear in a finite region of spacetime without curvature singularities” and proves that “there will be a Cauchy horizon that is compactly generated and that in general contains one or more closed null geodesics which will be incomplete.
One can define geometrical quantities that measure the Lorentz boost and area increase on going round these closed null geodesics. If the causality violation developed from a noncompact initial surface, the averaged weak energy condition must be violated on the Cauchy horizon.” However, this theorem does not rule out the possibility of time travel (1) by means of time machines with the non-compactly generated Cauchy horizons (such as the Deutsch-Politzer time machine) and (2) in regions which contain exotic matter (which would be necessary for traversable wormholes or the Alcubierre drive). Because the theorem is based on general relativity, it is also conceivable a future theory of quantum gravity which replaced general relativity would allow time travel even without exotic matter (though it is also possible such a theory would place even more restrictions on time travel, or rule it out completely as postulated by Hawking’s chronology protection conjecture).
Experiments carried out Certain experiments carried out give the impression of reversed causality but are subject to interpretation. For example, in the delayed choice quantum eraser experiment performed by Marlan Scully, pairs of entangled photons are divided into “signal photons” and “idler photons”, with the signal photons emerging from one of two locations and their position later measured as in the double-slit experiment, and depending on how the idler photon is measured, the experimenter can either learn which of the two locations the signal photon emerged from or “erase” that information. Even though the signal photons can be measured before the choice has been made about the idler photons, the choice seems to retroactively determine whether or not an interference pattern is observed when one correlates measurements of idler photons to the corresponding signal photons.
However, since interference can only be observed after the idler photons are measured and they are correlated with the signal photons, there is no way for experimenters to tell what choice will be made in advance just by looking at the signal photons, and under most interpretations of quantum mechanics the results can be explained in a way that does not violate causality.
The experiment of Lijun Wang might also show causality violation since it made it possible to send packages of waves through a bulb of caesium gas in such a way that the package appeared to exit the bulb 62 nanoseconds before its entry. But a wave package is not a single well-defined object but rather a sum of multiple waves of different frequencies (see Fourier analysis), and the package can appear to move faster than light or even backward in time even if none of the pure waves in the sum do so. This effect cannot be used to send any matter, energy, or information faster than light, so this experiment is understood not to violate causality either.
The physicists Günter Nimtz and Alfons Stahlhofen, of the University of Koblenz, claim to have violated Einstein’s theory of relativity by transmitting photons faster than the speed of light. They say they have conducted an experiment in which microwave photons traveled “instantaneously” between a pair of prisms that had been moved up to 3 ft (0.91 m) apart, using a phenomenon known as quantum tunneling. Nimtz told New Scientist magazine: “For the time being, this is the only violation of special relativity that I know of.” However, other physicists say that this phenomenon does not allow information to be transmitted faster than light.
Aephraim Steinberg, a quantum optics expert at the University of Toronto, Canada, uses the analogy of a train traveling from Chicago to New York, but dropping off train cars at each station along the way, so that the center of the train moves forward at each stop; in this way, the speed of the center of the train exceeds the speed of any of the individual cars. Some physicists have performed experiments that attempted to show causality violations, but so far without success.
The “Space-time Twisting by Light” (STL) experiment run by physicist Ronald Mallett attempts to observe a violation of causality when a neutron is passed through a circle made up of a laser whose path has been twisted by passing it through a photonic crystal. Mallett has some physical arguments that suggest that closed timelike curves would become possible through the center of a laser that has been twisted into a loop. However, other physicists dispute his arguments (see objections).
Shengwang Du claims in a peer-reviewed journal to have observed single photons’ precursors, saying that they travel no faster than c in a vacuum. His experiment involved slow light as well as passing light through a vacuum. He generated two single photons, passing one through rubidium atoms that had been cooled with a laser (thus slowing the light) and passing one through a vacuum. Both times, apparently, the precursors preceded the photons’ main bodies, and the precursor traveled at c in a vacuum.
According to Du, this implies that there is no possibility of light traveling faster than c (and, thus, violating causality). Some members of the media took this as an indication of proof that time travel to the past using superluminal speeds was impossible.
Several experiments have been carried out to try to entice future humans, who might invent time travel technology, to come back and demonstrate it to people of the present time. Events such as Perth’s Destination Day (2005) or MIT’s Time Traveler Convention heavily publicized permanent “advertisements” of a meeting time and place for future time travelers to meet.
Back in 1982, a group in Baltimore, Maryland, identifying itself as the Krononauts, hosted an event of this type welcoming visitors from the future. These experiments only stood the possibility of generating a positive result demonstrating the existence of time travel, but have failed so far—no time travelers are known to have attended either event. It is hypothetically possible that future humans have traveled back in time, but have traveled back to the meeting time and place in a parallel universe.
Another factor is that for all the time travel devices considered under current physics (such as those that operate using wormholes), it is impossible to travel back to before the time machine was actually made.
Twin Paradox Diagram
There are various ways in which a person could “travel into the future” in a limited sense: the person could set things up so that in a small amount of their own subjective time, a large amount of subjective time has passed for other people on Earth. For example, an observer might take a trip away from the Earth and back at relativistic velocities, with the trip only lasting a few years according to the observer’s own clocks, and return to find that thousands of years had passed on Earth.
According to relativity, there would be no objective answer to the question of how much time “really” passed during the trip; it would be equally valid to say that the trip had lasted only a few years or that the trip had lasted thousands of years, depending on the choice of reference frame. This form of “travel into the future” is theoretically allowed (and has been demonstrated at very small time scales) using the following methods: using velocity-based time dilation under the theory of special relativity, for instance.
Traveling at almost the speed of light to a distant star, then slowing down, turning around, and traveling at almost the speed of light back to Earth (see the Twin paradox) Using gravitational time dilation under the theory of general relativity, for instance: Residing inside of a hollow, high-mass object; Residing just outside the event horizon of a black hole, or sufficiently near an object whose mass or density causes the gravitational time dilation near it to be larger than the time dilation factor on Earth.
Transversal Time Dilation
Time dilation is permitted by Albert Einstein’s special and general theories of relativity. These theories state that, relative to a given observer, time passes more slowly for bodies moving quickly relative to that observer, or bodies that are deeper within a gravity well.
For example, a clock which is moving relative to the observer will be measured to run slow in that observer’s rest frame; as a clock approaches the speed of light it will almost slow to a stop, although it can never quite reach light speed so it will never completely stop. For two clocks moving inertially (not accelerating) relative to one another, this effect is reciprocal, with each clock measuring the other to be ticking slower. However, the symmetry is broken if one clock accelerates, as in the twin paradox where one twin stays on Earth while the other travels into space, turns around (which involves acceleration), and returns—in this case both agree the traveling twin has aged less.
General relativity states that time dilation effects also occur if one clock is deeper in a gravity well than the other, with the clock deeper in the well ticking more slowly; this effect must be taken into account when calibrating the clocks on the satellites of the Global Positioning System, and it could lead to significant differences in rates of aging for observers at different distances from a black hole. It has been calculated that, under general relativity, a person could travel forward in time at a rate four times that of distant observers by residing inside a spherical shell with a diameter of 5 meters and the mass of Jupiter. For such a person, every one second of their “personal” time would correspond to four seconds for distant observers.
Of course, squeezing the mass of a large planet into such a structure is not expected to be within our technological capabilities in the near future. There is a great deal of experimental evidence supporting the validity of equations for velocity-based time dilation in special relativity and gravitational time dilation in general relativity. A famous and easy-to-replicate example is the observation of atmospheric muon decay.
With current technologies it is only possible to cause a human traveler to age less than companions on Earth by a very small fraction of a second, the current record being about 20 milliseconds for the cosmonaut Sergei Avdeyev. A researcher from the University of Connecticut is attempting to use lasers to warp or loop spacetime.
Time perception can be apparently sped up for living organisms through hibernation, where the body temperature and metabolic rate of the creature is reduced. A more extreme version of this is suspended animation, where the rates of chemical processes in the subject would be severely reduced. Time dilation and suspended animation only allow “travel” to the future, never the past, so they do not violate causality, and it is debatable whether they should be called time travel.
However, time dilation can be viewed as a better fit for our understanding of the term “time travel” than suspended animation, since with time dilation less time actually does pass for the traveler than for those who remain behind, so the traveler can be said to have reached the future faster than others, whereas with suspended animation this is not the case.
Parallel universes might provide a way out of paradoxes. Everett’s many-worlds interpretation (MWI) of quantum mechanics suggests that all possible quantum events can occur in mutually exclusive histories. These alternate, or parallel, histories would form a branching tree symbolizing all possible outcomes of any interaction.
If all possibilities exist, any paradoxes could be explained by having the paradoxical events happening in a different universe. This concept is most often used in science-fiction, but some physicists such as David Deutsch have suggested that if time travel is possible and the MWI is correct, then a time traveler should indeed end up in a different history than the one he started from. On the other hand, Stephen Hawking has argued that even if the MWI is correct, we should expect each time traveler to experience a single self-consistent history, so that time travelers remain within their own world rather than traveling to a different one.
The physicist Allen Everett argued that Deutsch’s approach “involves modifying fundamental principles of quantum mechanics; it certainly goes beyond simply adopting the MWI”. Everett also argues that even if Deutsch’s approach is correct, it would imply that any macroscopic object composed of multiple particles would be split apart when traveling back in time through a wormhole, with different particles emerging in different worlds.
Daniel Greenberger and Karl Svozil proposed that quantum theory gives a model for time travel without paradoxes. The quantum theory observation causes possible states to ‘collapse’ into one measured state; hence, the past observed from the present is deterministic (it has only one possible state), but the present observed from the past has many possible states until our actions cause it to collapse into one state. Our actions will then be seen to have been inevitable.
Quantum Mechanics of Time Travel
Quantum-mechanical phenomena such as quantum teleportation, the EPR paradox, or quantum entanglement might appear to create a mechanism that allows for faster-than-light (FTL) communication or time travel, and in fact some interpretations of quantum mechanics such as the Bohm interpretation presume that some information is being exchanged between particles instantaneously in order to maintain correlations between particles. This effect was referred to as “spooky action at a distance” by Einstein.
Nevertheless, the fact that causality is preserved in quantum mechanics is a rigorous result in modern quantum field theories, and therefore modern theories do not allow for time travel or FTL communication. In any specific instance where FTL has been claimed, more detailed analysis has proven that to get a signal, some form of classical communication must also be used. The no-communication theorem also gives a general proof that quantum entanglement cannot be used to transmit information faster than classical signals. The fact that these quantum phenomena apparently do not allow FTL time travel is often overlooked in popular press coverage of quantum teleportation experiments. How the rules of quantum mechanics work to preserve causality is an active area of research.
Philosophy of Time Travel
Theories of time travel are riddled with questions about causality and paradoxes. Compared to other fundamental concepts in modern physics, time is still not understood very well. Philosophers have been theorizing about the nature of time since before the era of the ancient Greek philosophers. Some philosophers and physicists who study the nature of time also study the possibility of time travel and its logical implications.
The probability of paradoxes and their possible solutions are often considered. For more information on the philosophical considerations of time travel, consult the work of David Lewis. For more information on physics-related theories of time travel, consider the work of Kurt Gödel (especially his theorized universe) and Lawrence Sklar.
Presentism vs. Eternalism
The relativity of simultaneity in modern physics favors the philosophical view known as eternalism or four-dimensionalism (Sider, 2001), in which physical objects are either temporally extended spacetime worms, or spacetime worm stages, and this view would be favored further by the possibility of time travel (Sider, 2001).
Eternalism, also sometimes known as “block universe theory”, builds on a standard method of modeling time as a dimension in physics, to give time a similar ontology to that of space (Sider, 2001). This would mean that time is just another dimension, that future events are “already there”, and that there is no objective flow of time.
This view is disputed by Tim Maudlin in his The Metaphysics Within Physics. Presentism is a school of philosophy that holds that neither the future nor the past exist, and there are no non-present objects. In this view, time travel is impossible because there is no future or past to travel to.
However, some 21st-century presentists have argued that although past and future objects do not exist, there can still be definite truths about past and future events, and thus it is possible that a future truth about a time traveler deciding to travel back to the present date could explain the time traveler’s actual appearance in the present.
The Grandfather Paradox
One subject often brought up in philosophical discussion of time is the idea that, if one were able to go back in time, paradoxes could ensue if the time traveler were to change things. The best examples of this are the grandfather paradox and the idea of autoinfanticide. The grandfather paradox is a hypothetical situation in which a time traveler goes back in time and attempts to kill his paternal grandfather at a time before his grandfather met his grandmother. If he did so, then his father never would have been born, and neither would the time traveler himself, in which case the time traveler never would have gone back in time to kill his grandfather.
The paradox is sometimes posed with autoinfanticide, where a traveler goes back and attempts to kill himself as an infant. If he were to do so, he never would have grown up to go back in time to kill himself as an infant. This discussion is important to the philosophy of time travel because philosophers question whether these paradoxes make time travel impossible. Some philosophers answer the paradoxes by arguing that it might be the case that backward time travel could be possible but that it would be impossible to actually change the past in any way, an idea similar to the proposed Novikov self-consistency principle in physics.
The Novikov self-consistency principle, named after Igor Dmitrievich Novikov, states that any actions, taken by a time traveler or by an object that travels back in time, were part of history all along, and therefore it is impossible for the time traveler to “change” history in any way. The time traveler’s actions may be the cause of events in their own past though, which leads to the potential for circular causation, sometimes called a predestination paradox, ontological paradox, or bootstap paradox.
The term bootstap paradox was popularized by Robert A. Heinlein’s story “By His Bootstraps”. The Novikov self-consistency principle proposes that the local laws of physics in a region of spacetime containing time travelers cannot be any different from the local laws of physics in any other region of spacetime.
The philosopher Kelley L. Ross argues in “Time Travel Paradoxes” that in an ontological paradox scenario involving a physical object, there can be a violation of the second law of thermodynamics. Ross uses Somewhere in Time as an example where Jane Seymour’s character gives Christopher Reeve’s character a watch she has owned for many years, and when he travels back in time he gives the same watch to Jane Seymour’s character 60 years in the past.
As Ross states: The watch is an impossible object. It violates the Second Law of Thermodynamics, the Law of Entropy. If time travel makes that watch possible, then time travel itself is impossible. The watch, indeed, must be absolutely identical to itself in the 19th and 20th centuries, since Reeve carries it with him from the future instantaneously into the past and bestows it on Seymour. The watch, however, cannot be identical to itself, since all the years in which it is in the possession of Seymour and then Reeve it will wear in the normal manner. Its entropy will increase.
The watch carried back by Reeve will be more worn than the watch that would have been acquired by Seymour. On the other hand, the second law of thermodynamics is understood by modern physicists to be a statistical law rather than an absolute one, so spontaneous reversals of entropy or failure to increase in entropy are not impossible, just improbable (see for example the fluctuation theorem).
In addition, the second law of thermodynamics only states that entropy should increase in systems which are isolated from interactions with the external world, so Igor Novikov (creator of the Novikov self-consistency principle) has argued that in the case of macroscopic objects like the watch whose worldlines form closed loops, the outside world can expend energy to repair wear/entropy that the object acquires over the course of its history, so that it will be back in its original condition when it closes the loop.
Theory of Compossibility
David Lewis’s analysis of compossibility and the implications of changing the past is meant to account for the possibilities of time travel in a one-dimensional conception of time without creating logical paradoxes. Consider Lewis’ example of Tim. Tim hates his grandfather and would like nothing more than to kill him. The only problem for Tim is that his grandfather died years ago. Tim wants so badly to kill his grandfather himself that he constructs a time machine to travel back to 1955 when his grandfather was young and kill him then. Assuming that Tim can travel to a time when his grandfather is still alive, the question must then be raised: can Tim kill his grandfather?
For Lewis, the answer lies within the context of the usage of the word “can”. Lewis explains that the word “can” must be viewed against the context of pertinent facts relating to the situation. Suppose that Tim has a rifle, years of rifle training, a straight shot on a clear day and no outside force to restrain Tim’s trigger finger. Can Tim shoot his grandfather? Considering these facts, it would appear that Tim can in fact kill his grandfather. In other words, all of the contextual facts are compossible with Tim killing his grandfather.
However, when reflecting on the compossibility of a given situation, we must gather the most inclusive set of facts that we are able to. Consider now the fact that in Tim’s universe his grandfather actually died in 1993 and not in 1955. This new fact about Tim’s situation reveals that him killing his grandfather is not compossible with the current set of facts. Tim cannot kill his grandfather because his grandfather died in 1993 and not when he was young.
Thus, Lewis concludes, the statements “Tim doesn’t but can, because he has what it takes”, and, “Tim doesn’t, and can’t, because it is logically impossible to change the past”, are not contradictions; they are both true given the relevant set of facts. The usage of the word “can” is equivocal: he “can” and “can not” under different relevant facts. So what must happen to Tim as he takes aim? Lewis believes that his gun will jam, a bird will fly in the way, or Tim simply slips on a banana peel. Either way, there will be some logical force of the universe that will prevent Tim every time from killing his grandfather.
Time Travel in Fiction
Read: Time travel in fiction
Time travel themes in science fiction and the media can generally be grouped into three general categories: immutable timeline; mutable timeline; and alternate histories (as in the many-worlds interpretation). Frequently in fiction, timeline is used to refer to all physical events in history, so that in time travel stories where events can be changed, the time traveler is described as creating a new or altered timeline. This usage is distinct from the use of the term timeline to refer to a type of chart that illustrates a particular series of events, and the concept is also distinct from a world line, a term from Einstein’s theory of relativity which refers to the entire history of a single object.
Time Travel or Spacetime Travel
An objection that is sometimes raise against the concept of time machines in science fiction is that they ignore the motion of the Earth between the date the time machine departs and the date it returns. The idea that a traveler can go into a machine that sends him or her to 1865 and step out into exactly the same spot on Earth might be said to ignore the issue that Earth is moving through space around the Sun, which is moving in the galaxy, and so on, so that advocates of this argument imagine that “realistically” the time machine should actually reappear in space far away from the Earth’s position at that date.
However, the theory of relativity rejects the idea of absolute time and space; in relativity there can be no universal truth about the spatial distance between events which occur at different times (such as an event on Earth today and an event on Earth in 1865), and thus no objective truth about which point in space at one time is at the “same position” that the Earth was at another time.
In the theory of special relativity, which deals with situations where gravity is negligible, the laws of physics work the same way in every inertial frame of reference and therefore no frame’s perspective is physically better than any other frame’s, and different frames disagree about whether two events at different times happened at the “same position” or “different positions”.
In the theory of general relativity, which incorporates the effects of gravity, all coordinate systems are on equal footing because of a feature known as “diffeomorphism invariance”.