Time travel makes regular appearances in popular culture, with innumerable time travel storylines in movies, television and literature. But it is a surprisingly old idea: one can argue that the Greek tragedy Oedipus Rex, written by Sophocles over 2,500 years ago, is the first time travel story.
But is time travel in fact possible? Given the popularity of the concept, this is a legitimate question. As a theoretical physicist, I find that there are several possible answers to this question, not all of which are contradictory.
The simplest answer is that time travel cannot be possible because if it was, we would already be doing it. One can argue that it is forbidden by the laws of physics, like the second law of thermodynamics or relativity. There are also technical challenges: it might be possible but would involve vast amounts of energy.
There is also the matter of time-travel paradoxes; we can — hypothetically — resolve these if free will is an illusion, if many worlds exist or if the past can only be witnessed but not experienced. Perhaps time travel is impossible simply because time must flow in a linear manner and we have no control over it, or perhaps time is an illusion and time travel is irrelevant.
Laws of Physics
Since Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity — which describes the nature of time, space and gravity — is our most profound theory of time, we would like to think that time travel is forbidden by relativity. Unfortunately, one of his colleagues from the Institute for Advanced Study, Kurt Gödel, invented a universe in which time travel was not just possible, but the past and future were inextricably tangled.
We can actually design time machines, but most of these (in principle) successful proposals require negative energy, or negative mass, which does not seem to exist in our universe. If you drop a tennis ball of negative mass, it will fall upwards. This argument is rather unsatisfactory, since it explains why we cannot time travel in practice only by involving another idea — that of negative energy or mass — that we do not really understand.
Mathematical physicist Frank Tipler conceptualized a time machine that does not involve negative mass, but requires more energy than exists in the universe.
Time travel also violates the second law of thermodynamics, which states that entropy or randomness must always increase. Time can only move in one direction — in other words, you cannot unscramble an egg. More specifically, by travelling into the past we are going from now (a high entropy state) into the past, which must have lower entropy.
This argument originated with the English cosmologist Arthur Eddington, and is at best incomplete. Perhaps it stops you travelling into the past, but it says nothing about time travel into the future. In practice, it is just as hard for me to travel to next Thursday as it is to travel to last Thursday.
There is no doubt that if we could time travel freely, we run into the paradoxes. The best known is the “grandfather paradox”: one could hypothetically use a time machine to travel to the past and murder their grandfather before their father’s conception, thereby eliminating the possibility of their own birth. Logically, you cannot both exist and not exist.
Kurt Vonnegut’s anti-war novel Slaughterhouse-Five, published in 1969, describes how to evade the grandfather paradox. If free will simply does not exist, it is not possible to kill one’s grandfather in the past, since he was not killed in the past. The novel’s protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, can only travel to other points on his world line (the timeline he exists in), but not to any other point in space-time, so he could not even contemplate killing his grandfather.
The universe in Slaughterhouse-Five is consistent with everything we know. The second law of thermodynamics works perfectly well within it and there is no conflict with relativity. But it is inconsistent with some things we believe in, like free will — you can observe the past, like watching a movie, but you cannot interfere with the actions of people in it.
Could we allow for actual modifications of the past, so that we could go back and murder our grandfather — or Hitler? There are several multiverse theories that suppose that there are many timelines for different universes. This is also an old idea: in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, Ebeneezer Scrooge experiences two alternative timelines, one of which leads to a shameful death and the other to happiness.
Time Is a River
Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius wrote that:
“Time is like a river made up of the events which happen, and a violent stream; for as soon as a thing has been seen, it is carried away, and another comes in its place, and this will be carried away too.”
We can imagine that time does flow past every point in the universe, like a river around a rock. But it is difficult to make the idea precise. A flow is a rate of change — the flow of a river is the amount of water that passes a specific length in a given time. Hence if time is a flow, it is at the rate of one second per second, which is not a very useful insight.
Theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking suggested that a “chronology protection conjecture” must exist, an as-yet-unknown physical principle that forbids time travel. Hawking’s concept originates from the idea that we cannot know what goes on inside a black hole, because we cannot get information out of it. But this argument is redundant: we cannot time travel because we cannot time travel!
Researchers are investigating a more fundamental theory, where time and space “emerge” from something else. This is referred to as quantum gravity, but unfortunately it does not exist yet. So is time travel possible? Probably not, but we don’t know for sure!
By: Peter Watson
Peter Watson is an emeritus professor of physics at Carleton University.
Time travel is the concept of movement between certain points in time, analogous to movement between different points in space by an object or a person, typically with the use of a hypothetical device known as a time machine. Time travel is a widely recognized concept in philosophy and fiction, particularly science fiction. The idea of a time machine was popularized by H. G. Wells‘ 1895 novel The Time Machine.
It is uncertain if time travel to the past is physically possible, and such travel, if at all feasible, may give rise to questions of causality. Forward time travel, outside the usual sense of the perception of time, is an extensively observed phenomenon and well-understood within the framework of special relativity and general relativity.
However, making one body advance or delay more than a few milliseconds compared to another body is not feasible with current technology. As for backward time travel, it is possible to find solutions in general relativity that allow for it, such as a rotating black hole. Traveling to an arbitrary point in spacetime has very limited support in theoretical physics, and is usually connected only with quantum mechanics or wormholes.
Some ancient myths depict a character skipping forward in time. In Hindu mythology, the Vishnu Purana mentions the story of King Raivata Kakudmi, who travels to heaven to meet the creator Brahma and is surprised to learn when he returns to Earth that many ages have passed. The Buddhist Pāli Canon mentions the relativity of time. The Payasi Sutta tells of one of the Buddha‘s chief disciples, Kumara Kassapa, who explains to the skeptic Payasi that time in the Heavens passes differently than on Earth.
The Japanese tale of “Urashima Tarō“, first described in the Manyoshu tells of a young fisherman named Urashima-no-ko (浦嶋子) who 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 in ruins, and his family has died.In Jewish tradition, the 1st-century BC scholar Honi ha-M’agel is said to have fallen asleep and slept for seventy years. When waking up he returned home but found none of the people he knew, and no one believed his claims of who he was.
Time travel to the past is theoretically possible in certain general relativity spacetime geometries that permit traveling faster than the speed of light, such as cosmic strings, traversable wormholes, and Alcubierre drives . The theory of general relativity does suggest a scientific basis for the possibility of backward time travel in certain unusual scenarios, although arguments from semiclassical gravity suggest that when quantum effects are incorporated into general relativity, these loopholes may be closed.
These semiclassical arguments led Stephen Hawking to formulate the chronology protection conjecture, suggesting that the fundamental laws of nature prevent time travel, but physicists cannot come to a definite judgment on the issue without a theory of quantum gravity to join quantum mechanics and general relativity into a completely unified theory.
When a signal is sent from one location and received at another location, then as long as the signal is moving at the speed of light or slower, the mathematics of simultaneity in the theory of relativity show that all reference frames agree that the transmission-event happened before the reception-event. When the signal travels faster than light, it is received before it is sent, in all reference frames. The signal could be said to have moved backward in time. This hypothetical scenario is sometimes referred to as a tachyonic antitelephone.
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.
A variation of Hugh Everett‘s many-worlds interpretation (MWI) of quantum mechanics provides a resolution to the grandfather paradox that involves the time traveler arriving in a different universe than the one they came from; it’s been argued that since the traveler arrives in a different universe’s history and not their own history, this is not “genuine” time travel. The accepted many-worlds interpretation suggests that all possible quantum events can occur in mutually exclusive histories. However, some variations allow different universes to interact.
This concept is most often used in science-fiction, but some physicists such as David Deutsch have suggested that a time traveler should 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….
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