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Time travel is the concept of moving between different moments in time in a manner analogous to moving between different points in space, either sending objects (or in some cases just information) backwards in time to a moment before the present, or sending objects forward from the present to the future without the need to experience the intervening period (at least not at the normal rate).

Although time travel has been a common plot device in fiction since the 19th century, and one-way travel into the future is arguably possible given the phenomenon of time dilation based on velocity in the theory of special relativity (exemplified by the twin paradox), as well as gravitational time dilation in the theory of general relativity, it is currently unknown whether the laws of physics would allow backwards time travel. Time travel has not been proven to be either possible or impossible. Any technological device, whether fictional or hypothetical, that is used to achieve time travel is commonly known as a time machine.

Some interpretations of time travel also suggest that an attempt to travel backwards in time might take one to a parallel universe whose history would begin to diverge from the traveler's original history after the moment the traveler arrived in the past.

Origins of the concept



There is no widespread agreement as to which written work should be recognized as the earliest example of a time travel story, since a number of early works feature elements ambiguously suggestive of time travel. Ancient folk tales and myths sometimes involved something akin to travelling forward in time; for example, in Hindu mythology, the Mahabharatha mentions the story of the King Revaita, who travels to heaven to meet the creator Brahma and is shocked to learn that many ages have passed when he returns to Earth. Another one of the earliest known stories to involve traveling forwards in time to a distant future was the Japanese tale of "Urashima Tarō", first described in the Nihongi (720). It was about a young fisherman named Urashima Taro who visits an undersea palace and stays there for three days. After returning home to his village, he finds himself three hundred years in the future, where he is long forgetten, his house in ruins, and his family long dead. A third very old example of this type of story can be found in the Talmud with the story of Choni HaMeagel who went to sleep for 70 years and woke up to a world where his grandchildren were grandparents and where all his friends and family were deceased. More recently, Washington Irving's famous 1819 story "Rip Van Winkle" deals with a similar concept, telling the tale of a man named Rip Van Winkle who takes a nap at a mountain and wakes up twenty years in the future, where he has been forgotten, his wife deceased, and his daughter grown up.

Another more recent story involving travel to the future is Louis-Sébastien Mercier's L'An 2440, rêve s'il en fût jamais ("The Year 2440: A Dream If Ever There Were One"), a utopian novel in which the main character is transported to the year 2440. An extremely popular work (it went through twenty-five editions after its first appearance in 1771), the work describes the adventures of an unnamed man, who, after engaging in a heated discussion with a philosopher friend about the injustices of Paris, falls asleep and finds himself in a Paris of the future. Robert Darnton writes that "despite its self-proclaimed character of fantasy...L'An 2440 demanded to be read as a serious guidebook to the future."

Backwards time travel seems to be a more modern idea, but the origin of this notion is also somewhat ambiguous. One early story with hints of backwards time travel is Memoirs of the Twentieth Century (1733) by Samuel Madden, which is mainly a series of letters from English ambassadors in various countries to the British "Lord High Treasurer", along with a few replies from the British Foreign Office, all purportedly written in 1997 and 1998 and describing the conditions of that era. However, the framing story is that these letters were actual documents given to the narrator by his guardian angel one night in 1728; for this reason, Paul Alkon suggests in his book Origins of Futuristic Fiction that "the first time-traveler in English literature is a guardian angel who returns with state documents from 1998 to the year 1728", although the book does not explicitly show how the angel obtained these documents. Alkon later qualifies this by writing, "It would be stretching our generosity to praise Madden for being the first to show a traveler arriving from the future", but also says that Madden "deserves recognition as the first to toy with the rich idea of time-travel in the form of an artifact sent backwards from the future to be discovered in the present."

In the science fiction anthology Far Boundaries (1951), the editor August Derleth identifies the short story "Missing One's Coach: An Anachronism", written for the Dublin Literary Magazine by an anonymous author in 1838, as a very early time travel story. In this story, the narrator is waiting under a tree to be picked up by a coach which will take him out of Newcastlemarker, when he suddenly finds himself transported back over a thousand years, where he encounters the Venerable Bede in a monastery, and gives him somewhat ironic explanations of the developments of the coming centuries. It is never entirely clear whether these events actually occurred or were merely a dream—the narrator says that when he initially found a comfortable-looking spot in the roots of the tree, he sat down, "and as my sceptical reader will tell me, nodded and slept", but then says that he is "resolved not to admit" this explanation. A number of dreamlike elements of the story may suggest otherwise to the reader, such as the fact that none of the members of the monastery seem to be able to see him at first, and the abrupt ending where Bede has been delayed talking to the narrator and so the other monks burst in thinking that some harm has come to him, and suddenly the narrator finds himself back under the tree in the present (August 1837), with his coach having just passed his spot on the road, leaving him stranded in Newcastle for another night.

Charles Dickens' 1843 book A Christmas Carol is considered by some to be one of the first depictions of time travel, as the main character, Ebenezer Scrooge, is transported to Christmases past, present and yet to come. These might be considered mere visions rather than actual time travel, though, since Scrooge only viewed each time period passively, unable to interact with them.

A clearer example of 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 main character is transported into the prehistoric past by the magic of a "lame demon" (a French pun on Boitard's name), where he encounters such extinct animals as a Plesiosaur, as well as Boitard's imagined version of an apelike human ancestor, and is able to actively interact with some of them.

Another clear early example of time travel in fiction is the short story by Edward Page Mitchell, which appeared in the New York Sun in 1881.

Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889), in which the protagonist finds himself in the time of King Arthur after a fight in which he is hit with a sledge hammer, was another early time travel story which helped bring the concept to a wide audience, and was also one of the first stories to show history being changed by the time traveler's actions.

The first time travel story to feature time travel by means of a time machine was Enrique Gaspar y Rimbau's 1887 book El Anacronópete. This idea gained popularity with the H. G. Wells story The Time Machine, published in 1895 (preceded by a less influential story of time travel Wells wrote in 1888, titled The Chronic Argonauts), which also featured a time machine and which is often seen as an inspiration for all later science fiction stories featuring time travel, using a vehicle that allows an operator to travel purposefully and selectively. The term "time machine", coined by Wells, is now universally used to refer to such a vehicle.

Since that time, both science and fiction (see Time travel in fiction) have expanded on the concept of time travel.

Time travel in theory

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 are 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), and instead discuss the possibility of closed timelike curves, which are worldlines 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 states 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" (although according to relativity there is no single objective answer to how much time has 'really' passed between the departure and the return). On the other hand, many in the scientific community believe that backwards time travel is highly unlikely. Any theory which would allow time travel would require that problems of causality be resolved. 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, either by appealing to the Novikov self-consistency principle or to the notion of branching parallel universes (see the possibility of paradoxes below).

Tourism in time

Stephen Hawking once suggested that the absence of tourists from the future constitutes an argument against the existence of time travel—a variant of the Fermi paradox. Of course this would not prove that time travel is physically impossible, since it might be that time travel is physically possible but that it is never in fact developed (or is cautiously never used); and even if it is developed, Hawking notes elsewhere that time travel might only be possible in a region of spacetime that is warped in the right way, and that if we cannot create such a region until the future, then time travelers would not be able to travel back before that date, so "This picture would explain why we haven't been over run by tourists from the future." Carl Sagan also once suggested the possibility that time travelers could be here, but are disguising their existence or are not recognized as time travelers.

General relativity

However, the theory of general relativity does suggest scientific grounds for thinking backwards time travel could be possible 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 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.

Time travel to the past in physics

Time travel to the past is theoretically allowed using the following methods:

Time travel via faster-than-light travel

If one were able to move information or matter from one point to another faster than light, then according to special relativity, there would be some inertial frame of reference in which the signal or object was 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 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 backwards 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 backwards 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 backwards in time in B's frame, and then B sends a reply which moves FTL in B's frame but backwards 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.

According to special relativity it would take an infinite amount of energy to accelerate a slower-than-light object to the speed of light, and 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, and there is no evidence for their existence.

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.

Using wormholes



Wormholes are a hypothetical warped spacetime which are also permitted by the Einstein field equations of general relativity, although it would be impossible to travel through a wormhole unless it was 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 backwards 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 backwards in time. This could provide an alternative explanation for Hawking's observation: a time machine will be built someday, but has not yet been built, so the tourists from the future cannot reach this far back 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 "[t]here 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 interpreted in a different way by the scientific community. 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 give the appearance of 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 backwards 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 - energetic packets of light - traveled "instantaneously" between a pair of prisms that had been moved up to 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 center of the train exceeds the speed of any of the individual cars.

Some physicists have attempted to perform experiments which would show genuine causality violations, but so far without success. The Space-time Twisting by Light (STL) experiment run by physicist Ronald Mallett is attempting 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 which suggest that closed timelike curves would become possible through the center of a laser which has been twisted into a loop. However, other physicists dispute his arguments (see objections).

Non-physics based experiments

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, MD., identifying itself as the Krononauts, hosted an event of this type welcoming Visitors from the Futures. 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.

Time travel to the future in physics

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 his 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. It should be noted, though, that according to relativity there is 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 your choice of reference frame.

This form of "travel into the future" is theoretically allowed using the following methods:

Additionally, it might be possible to see the distant future of the Earth using methods which do not involve relativity at all, although it is even more debatable whether these should be deemed a form of "time travel":

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.

Time perception

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 arguably should not be considered time travel. However time dilation should be considered an actual form of time travel, since the person does actually travel into the future at a faster pace than normal, whereas with suspended animation this is not the case.

Other ideas about time travel from mainstream physics

The possibility of paradoxes

The Novikov self-consistency principle and calculations by Kip S. Thorne indicate that simple masses passing through time travel wormholes could never engender paradoxes—there are no initial conditions that lead to paradox once time travel is introduced. If his results can be generalized, they would suggest, curiously, that none of the supposed paradoxes formulated in time travel stories can actually be formulated at a precise physical level: that is, that any situation you can set up in a time travel story turns out to permit many consistent solutions. The circumstances might, however, turn out to be almost unbelievably strange.

Parallel universes might provide a way out of paradoxes. Everett's many-worlds interpretation 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 many-worlds interpretation 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 many-worlds interpretation is correct, we should expect each time traveler to experience a single self-consistent timeline, so that time travelers remain within their own world rather than traveling to a different one.

Daniel Greenberger and Karl Svozil proposed that quantum theory gives a model for time travel without paradoxes. In 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.

Using quantum entanglement

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.

Philosophical understandings 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 the era of the ancient Greek philosophers and earlier (See the main article on Philosophy of space and time). 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 or Ted Sider. 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 space-time worms, or space-time 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 appear in the present could explain the time traveler's actual existence in the present.

The grandfather paradox

One subject often brought up in philosophical discussion of time is the idea that, if one were 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 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.

Autoinfanticide works the same way, 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 backwards 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.

Theory of compossibility

David Lewis’ 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 Tim’s grandfather 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.

Ideas from fiction

Types of time travel

Time travel themes in science fiction and the media can generally be grouped into two types (based on effect—methods are extremely varied and numerous), each of which is further subdivided. These classifications do not address the subject of time travel itself, i.e. how to travel through time, but instead call to attention differing rules of the time line.

1. The time line is consistent and can never be changed.
:1.1 Everything happens on the single time line which doesn't contradict itself and can't interact with anything potentially existing outside of it.
::1.1.1 The Novikov self-consistency principle applies (named after Dr. Igor Dmitrievich Novikov, Professor of Astrophysics at Copenhagen Universitymarker). The principle states that the timeline is totally fixed, and any actions taken by a time traveler were part of history all along, so 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 and the predestination paradox; for examples of circular causation, see 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, which distinguishes this idea from 1.1.2 below.
::1.1.2 One does not have full control of the time travel, due to some new physical laws that take effect at the time travel. One example of this is in Michael Moorcock's The Dancers at the End of Time in which time has tendency to reject time travelers who travel to the past to change it by pulling them back to the point from when they came. However, it usually remains unexplained how time travelers are prevented from creating an paradox once they appear somewhere in their own past.
:1.2 Any event that appears to have changed a time line has instead created a new one. It has been suggested that travel to the past would create an entire new parallel universe where the traveler would be free from paradoxes since he/she is not from that universe.
::1.2.1 Such an event can be the life line existence of a human (or other intelligence) such that manipulation of history ends up with there being more than one of the same individual, sometimes called time clones.
::1.2.2 The new time line might be a copy of the old one with changes caused by the time traveler. For example there is the Accumulative Audience Paradox where multitudes of time traveler tourists wish to attend some historical event, where there are no such multitudes known in history. Each tourist arrives in a reality that is a copy of the original with the added people, and no way for the tourist to travel back to the original time line.
2. The time line is flexible and is subject to change.
:2.1 The time line is extremely change resistant and requires great effort to change it. Small changes will only alter the immediate future and events will conspire to maintain constant events in the far future; only large changes will alter events in the distant future. (Example: The Saga of Darren Shan, where major events in the past cannot be changed, but minor events can be affected. Under this model, if a time traveler were to go back in time and kill Hitler, another Nazi would simply take his place and commit his same actions, leaving the broader course of history unchanged.)
:2.2 The time line is easily changed. (Example: Doctor Who, where the time line is fluid and changes often naturally; even changes to the traveler's own timeline are possible, though it is suggested such an act would destroy most of the universe.)


Immutable timelines

Time travel in a type 1 universe does not allow any logical paradoxes.

In 1.1.1, the Novikov self-consistency principle asserts that the existence of a method of time travel constrains events to remain self-consistent (i.e. no true logical paradoxes like the grandfather paradox, although there may still be 'paradoxes' in the looser sense of things which are counterintuitive or contradict common sense, like the predestination paradox). This will cause any attempt to violate such consistency to fail, even if extremely improbable events are required.

Example: You have a device that can send a single bit of information back to itself at a precise moment in time. You receive a bit at 10:00:00 p.m., then no bits for thirty seconds after that. If you send a bit back to 10:00:00 p.m., everything works fine. However, if you try to send a bit to 10:00:15 p.m. (a time at which no bit was received), your transmitter will mysteriously fail. Or your dog will distract you for fifteen seconds. Or your transmitter will appear to work, but as it turns out your receiver failed at exactly 10:00:15 p.m., etc. Examples of this kind of universe are found in Timemaster, a novel by Dr. Robert Forward, the Twilight Zone episode "No Time Like the Past", and the 1980 Jeannot Szwarc film Somewhere In Time (based on Richard Matheson's novel Bid Time Return).


In 1.1.2, time travel is constrained to prevent paradox. If one attempts to make a paradox, one undergoes involuntary or uncontrolled time travel. In the time-travel stories of Connie Willis, time travelers encounter "slippage" which prevents them from either reaching the intended time or translates them a sufficient distance from their destination at the intended time, as to prevent any paradox from occurring.

Example: A man who travels into the past with intentions to kill Hitler finds himself on a Montana farm in late April 1945.


An example which could conceivably fall into either 1.1.1 or 1.1.2 can be seen in book and film versions of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Harry went back in time with Hermione to change history. As they do so it becomes apparent that they are simply performing actions that were previously seen in the story, although neither the characters nor the reader were aware of the causes of those actions at the time. (However, a strong argument against this interpretation can be made.) This is another example of the predestination paradox. It is arguable, however, that the mechanics of time travel actually prevented any paradoxes, firstly, by preventing them from realizing a priori that time travel was occurring and secondly, by enabling them to recall the precise action to take at the precise time and keep history consistent.

In 1.2, any event that appears to have caused a paradox has instead created a new time line. The old time line remains unchanged, with the time traveler or information sent simply having vanished, never to return. A difficulty with this explanation, however, is that conservation of mass-energy would be violated for the origin timeline and the destination timeline. A possible solution to this is to have the mechanics of time travel require that mass-energy be exchanged in precise balance between past and future at the moment of travel, or to simply expand the scope of the conservation law to encompass all timelines. Some examples of this kind of time travel can be found in David Gerrold's book The Man Who Folded Himself and The Time Ships by Stephen Baxter, plus several episodes of the TV show Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Mutable timelines

Time travel in a Type 2 universe is much more complex. The biggest problem is how to explain changes in the past. One method of explanation is that once the past changes, so too do the memories of all observers. This would mean that no observer would ever observe the changing of the past (because they will not remember changing the past). This would make it hard to tell whether you are in a Type 1 universe or a Type 2 universe. You could, however, infer such information by knowing if a) communication with the past were possible or b) it appeared that the time line had never been changed as a result of an action someone remembers taking, although evidence exists that other people are changing their time lines fairly often.

An example of this kind of universe is presented in Thrice Upon a Time, a novel by James P. Hogan. The Back to the Future trilogy films also seem to feature a single mutable timeline (see the Back to the Future FAQ for details on how the writers imagined time travel worked in the movies' world). By contrast, the short story "Brooklyn Project" by William Tenn provides a sketch of life in a Type 2 world where no one even notices as the timeline changes repeatedly.

In type 2.1, attempts are being made at changing the timeline, however, all that is accomplished in the first tries is that the method in which decisive events occur is changed; final conclusions in the bigger scheme cannot be brought to a different outcome.

As an example, the movie Deja Vu depicts a paper note sent to the past with vital information to prevent a terrorist attack. However, the vital information results in the killing of an ATF agent, but does not prevent the terrorist attack; the very same agent died in the previous version of the timeline as well, albeit under different circumstances. Finally, the timeline is changed by sending a human into the past, arguably a "stronger" measure than simply sending back a paper note, which results in preventing both a murder and the terrorist attack. As in the Back to the Future movie trilogy, there seems to be a ripple effect too as changes from the past "propagate" into the present, and people in the present have altered memory of events that occurred after the changes made to the timeline.

The science fiction writer Larry Niven suggests in his essay "The Theory and Practice of Time Travel" that in a type 2.1 universe, the most efficient way for the universe to "correct" a change is for time travel to never be discovered, and that in a type 2.2 universe, the very large (or infinite) number of time travelers from the endless future will cause the timeline to change wildly until it reaches a history in which time travel is never discovered. However, many other "stable" situations might also exist in which time travel occurs but no paradoxes are created; if the changeable-timeline universe finds itself in such a state no further changes will occur, and to the inhabitants of the universe it will appear identical to the type 1.1 scenario. This is sometimes referred to as the "Time Dilution Effect".

Few if any physicists or philosophers have taken seriously the possibility of "changing" the past except in the case of multiple universes, and in fact many have argued that this idea is logically incoherent, so the mutable timeline idea is rarely considered outside of science fiction.

Also, deciding whether a given universe is of Type 2.1 or 2.2 can not be done objectively, as the categorization of timeline-invasive measures as "strong" or "weak" is arbitrary, and up to interpretation: An observer can disagree about a measure being "weak", and might, in the lack of context, argue instead that simply a mishap occurred which then led to no effective change.

An example would be the paper note sent back to the past in the film Deja Vu, as described above. Was it a "too weak" change, or was it just a local-time alteration which had no extended effect on the larger timeline? As the universe in Deja Vu seems not entirely immune to paradoxes (some arguably minute paradoxes do occur), both versions seem to be equally possible.

Gradual and instantaneous

In literature, there are two methods of time travel:

1. The most commonly used method of time travel in science fiction is the instantaneous movement from one point in time to another, like using the controls on a CD player to skip to a previous or next song, though in most cases, there is a machine of some sort, and some energy expended in order to make this happen (like the time-traveling De Lorean in Back to the Future or the phone booth that traveled through the "circuits of history" in Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure). In some cases, there is not even the beginning of a scientific explanation for this kind of time travel; it's popular probably because it is more spectacular and makes time travel easier. The "Universal Remote" used by Adam Sandler in the movie Click works in the same manner, although only in one direction, the future. While his character Michael Newman can travel back to a previous point it is merely a playback with which he cannot interact.

2. In The Time Machine, H.G. Wells explains that we are moving through time with a constant speed. Time travel then is, in Wells' words, "stopping or accelerating one's drift along the time-dimension, or even turning about and traveling the other way." To expand on the audio playback analogy used above, this would be like rewinding or fast forwarding an analogue audio cassette and playing the tape at a chosen point. Perhaps the oldest example of this method of time travel is in Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking-Glass (1871): the White Queen is living backwards, hence her memory is working both ways. Her kind of time travel is uncontrolled: she moves through time with a constant speed of -1 and she cannot change it. T.H. White, in the first part of his Arthurian novel The Once and Future King, The Sword in the Stone (1938) used the same idea: the wizard Merlyn lives backward in time, because he was born "at the wrong end of time" and has to live backwards from the front. "Some people call it having second sight", he says. This method of gradual time travel is not as popular in modern science fiction, though a form of it does occur in the film Primer.

Time travel, or space-time travel?

An objection that is sometimes raised 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 the exact 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 occurred 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".

Nevertheless, the idea that the Earth moves away from the time traveler when he takes a trip through time has been used in a few science fiction stories, such as the 2000 AD comic Strontium Dog, in which Johnny Alpha uses "Time Bombs" to propel an enemy several seconds into the future, during which time the movement of the Earth causes the unfortunate victim to re-appear in space. Other science fiction stories try to anticipate this objection and offer a rationale for the fact that the traveler remains on Earth, such as the 1957 Robert Heinlein novel The Door into Summer where Heinlein essentially handwaved the issue with a single sentence: "You stay on the world line you were on." In his 1980 novel The Number of the Beast a "continua device" allows the protagonists to dial in the six (not four!) co-ordinates of space and time and it instantly moves them there—without explaining how such a device might work.

In Clifford Simak's 1950s short story "Mastodonia" (later broadcast on the X Minus One radio anthology show, and then significantly re-written into a longer novel of the same name) the protagonists are aware of the possibility of changes in ground level while traveling back in time to the same geographical coordinates and mount their time machine in a helicopter so as to not materialize underground. When the helicopter is damaged beyond repair while in the past, they then build a mound of rocks from which to launch their return to the present.

The television series Seven Days also dealt with this problem; when the chrononaut would be 'rewinding', he would also be propelling himself backwards around the Earth's orbit, with the intention of landing at some chosen spatial location, though seldom hitting the mark precisely. In Piers Anthony's Bearing an Hourglass, the potent Hourglass of the Incarnation of Time naturally moves the Incarnation in space according to the numerous movements of the globe through the solar system, the solar system through the galaxy, etc.; but by carefully negating some of the movements he can also travel in space within the limits of the planet. The television series Doctor Who cleverly avoided this issue by establishing early on in the series that the Doctor's TARDIS is able to move about in space in addition to traveling in time.

See also



Speculations



Claims of time travel



Fiction, humor



References

Notes

  1. [1]
  2. [2]
  3. Robert Darnton, The Forbidden Best-Sellers of Pre-Revolutionary France (New York: W.W. Norton, 1996), 120.
  4. NOVA Online - Sagan on Time Travel
  5. http://arxiv.org/pdf/gr-qc/0204022
  6. p.33-130
  7. p. 499
  8. Franklin, Ben A. (March 11, 1982), "The night the planets were aligned with Baltimore lunacy", New York Times.
  9. Goodman, Linda (1978). Linda Goodman's Love Signs, Leo-Aquarius chap. Harper and Row. ISBN 978-0060968960.
  10. MacAdams, Lewis (January, 1982), Wet Magazine.
  11. The Crater Baltimore Project
  12. [gr-qc/0102010] Many worlds in one
  13. Taking the Cosmic Shortcut - ABC Science Online
  14. Transcript of interview with Dr. Marc Rayman at "Space Place"
  15. Physics for Scientists and Engineers with Modern Physics, Fifth Edition, p.1258.
  16. p.76-140
  17. BBC News - New model 'permits time travel'
  18. This view is contested by another contemporary advocate of presentism, Craig Bourne, in his recent book A Future for Presentism, although for substantially different (and more complex) reasons.
  19. see this discussion between two philosophers, for example
  20. " Time Travel and Resolving Paradoxes in Fiction"
  21. Jones, Richard H., Time Travel and Harry Potter: Time-Turning in the Prisoner of Azkaaban and its Place in Time Travel Fiction. Outskirts Press. ISBN 978-1-4327-4194-5.
  22. Einstein Online: Actors on a changing stage


Bibliography

  • Nahin, Paul J. (1997). Time Travel: A writer's guide to the real science of plausible time travel. Writer's Digest Books. Cincinnati, Ohio. ISBN 0-89879-748-9


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