Michigan Tech physicists search for time travelers on Twitter

Michigan Tech physicists search for time travelers on Twitter
Two astrophysicists from Michigan Technological University are using Twitter to search for time travelers (Image: Shutterstock)
Two astrophysicists from Michigan Technological University are using Twitter to search for time travelers (Image: Shutterstock)
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Two astrophysicists from Michigan Technological University are using Twitter to search for time travelers (Image: Shutterstock)
Two astrophysicists from Michigan Technological University are using Twitter to search for time travelers (Image: Shutterstock)

At this juncture in time, humanity does not know how to travel into the past, or even if such a concept has any meaning. So if you are an astrophysicist who wants to uncover evidence of time travel, what do you do? If you're Michigan Technological University astrophysics professor Robert Nemeroff and his PhD student Teresa Wilson, you look for time travelers on Twitter.

Time travel into the future is a fact – we do it every day. Accelerated time travel into the future can be measured using atomic clocks in fast airplanes. However, time travel into the past is a dicier proposition. While it appears that this is not forbidden by any current physics, we also don't know how to accomplish the task.

There is a (rather short) tradition of attempts to contact people who have arrived here from the future. In 2005, an MIT graduate student held a convention for time travelers. Despite considerable pre-convention publicity, no time travelers owned up at the convention. In 2012, Stephen Hawking held a party for time travelers, sending out the invitations after the party was held. Again, no one came to his party.

Surely one of the main ways to vet someone who claims to be a time traveler is their knowledge of something that has not yet occurred. This concept inspired Nemeroff (co-creator and editor of the Astronomy Picture Of the Day website) and Wilson to search the internet for signs of anachronistic factoids. For example, a post from 2006 containing the phrase "President Obama" would hardly be anachronistic, as his potential candidacy was already being discussed.

It seems there are very few events that can be uniquely identified by a couple of words. Such events have to be surprises to the extent that the descriptive words have likely never previously been combined. The Michigan Tech astrophysicists came up with "Comet ISON", which was discovered on September 21, 2012, and "Pope Francis", a name first appearing on March 16, 2013.

No comet had previously been called Comet ISON, and no previous pope was named Francis, so these phrases are unlikely to have been used previously. Even if they appeared in some context ("there may someday be a Pope Francis"), it would be easy to eliminate these as possibilities. What they were looking for was a text from one person to another in 2009 accidentally referring to Pope Benedict XVI as "Pope Francis."

Most search engines have a great deal of difficulty searching for items posted within a given slice of time. After studying the capabilities of a number of search engines and social media, our intrepid investigators chose Twitter as their hunting ground. With one exception deemed overly speculative (as described above), they came up empty. No evidence of precogniscience appeared in roughly a trillion tweets. They further performed a number of related searches, which came up empty.

Although this may seem a silly bit of research (IgNoble Prize material?), it is actually a reasonable attempt to see if time travelers have left traces of their anachronistic presence in the blogosphere. However, now that the concept of such searches has surfaced, it seems unlikely that any more will be carried out. Fake evidence of time travel would be too easy to retrofit into the collective memories of our history. While time may be out of joint, it appears that no one sent from the future to set it right has left obvious traces, at least on Twitter.


Jason Zuker
"Remember time cadets, the only way to communicate in those days was something called a 'social network'..."
Robert Walther
Today 'the social network' is how 'space cadets' communicate.
I think the IgNoble Prize is only for projects that spend a lot of money or claim success. As to "forbidden by current physics", let's begin by consideration of Conservation of Mass/Energy. The sudden appearance of a mass at THIS time is NOT balanced by the (anticipated) vanishing of a similar mass at a future time.
With apologies to Steven Jay Gould, when it comes to time travel from the future, absence of evidence IS absence of evidence. It is inconceivable that time travel will one day be possible yet no one from the future has sought glory by providing ready, incontrovertible proof. Unless, perhaps, people will be able to travel back in time for only a few years or decades.
M. Scott Veach
@piperTom, it's far more complicated than that...suffice it to say while it seems incredibly unlikely to have happened, it's simply not true that time travel must violate CME;
frankly, I'm much more worried about the fact that we're almost certainly a simulation universe than I am about where the time travelers are...
John Caldwell
I think that moving from the future into the past is not possible. One might, however be able to move into a similar past. In other words you cannot go back and kill your grandfather.
Aside from the known physics (that THAT can stir some controversy :-) ), it seems there can be no way to actually "catch" said time traveler, except by their intention or mistake, EITHER OF WHICH could easily be undone. Even a discovery of said mistake could be undone.
We can never know.
Charles Ostman
Remember this? 'Time-Traveler' Busted For Insider Trading - "We don't believe this guy's story -- he's either a lunatic or a pathological liar," says an SEC insider. "But the fact is, with an initial investment of only $800, in two weeks' time he had a portfolio valued at over $350 million. Every trade he made capitalized on unexpected business developments, which simply can't be pure luck."
If there are no time travelers, maybe we succeeded in annihilating our species before the technology was discovered.
Kyle McHattie
Or perhaps traveling to the past invariably causes a tangent universe that we are no longer a part of?
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