Stephen Hawking's final book suggests time travel may one day be possible – here's what to make of it

November 9, 2018 by Peter Millington, The Conversation

Credit: andrey_l/Shutterstock
"If one made a research grant application to work on time travel it would be dismissed immediately," writes the physicist Stephen Hawking in his posthumous book Brief Answers to the Big Questions. He was right. But he was also right that asking whether time travel is possible is a "very serious question" that can still be approached scientifically.

Arguing that our current understanding cannot rule it out, Hawking, it seems, was cautiously optimistic. So where does this leave us? We cannot build a machine today, but could we in the future?

Let's start with our everyday experience. We take for granted the ability to call our friends and family wherever they are in the world to find out what they are up to right now. But this is something we can never actually know. The signals carrying their voices and images travel incomprehensibly fast, but it still takes a finite time for those signals to reach us.

Our inability to access the "now" of someone far away is at the heart of Albert Einstein's theories of space and time.

Light speed

Einstein told us that space and time are parts of one thing – spacetime – and that we should be as willing to think about distances in time as we are distances in space. As odd as this might sound, we happily answer "about two and half hours", when someone asks how far Birmingham is from London. What we mean is that the journey takes that long at an average of 50 miles per hour.

Mathematically, our statement is equivalent to saying that Birmingham is about 125 miles from London. As physicists Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw write in their book Why does E=mc²?, time and distance "can be interchanged using something that has the currency of a speed". Einstein's intellectual leap was to suppose that the exchange rate from a time to a distance in spacetime is universal – and it is the speed of light.

The speed of light is the fastest any signal can travel, putting a fundamental limit on how soon we can know what is going on elsewhere in the universe. This gives us "causality" – the law that effects must always come after their causes. It is a serious theoretical thorn in the side of time-travelling protagonists. For me to travel back in time and set in motion events that prevent my birth is to put the effect (me) before the cause (my birth).

Now, if the speed of light is universal, we must measure it to be the same – 299,792,458 metres per second in vacuum – however fast we ourselves are moving. Einstein realised that the consequence of the speed of light being absolute is that space and time itself cannot be. And it turns out that moving clocks must tick slower than stationary ones.

The faster you move, the slower your clock ticks relative to ones you are moving past. The word "relative" is key: time will seem to pass normally to you. To everyone standing still, however, you will be in slow motion. If you were to move at the speed of light, you would appear frozen in time – as far as you were concerned, everyone else would be in fast forward.

So what if we were to travel faster than light, would time run backwards as has taught us?

Unfortunately, it takes infinite energy to accelerate a human being to the speed of light, let alone beyond it. But even if we could, time wouldn't simply run backwards. Instead, it would no longer make sense to talk about forward and backward at all. The law of causality would be violated and the concept of cause and effect would lose its meaning.

Wormholes

Einstein also told us that the force of gravity is a consequence of the way mass warps space and time. The more mass we squeeze into a region of space, the more spacetime is warped and the slower nearby clocks tick. If we squeeze in enough mass, spacetime becomes so warped that even cannot escape its gravitational pull and a black hole is formed. And if you were to approach the edge of the black hole – its event horizon – your clock would tick infinitely slowly relative to those far away from it.

So could we warp spacetime in just the right way to close it back on itself and travel back in time?

The answer is maybe, and the warping we need is a traversable wormhole. But we also need to produce regions of negative energy density to stabilise it, and the classical physics of the 19th century prevents this. The modern theory of , however, might not.

According to quantum mechanics, empty space is not empty. Instead, it is filled with pairs of particles that pop in and out of existence. If we can make a region where fewer pairs are allowed to pop in and out than everywhere else, then this region will have negative energy density.

However, finding a consistent theory that combines quantum mechanics with Einstein's theory of gravity remains one of the biggest challenges in theoretical physics. One candidate, string theory (more precisely M-theory) may offer up another possibility.

M-theory requires spacetime to have 11 dimensions: the one of time and three of space that we move in and seven more, curled up invisibly small. Could we use these extra spatial dimensions to shortcut and time? Hawking, at least, was hopeful.

Saving history

So is really a possibility? Our current understanding can't rule it out, but the answer is probably no.

Einstein's theories fail to describe the structure of spacetime at incredibly small scales. And while the laws of nature can often be completely at odds with our everyday experience, they are always self-consistent – leaving little room for the paradoxes that abound when we mess with cause and effect in science fiction's take on time travel.

Despite his playful optimism, Hawking recognised that the undiscovered laws of physics that will one day supersede Einstein's may conspire to prevent large objects like you and I from hopping casually (not causally) back and forth through time. We call this legacy his "chronology protection conjecture".

Whether or not the future has time machines in store, we can comfort ourselves with the knowledge that when we climb a mountain or speed along in our cars, we change how time ticks.

So, this "pretend to be a time traveller day" (December 8), remember that you already are, just not in the way you might hope.

Explore further: Don't stop me now! Superluminal travel in Einstein's universe

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14 comments

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Ryan1981
5 / 5 (3) Nov 09, 2018
My current opinion (can be wrong) is that the arrow of time points in 1 direction: the future, and I have not yet seen any evidence we can move the other way :P
Gigel
2 / 5 (1) Nov 09, 2018
Well, if you moved the other way, you couldn't recollect that because you would be erasing that memory. Unless you try to move back in time while time still moves forward in your mind.

We may move back in time the same way we came here and have no idea about it.
adam_russell_9615
5 / 5 (2) Nov 09, 2018
If sometime in the future I was to invent time travel the first thing Id do is go back in time and give the knowledge to myself at an earlier age. The fact that that hasnt happened leads me to believe that we never do discover time travel.
guptm
5 / 5 (1) Nov 09, 2018
Time travel at macro level is not possible. In theory, it may be true at quantum level, but practically not.

Look at the sky, you are looking back in time!
Whydening Gyre
not rated yet Nov 09, 2018
If sometime in the future I was to invent time travel the first thing Id do is go back in time and give the knowledge to myself at an earlier age. The fact that that hasnt happened leads me to believe that we never do discover time travel.

Unless - it wasn't invented in your lifetime... :-)
Mimath224
not rated yet Nov 09, 2018
My current opinion (can be wrong) is that the arrow of time points in 1 direction: the future, and I have not yet seen any evidence we can move the other way :P

I see this as being correct. our current definition of 'time, as the arrow of time, has no mathematics with which one can juggle around and come up with some mathematical prediction that can be tested. And again, time dilation of SR shows the slowing of clocks and aging...but what is that? It's just the slowing of change, from condition to another. So in that sense we perceive progressive change and call it 'time'. Perhaps TT might be more accessible if we ask physicists to look more towards the fundamental theorems, such as information is never lost, and ask 'is the past locked in the information of the present and can it be accessed?' If the answer were in the affirmative then we'd have a new, perhaps workable, Time theory. I don't think we should worry to much about paradoxes cropping up...(cont.)
Mimath224
5 / 5 (1) Nov 09, 2018
(Cont.) because just as there are conservation laws in physics we might find another for Time. Or perhaps TT to the past to alter it might just create another timeline so as not to affect the original. A lot of if's and but's there but the QM aspects might be able to show us if it possible and perhaps the v of c is not so important in this context. I guess in summary I'm saying that Time must have other dimensions if we want TT. Now I wait for the 'down votes' Ha!
flamestar123
5 / 5 (1) Nov 09, 2018
Change is movement in three dimensional space and time time is information about the order of change. The only dimension that time has is informational not physical. Too many questions arise about what it means to go back in time. The primary question is does the agent moving backward in time have its changes that occured to it while moving forward in time reverse too. If the agent loses the changes it had when it moved back in time then the idea is meaningless but if the agent doesn't lose the changes that has occured to it when it moved back in time then time would moved in two different directions at the same time which is senseless.
Mimath224
not rated yet Nov 10, 2018
Change is movement in three dimensional space and time time is information about the order of change.... The primary question is does the agent moving backward in time have its changes that occured to it while moving forward in time reverse too. If the agent loses the changes it had when it moved back in time then the idea is meaningless but if the agent doesn't lose the changes that has occured to it when it moved... time which is senseless.

Yes change occurs in 3D, or commonly, everywhere. So if time is the information about the order then the 'arrow of time' is 3D also. How is that info structured? You might turn it around and say that 3D change tells 'time' in which direction it wants to move. Do we then have a situation similar to that of mass & space (GR)? The 'agent'...here you are still treating 'time' in the commonly known sense and as basically mentioned, it is that which does not allow for TT and it is that current definition that makes TT senseless.
Lischyn
2.3 / 5 (3) Nov 10, 2018
You are all assuming that time actually exists. Your life is nothing more than a series of chemical cycles and reactions , one after the other. Each reaction looks like it takes time but on the infinitensily small, it may take no time at all. Just like a grandfathers clock, the pendulum is just a series of bumps and grinds, one after the other that doesn't measure time but does measure the force of gravity.

And so it is for the rest of the universe, just one event that triggers another.

As humans, we are so ingrained with time that it is so easy for us to assume that time is a real thing.

We probably don't even have an instrument that measures time directly. Atomic clocks of various designs only count vibrations of atoms which in turn are only events that are triggered by other events.

I challenge you to show me something that measures time directly.
Mimath224
not rated yet Nov 10, 2018
You are all assuming that time actually exists. Your life is nothing more than a series of chemical cycles and reactions , one after the other. Each reaction looks like it takes time but on the infinitensily small, it may take no time at all. Just like a grandfathers clock, the pendulum is just a series of bumps and grinds, one after the other that doesn't measure time but does measure the force of gravity.

And so it is for the rest of the universe, just one event that triggers another.

As humans, we are so ingrained with time that it is so easy for us to assume that time is a real thing.

We probably don't even have an instrument that measures time directly. Atomic clocks of various designs only count vibrations of atoms which in turn are only events that are triggered by other events.

I challenge you to show me something that measures time directly.

I think I already said as much in my first comment.
NoStrings
1 / 5 (1) Nov 10, 2018
"One candidate, string theory (more precisely M-theory) may offer up another possibility."

Apparently the author traveled under a rock forward in time for 25 years with his cohort of string theory dinosaurs, repeating old and tired "11 dimensions will explain everything any day now" prayer.
time-traveler
not rated yet Nov 11, 2018
Puzzling evidence has been reported for information time travel via precognitive dreams, some of which originates from scientists and engineers. John Dunne's "An Experiment with Time" was one early book published in 1927, or more recently with a 2018 book called "The Oneironauts" by astronomer Paul Kalas. Of course a physical mechanism (explanation) continues to be elusive, but then again, repeatable experiments involving quantum mechanics struggle to fully explain the role of the observer and consciousness.
Mimath224
not rated yet Nov 12, 2018
Puzzling evidence has been reported for information time travel via precognitive dreams, some of which originates from scientists and engineers. John Dunne's "An Experiment with Time" was one early book published in 1927, or more recently with a 2018 book called "The Oneironauts" by astronomer Paul Kalas. Of course a physical mechanism (explanation) continues to be elusive, but then again, repeatable experiments involving quantum mechanics struggle to fully explain the role of the observer and consciousness.

Think you've got the wrong forum. We are not discussing what the mind is or is not capable of doing. The mainstream scientific community is not yet ready to examine intangibles such as Mind, Conscious etc. Maybe IF human beings evolve to a state where the mind can manipulate external forces then we could talk about same. Till then it remains in the realm of science fiction.

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