I’m stuck at home, you’re stuck at home, we’re all stuck at home. Jetting off to some fun-filled destination like we used to might not be in the cards for a little while yet. But what about travelling through time? And not just the boring way, where we wait for the future to arrive one second at a time. What if you could zip through time at will, travelling forward to the future or backward to the past as easily as pushing buttons on the dashboard of a souped-up DeLorean, just like in the movie Back to the Future?
Time travel has been a fantasy for at least 125 years. H.G. Wells penned his groundbreaking novel, The Time Machine, in 1895, and it’s something that physicists and philosophers have been writing serious papers about for almost a century.
What really kick-started scientific investigations into time travel was the notion, dating to the closing years of the 19th century, that time could be envisioned as a dimension, just like space. We can move easily enough through space, so why not time?
“In space, you can go wherever you want, so maybe in time you can similarly go anywhere you want,” says Nikk Effingham, a philosopher at the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom. “From there, it’s a short step to time machines.”
Wells was a novelist, not a physicist, but physics would soon catch up. In 1905, Albert Einstein published the first part of his relativity theory, known as special relativity. In it, space and time are malleable; measurements of both space and time depend on the relative speed of the person doing the measuring.
A few years later, the German mathematician Hermann Minkowski showed that, in Einstein’s theory, space and time could be thought of as two aspects of a single four-dimensional entity known as space-time. Then, in 1915, Einstein came up with the second part of his theory, known as general relativity. General relativity renders gravity in a new light: Instead of thinking of it as a force, general relativity describes gravity as a bending or warping of space-time.
But special relativity is enough to get us started in terms of moving through time. The theory “establishes that time is much more similar to space than we had previously thought,” says Clifford Johnson, a physicist at the University of Southern California. “So maybe everything we can do with space, we can do with time.”
Well, almost everything. Special relativity doesn’t give us a way of going back in time, but it does give us a way of going forward—and at a rate that you can actually control. In fact, thanks to special relativity, you can end up with two twins having different ages, the famous “twin paradox.”
Suppose you head off to the Alpha Centauri star system in your spaceship at a really high speed (something close to the speed of light), while your twin remains on Earth. When you come back home, you’ll find you’re now much younger than your twin. It’s counterintuitive, to say the least, but the physics, after more than a century, is rock solid.
“It is absolutely provable in special relativity that the astronaut who makes the journey, if they travel at very nearly the speed of light, will be much younger than their twin when they come back,” says Janna Levin, a physicist at Barnard College in New York. Interestingly, time appears to pass just as it always does for both twins; it’s only when they’re reunited that the difference reveals itself.
Maybe you were both in your 20s when the voyage began. When you come back, you look just a few years older than when you left, while your twin is perhaps now a grandparent. “My experience of the passage of time is utterly normal for me. My clocks tick at the normal rate, I age normally, movies run at the right pace,” says Levin. “I’m no further into my future than normal. But I’ve travelled into my twin’s future.”
With general relativity, things really start to get interesting. In this theory, a massive object warps or distorts space and time. Perhaps you’ve seen diagrams or videos comparing this to the way a ball distorts a rubber sheet. One result is that, just as travelling at a high speed affects the rate at which time passes, simply being near a really heavy object—like a black hole—will affect one’s experience of time. (This trick was central to the plot of the 2014 film, Interstellar, in which Matthew McConaughey’s character spends time in the vicinity of a massive black hole. When he returns home, he finds that his young daughter is now elderly.)
But black holes are just the beginning. Physicists have also speculated about the implications of a much more exotic structure known as a wormhole. Wormholes, if they exist, could connect one location in space-time with another. An astronaut who enters a wormhole in the Andromeda Galaxy in the year 3000 might find herself emerging from the other end in our own galaxy, in the year 2000. But there’s a catch: While we have overwhelming evidence that black holes exist in nature—astronomers even photographed one last year—wormholes are far more speculative.
“You can imagine building a bridge from one region of space-time to another region of space-time,” explains Levin, “but it would require kinds of mass and energy that we don’t really know exist in reality, things like negative energy.” She says it’s “mathematically conceivable” that structures such as wormholes could exist, but they may not be part of physical reality.
There’s also the troubling question of what happens to our notions of cause and effect if backward time travel were possible. The most famous of these conundrums is the so-called “grandfather paradox.” Suppose you travel back in time to when your grandfather was a young man. You kill him (perhaps by accident), which means your parent won’t be born, which means you won’t be born. Therefore, you won’t be able to travel through time and kill your grandfather.
Over the years, physicists and philosophers have pondered various resolutions to the grandfather paradox. One possibility is that the paradox simply proves that no such journeys are possible; the laws of physics, somehow, must prevent backward time travel. This was the view of the late physicist Stephen Hawking, who called this rule the “chronology protection conjecture.” (Mind you, he never specified the actual physics behind such a rule.)
But there are also other, more intriguing, solutions. Maybe backward time travel is possible, and yet time travelers can’t change the past, no matter how hard they try. Effingham, whose book Time Travel: Probability and Impossibility was published earlier this year, puts it this way: “You might shoot the wrong person, or you might change your mind. Or, you might shoot the person you think is your grandfather, but it turns out your grandmother had an affair with the milkman, and that’s who your grandfather was all along; you just didn’t know it.”
Which also means the much-discussed fantasy of killing Hitler before the outbreak of World War II is a non-starter. “It’s impossible because it didn’t happen,” says Fabio Costa, a theoretical physicist at the University of Queensland in Australia. “It’s not even a question. We know how history developed. There is no re-do.”
In fact, suggests Effingham, if you can’t change the past, then a time traveler probably can’t do anything. Your mere existence at a time in which you never existed would be a contradiction. “The universe doesn’t care whether the thing you’ve changed is that you’ve killed Hitler, or that you moved an atom from position A to position B,” Effingham says.
But all is not lost. The scenarios Effingham and Costa are imagining involve a single universe with a single “timeline.” But some physicists speculate that our universe is just one among many. If that’s the case, then perhaps time travelers who visit the past can do as they please, which would shed new light on the grandfather paradox.
“Maybe, for whatever reason, you decide to go back and commit this crime [of killing your grandfather], and so the world ‘branches off’ into two different realities,” says Levin. As a result, “even though you seem to be altering your past, you’re not really altering it; you’re creating a new history.” (This idea of multiple timelines lies at the heart of the Back to the Future movie trilogy. In contrast, in the movie 12 Monkeys, Bruce Willis’s character makes multiple journeys through time, but everything plays out along a single timeline.)
More work to be done
What everyone seems to agree on is that no one is building a time-travelling DeLorean or engineering a custom-built wormhole anytime soon. Instead, physicists are focusing on completing the work that Einstein began a century ago.
After more than 100 years, no one has figured out how to reconcile general relativity with the other great pillar of 20th century physics: quantum mechanics. Some physicists believe that a long-sought unified theory known as quantum gravity will yield new insight into the nature of time. At the very least, says Levin, it seems likely “that we need to go beyond just general relativity to understand time.”
Meanwhile, it’s no surprise that, like H.G. Wells, we continue to daydream about having the freedom to move through time just as we move through space. “Time is embedded in everything we do,” says Johnson. “It looms large in how we perceive the world. So being able to mess with time—I’m not surprised we’re obsessed with that, and fantasize about it.”
Dan Falk is a science journalist based in Toronto, Canada. His books include The Science of Shakespeare and In Search of Time. Follow him on Twitter.