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
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.
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:
Travelling faster than the speed of light
The use of cosmic strings and black holes
Wormholes and Alcubierre ‘warp’ drive
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.
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 “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).