3 science-based approaches to time travel that could actually work

Have you watched the news lately? It's all war, calamity, and recession out there. Yes, things are rather bleak at this particular point in history. If only there was some way we could travel back to the past so as to avoid all these messes — or failing that, just cut our losses and jump forward to a future time when our descendents will have fixed everything with all their space ray guns and future doohickey whatnots.

If only.

Well, as it turns out, lots of people are actively working towards the dream of expanding the one-way street of time into a multi-lane superhighway! Of course, many of these time pioneers are completely whackadoodle. But within the temporal engineering profession, you can also find accomplished researchers pursuing serious, science-based approaches to time travel.

Yesterday, we looked at various time travel theories inspired by science fiction. Here, we highlight three of these proposed methods of temporal manipulation that aren't only attracting serious consideration, but might be available sooner than you think.


1. Space-Time Twisting by Light

A few years back, University of Connecticut professor of physics, Ronald Mallett shook the geekosphere with his prediction of a functioning time machine within the next 100 years. But even more intriguing than a working time machine coming online sometime before the last Justin Bieber fan kicks the bucket, the professor claims he has located a gray area in Einstein's General Relativity Theory that could make some form of direct temporal manipulation a reality within the decade.

Mallett is currently seeking funding for his Space-Time Twisting by Light (STL) project (gritty, nerdy deets available here: PDF). The STL aims — to use junior high parlance — to give the fabric of space-time a purple nurple. By utilizing rotating lasers, the STL will attempt to induce a warping of space-time which would allow a sidestepping of the linear flow of time as we know it. (While definitely intriguing, the proposal is not without its detractors.)

Mallet gave a simplified rundown of the concept during a recent interview:

According to Einstein's theory, light can also create gravity even though it is not made up of matter. It's just energy, but it can create gravity. What I realized is that if light can create gravity and gravity can affect time then light can affect time. So my core idea was that by using light, you can actually alter time. So my notion was to have a time machine that was based on light by using laser light ...

Lasers, Einstein, Time Travel! There's nothing that's not nerdfabulous about this idea! Unfortunately, the initial scope of Doc Mallet's time machine isn't quite as ambitious as Doc Brown's, in that it's not a magical box that can instantly flux-capacitate a human into the past or future. Rather, the STL would create small "loops" in time that would allow rapidly-evaporating subatomic particles to stick-around slightly longer than they are supposed to from our vantage point.

Now, slowly evaporating subatomic particles may not sound quite as exciting as Linda Hamilton-hunting cyborgs, However, according to Dr. Mallett, this technique might eventually empower scientists to do something almost as cool: send information backwards through time. In the not so distant future, this technology could be used to set-up a one-way phone line into the past.

"Information in many ways is even more important then trying to send human beings back," commented Mallet on the possibility of texting the past "because we could signal ourselves about future disasters and maybe advert those disasters."

Not to mention how this technology would revolutionize the future pizza delivery industry.

Pictured above: An illustrated look at the STL project. (Credit: UCONN)


2. Delayed Choice Quantum Eraser

Like Dr. Mallet, another university professor has used the media to solicit funds for his time scrambling lab work.

University of Washington physics professor, John Cramer (who also moonlights as a prolific science fiction writer and columnist) has made a name for himself with his work on quantum retrocausality. Utilizing some hair-meltingly insane aspects of quantum science, Cramer is working to set up a lab situation where a subatomic effect would appear before the cause. Read that last sentence over if you need to — it's weird.

Specifically, the good professor is delayed choice quantum eraser (DCQE). The experiment is, in a word, complicated (if you have some time to kill and some brain cells to implode, watch this very good video; followed by this more detailed, but less approachable one; and then read this well-written wiki entry on DCQE, in that order). The short of it is that these experiments may allow researchers to affect outcomes from outside the one-way flow of time by fiddling about in the logic morgue that is the quantum world. Like STL, this technique might be an avenue to sending information into the past.

In addition to his DCQE research into blending the timeline, Cramer has written extensively on scientific approaches to time travel in his layman's science column for Analog magazine including a recent piece that explores yet another way to send information back through time, but in this case utilizing extra dimensions.

Pictured above: Dr. John Cramer, seen as a reflection, using lasers to test some quantum theory. (Photo: Scott Eklund/Seattle Post-Intelligencer/SL)


3. A Rocket Ship To The Moon! And The Future

The two previous examples of theoretical time tech show how we might send subatomic information into the past. While prank calling history would surely be a boon to the jerk population of the future ("Hello? Is this the Great Depression? CHEER UP, depression-face!"), it's not what most people would call a time machine. A true blue sci-fitastic time machine should allow a person to walk in a box, push a button, and walk out in the amazing flying car SUPER FUTURE! And as it turns out, scientists are, at this very moment, developing technology that will do just that — even if they don't really mean it to.

As our species begins its big move into the cosmos, we are also — as a fringe benefit — moving on into the time bending business. But before we get to all that, keep these two concepts in mind: 1) if you enter a region of space with higher gravity, such as in orbit around a large planet or black hole, your experience of time would slow down, a phenomenon predicted by Einstein's general theory of relativity; and 2) as you move faster through space, time will begin to hit the breaks as per the special theory of relativity.

If some future vessel were able to sail through the universe at a velocity approaching the speed of light, time would slow down for the vessel's crew in relation to the temporal experience of those holding down the fort on Earth. A high-speed, round-trip space run that appeared to span 10 years on Earth might only feel like, say, a month to the ship's crew. The same would be true for a vessel that entered an extended orbit around a gravitational behemoth such as a black hole. From vantage point of the various space crews, when they step out of the spaceship everything and everyone would have aged rapidly, appearing completely different. These future astronauts would experience the same exact effect as stepping in some time machine and pushing the big red "future" button.

And keep in mind, Einstein's ideas regarding the rubbery nature of space-time aren't just some academic conjectures, they have been proven and verified. In fact, once you start travelling away from the Earth, they become very difficult to avoid.

Even now, in our Star Trek infancy, we are forced to deal with space-time's elasticity. One notable example can be found right on your car's dashboard. The global positioning system (GPS) is comprised of various satellites that provide location data to gadgets on Earth. When engineers first started to construct the GPS satellite architecture, they kept running into miscalculations. Specifically, the clocks on the satellites kept getting out of whack. Eventually, scientists figured out that the persistent problem wasn't due to a mechanical glitch, but was the overlooked result of the warping of space-time.

The clocks on the satellites were experiencing time differently than clocks on Earth via their 1) relative distance from the Earth's gravity, which made them run faster by about 45 microseconds per day and 2) the healthy 8,700 mph clip that the satellites zoom around the Earth which caused the clocks to tick at a slightly slower speed than their counterparts back home. The net result these two forces cause the satellites to consistently experience time faintly faster than we do on Earth (around 38 microseconds faster per day). Over time, this is enough of a disparity to create bugs in the system. Now, engineers anticipate the effects of Relativity and program the system to account for these different experiences of time. So, in a way, the first man-made machines to become dislodged in time are already with us.

While this interstellar, space-fairing method of time travel won't be very useful in the short term, future generations will use this effect to their advantage as they stretch out into the galaxy and bring the expansive distances necessary for interstellar travel down into human scales.

Get yer Wyld Stallyns T-shirts ready.

Pictured above: Space Shuttle Endeavour's engines on STS-127. (Photo: NASA)

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