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Is Time Travel Possible? Scientists Explore the Past and Future

How would you like to head back to the future in a DeLorean car? Or travel with the crew of the USS Enterprise to save the whales? These two examples (from "Back to the Future" and "Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home") show a very common trope in science fiction — time travel. But is time travel possible?

We all have things we regret in life, so the concept of turning back time (or in the case of one "Superman" movie, reversing Earth's rotation) is an inviting one. Who wouldn't want to fix the past, or erase a regrettable historical event that negatively impacted humanity? Or for people who are more focused on the future, how about turning time forward to see a neat event — such as the first human landing on Mars?

Time travel is the focus of Episode 6 of "AMC Visionaries: James Cameron's Story of Science Fiction," which airs during a two-hour finale tonight (May 25) at 9 p.m. EDT/PDT (8 p.m. CDT) as part of the show's 2-hour season finale. [How Time Travel Works in Science Fiction (Infographic)]

As one scientist points out, we all constantly time travel — but it's in only one direction. We're inevitably moving 1 second at a time into the future, and we could go faster if we wanted. 

"Indeed, we can jump forward into the future as much as we want. It's only a matter of going really, really fast," Paul Sutter, an astrophysicist at Ohio State University, told Space.com in an email. He began by citing evidence from Albert Einstein's theory of special relativity, which shows that time is relative depending on how fast you are moving.

"The faster you move through space, the slower you move through time. We've been able to measure this with ultra-precise atomic clocks in jet airplanes, and the precision offered by the GPS system needs to take this into account. Sci-fi always seem to require complicated contraptions to jump in time, when all you need is a very large rocket," Sutter wrote.

This means that astronauts, for example, are already time travelers of a sort. That's because they go into space and live on the International Space Station, sometimes for months at a time. At a speed of about 5 miles (8 kilometers) a second, astronauts on the space station are moving faster than we are on Earth. This means that on the station, astronauts age just a tiny bit slower than they would on the planet's surface. (And that when astronaut Scott Kelly came back from a year in space, the age gap with his slightly older identical twin, Mark, widened by just a little bit.)

Jumping into the past

But many sci-fi franchises focus on time travel to the past. Such travel raises neat questions, such as whether you can go back in time and kill your own grandparent (a puzzle sometimes referred to as "the grandfather paradox"). 

Sutter pointed out that the physics of our universe appear to forbid this situation, at least as far as we can see. But surprisingly, some of Einstein's equations from the theory of general relativity may allow time travel into the past. (That theory basically discusses how huge objects distort space-time, which we feel as gravity.)

So how could Einstein's theory make time travel possible? Well, one way would be to break the cosmic speed limit and go faster than the speed of light — but that likely wouldn't work, because an object going at that speed would have infinite mass. Another possibility would be to form "wormholes" between points in space-time, although this would likely work for only small particles. There are even more exotic possibilities out there, such as using black holes, huge cylinders or cosmic strings to play with the fabric of space-time.

"When it comes to the past," Sutter said, "the mathematics of general relativity does allow a few strange scenarios where you can end up in your own past. But all of these scenarios end up violating other known physics, like requiring negative mass or infinitely long rotating cylinders. Why does general relativity allow past time travel, but other physics always jump in to spoil the fun? We honestly don't know."

But that doesn't mean that scientists are giving up. In 2015, Ali Övgün of Eastern Mediterranean University in Cyprus said wormholes might be possible in zones with dark matter. (This is a theoretical form of matter that cannot be seen or otherwise sensed with telescopes, but does show itself in its gravitational effects on other bodies.) While his equations show wormholes could occur in these regions, Övgün said he is still searching for proof. "It is only mathematical proof," he said. "I hope one day it will be possible to also find direct experimental evidence." 

Even the world-renowned physicist Stephen Hawking was entranced by the idea of time travel before his death this year, when he discussed in the Daily Mail how a black hole could make it possible. "Around and around they'd go, experiencing just half the time of everyone far away from the black hole. The ship and its crew would be traveling through time," he wrote in 2010. However, physicist Amos Iron at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, Israel, said a machine circling a black hole would probably disintegrate before moving that quickly.

A Look Back at This Series: 

This story was inspired by Episode 6 of "AMC Visionaries: James Cameron's Story of Science Fiction," which airs during a two-hour finale tonight at 10 p.m. EDT/PDT (9 p.m. CDT). A companion book is available on Amazon.com.

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell (she/her), Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022 covering diversity, education and gaming as well. She was contributing writer for Space.com for 10 years before joining full-time. Elizabeth's reporting includes multiple exclusives with the White House and Office of the Vice-President of the United States, an exclusive conversation with aspiring space tourist (and NSYNC bassist) Lance Bass, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, flying parabolic, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and a Bachelor of History from Canada's Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science at several institutions since 2015; her experience includes developing and teaching an astronomy course at Canada's Algonquin College (with Indigenous content as well) to more than 1,000 students since 2020. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: https://qoto.org/@howellspace