Do we live in a rotating universe? If we did, we could travel back in time

Does the universe rotate?
Does the universe rotate? (Image credit: David Wall via Getty Images)

We know that planets rotate, but what about the universe as a whole? No, the universe doesn't appear to rotate; if it did, time travel into the past might be possible.

Although people throughout antiquity had argued that the heavens rotate around the world, in 1949, mathematician Kurt Gödel was the first to provide a modern formulation of a rotating universe. He used the language of Albert Einstein's theory of general relativity to do so, as a way of honoring his friend and neighbor at Princeton, Einstein himself.

But this process of academic "honoring" went in a different direction than you might suspect, because Gödel used the example of a rotating universe to show that general relativity was incomplete.

Related: Was Einstein wrong? The case against space-time theory

Gödel's model of a rotating universe was rather artificial. Besides the rotation, his universe contained only one ingredient: a negative cosmological constant that resisted the centrifugal force of that rotation to keep the universe static.

But the artificial nature of that universe didn't bother Gödel. Instead, his main point was that general relativity allowed for the possibility of a rotating universe at all. And Gödel used his rotating universe to show that general relativity allowed for time travel into the past, which should be forbidden. 

Taking the universe out for a spin

Living in a rotating universe would be strange indeed. For one, all observers would consider themselves the center of rotation. This means that if you parked yourself somewhere and ensured that you were absolutely still, you would see the universe wheeling around you. But if you picked up and moved anywhere else, even to a distant galaxy, you would always still see the universe rotating around your new position.

This is incredibly hard to visualize, but it's not much different from the idea that in an expanding universe, all observers see themselves as the center of expansion.

The farther you go from any one observer, the greater the rate of rotation. And this isn't merely a rotation of stuff but a rotation of space-time itself. This means that light, which is always forced to follow the curvature of space-time, makes for some strange journeys. A beam of light sent out from an observer will curve away as it gets swept up in the rotation of space-time. At some distant point, the rotation will be too much, and the light will turn around and return to the observer.

This means there's a limit to how far you can see in a rotating universe, and beyond that, all you'll observe is duplicate images of your own past self.

This strange behavior doesn't apply only to light. If you were to get in a rocket and blast off through a rotating universe, you, too, would get caught up in the rotation. And because of that rotation, your movement would double back on itself. When you returned to your starting point, however, you would find yourself arriving before you had left.

In a manner of speaking, a rotating universe would be capable of rotating your future into your own past, allowing you to travel back in time.

Sitting still

This was Gödel's major objection to general relativity. That theory, being our ultimate understanding of space and time, should not allow for backward time travel, because time travel into the past violates our notions of causality and introduces all sorts of nasty time-travel paradoxes. The fact that relativity did not automatically make time travel impossible signaled to Gödel that Einstein's theory was incomplete.

Thankfully, we see no signs that we live in a rotating universe. If the cosmos were rotating, then light coming from opposite directions of the sky would be redshifted in one direction and have an equivalent amount of blueshifting in the other. Astronomers have applied this test to surveys of distant galaxies and even to the cosmic microwave background, which is the light left over from when the cosmos was only 380,000 years old. The conclusion of these tests is that if the universe is rotating, it's doing so at a rate of less than 10^-17 degrees per century. 

But Gödel's objection still stands. Since 1949, physicists have concocted other ways for general relativity to allow for backward time travel, wormholes, faster-than-light-speed "warp drive" (known as Alcubierre drive), and special paths around infinitely long cylinders. But all those contrivances rely on some sort of exotic physics that breaks our understanding of how the universe works, like matter with negative mass.

But Gödel's rotating universe is simply a matter of observational test, not a fundamental break with known physics. We could have found ourselves in a rotating universe just as easily as we find ourselves in an expanding one. There's nothing in our knowledge of physics that prevents this kind of universe from existing, so there's nothing in our knowledge of physics that prevents backward time travel.

Perhaps Gödel is right, and we have more to learn about the universe.

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Paul Sutter Contributor

Paul M. Sutter is an astrophysicist at SUNY Stony Brook and the Flatiron Institute in New York City. Paul received his PhD in Physics from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2011, and spent three years at the Paris Institute of Astrophysics, followed by a research fellowship in Trieste, Italy, His research focuses on many diverse topics, from the emptiest regions of the universe to the earliest moments of the Big Bang to the hunt for the first stars. As an "Agent to the Stars," Paul has passionately engaged the public in science outreach for several years. He is the host of the popular "Ask a Spaceman!" podcast, author of "Your Place in the Universe" and "How to Die in Space" and he frequently appears on TV — including on The Weather Channel, for which he serves as Official Space Specialist.

  • BuzzLightyear
    Admin said:
    A rotating universe would be capable of rotating your future into your own past, allowing you to travel back in time.

    Do we live in a rotating universe? If we did, we could travel back in time : Read more
    What if we live a vast globe shaped Universe which is rotating?
  • mokeshame
    I think the universe is rotating but some early assumptions have been made in this article. Like the one that we should red and blueshift every lightbeam. Instead red and blueshift are direct evidence that the universe is rotating and because of that appears to be moving away from us. And it goes faster because the universe on a grand scale will ever rotate faster. This is the endgoal of al conservation of energy. Conserve it in rotations as a way of catapulting the universe to all time high rotation speeds. So in the end the speed isnt conservated any more and goes into a strait line.

    The universe does this to work in on itself. We see actually one particle that can manage itself. Builds his own structure and forms, with no limits. Just like Lego.

    Spacetime is the exactly the same as the forming of rotations, so it can not be distorted by it i think.
    A while ago i saw a matmathhecian that exactly formulated it the way i see it, her name was M. Duchin.
    I think to understand the base and interactions of the universe we must see it as an geniometrical system.