January 23 2019
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Is Time Travel Possible - Maybe

Gaurav Khanna, University of Massachusetts Dartmouth Friday December 28, 2018    6:31 AM

Can we travel much further into the future? Absolutely. The really interesting question is whether we can travel back into the past.

The concept of time travel has always captured the imagination of physicists and laypersons alike. But is it really possible? Of course it is. We're doing it right now, aren't we? We are all traveling into the future one second at a time. But that was not what you were thinking. Can we travel much further into the future? Absolutely. If we could travel close to the speed of light, or in the proximity of a black hole, time would slow down enabling us to travel arbitrarily far into the future. The really interesting question is whether we can travel back into the past.

I am a physics professor at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, and first heard about the notion of time travel when I was 7, from a 1980 episode of Carl Sagan's classic TV series, Cosmos. I decided right then that someday, I was going to pursue a deep study of the theory that underlies such creative and remarkable ideas: Einstein's relativity. Twenty years later, I emerged with a PhD in the field and have been an active researcher in the theory ever since.

Now, one of my doctoral students has just published a paper in the journal Classical and Quantum Gravity that describes how to build a time machine using a very simple construction.

Einstein's general theory of relativity allows for the possibility of warping time to such a high degree that it actually folds upon itself, resulting in a time loop. Imagine you're traveling along this loop; that means that at some point, you'd end up at a moment in the past and begin experiencing the same moments since, all over again – a bit like deja vu, except you wouldn't realize it. Such constructs are often referred to as "closed time-like curves" or CTCs in the research literature, and popularly referred to as "time machines." Time machines are a byproduct of effective faster-than-light travel schemes and understanding them can improve our understanding of how the universe works.

Addional story by CLIFFORD PICKOVER (PBS)

Can the flow of time be stopped? Certainly some mystics thought so. Angelus Silesius, a sixth-century philosopher and poet, thought the flow of time could be suspended by mental powers:

Time is of your own making.
its clock ticks in your head.
The moment you stop thought

The line between science and mysticism sometimes grows thin. Today physicists would agree that time is one of the strangest properties of our universe. In fact, there is a story circulating among scientists of an immigrant to America who has lost his watch. He walks up to a man on a New York street and asks, "Please, Sir, what is time?" The scientist replies, "I'm sorry, you'll have to ask a philosopher. I'm just a physicist."

time's past Most cultures have a grammar with past and future tenses, and also demarcations like seconds and minutes, and yesterday and tomorrow. Yet we cannot say exactly what time is. Although the study of time became scientific during the time of Galileo and Newton, a comprehensive explanation was given only in this century by Einstein, who declared, in effect, time is simply what a clock reads. The clock can be the rotation of a planet, sand falling in an hourglass, a heartbeat, or vibrations of a cesium atom. A typical grandfather clock follows the simple Newtonian law that states that the velocity of a body not subject to external forces remains constant. This means that clock hands travel equal distances in equal times. While this kind of clock is useful for everyday life, modern science finds that time can be warped in various ways, like clay in the hands of a cosmic sculptor.

Today, we know that time travel need not be confined to myths, science fiction, Hollywood movies, or even speculation by theoretical physicists.

Science-fiction authors have had various uses for time machines, including dinosaur hunting, tourism, visits to one's ancestors, and animal collecting. Ever since the time of H.G. Wells' famous novel The Time Machine (1895), people have grown increasingly intrigued by the idea of traveling through time. (I was lucky enough to have chats with H.G. Wells' grandson, who told me that his grandfather's book has never been out of print, which is rare for a book a century old.) In the book, the protagonist uses a "black and polished brass" time machine to gain mechanical control over time as well as return to the present to bring back his story and assess the consequences of the present on the future. Wells was a graduate of the Imperial College of Science and Technology, and scientific language permeates his discussions. Many believe Wells' book to be the first story about a time machine, but seven years before 22-year-old Wells wrote the first version of The Time Machine, Edward Page Mitchell, an editor of the New York Sun, published "The Clock That Went Backward."

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