Few topics in science capture the imagination like time travel. Science fiction, like H. G. Wells’ classic novel, The Time Machine, published in 1895, and science fact, like time dilation, continues to fuel interest in time travel. Let us start with the most important question: Is time travel possible?

Of course, time travel is possible. We are already doing it. At this point, I know my answer may come across a bit flippant. However, my answer has a kernel of truth. We are traveling in time. We continually travel from the present to the future. This is what philosophers refer to as the arrow of time. In our everyday experience, it moves in one direction, from the present to the future. I think, though, on a more serious note, what people want to know is can we travel back in time—or to a future date in time.

In theory, it is possible. Indeed, numerous solutions to Einstein’s special and general relativity equations predict time travel is possible. In general, no law of physics prohibits time travel. We will begin by considering two methods science proposes to travel in time .

Method 1: Time Travel to the Future – Faster-than-light (FTL)

Using faster than light or near the speed of light, time travel appears to offer methodologies grounded in science fact. Consider two examples:

1) Assume you build a spaceship capable of traveling near the speed of light. With such a spaceship, you literally can travel into the future. This may sound like science fiction, but it is widely accepted as scientific fact. Particle accelerators confirm it. We discussed it when we discussed time dilation and the twin paradox. All you need is the spaceship, and an enormous amount of energy to accelerate it near the speed of light. However, this is an enormous problem. From Einstein’s special theory of relativity, we know that as we begin to accelerate a mass close to the speed of light, it becomes more massive, and approaches infinity. Thus, to accelerate it close to the speed of light, we need an energy source that approaches infinity. Perhaps we would have to learn how to harness the energy of a star, or routinely create matter-antimatter annihilations to create energy. Today’s science is nowhere near that level of sophistication.

2) Assume you can move information (like a signal) faster than light. Theoretically, if we could send a signal from point A to point B faster than the speed of light, it would represent a form of time travel. However, a significant paradox occurs. Here is an example.
An observer A in an inertial frame A sends a signal to an observer B in an inertial frame B. When B receives the signal, B replies and sends a signal back to A faster than the speed of light. Observer A receives the reply before sending the first signal.

In 1907, Albert Einstein described this paradox in a thought experiment to demonstrate that faster-than-light communications can violate causality (the effect occurs before the cause). Albert Einstein and Arnold Sommerfeld in 1910 described a thought experiment using a faster-than-light telegraph to send a signal back in time. In 1910, no faster-than-light signal communication device existed. It still does not exist, but the possibility of its development is increasing. From quantum physics, it appears that certain quantum effects “transmit” instantaneously and, therefore, appear to transmit faster than the speed of light in empty space. One example of this is the quantum states of two “entangled” particles (particles that have physically interacted, and later separated). In quantum physics, the quantum state is the set of mathematical variables that fully describes the physical aspects of a particle at the atomic level. When two particles interact with each other, they appear to form an invisible bond between them. When this happens, they become “entangled.” If we take one of the particles, and separate it from the other, they remain entangled (invisibly connected). If we change the atomic state of one of the entangled particles, the other particle instantaneously changes its state to maintain quantum-state harmony with the other entangled particle. Significant experimental evidence indicates that separated entangled particles can instantaneously transmit information to each other over distances that suggest the information exchange exceeds the speed of light. Initially, scientists criticized the theory of particle entanglement. After its experimental verification, science recognizes entanglement as a valid, fundamental feature of quantum mechanics. Today the focus of the research has changed to utilize its properties as a resource for communication and computation.

Method 2: Time Travel to the Past – Using Wormholes

Scientists have proposed using “wormholes” as a time machine. A wormhole is a theoretical entity in which space-time curvature connects two distant locations (or times). Although we do not have any concrete evidence that wormholes exist, we can infer their existence from Einstein’s general theory of relativity. However, we need more than a wormhole. We need a traversable wormhole. A traversable wormhole is exactly what the name implies. We can move through or send information through it.

If you would like to visualize what a wormhole does, imagine having a piece of paper whose two-dimensional surface represents four-dimensional space-time. Imagine folding the paper so that two points on the surface are connected. I understand that this is a highly simplified representation. In reality, we cannot visualize an actual wormhole. It might even exist in more than four dimensions.

How do we create a traversable wormhole? No one knows, but most scientists believe it would require enormous negative energy. A number of scientists believe the creation of negative energy is possible, based on the study of virtual particles and the Casimir effect.

Assuming we learn how to create a traversable wormhole, how would we use it to travel in time? The traversable wormhole theoretically connects two points in space-time, which implies we could use it to travel in time, as well as space. However, according to the theory of general relativity, it would not be possible to go back in time prior to the creation of the traversable wormhole. This is how physicists like Stephen Hawking explain why we do not see visitors from the future. The reason: the traversable wormhole does not exist yet.

Hard as it may be to believe, most of the scientific community acknowledges that time travel is theoretically possible. If fact, time dilation of subatomic particles provides experimental evidence that time travel to the future is possible, at least for subatomic particle accelerated close to the speed of light. Real science is sometimes stranger than fiction. What do you believe?