Since the future doesn’t exist, how would it be possible to travel into the future? This question has been debated by both philosophers and scientists. However, time travel to the future is the only experimental evidence we have of time travel. To understand this, we will need to understand Einstein’s theories of special and general relativity.

The science of time travel was launch in 1905,  when Einstein published his special theory of relativity in the prestigious Annalen der Physik (i.e., Annals of Physics), one of the oldest scientific journals (established in 1790). The paper that Einstein submitted regarding his special theory of relativity was titled “On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies.” By scientific standards, it was unconventional. It contained little in the way of mathematical formulations or scientific references. Instead, it was written in a conversational style using thought experiments. If you examine the historical context, Einstein had few colleagues in the scientific establishment to bounce ideas off. In fact, Einstein essentially cofounded, along with mathematician Conrad Habicht and close friend Maurice Solovine, a small discussion group, the Olympia Academy, which met on a routine basis at Solovine’s flat to discuss science and philosophy. It is also interesting to note that Einstein’s position as a patent examiner related to questions about transmission of electric signals and electrical-mechanical synchronization of time. Most historians credit Einstein’s early work as a patent examiner with laying the foundation for his thought experiments on the nature of light and the integration of space and time (i.e., spacetime).

Einstein’s special theory of relativity gave us numerous new important insights into reality, among them the famous mass equivalence formula (E = mc2) and the concept and formula for time dilation. Time dilation lays the foundation for forward time travel, so let’s understand it in more depth.

According to special relativity’s time dilation, as a clock moves close to the speed of light, time slows down relative to a clock at rest. The implication is that if you were able to travel in a spaceship that was capable of approaching the speed of light, a one-year round trip journey as measured by you on a clock within the spaceship would be equivalent to approximately ten or more years of Earth time, depending on your exact velocity. In effect, when you return to Earth, you will have traveled to Earth’s future. This is not science fiction. As I mentioned above, time dilation has been experimentally verified using particle accelerators. It is widely considered a science fact.

What scientific experimental evidence do we have that time dilation is real. Here are several experiments that validate time dilation caused when particles move close to the speed of light.

Velocity time dilation experimental evidence:

Rossi and Hall (1941) compared the population of cosmic-ray-produced muons at the top of a six-thousand-foot-high mountain to muons observed at sea level. A muon is a subatomic particle with a negative charge and about two hundred times more massive than an electron. Muons occur naturally when cosmic rays (energetic-charged subatomic particles, like protons, originating in outer space) interact with the atmosphere. Muons, at rest, disintegrate in about 2 x 10-6 seconds. The mountain chosen by Rossi and Hall was high. The muons should have mostly disintegrated before they reached the ground. Therefore, extremely few muons should have been detected at ground level, versus the top of the mountain. However, their experimental results indicated the muon sample at the base experienced only a moderate reduction. The muons were decaying approximately ten times slower than if they were at rest. They made use of Einstein’s time dilation effect to explain this discrepancy. They attributed the muon’s high speed, with its associated high kinetic energy, to be dilating time.

In 1963, Frisch and Smith once again confirmed the Rossi and Hall experiment, proving beyond doubt that extremely high kinetic energy prolongs a particle’s life.

With the advent of particle accelerators that are capable of moving particles at near light speed, the confirmation of time dilation has become routine. A particle accelerator is a scientific apparatus for accelerating subatomic particles to high velocities by using electric or electromagnetic fields. In 1977, J. Bailey and CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research) colleagues accelerated muons to within 0.9994% of the speed of light and found their lifetime had been extended by 29.3 times their corresponding rest mass lifetime. (Reference: Bailey, J., et al., Nature 268, 301 [1977] on muon lifetimes and time dilation.) This experiment confirmed the “twin paradox,” whereby a twin makes a journey into space in a near-speed-of-light spaceship and returns home to find he has aged less than his identical twin who stayed on Earth. This means that clocks sent away at near the speed of light and returned near the speed of light to their initial position demonstrate retardation (record less time) with respect to a resting clock.

Time dilation can also occur as a result of gravity. Our understanding of this comes from Einstein’s theory of general relativity. What is the difference between the special and general theory of relativity? Einstein used the term “special” when describing his special theory of relativity because it only applied to inertial frames of reference, which are frames of reference moving at a constant velocity or at rest. It also did not incorporate the effects of gravity. Shortly after the publication of special relativity, Einstein began work to consider how he could integrate gravity and noninertial frames into the theory of relativity. The problem turned out to be monumental, even for Einstein. Starting in 1907, his initial thought experiment considered an observer in free fall. On the surface, this does not sound like it would be a difficult problem for Einstein, given his previous accomplishments. However, it required eight years of work, incorporating numerous false starts, before Einstein was ready to reveal his general theory of relativity.

In November 1915, Einstein presented his general theory of relativity to the Prussian Academy of Science in Berlin. The equations Einstein presented, now known as Einstein’s field equations, describe how matter influences the geometry of space and time. In effect, Einstein’s field equations predicted that matter or energy would cause spacetime to curve. This means that matter or energy has the ability to affect, even distort, space and time. One important aspect prediction of general relativity was that gravitational fields could cause time dilation. Here are some important experiments that prove this aspect of general relativity is correct.

Gravitational time dilation experimental evidence:

In 1959, Pound and Rebka measured a slight redshift in the frequency of light emitted close to the Earth’s surface (where Earth’s gravitational field is higher), versus the frequency of light emitted at a distance farther from the Earth’s surface. The results they measured were within 10% of those predicted by the gravitational time dilation of general relativity.

In 1964, Pound and Snider performed a similar experiment, and their measurements were within 1% predicted by general relativity.

In 1980, the team of Vessot, Levine, Mattison, Blomberg, Hoffman, Nystrom, Farrel, Decher, Eby, Baugher, Watts, Teuber, and Wills published “Test of Relativistic Gravitation with a Space-Borne Hydrogen Maser,” and increased the accuracy of measurement to about 0.01%. In 2010, Chou, Hume, Rosenband, and Wineland published “Optical Clocks and Relativity.” This experiment confirmed gravitational time dilation at a height difference of one meter using optical atomic clocks, which are considered the most accurate types of clocks.

The above discussion provides some insight into time dilation, or what some term time travel to the future. However, is it conclusive? Not to my mind! Although we have numerous experiments that demonstrate time dilation (i.e., forward time travel) involving subatomic particles is real, we have been unable to demonstrate significant human time dilation. By the word “significant,” I mean that it would be noticeable to the humans and other observers involved. To date, some humans, such as astronauts and cosmonauts, have experienced forward time travel (i.e., time dilation) in the order of approximately 1/50th of a second, which is not noticeable to our human senses. If it were in the order of seconds or minutes, then it would be noticeable. Scientifically speaking, there is no documented significant evidence of human time travel to the future.

To answer the subject question of this post, time travel to the future appears to have a valid scientific and experimental foundation. However, to date the experimental evidence does not include significant (noticeable)  human time travel to the future, which leaves the question still unanswered. My own view is that when we develop space craft capable of speeds approaching the speed of light with humans on board, time dilation (time travel to the future) will be conclusively proven.