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Michigan Tech physicists search for time travelers on Twitter


January 2, 2014

Two astrophysicists from Michigan Technological University are using Twitter to search for time travelers (Image: Shutterstock)

Two astrophysicists from Michigan Technological University are using Twitter to search for time travelers (Image: Shutterstock)

At this juncture in time, humanity does not know how to travel into the past, or even if such a concept has any meaning. So if you are an astrophysicist who wants to uncover evidence of time travel, what do you do? If you're Michigan Technological University astrophysics professor Robert Nemeroff and his PhD student Teresa Wilson, you look for time travelers on Twitter.

Time travel into the future is a fact – we do it every day. Accelerated time travel into the future can be measured using atomic clocks in fast airplanes. However, time travel into the past is a dicier proposition. While it appears that this is not forbidden by any current physics, we also don't know how to accomplish the task.

There is a (rather short) tradition of attempts to contact people who have arrived here from the future. In 2005, an MIT graduate student held a convention for time travelers. Despite considerable pre-convention publicity, no time travelers owned up at the convention. In 2012, Stephen Hawking held a party for time travelers, sending out the invitations after the party was held. Again, no one came to his party.

Surely one of the main ways to vet someone who claims to be a time traveler is their knowledge of something that has not yet occurred. This concept inspired Nemeroff (co-creator and editor of the Astronomy Picture Of the Day website) and Wilson to search the internet for signs of anachronistic factoids. For example, a post from 2006 containing the phrase "President Obama" would hardly be anachronistic, as his potential candidacy was already being discussed.

It seems there are very few events that can be uniquely identified by a couple of words. Such events have to be surprises to the extent that the descriptive words have likely never previously been combined. The Michigan Tech astrophysicists came up with "Comet ISON", which was discovered on September 21, 2012, and "Pope Francis", a name first appearing on March 16, 2013.

No comet had previously been called Comet ISON, and no previous pope was named Francis, so these phrases are unlikely to have been used previously. Even if they appeared in some context ("there may someday be a Pope Francis"), it would be easy to eliminate these as possibilities. What they were looking for was a text from one person to another in 2009 accidentally referring to Pope Benedict XVI as "Pope Francis."

Most search engines have a great deal of difficulty searching for items posted within a given slice of time. After studying the capabilities of a number of search engines and social media, our intrepid investigators chose Twitter as their hunting ground. With one exception deemed overly speculative (as described above), they came up empty. No evidence of precogniscience appeared in roughly a trillion tweets. They further performed a number of related searches, which came up empty.

Although this may seem a silly bit of research (IgNoble Prize material?), it is actually a reasonable attempt to see if time travelers have left traces of their anachronistic presence in the blogosphere. However, now that the concept of such searches has surfaced, it seems unlikely that any more will be carried out. Fake evidence of time travel would be too easy to retrofit into the collective memories of our history. While time may be out of joint, it appears that no one sent from the future to set it right has left obvious traces, at least on Twitter.

Source: arXiv.org

About the Author
Brian Dodson From an early age Brian wanted to become a scientist. He did, earning a Ph.D. in physics and embarking on an R&D career which has recently broken the 40th anniversary. What he didn't expect was that along the way he would become a patent agent, a rocket scientist, a gourmet cook, a biotech entrepreneur, an opera tenor and a science writer. All articles by Brian Dodson

"Remember time cadets, the only way to communicate in those days was something called a 'social network'..."

Jason Zuker

Today 'the social network' is how 'space cadets' communicate.

Robert Walther

I think the IgNoble Prize is only for projects that spend a lot of money or claim success. As to "forbidden by current physics", let's begin by consideration of Conservation of Mass/Energy. The sudden appearance of a mass at THIS time is NOT balanced by the (anticipated) vanishing of a similar mass at a future time.


With apologies to Steven Jay Gould, when it comes to time travel from the future, absence of evidence IS absence of evidence. It is inconceivable that time travel will one day be possible yet no one from the future has sought glory by providing ready, incontrovertible proof. Unless, perhaps, people will be able to travel back in time for only a few years or decades.

Paul Stregevsky

@piperTom, it's far more complicated than that...suffice it to say while it seems incredibly unlikely to have happened, it's simply not true that time travel must violate CME;

frankly, I'm much more worried about the fact that we're almost certainly a simulation universe than I am about where the time travelers are...

M. Scott Veach

I think that moving from the future into the past is not possible. One might, however be able to move into a similar past. In other words you cannot go back and kill your grandfather.

John Caldwell

Aside from the known physics (that THAT can stir some controversy :-) ), it seems there can be no way to actually "catch" said time traveler, except by their intention or mistake, EITHER OF WHICH could easily be undone. Even a discovery of said mistake could be undone.

We can never know.


Remember this? http://www.rense.com/general36/time.htm 'Time-Traveler' Busted For Insider Trading - "We don't believe this guy's story -- he's either a lunatic or a pathological liar," says an SEC insider. "But the fact is, with an initial investment of only $800, in two weeks' time he had a portfolio valued at over $350 million. Every trade he made capitalized on unexpected business developments, which simply can't be pure luck."

Charles Ostman

If there are no time travelers, maybe we succeeded in annihilating our species before the technology was discovered.


Or perhaps traveling to the past invariably causes a tangent universe that we are no longer a part of?

Kyle McHattie

The first evidence of time travel will be teens and 20 somethings getting the snot beat out of them by somebody that looks just like them only older.

The idea that if i went back in time and made a change that would result in my not being born would remove me from the timeline from where I entered the past is based on a logical fallacy.


Those MTU researchers are looking for the wrong thing in the wrong place. If time travel to the past was available now, then let's consider medieval London - would it be interesting to visit? Decidedly yes. Would I want to go there? Absolutely not. Why? Even if my biology could be made resistant to anything that that society could infect me with, there's no guarantee that my own biology would not cause some rampant epidemic in an otherwise non-resistant population - let's remember the impact of influenza imported into the new world by European explorers.

Another factor to consider is that human societies were much smaller in the past than they are now. ANY interaction with anything or anybody would effectively change that past - I can't begin to think of the ethical considerations that that may have, or the paradoxes that could arise.

The obvious solution is to send sterilized probes, passive sound and vision modules designed to look like nothing special - say a brick on a street corner, or a stone in a wall, providing high definition vision and audio (perhaps other information - smells? genetic information from passers-by?). Ethics would be important here, again, as the past would have no defense against the technology of the future. Let's remember that most such covert data collection technology exists already, even though we don't yet have the knowledge to send it into the past.

I personally believe that that is happening, and that passive observation is already taking place, and has taken place throughout human history. Nothing can be more fascinating than observing a direct ancestor hunting a mastodon, charging a battle line of Roman legionaries, firing his musket at the redcoats in Lexington, or being present at the first performance of some great symphonic work in a long-ago demolished theater - everyone has some vision of the past that they would actually want to be present at. This simple human desire will ensure that this will take place, and therefore has already done so.

What evidence can we look for, and where? Let's assume that that the first attempts at sending probes were (will be) crude, and that subsequent efforts were far better "passivized" and became undetectable to the observed societies. Let's also say that the first probe transmissions will have (have had) observable atmospheric effects - say flashes, bangs and sonic booms. My pet hypothesis is that the "foo-fighters" observed by both sides in the air war over Germany was one of these events. Imagine the chaos at night over some German city - a thousand bombers in the air, night fighters trying to take them down, searchlights and triple-A, and the conflagration on the ground. A few pops, bangs and fizzes would not really be that noticeable, even though some sharp-eyed crewmen reported these anomalies. I can imagine some graduate student of history in the far future watching the drama unfold, awestruck by the horror, and calibrating his gear with shaking hands.

Or, maybe, it's just impossible.


My guess is that someone advanced enough to master time travel would not even consider getting a Twitter account.

Bruce H. Anderson

If time travel to the future is a fact, then the opposite is also true, because all travel is relative.

Bas Klein Bog

Look up pretend to be a time traveler day. If there was any time for a time traveler to show up, that was it.

Gregg Eshelman

For me the only time travellers are futurists and sci-fi writers. They feed the public’s imagination and influence the engineers and scientists to create their worlds of the future.

2 cents on topic: Future historians will likely want to capitalize on information sent due to risk of historic contamination (Unless they have somehow conquered Murphy’s laws). As such, it is reasonable to assume the recording object sent would float outside our atmosphere and record a large sectors of the planet across the whole spectrum at unthinkable resolutions. Our current obsessions with the limitations of bandwidth and storage will not be theirs. Cause and event will later be interpreted/extrapolated as required after the ‘data’ is retrieved. I second amzielinski on concerns over accidental transport of pathogens. It would be irresponsible to send any unsterilized object back. However if ever there was a way to synchronize immune systems of a future individual with our present, there is currently enough cross cultural contamination to allow him/her to blend in without raising the ‘weirdo’ flag. Within the same time frames, it is much easier now to gather facts in electronic form. The traveller will likely also have access to deployable ‘five senses’ devices allowing telepresence with full immersion from afar. Witnessing a historic natural event or invention of the light globe will not catch the local’s observer’s attention (unless they see the blue hovering rats) To those obsessed enough to think that said traveller’s poor attention to detail is overlooked or his circumstances unable to be undone (accidental discharge of ray gun in presence of 100 people), there may be hope. Put simply, the only kind of event a traveller would find highly desirable due to first-hand experience of history and available anonymity is a public event. E.g. – famous speech, live music band, etc. These kinds of events are distinct from ‘invention of light globe’ events that would otherwise be easily captured by bugging the lab, and impossible to be witnessed first-hand by the traveller without drawing attention. But it would be a needle in a stack of needles unless you could pick up on the traveller’s nuances, tense, or their accidental reference to future events. An underground movement hell bent on catching a traveller would also have to stay in obscurity and basically disband soon after to avoid any future mention of their cause to avoid counter measures. Another approach to which I subscribe is ‘travelling’ will be dimensional avoiding concerns about violating any directives or creating grandfather paradoxes. But unlike a ‘Sliders’ or ‘Fringe’ analogy, the traveller will have access to technology to transport to closest parallel, i.e. they won’t appear in an alternate earth populated by dinosaurs, but one that is the least in deviation to their own. And they will know by how much. There may still be a gentleman’s agreement not to stuff up other adjacent realities, and I’m sure they would also be having sleepless nights about other dimensional travellers interfering with their pasts. Maybe there is an annual cupcake convention of John Smith 1 through 14,228 representing similar dimension clusters where they all renew their vow of “don’t piss in my backyard”


It is a human mind that has invented time and is nothing more then an imaginative paradigm to make us (the human) work so called progressively. Traveling back in time is another twist in this imaginative paradigm.


I would hope that someone traveling through time into the past would be intelligent enough to not accidentally mention a future event while in the past, unless it was their intention to be discovered.

I also suspect it's more likely they'd be observing (ie: reading tweets) rather than interacting (ie: tweeting).

Whether observing or interacting however, it's likely that they'd want to do something more interesting than sitting around reading tweets.


The experiment is critically flawed: Presuming the hypothesis is correct - that indeed time travelers for some reason have a vested interest in discussing their identity - then they would have already known which 'key words' not to use.


Looking on twitter would limit the time range. What if the time travelers left this time before twitter was invented?

Also, why would a time traveler waste his time to tweet future facts? And why would he speak english?

As for ethics commented by some (regarding bacterias etc ...), that's assuming the time travelers are ethical.

I think Hawkin's way of spotting them was a good idea but we should do an announcement for the event in a broader scale. I did not hear about his invitation to the time traveler's party. If I were a time traveler, I would not have gone if I did not hear about it ...


Right on JZ4.

Similar thought referred to

"now that the concept of such searches has surfaced, it seems unlikely that any more will be carried out"

since if there is time travel then the concept of "now" was immaterial. All travellers from the future would already know about the search before it was carried out.

Jim Ronholm

Let's call John Titor from 2036


I don't know about traveling back in time but I do think that there are visions of the future. What about prophecies or even deja vue? Current science isn't going to be of much help here.


Now, considering the treatment Mr Carlssin received from the US government - WHAT reasonably intelligent person would admit to time travel?

Larry Pines
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