Louis-Sébastien Mercier's L'An 2440, rêve s'il en fût jamais ("The Year 2440: A Dream If Ever There Were One") is a utopian novel set in the year 2440. An extremely popular work (it went through twenty-five editions after its first appearance in 1771), the work describes the adventures of an unnamed man, who, after engaging in a heated discussion with a philosopher friend about the injustices of Paris, falls asleep and finds himself in a Paris of the future. Robert Darnton writes that "despite its self-proclaimed character of fantasy...L'An 2440 demanded to be read as a serious guidebook to the future." [Robert Darnton, The Forbidden Best-Sellers of Pre-Revolutionary France (New York: W.W. Norton, 1996), 120.]
In the science fiction anthology Far Boundaries (1951), the editor August Derleth identifies the short story "Missing One's Coach: An Anachronism", written for the Dublin Literary Magazine by an anonymous author in 1838, as a very early time travel story. In this story, the narrator is waiting under a tree to be picked up by a coach which will take him out of Newcastle, when he suddenly finds himself transported back over a thousand years, where he encounters the Venerable Bede in a monastery, and gives him somewhat ironic explanations of the developments of the coming centuries. It is never entirely clear whether these events actually occurred or were merely a dream — the narrator says that when he initially found a comfortable-looking spot in the roots of the tree, he sat down, "and as my sceptical reader will tell me, nodded and slept", but then says that he is "resolved not to admit" this explanation. A number of dreamlike elements of the story may suggest otherwise to the reader, such as the fact that none of the members of the monastery seem to be able to see him at first, and the abrupt ending where Bede has been delayed talking to the narrator and so the other monks burst in thinking that some harm has come to him, and suddenly the narrator finds himself back under the tree in the present (August of 1837), with his coach having just passed his spot on the road, leaving him stranded in Newcastle for another night.
Charles Dickens' 1843 book A Christmas Carol is considered by some to be one of the first depictions of time travel, as the main character, Ebenezer Scrooge, is transported to Christmases past, present and yet to come. These might be considered mere visions rather than actual time travel, though, since Scrooge only viewed each time period passively, unable to interact with them.
A clearer example of time travel is found in the popular 1861 book Paris avant les hommes (Paris before Men) by the French botanist and geologist Pierre Boitard, published posthumously. In this story the main character is transported into the prehistoric past by the magic of a "lame demon" (a French pun on Boitard's name), where he encounters such extinct animals as a Plesiosaur, as well as Boitard's imagined version of an apelike human ancestor, and is able to actively interact with some of them. Another clear early example of time travel in fiction is the short story by Edward Page Mitchell, which appeared in the New York Sun in 1881. Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889), in which the protagonist finds himself in the time of King Arthur after a fight in which he is hit with a sledge hammer, was another early time travel story which helped bring the concept to a wide audience, and was also one of the first stories to show history being changed by the time traveler's actions.
The first time travel story to feature time travel by means of a time machine was Enrique Gaspar y Rimbau's 1887 book El Anacronópete. This idea gained popularity with the H. G. Wells story The Time Machine, published in 1895 (preceded by a less influential story of time travel Wells wrote in 1888, titled The Chronic Argonauts), which also featured a time machine and which is often seen as an inspiration for all later science fiction stories featuring time travel.
Since that time, both science and fiction (see Time travel in fiction) have expanded on the concept of time travel, but whether it could be possible in reality is still an open question.
Physicists take for granted that if one were to move away from the Earth at relativistic velocities and return, more time would have passed on Earth than for the traveler, so in this sense it is accepted that relativity allows "travel into the future" (although according to relativity there is no single objective answer to how much time has 'really' passed between the departure and the return). On the other hand, many in the scientific community believe that backwards time travel is highly unlikely. Any theory which would allow time travel would require that issues of causality be resolved. The classic example of a problem involving causality is the "grandfather paradox": what if one were to go back in time and kill one's own grandfather before one's father was conceived? But some scientists believe that paradoxes can be avoided, either by appealing to the Novikov self-consistency principle or to the notion of branching parallel universes (see the possibility of paradoxes below).
According to special relativity it would take an infinite amount of energy to accelerate a slower-than-light object to the speed of light, and although relativity does not forbid the theoretical possibility of tachyons which move faster than light at all times, when analyzed using quantum field theory it seems that it would not actually be possible to use them to transmit information faster than light, and there is no evidence for their existence.
Wormholes are a hypothetical warped spacetime which are also permitted by the Einstein field equations of general relativity, although it would be impossible to travel through a wormhole unless it was what is known as a traversable wormhole.
A proposed time-travel machine using a traversable wormhole would (hypothetically) work in the following way: One end of the wormhole is accelerated to some significant fraction of the speed of light, perhaps with some advanced propulsion system, and then brought back to the point of origin. Alternatively, another way is to take one entrance of the wormhole and move it to within the gravitational field of an object that has higher gravity than the other entrance, and then return it to a position near the other entrance. For both of these methods, time dilation causes the end of the wormhole that has been moved to have aged less than the stationary end, as seen by an external observer; however, time connects differently through the wormhole than outside it, so that synchronized clocks at either end of the wormhole will always remain synchronized as seen by an observer passing through the wormhole, no matter how the two ends move around. This means that an observer entering the accelerated end would exit the stationary end when the stationary end was the same age that the accelerated end had been at the moment before entry; for example, if prior to entering the wormhole the observer noted that a clock at the accelerated end read a date of 2007 while a clock at the stationary end read 2012, then the observer would exit the stationary end when its clock also read 2007, a trip backwards in time as seen by other observers outside. One significant limitation of such a time machine is that it is only possible to go as far back in time as the initial creation of the machine; in essence, it is more of a path through time than it is a device that itself moves through time, and it would not allow the technology itself to be moved backwards in time. This could provide an alternative explanation for Hawking's observation: a time machine will be built someday, but has not yet been built, so the tourists from the future cannot reach this far back in time.
According to current theories on the nature of wormholes, construction of a traversable wormhole would require the existence of a substance with negative energy (often referred to as "exotic matter") . More technically, the wormhole spacetime requires a distribution of energy that violates various energy conditions, such as the null energy condition along with the weak, strong, and dominant energy conditions. However, it is known that quantum effects can lead to small measurable violations of the null energy condition, and many physicists believe that the required negative energy may actually be possible due to the Casimir effect in quantum physics. Although early calculations suggested a very large amount of negative energy would be required, later calculations showed that the amount of negative energy can be made arbitrarily small.
In 1993, Matt Visser argued that the two mouths of a wormhole with such an induced clock difference could not be brought together without inducing quantum field and gravitational effects that would either make the wormhole collapse or the two mouths repel each other. Because of this, the two mouths could not be brought close enough for causality violation to take place. However, in a 1997 paper, Visser hypothesized that a complex "Roman ring" (named after Tom Roman) configuration of an N number of wormholes arranged in a symmetric polygon could still act as a time machine, although he concludes that this is more likely a flaw in classical quantum gravity theory rather than proof that causality violation is possible.
Physicist Robert Forward noted that a naïve application of general relativity to quantum mechanics suggests another way to build a time machine. A heavy atomic nucleus in a strong magnetic field would elongate into a cylinder, whose density and "spin" are enough to build a time machine. Gamma rays projected at it might allow information (not matter) to be sent back in time; however, he pointed out that until we have a single theory combining relativity and quantum mechanics, we will have no idea whether such speculations are nonsense.
A more fundamental objection to time travel schemes based on rotating cylinders or cosmic strings has been put forward by Stephen Hawking, who proved a theorem showing that according to general relativity it is impossible to build a time machine of a special type (a "time machine with the compactly generated Cauchy horizon") in a region where the weak energy condition is satisfied, meaning that the region contains no matter with negative energy density (exotic matter). Solutions such as Tipler's assume cylinders of infinite length, which are easier to analyze mathematically, and although Tipler suggested that a finite cylinder might produce closed timelike curves if the rotation rate were fast enough, he did not prove this. But Hawking points out that because of his theorem, "it can't be done with positive energy density everywhere! I can prove that to build a finite time machine, you need negative energy." This result comes from Hawking's 1992 paper on the chronology protection conjecture, where he examines "the case that the causality violations appear in a finite region of spacetime without curvature singularities" and proves that "[t]here will be a Cauchy horizon that is compactly generated and that in general contains one or more closed null geodesics which will be incomplete. One can define geometrical quantities that measure the Lorentz boost and area increase on going round these closed null geodesics. If the causality violation developed from a noncompact initial surface, the averaged weak energy condition must be violated on the Cauchy horizon." However, this theorem does not rule out the possibility of time travel 1) by means of time machines with the non-compactly generated Cauchy horizons (such as the Deutsch-Politzer time machine) and 2) in regions which contain exotic matter (which would be necessary for traversable wormholes or the Alcubierre drive). Because the theorem is based on general relativity, it is also conceivable a future theory of quantum gravity which replaced general relativity would allow time travel even without exotic matter (though it is also possible such a theory would place even more restrictions on time travel, or rule it out completely).
The experiment of Lijun Wang might also give the appearance of causality violation since it made it possible to send packages of waves through a bulb of caesium gas in such a way that the package appeared to exit the bulb 62 nanoseconds before its entry. But a wave package is not a single well-defined object but rather a sum of multiple waves of different frequencies (see Fourier analysis), and the package can appear to move faster than light or even backwards in time even if none of the pure waves in the sum do so. This effect cannot be used to send any matter, energy, or information backwards in time, so this experiment is understood not to violate causality either.
The physicists Günter Nimtz and Alfons Stahlhofen, of the University of Koblenz, claim to have violated Einstein's theory of relativity by transmitting photons faster than the speed of light. They say they have conducted an experiment in which microwave photons - energetic packets of light - traveled "instantaneously" between a pair of prisms that had been moved up to apart, using a phenomenon known as quantum tunneling. Nimtz told New Scientist magazine: "For the time being, this is the only violation of special relativity that I know of." However, other physicists say that this phenomenon does not allow information to be transmitted faster than light. Aephraim Steinberg, a quantum optics expert at the University of Toronto, Canada, uses the analogy of a train traveling from Chicago to New York, but dropping off train cars at each station along the way, so that the center of the train moves forward at each stop; in this way, the center of the train exceeds the speed of any of the individual cars.
Some physicists have attempted to perform experiments which would show genuine causality violations, but so far without success. The Space-time Twisting by Light (STL) experiment run by physicist Ronald Mallett is attempting to observe a violation of causality when a neutron is passed through a circle made up of a laser whose path has been twisted by passing it through a photonic crystal. Mallett has some physical arguments which suggest that closed timelike curves would become possible through the center of a laser which has been twisted into a loop. However, other physicists dispute his arguments (see objections).
There are various ways in which a person could "travel into the future" in a limited sense: the person could set things up so that in a small amount of his own subjective time, a large amount of subjective time has passed for other people on Earth. For example, an observer might take a trip away from the Earth and back at relativistic velocities, with the trip only lasting a few years according to the observer's own clocks, and return to find that thousands of years had passed on Earth. It should be noted, though, that according to relativity there is no objective answer to the question of how much time "really" passed during the trip; it would be equally valid to say that the trip had lasted only a few years or that the trip had lasted thousands of years, depending on your choice of reference frame.
This form of "travel into the future" is theoretically allowed using the following methods:
Additionally, it might be possible to see the distant future of the Earth using methods which do not involve relativity at all, although it is even more debatable whether these should be deemed a form of "time travel":
Time dilation is permitted by Albert Einstein's special and general theories of relativity. These theories state that, relative to a given observer, time passes more slowly for bodies moving quickly relative to that observer, or bodies that are deeper within a gravity well. For example, a clock which is moving relative to the observer will be measured to run slow in that observer's rest frame; as a clock approaches the speed of light it will almost slow to a stop, although it can never quite reach light speed so it will never completely stop. For two clocks moving inertially (not accelerating) relative to one another, this effect is reciprocal, with each clock measuring the other to be ticking slower. However, the symmetry is broken if one clock accelerates, as in the twin paradox where one twin stays on Earth while the other travels into space, turns around (which involves acceleration), and returns—in this case both agree the traveling twin has aged less. General relativity states that time dilation effects also occur if one clock is deeper in a gravity well than the other, with the clock deeper in the well ticking more slowly; this effect must be taken into account when calibrating the clocks on the satellites of the Global Positioning System, and it could lead to significant differences in rates of aging for observers at different distances from a black hole.
It has been calculated that, under general relativity, a person could travel forward in time at a rate four times that of distant observers by residing inside a spherical shell with a diameter of 5 meters and the mass of Jupiter. For such a person, every one second of their "personal" time would correspond to four seconds for distant observers. Of course, squeezing the mass of a large planet into such a structure is not expected to be within our technological capabilities in the near future.
Time dilation and suspended animation only allow "travel" to the future, never the past, so they do not violate causality, and arguably should not be considered time travel.
Parallel universes might provide a way out of paradoxes. Everett's many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics suggests that all possible quantum events can occur in mutually exclusive histories. These alternate, or parallel, histories would form a branching tree symbolizing all possible outcomes of any interaction. If all possibilities exist, any paradoxes could be explained by having the paradoxical events happening in a different universe. This concept is most often used in science-fiction, but some physicists such as David Deutsch have suggested that if time travel is possible and the many-worlds interpretation is correct, then a time traveler should indeed end up in a different history than the one he started from. On the other hand, Stephen Hawking has argued that even if the many-worlds interpretation is correct, we should expect each time traveler to experience a single self-consistent timeline, so that time travelers remain within their own world rather than traveling to a different one.
Daniel Greenberger and Karl Svozil proposed that quantum theory gives a model for time travel without paradoxes. In quantum theory observation causes possible states to 'collapse' into one measured state; hence, the past observed from the present is deterministic (it has only one possible state), but the present observed from the past has many possible states until our actions cause it to collapse into one state. Our actions will then be seen to have been inevitable.
Nevertheless, the fact that causality is preserved in quantum mechanics is a rigorous result in modern quantum field theories, and therefore modern theories do not allow for time travel or FTL communication. In any specific instance where FTL has been claimed, more detailed analysis has proven that to get a signal, some form of classical communication must also be used. The no-communication theorem also gives a general proof that quantum entanglement cannot be used to transmit information faster than classical signals. The fact that these quantum phenomena apparently do not allow FTL time travel is often overlooked in popular press coverage of quantum teleportation experiments. How the rules of quantum mechanics work to preserve causality is an active area of research.
Presentism is a school of philosophy that holds that neither the future nor the past exist, and there are no non-present objects. In this view, time travel is impossible because there is no future or past to travel to. However, some 21st century presentists have argued that although past and future objects do not exist, there can still be definite truths about past and future events, and thus it is possible that a future truth about a time traveler deciding to appear in the present could explain the time traveler's actual existence in the present.
There are also numerous science fiction stories allegedly about time travel that are not internally consistent, where the traveler makes all kinds of changes to some historical time, but we do not get to see any consequences of this in our present day.
In 1.1, time travel is constrained to prevent paradox. If one attempts to make a paradox, one undergoes involuntary or uncontrolled time travel. Michael Moorcock uses a form of this principle and calls it The Morphail Effect. In the time-travel stories of Connie Willis, time travelers encounter "slippage" which prevents them from either reaching the intended time or translates them a sufficient distance from their destination at the intended time, as to prevent any paradox from occurring.
In 1.2, the Novikov self-consistency principle asserts that the existence of a method of time travel constrains events to remain self-consistent (i.e. no paradoxes). This will cause any attempt to violate such consistency to fail, even if extremely improbable events are required.
In 1.3, any event that appears to have caused a paradox has instead created a new time line. The old time line remains unchanged, with the time traveler or information sent simply having vanished, never to return. A difficulty with this explanation, however, is that conservation of mass-energy would be violated for the origin timeline and the destination timeline. A possible solution to this is to have the mechanics of time travel require that mass-energy be exchanged in precise balance between past and future at the moment of travel, or to simply expand the scope of the conservation law to encompass all timelines. Some examples of this kind of time travel can be found in David Gerrold's book The Man Who Folded Himself and The Time Ships by Stephen Baxter, plus several episodes of the TV show Star Trek: The Next Generation.
In type 2.1, attempts are being made at changing the timeline, however, all that is accomplished in the first tries is that the way of how decisive events happen is changed; final conclusions in the bigger scheme cannot be brought to a different outcome. Example: In the Movie Deja Vu a paper note is being sent to the past with vital information to prevent the main plot incident. All that happens, though, is that an ATF agent gets killed, with the final disaster still not being prevented; also, the very same agent died in the previous version of the timeline as well, albeit under different circumstances. Finally though, the timeline is changed (Claire Kuchever is being saved from murder) by sending a human back into the past in order to prevent the murder of Claire and the main incident (a terrorist attack), which is arguably a "stronger" measure than simply sending back a paper note.
The science fiction writer Larry Niven suggests in his essay The Theory and Practice of Time Travel that in a type 2.1 universe, the most efficient way for the universe to "correct" a change is for time travel to never be discovered, and that in a type 2.2 universe, the very large (or infinite) number of time travelers from the endless future will cause the timeline to change wildly until it reaches a history in which time travel is never discovered. However, many other "stable" situations might also exist in which time travel occurs but no paradoxes are created; if the changeable-timeline universe finds itself in such a state no further changes will occur, and to the inhabitants of the universe it will appear identical to the type 1.2 scenario. This is sometimes referred to as the "Time Dilution Effect."
Few if any physicists or philosophers have taken seriously the possibility of "changing" the past except in the case of multiple universes, and in fact many have argued that this idea is logically incoherent, so the mutable timeline idea is rarely considered outside of science fiction.
Also, deciding whether a given universe is of Type 2.1 or 2.2 can not be done objectively, as the categorization of timeline-invasive measures as "strong" or "weak" is arbitrary, and up to interpretation: An observer can disagree about a measure being "weak", and might, in the lack of context, argue instead that simply a mishap occurred which then led to no effective change.
An example would be the papernote sent back to the past in the film Deja Vu, as described above: Was it a too "weak" change, or was it after all just (time-local; that is, in the past) bad circumstance which made it have no effect, but it might have worked if the paper note would have been sent back 1 hour earlier, or 1 hour later into the past? As the universe in Deja Vu seems to be not entirely self-preserving from paradoxes (some, arguably minute, paradoxes, do occur), both versions seem to be equally probable, to which the film gives no further clarification.
1. The most commonly used method of time travel in science fiction is the instantaneous movement from one point in time to another, like using the controls on a CD player to skip to a previous or next song, though in most cases, there is a machine of some sort, and some energy expended in order to make this happen (Like the time-traveling De Lorean in Back to the Future or the phonebooth which traveled through the 'circuits of history' in Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure). In some cases, there is not even the beginning of a scientific explanation for this kind of time travel; it's popular probably because it is more spectacular and makes time travel easier. The "Universal Remote" used by Adam Sandler in the movie Click works in the same manner, although only in one direction, the future. While his character Michael Newman can travel back to a previous point it is merely a playback which he cannot interact with.
2. In The Time Machine, H.G. Wells explains that we are moving through time with a constant speed. Time travel then is, in Wells' words, "stopping or accelerating one's drift along the time-dimension, or even turning about and traveling the other way." To expand on the audio playback analogy used above, this would be like rewinding or fast forwarding an analogue audio cassette and playing the tape at a chosen point. This method of gradual time travel is not as popular in modern science fiction. Perhaps the oldest example of this method of time travel is in Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking-Glass (1871): the White Queen is living backwards, hence her memory is working both ways. Her kind of time travel is uncontrolled: she moves through time with a constant speed of -1 and she cannot change it. T.H. White, in the first part of his Arthurian novel The Once and Future King, The Sword in the Stone (1938) used the same idea: the wizard Merlyn lives back in time, because he was born "at the wrong end of time" and has to live backwards from in front. "Some people call it having second sight", he says.
Nevertheless, the idea that the Earth moves away from the time traveler when he takes a trip through time has been used in a few science fiction stories, such as the 2000 AD comic Strontium Dog, in which Johnny Alpha uses "Time Bombs" to propel an enemy several seconds into the future, during which time the movement of the Earth causes the unfortunate victim to re-materialize in space. Other science fiction stories try to anticipate this objection and offer a rationale for the fact that the traveler remains on Earth, such as the 1957 Robert Heinlein novel The Door into Summer where Heinlein essentially handwaved the issue with a single sentence: "You stay on the world line you were on." In his 1980 novel The Number of the Beast a "continua device" allows the protagonists to dial in the six (not four!) co-ordinates of space and time and it instantly moves them there—without explaining how such a device might work. The television series Seven Days also dealt with this problem; when the chrononaut would be 'rewinding', he would also be propelling himself backwards around the earth's orbit, with the intention of landing at some chosen spatial location, though seldom hitting the mark precisely. In Piers Anthony's Bearing an Hourglass, the potent Hourglass of the Incarnation of Time naturally moves the Incarnation in space according to the numerous movements of the globe through the solar system, the solar system through the galaxy, etc.; but by carefully negating some of the movements he can also travel in space within the limits of the planet. The television series Doctor Who cleverly avoided this issue by establishing early on in the series that the Doctor's TARDIS is able to move about in space in addition to traveling in time.
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