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Time Travel: Theories, Possibilities, and Paradoxes Explained

Submitted By: 

Neha Rastogi

Time Travel has been a matter of great interest for Science fiction since ages. Whether it’s the movies like Planet of the Apes (1968) or modern franchises like “Doctor Who” and “Star Trek”; the concept is grabbing a lot of eyeballs. Not only movies and shows but even some mythological tales like Mahabharata and the Japanese story of Urashima Taro support the evidence that time travel exists. We often see stories where characters use time machines to jaunt through the years but the reality is far more complex and inexplicable.

Understanding the Concept of Time Travel

Time Travel is defined as the phenomenon of moving between different points in time through a hypothetical device called “Time Machine”. Despite being predominantly related to the field of philosophy and fiction, it’s somehow supported to a small extent by physics in conjunction with quantum mechanics. However, before getting into the argument of how real it is, let’s comprehend the fundamental meaning of time.

Basically, the whole idea of Time Travel is administered by the concept of time. Usually, people believe that time is constant but the famous Physicist Albert Einstein introduced the “Theory of Relativity” as per which, time is relative. In other words, time slows down or speeds up depending on how fast the observer moves relative to something else. According to him, a person traveling inside a spaceship at the speed of light would age much slower than his/her twin back at home.

Time is Relative

Time is Relative

After Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, his teacher Herman Minkowski emphasized on space-time, a mathematical model that joins both space and time in a continuum. This implies that time and space cannot exist without each other. Space is a 3-dimensional arena consisting of length, width, and height. This is joined by Time with the fourth dimension called direction. So anything that happens in the universe takes place in this space-time continuum. Although this validates that space travelers are slightly younger than their twins when they return to earth, yet a huge leap in the past or future is not possible with the current technology.

Time Machines

It is believed that in order to travel back or forward in time, one would require a device called Time Machine. The research on such a device would involve bending space-time to such an extent that time lines turn back on themselves to form a loop, which is termed as “closed time-like curve.” Such an action demands the use of an exotic form of matter with “negative energy density” that has a unique property of moving in the opposite direction of the normal matter when pushed. Even if it exists, the quantity would be too small to construct a machine.

Pictorial Representation of Time Travel through closed time-like curve

Pictorial Representation of Time Travel through closed time-like curve

However, some another research suggests that time machines can also be constructed by building a doughnut-shaped hole enveloped within a sphere of normal matter. Inside this doughnut-shaped hole filled with vacuum, gravitational force can be used to bend the space-time so as to form a closed time-like curve. After racing around inside this doughnut a traveler would be able to go back in time with each lap. But in reality, it’s quite complex because the gravitational fields have to be very strong and would demand precise manipulation.

Time Travel Approaches in Physics

After studying and researching about Time Travel, various physicists have come up with approaches that may support its possibility, at least theoretically. Let’s take a look at these concepts so as to understand how Time Travel could actually work someday.

Time Dilation

Time Dilation Explanation

Time Dilation Explanation

An important aspect of Einstein’s relativity theory is the term “time dilation”, which is defined as the difference of elapsed time between two events as measured by observers who are either moving relative to each other or are situated at different locations from the gravitational mass. As per the theory, time dilation can be summarized as a phenomenon which occurs due to the difference in either gravity or relative velocity.

In special relativity the time dilation effect is reciprocal i.e. when two clocks are in motion with respect to each other, for both the observers, the other one will be time dilated or the other clock will move slower. However, in general relativity, an observer at the top of the tower will find the clock closer to the ground to be slower and the other observer would agree about the direction and magnitude of this difference.

Due to the concept of time dilation, the current human time travel record is held by Russian cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev. Owing to the high-speed (7.66 km/s) of ISS and the length of time spent in space, it is believed that the cosmonaut actually arrived 0.02 seconds in the future while returning to the earth.

Cosmic String

Diagram Depicting Cosmic Strings

Diagram Depicting Cosmic Strings

In 1991 J Richard Gott gave the idea of Cosmic Strings, which are believed to be left over from the early cosmos. These are defined as string-like objects or narrow tubes of energy that are stretched across the entire length of the universe. Owing to the huge amount of mass and massive gravitational pull, it would allow objects attached to the Cosmic Strings to travel at the speed of light.

So if two strings are pulled close to each other or one of them is stretched near the black hole, it might warp space-time to such an extent that would lead to creating a closed time-like curve and hence leading to the possibility of time travel. Theoretically, the gravity generated by these two Cosmic strings would help in propelling a spaceship into the past.

However, coming to the reality, the loop of strings is required to contain half the mass-energy of an entire galaxy so as to travel one year back in time. This implies that powering a time machine would require splitting half the atoms present in the whole galaxy.

Black holes

Illustration of Kerr Hole

Illustration of Kerr Hole

When stars (having a mass of more than four times our sun) reach their end of life and all their fuel is burned up, they collapse under the pressure of their own weight creating “Black Holes”. The boundary of a Black Hole, called Event Horizon, has such a strong gravitational pull that it doesn’t even allow light to pass through it. Since light travels at the fastest speed, everything else traveling through a black hole is also dragged back. Such a non-rotating black hole is named as Schwarzschild black hole.

However, traveling to a parallel universe is possible through a rotating black hole named Kerr Hole. It was proposed in 1963 by a mathematician named Roy Kerr. As per his theory, if dying stars collapse into a rotating ring of neutron stars, that would produce enough centrifugal force to prevent the formation of singularity.

Note: Singularity can be perceived as the point into which the black hole tapers much like an ice-cream cone. At this point, the laws of Physics cease to exist and all the matter is crushed beyond recognition.

Since there will be no singularity, it would be safe to pass through a black hole without being crushed and exit out of a “White Hole”. A white hole is believed to be the exhaust end of a black hole which pushes everything away from it. Hence we may travel into another time or even another universe.

Although Kerr Holes are just theoretical, if they exist then we may find our way to a one-way trip to the past or future. However, physicist Kip Thorne believes that such a black hole doesn’t exist and it would suck everything before someone even reaches the Singularity.


Diagrammatic Representation of Wormhole

Diagrammatic Representation of Wormhole 

Wormholes, also known as Einstein-Rosen Bridges, are believed to be the most potential means for time travel. It could allow us to travel several light years from earth and in much less time as compared to the conventional space travel methods. The possibility of wormholes is based on Einstein’s theory of relativity which says that any mass curves space-time. The following example is used to explain this curvature.

If two persons are holding a bed sheet stretching it tight and a baseball is placed on the sheet, its weight will make it roll to the middle of the sheet creating a curve at that point. Now if a marble is placed on the sheet, it would travel towards the baseball because of the curve. Here space is depicted as a two-dimensional plane than the four dimensions that actually makes up space-time.

Now if this sheet is folded over leaving a space at the top and bottom, placing the baseball on the top would form a curvature. If an equal mass is placed at the bottom part at a point corresponding to the location of the baseball, the second mass would eventually meet with the baseball. Similarly, wormholes might develop.

In space, masses that place pressure on different parts of the universe combine together to form a tunnel. Theoretically, this tunnel joins two separate times and allows passage between them. However, it’s possible that certain unforeseen physical properties may prevent the occurrence of wormholes and even if they exist, these might be really unstable.

Possibly someday human may learn to capture, stabilize and enlarge these tunnels but according to Dr. Hawking, prolonging the life of a tunnel through folded space-time may lead to a radiation feedback loop destroying the time tunnel.

Time Travel Paradoxes

If we ever work out a theory for time travel, we would give way to certain complexities known as paradoxes. A paradox is something that contradicts itself. In other words, time travel is not believed to be a practical concept because of certain situations that are likely to arise as the after-effects. These are broadly classified as -:

1. Closed Casual Loops: The cause and effect run in a circle causing a loop and is also internally consistent with the timeline’s history.

Diagram depicting time loop

Diagram depicting time loop

• Predestination Paradox

It is defined as a situation when a traveler going back in time causes the event which he is trying to prevent from happening. It implies that any attempt to stop any event from occurring in the past would simply lead to the cause itself. The paradox suggests that things are destined to turn out the way they have happened and anyone attempting to change the past would find himself trapped in the repeating loop of time. For example, if you travel in the past to prevent your lover from dying in a road accident, you will find out that you were the one who accidentally ran over her.

• Bootstrap Paradox

A bootstrap paradox, also known as an Ontological Paradox where an object, person, or piece of information sent back in time leads to an infinite loop where the object has no discernible origin and is believed to exist without ever being created. It implies that the past, present and future and not defined, thus making it complicated to pinpoint the origin of anything. It raises questions like how were the objects created and by whom.

2. Consistency Paradox: It generates a number of timeline inconsistencies related to the possibility of altering the past. It can be further divided into the following categories.

• The Grandfather Paradox

Grandfather Paradox

Grandfather Paradox

This paradox talks about a hypothetical situation where a person travels back in time and kills his paternal grandfather at the time when his grandfather didn’t even meet his grandmother. In such a situation, his father would never have been born and neither would the traveler himself. So if he was never born, how would he travel to the past to kill his grandfather?

The paradox also talks about auto-infanticide where a time traveler goes into the past to kill himself when he was an infant. Now if he killed himself when he was a kid, how would he exist in the future to come back in time? Some physicists say that you would be able to go back in time but you won’t be able to change it, while others suggest that you would be born in one universe but unborn in another universe.

• The Hitler Paradox

Similar to the grandfather paradox, the killing Hitler paradox erases the reason for which you would want to go into the past and kill Hitler. Moreover, killing grandfather might have a “butterfly effect” but killing Hitler would have a far-reaching impact on the History as it would change the whole course of events. If you were successful in killing Hitler, there’d be no reason that would make you want to go back in time and kill him.

This paradox has been explained very well in a Twilight Zone episode called “Cradle of Darkness” as well as an episode “Let’s Kill Her” from Dr. Who.

• Polchinski’s Paradox

American physicist Joseph Polchinski proposed a paradox where a billiard ball enters a wormhole and emerges out of the other end in the past just in time to collide with its younger version and prevents it from entering the wormhole in the first place. While proposing this scenario, Joseph had Novikov’s Self Consistency Principle in his mind which states that time travel is possible but time paradoxes are forbidden.

A number of solutions have been suggested to avoid these inconsistencies like the billiard ball will deliver a blow which changes the course of the younger version of the ball but it would not stop it from entering the wormhole. This also explains that if you go back in time to kill your grandfather then something or the other will happen to prevent you from making it happen thus preserving the consistency of the History.

Solutions for the Paradoxes

In order to come up with a solution for these above-mentioned paradoxes, scientists have proposed some explanations which are enlisted below

The Solution: Time Travel is impossible because of the paradoxes that it creates.

Self-Healing Hypothesis: If we succeed to change the events in the past, it will set off another set of events that will keep the present unchanged.

The Multiverse: Every time an event in the past is altered, an alternate parallel universe or timeline is created.

Erased Timeline Hypothesis: A person traveling to the past would exist in the new timeline but their own timeline would be erased.

Is Time Travel Possible?

Is Time Travel Possible?

Is Time Travel Possible?

Nobody seems to have a definite answer in support or against the existence of Time Travel. On one hand, Einstein suggested to traveling at the speed of light in order to jaunt through the future but this would mean an unimaginable amount of energy would be required. Moreover, the centrifugal force on the body would prove to be fatal. Although it has been observed that space travelers age a little slower as compared to their identical twin on earth but some believe that there is no definite answer to travel back in space.

Theoretical physicist Brian Greene of Columbia University says that “No one has given a definite proof that you can’t travel to the past. But every time we look at the proposals and detail it seems kind of clear that they’re right at the edge of the known laws of physics.” Besides, Prof. Hawking feels that “Today’s science fiction is tomorrow’s science fact.”

However, the paradoxes, especially the grandfather paradox, have imposed a big question mark on the possibility of Time Travel. Basically, with the present laws and knowledge of Physics, the human won’t be able to survive in the process of Time Travel. So, we need certain developments in the quantum theories till we are sure as to how the paradoxes can be solved.

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