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Researchers fail to find signs of time travel on social media sites

Researchers from Michigan Technological University have released a paper detailing their failure to find evidence of time travel on search engines and social media sites.


Time travelers probably aren’t fans of social media, according to two researchers.

In a recently released paper, aptly-titled “Searching the Internet for evidence of time travelers”, Robert J Nemiroff and Teresa Wilson outline their methods of detection of online time-travelers, which include searching for the use of predetermined previously-unused hashtags and phrases on  Twitter, Facebook and Google+. Similar searches were also carried out on search engines Google and Bing as part of the pair’s research.

To successfully detect a time-traveler, the couple determined two phrases that could be reasonably expected to have never been mentioned or used anywhere on the Internet until a specific date, before which any usage would have to be either coincidental, accidental or knowledge of future events that could possibly be attributed to a time-traveler attempting to contact humans of the past. The two phrases were decided as ‘Pope Francis’ and ‘Comet ISON’; the first of which had only been mentioned once before March 2013 (but in an ‘overly speculative and not prescient’ manner), and the second hadn’t been mentioned at all before September 2012. As such, if either term were found to be mentioned before those respective times, each instance would be investigated as possible proof of time travel.

In a similar way, the researchers asked people of the future to include one of two hashtags in a tweet before August 2013 (assuming Twitter was still existent in the future), #icanchangethepast2 and #icannotchangethepast2, which had both been deemed to have no usage until that point.

Next, the researches took to Google, Bing and Yahoo! to determine if any time-traveler from the future had returned to the past and searched for any of the terms before they were mentioned.

“For example, a time traveler might have been trying to collect historical information that did not survive into the future, or might have searched for a prescient term because they erroneously thought that a given event had already occurred, or searched to see whether a given event was yet to occur.”

Of these efforts, the scientists noted that “although numerous searches were uncovered, none occurred sufficiently early to be considered prescient”. The paper went on to note that Google Trends (the publicly-accessible service offered by Google that allows searching through search terms by volume over time) yields results only where there was a ‘significant’ search volume. Therefore, it is possible that any such searches from humans of the future would not appear in this service.

Other methods of detection outlined in the paper include searching for instances of predetermined phrases on websites and blogs before a specific time, and checking for e-mail sent to an address controlled by the team between November 2008 (a month after the address was created) and August 2013.

So, does this mean no time travel?

“Although the negative results reported here may indicate that time travelers from the future are not among us and cannot communicate with us over the modern day Internet, they are by no means proof. There are many reasons for this. First, it may be physically impossible for time travelers to leave any lasting remnants of their stay in the past, including even non-corporeal informational remnants on the Internet. Next, it may be physically impossible for us to find such information as that would violate some yet-unknown law of physics, possibly similar to the Chronology Protection Conjecture. Furthermore, time travelers may not want to be found, and may be good at covering their tracks.”

Source: Searching the Internet for evidence of time travelers
Image: Toni Verdú Carbó [Flickr]

Callum Heard
Callum is a physics, mathematics and computer science student from the English Midlands. He is fascinated by science and philosophy and the curious ways in which they interact.

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