In the movies, time travelers typically step inside a machine and—poof—disappear. They then reappear instantaneously among cowboys, knights or dinosaurs. What these films show is basically time teleportation.
Scientists don’t think this conception is likely in the real world, but they also don’t relegate time travel to the crackpot realm. In fact, the laws of physics might allow chronological hopping, but the devil is in the details.
Time traveling to the near future is easy: you’re doing it right now at a rate of one second per second, and physicists say that rate can change. According to Einstein’s special theory of relativity, time’s flow depends on how fast you’re moving. The quicker you travel, the slower seconds pass. And according to Einstein’s general theory of relativity, gravity also affects clocks: the more forceful the gravity nearby, the slower time goes.
“Near massive bodies—near the surface of neutron stars or even at the surface of the Earth, although it’s a tiny effect—time runs slower than it does far away,” says Dave Goldberg, a cosmologist at Drexel University.
If a person were to hang out near the edge of a black hole, where gravity is prodigious, Goldberg says, only a few hours might pass for them while 1,000 years went by for someone on Earth. If the person who was near the black hole returned to this planet, they would have effectively traveled to the future. “That is a real effect,” he says. “That is completely uncontroversial.”
Going backward in time gets thorny, though (thornier than getting ripped to shreds inside a black hole). Scientists have come up with a few ways it might be possible, and they have been aware of time travel paradoxes in general relativity for decades. Fabio Costa, a physicist at the Nordic Institute for Theoretical Physics, notes that an early solution with time travel began with a scenario written in the 1920s. That idea involved massive long cylinder that spun fast in the manner of straw rolled between your palms and that twisted spacetime along with it. The understanding that this object could act as a time machine allowing one to travel to the past only happened in the 1970s, a few decades after scientists had discovered a phenomenon called “closed timelike curves.”
“A closed timelike curve describes the trajectory of a hypothetical observer that, while always traveling forward in time from their own perspective, at some point finds themselves at the same place and time where they started, creating a loop,” Costa says. “This is possible in a region of spacetime that, warped by gravity, loops into itself.”
“Einstein read [about closed timelike curves] and was very disturbed by this idea,” he adds. The phenomenon nevertheless spurred later research.
Science began to take time travel seriously in the 1980s. In 1990, for instance, Russian physicist Igor Novikov and American physicist Kip Thorne collaborated on a research paper about closed time-like curves. “They started to study not only how one could try to build a time machine but also how it would work,” Costa says.
Just as importantly, though, they investigated the problems with time travel. What if, for instance, you tossed a billiard ball into a time machine, and it traveled to the past and then collided with its past self in a way that meant its present self could never enter the time machine? “That looks like a paradox,” Costa says.
Since the 1990s, he says, there’s been on-and-off interest in the topic yet no big breakthrough. The field isn’t very active today, in part because every proposed model of a time machine has problems. “It has some attractive features, possibly some potential, but then when one starts to sort of unravel the details, there ends up being some kind of a roadblock,” says Gaurav Khanna of the University of Rhode Island.
For instance, most time travel models require negative mass—and hence negative energy because, as Albert Einstein revealed when he discovered E = mc2, mass and energy are one and the same. In theory, at least, just as an electric charge can be positive or negative, so can mass—though no one’s ever found an example of negative mass. Why does time travel depend on such exotic matter? In many cases, it is needed to hold open a wormhole—a tunnel in spacetime predicted by general relativity that connects one point in the cosmos to another.
Without negative mass, gravity would cause this tunnel to collapse. “You can think of it as counteracting the positive mass or energy that wants to traverse the wormhole,” Goldberg says.
Khanna and Goldberg concur that it’s unlikely matter with negative mass even exists, although Khanna notes that some quantum phenomena show promise, for instance, for negative energy on very small scales. But that would be “nowhere close to the scale that would be needed” for a realistic time machine, he says.
These challenges explain why Khanna initially discouraged Caroline Mallary, then his graduate student at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, from doing a time travel project. Mallary and Khanna went forward anyway and came up with a theoretical time machine that didn’t require negative mass. In its simplistic form, Mallary’s idea involves two parallel cars, each made of regular matter. If you leave one parked and zoom the other with extreme acceleration, a closed timelike curve will form between them.
Easy, right? But while Mallary’s model gets rid of the need for negative matter, it adds another hurdle: it requires infinite density inside the cars for them to affect spacetime in a way that would be useful for time travel. Infinite density can be found inside a black hole, where gravity is so intense that it squishes matter into a mind-bogglingly small space called a singularity. In the model, each of the cars needs to contain such a singularity. “One of the reasons that there's not a lot of active research on this sort of thing is because of these constraints,” Mallary says.
Other researchers have created models of time travel that involve a wormhole, or a tunnel in spacetime from one point in the cosmos to another. “It's sort of a shortcut through the universe,” Goldberg says. Imagine accelerating one end of the wormhole to near the speed of light and then sending it back to where it came from. “Those two sides are no longer synced,” he says. “One is in the past; one is in the future.” Walk between them, and you’re time traveling.
You could accomplish something similar by moving one end of the wormhole near a big gravitational field—such as a black hole—while keeping the other end near a smaller gravitational force. In that way, time would slow down on the big gravity side, essentially allowing a particle or some other chunk of mass to reside in the past relative to the other side of the wormhole.
Making a wormhole requires pesky negative mass and energy, however. A wormhole created from normal mass would collapse because of gravity. “Most designs tend to have some similar sorts of issues,” Goldberg says. They’re theoretically possible, but there’s currently no feasible way to make them, kind of like a good-tasting pizza with no calories.
And maybe the problem is not just that we don’t know how to make time travel machines but also that it’s not possible to do so except on microscopic scales—a belief held by the late physicist Stephen Hawking. He proposed the chronology protection conjecture: The universe doesn’t allow time travel because it doesn’t allow alterations to the past. “It seems there is a chronology protection agency, which prevents the appearance of closed timelike curves and so makes the universe safe for historians,” Hawking wrote in a 1992 paper in Physical Review D.
Part of his reasoning involved the paradoxes time travel would create such as the aforementioned situation with a billiard ball and its more famous counterpart, the grandfather paradox: If you go back in time and kill your grandfather before he has children, you can’t be born, and therefore you can’t time travel, and therefore you couldn’t have killed your grandfather. And yet there you are.
Those complications are what interests Massachusetts Institute of Technology philosopher Agustin Rayo, however, because the paradoxes don’t just call causality and chronology into question. They also make free will seem suspect. If physics says you can go back in time, then why can’t you kill your grandfather? “What stops you?” he says. Are you not free?
Rayo suspects that time travel is consistent with free will, though. “What’s past is past,” he says. “So if, in fact, my grandfather survived long enough to have children, traveling back in time isn’t going to change that. Why will I fail if I try? I don’t know because I don’t have enough information about the past. What I do know is that I’ll fail somehow.”
If you went to kill your grandfather, in other words, you’d perhaps slip on a banana en route or miss the bus. “It's not like you would find some special force compelling you not to do it,” Costa says. “You would fail to do it for perfectly mundane reasons.”
In 2020 Costa worked with Germain Tobar, then his undergraduate student at the University of Queensland in Australia, on the math that would underlie a similar idea: that time travel is possible without paradoxes and with freedom of choice.
Goldberg agrees with them in a way. “I definitely fall into the category of [thinking that] if there is time travel, it will be constructed in such a way that it produces one self-consistent view of history,” he says. “Because that seems to be the way that all the rest of our physical laws are constructed.”
No one knows what the future of time travel to the past will hold. And so far, no time travelers have come to tell us about it.