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Search suggests no one from future lives amongst us

Jan. 6, 2013
Courtesy of Mich­i­gan Tech­no­log­i­cal Uni­vers­ity
and World Science staff

If time trav­el is to be in­vented some­day, should­n’t some peo­ple from the fu­ture be among us now?

Maybe, but an on­line search led by as­t­ro­phys­i­cist Rob­ert Ne­mir­off sug­gests that per­son is either not here—or doesn’t know how to use that old, out­dated sys­tem known as the In­ter­net.

Ne­miroff and his stu­dents were play­ing cards last sum­mer, he re­counts, when they won­dered: If there were time trav­elers among us, would they be on so­cial me­di­a? How would you find them? Could you Google them?

“We had a whim­si­cal lit­tle dis­cus­sion,” said Ne­miroff, of Mich­i­gan Tech­no­log­i­cal Uni­vers­ity. The re­sult, he said, was a fun-but-serious ef­fort to lo­cate trav­elers from the fu­ture by sift­ing through the In­ter­net.

You can’t just put out a cat­tle call for time trav­elers and ex­pect good re­sults. So Ne­miroff’s team de­vel­oped a search strat­e­gy based on what they call pre­sci­ent knowl­edge. If they could find a men­tion of some­thing or some­one on the In­ter­net be­fore peo­ple should have known about it, that could in­di­cate that who­ev­er wrote it had trav­eled from the fu­ture.

They se­lected search terms re­lat­ing to two re­cent phe­nom­e­na, Pope Fran­cis and Com­et ISON, and be­gan look­ing for ref­er­ences to them be­fore they were known to ex­ist. Their work was ex­haus­tive: they used a va­ri­e­ty of search en­gines, such as Google and Bing, and combed through Face­book and Twit­ter. In the case of Com­et ISON, there were no men­tions be­fore it burst on the scene in Sep­tem­ber 2012. They dis­cov­ered only one blog post ref­er­enc­ing a Pope Fran­cis be­fore Jor­ge Ma­rio Bergoglio was elected head of the Cath­o­lic Church on March 16, but it seemed more ac­ci­den­tal that pre­sci­ent.

They al­so searched for pre­sci­ent in­quir­ies sub­mit­ted to search en­gines and combed through the As­tron­o­my Pic­ture of the Day site, which Ne­miroff co-edits. Still no luck.

For their last and per­haps most in­gen­ious ef­fort, the re­search­ers cre­at­ed a post in Sep­tem­ber 2013 ask­ing read­ers to e­mail or tweet one of two mes­sages on or be­fore Au­gust 2013: “#I­Can­Change­The­Past2 or “#I­Can­notChange­The­Past2.” Alas, their in­vita­t­ion went un­an­swered. And they re­ceived no in­sights in­to the in­her­ent con­tra­dic­tions of time trav­el.

“In our lim­it­ed search we turned up noth­ing,” Ne­miroff said. “I did­n’t really think we would. But I’m still not aware of an­y­one un­der­tak­ing a search like this. The In­ter­net is es­sen­tially a vast database, and I thought that if time trav­elers were he­re, their ex­istence would have al­ready come out in some oth­er way, may­be by post­ing win­ning lot­tery num­bers be­fore they were se­lected.”

Ne­miroff and phys­ics grad­u­ate stu­dent Te­re­sa Wil­son are slated to pre­s­ent the find­ings Mon­day at the Amer­i­can As­tro­nom­i­cal So­ci­e­ty meet­ing in Wash­ing­ton, D.C.


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If time travel is to be invented someday, shouldn’t some people from the future be among us now? A systematic online search led by Michigan Technological University astrophysicist Robert Nemiroff suggests there are no such visitors. He and his students were playing cards last summer, he said, when they wondered: If there were time travelers among us, would they be on social media? How would you find them? Could you Google them? “We had a whimsical little discussion,” said Nemiroff. The result, he said, was a fun-but-serious effort to locate travelers from the future by sifting through the Internet. You can’t just put out a cattle call for time travelers and expect good results. So Nemiroff’s team developed a search strategy based on what they call prescient knowledge. If they could find a mention of something or someone on the Internet before people should have known about it, that could indicate that whoever wrote it had traveled from the future. They selected search terms relating to two recent phenomena, Pope Francis and Comet ISON, and began looking for references to them before they were known to exist. Their work was exhaustive: they used a variety of search engines, such as Google and Bing, and combed through Facebook and Twitter. In the case of Comet ISON, there were no mentions before it burst on the scene in September 2012. They discovered only one blog post referencing a Pope Francis before Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected head of the Catholic Church on March 16, but it seemed more accidental that prescient. They also searched for prescient inquiries submitted to search engines and combed through the Astronomy Picture of the Day site, which Nemiroff co-edits. Still no luck. For their last and perhaps most ingenious effort, the researchers created a post in September 2013 asking readers to email or tweet one of two messages on or before August 2013: “#ICanChangeThePast2” or “#ICannotChangeThePast2.” Alas, their invitation went unanswered. And, they received no insights into the inherent contradictions of time travel. “In our limited search we turned up nothing,” Nemiroff said. “I didn’t really think we would. But I’m still not aware of anyone undertaking a search like this. The Internet is essentially a vast database, and I thought that if time travelers were here, their existence would have already come out in some other way, maybe by posting winning lottery numbers before they were selected. “ Nemiroff and physics graduate student Teresa Wilson plan to present their findings Monday at the American Astronomical Society meeting in Washington, D.C.