"Time travel has captured the public imagination for much of the past century, but little has been done to actually search for time travelers."
And so begins the account of likely the most comprehensive effort ever to remedy that situation using the wonders of the Internet.
The journey began after some joking discussion during the weekly summer poker games amongst the lab of Michigan Technological University astrophysics professor Robert Nemiroff. They began brainstorming about what would happen if a time traveler really visited from the future.
As anyone who’s ever watched Back to The Future or read The Time Machine knows, probably he or she would leave some tell tale clues—and if that person happened to land in the most recent decade, they might leave those trail of clues on Google, Twitter, or Facebook as they tried to learn more about their current situation. For example, someone searching for or posting about "Edward Snowden leaks" might be a prescient voice from the future if Snowden was still an anonymous government contractor at the time of the post.
"The Internet is this massive database that wasn’t around 30 years ago, so we thought we could look, just for fun," Nemiroff says.
It may have been for fun, but it was a risky endeavor. Though traveling back in time is likely not physically possible and so Nemiroff did not really think they would turn up positive proof, he was still a bit relieved when their best efforts failed to uncover evidence of a time traveler in our midst. (Einstein’s special relativity puts the idea of traveling from the past to the future on much firmer scientific footing, but researchers were stumped as to how they might find evidence of such travelers.)
"I didn’t think we’d turn something up. If we did turn something up, there would be tremendous controversy," he says. "I guess if we found out there could be time travel it would increase research in that direction. But of course, if we did find something, it might destroy the universe, and that would be unfortunate."
Hunting for evidence wasn’t easy either. They had to think of terms that would be highly specific to one unique event that occurred in the last few years and would also have a high likelihood of remaining significant far into the future, so that someone from the future might think to search for the term. After a lot of trial and error, they came up with two terms: "Pope Francis," who was appointed pope in 2013, and "Comet ISON," a new bright comet discovered in 2012 that has been discussed a lot since and will likely be tracked far into the future. They simply looked for evidence of these terms on the Web prior to the dates when they became terms that exist in our public lexicon.
Their hunt for these "prescient" Internet users was also limited by the Google, Facebook, and Twitter platforms themselves. Facebook doesn’t give comprehensive search results and allows backdating of posts. Google Trends doesn’t report precise numbers of search terms, or very low volumes of them. A dated Google search would turn up older pages that contained their key terms in more recently-placed advertisements. Twitter turned out to be the most complete and accurately dated platform, and still—no sign of individuals who had uncanny foresight about these two topics.
It’s not the first time respected scientists have sought time travelers, but the earlier efforts had been less ambitious. In 2012, Stephen Hawking held a party for time travelers, but only sent out invitations after the party occurred. No one showed up. In the same vein, in a more active search for clues last September, Nemiroff and his co-author Teresa Wilson requested on the Web that time travelers post the hashtag "#ICanChangeThePast2" or "#ICannotChangeThePast2" in a post dated at an earlier time in August. Again, no response.
Nemiroff acknowledges that his experiments by no means proves time travelers from the future don’t exist—that may be impossible to prove. But while he intends to go back to his normal research looking into astronomical phenomenon such as gravity lensing and gamma ray bursts, he hopes others who have insider access to more complete Google or Facebook search data might replicate the gist of the work.
For now, since putting his paper online in December, he’s getting lots of feedback from people who have their own theories of time travel. But no one is claiming to be Marty McFly—yet.