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Can we travel back in time?

The idea of traveling back in time has captivated the imagination for centuries. From ancient myths to science fiction tales, the notion of journeying into the past persists as one of humanity’s most enduring fantasies. But is time travel possible? What does physics have to say about the feasibility of sending someone back through time? Here we examine the current scientific theories and debates surrounding the tantalizing prospect of time travel.

Theoretical Possibilities for Time Travel

While time travel remains firmly in the realm of theory, certain solutions allowed by Einstein’s theory of general relativity have proposed intriguing ways we might be able to bend time to our will. From wormholes to cosmic strings, here are some of the leading time travel ideas debated by physicists:

Method Overview
Wormholes Wormholes are theoretical passages through space-time that could potentially allow travel between different points in space and time. Wormholes are predicted by Einstein’s theory of general relativity, but none have been observed.
Cosmic strings Cosmic strings are hypothetical 1-dimensional defects in space-time that are also permitted by general relativity. Some propose that fast-moving cosmic strings could cause distortions in space-time that allow for time loops.
Alcubierre drive The Alcubierre drive is a speculative faster-than-light propulsion system which deforms space-time around a spacecraft to allow effective faster-than-light travel. Some theories suggest an Alcubierre drive could be used to travel backwards in time.
Traversable acausual retrograde domains Also known as a TARDIS! These are theoretical bubble regions of space-time with vectors directed towards the past. Hypothetically, a TARDIS could enable time travel.

Each of these solutions manipulates space-time in different ways to theoretically enable time travel, at least mathematically. However, the physical feasibility of actually realizing these solutions remains highly speculative. Significant practical hurdles would need to be overcome to turn these mathematical models into functioning time machines.

Challenges to Time Travel

While solutions like wormholes and cosmic strings suggest time travel could be theoretically possible, immense practical obstacles must be overcome before any functioning time machine could be built. Here are some of the biggest challenges facing the prospect of time travel:

  • Energy requirements – The energy needed to power hypothetical time machines like wormholes or Alcubierre drives would be immense, likely equivalent to the total energy output of stars or larger. This renders them practically infeasible with any existing technology.
  • Quantum gravity – The reconciliation between general relativity and quantum mechanics likely required to fully describe space-time may eliminate some solutions like wormholes altogether.
  • Paradoxes – Time travel to the past risks paradoxes like the grandfather paradox, where one could prevent their own birth. Theoretical solutions have been proposed but remain controversial.
  • Observing time travelers – If time travel was possible in the future, we might expect to have observed time travelers in our present. But so far we have no definitive evidence of visitors from the future.

These hurdles strongly suggest backwards time travel is impossible. However, some small possibilities remain open. For example, time travel to the future could be achieved by abusing time dilation effects in relativity. But overall, the challenges make building any kind of time machine seem a distant prospect at best.

What Einstein’s Relativity Says

Einstein’s theory of special relativity states that time is relative – it flows at different rates for observers moving relative to each other. This theory has been proven true experimentally many times. However, it does not allow travel into the past. But Einstein’s theory of general relativity does potentially allow for time travel, via solutions like wormholes. So how does modern physics interpret the possibility of time travel?

Time Is Not Universal

Special relativity revealed that there is no universal time – observers moving relative to each other experience time differently. This means the past, present and future are not absolute concepts across space-time. While one observer sees Event A happening before Event B, a moving observer may see the events reversed, or simultaneous.

Time Travel to the Future is Possible

Thanks to time dilation from relativity, time travel to the future is theoretically possible by traveling at high speeds. If one twin zooms off in a fast spaceship and later returns, they will have aged less than the twin who remained on Earth. Experiments have confirmed that atomic clocks aboard airplanes and satellites tick slower than stationary clocks. However, time travel to the past remains more controversial.

General Relativity Allows Closed Timelike Curves

While special relativity does not permit backwards time travel, Einstein’s general relativity does allow for the possibility of closed timelike curves under certain circumstances. These theoretical solutions have proposed ideas like wormholes and cosmic strings that could bend time and space to create shortcuts connecting different points in space-time, potentially enabling time travel to the past.

However, the physical challenges involved in stabilizing and traversing such solutions remain immense. Most physicists think backwards time travel is extremely unlikely. But general relativity appears to leave a door open, if only very slightly.

Paradoxes and Theories of Time Travel

If time travel to the past were possible, it would raise the potential for paradoxes, like going back to prevent your own birth. Theoretical physicists have proposed a number of solutions to these paradoxes over the years:

Many-Worlds Interpretation

The many-worlds interpretation proposes that all possible quantum outcomes occur across multiple branching timelines. So if you traveled to the past, you would simply end up in a different timeline, avoiding paradoxes in any one reality. However, critics argue this sidesteps the philosophical puzzle rather than solves it.

Novikov Self-Consistency

The Novikov self-consistency principle argues that only time travel consistent with the current timeline is possible. So you could not travel back and kill your grandfather, because any attempt would inevitably fail due to probability, free will or other factors. This preserves causality, but still permits some level of free will.

Fixed Timeline (Predestination)

A fixed timeline implies that all past, present and future events are set in stone. Time travelers would be part of events that had already happened from their perspective, with no ability to change the past. This view raises philosophical questions about free will.

Each theory has its paradoxes and flaws. Most physicists think backwards time travel is likely impossible, which would neatly sidestep any paradoxes. But science continues to probe the question, leaving a window open for exploring this mind-bending possibility.

Evidence For and Against Time Travel

What evidence exists that time travel may – or may not – be possible? Here we look at some key clues for and against the prospect of journeying through time:


  • Time dilation predicted by relativity has been repeatedly proven true with atomic clocks and other experiments.
  • General relativity does allow for theoretical solutions like wormholes that could enable time travel.
  • Some interpret quantum entanglement as suggesting time may be an emergent property of quantum states.
  • A lack of evidence against time travel does not rule it out entirely as a possibility.


  • No credible evidence of visitors from the future have ever been confirmed.
  • The energies required for operating theoretical time machines remain impractical.
  • Quantum gravity effects remain unknown and may restrict time travel.
  • Simulations of a working time machine have not been achieved.

The evidence remains strongly on the side of time travel likely being impossible. But the door is not fully closed yet from a theoretical perspective. As our understanding of physics advances, perhaps more definitive answers will emerge on whether traversing time can become a reality.

Time Travel in Fiction

Time travel has been a staple of science fiction storytelling for over a century. From early novels to blockbuster films, the notion has captivated creators and audiences alike. Some of the most iconic examples include:

The Time Machine by H.G. Wells (1895 novel)

H.G. Wells’ 19th century novel follows an inventor known only as the Time Traveler, who journeys to the year 802,701 in a machine of his own creation. The Time Machine helped establish time travel as a core science fiction concept and inspired many future stories.

Back to the Future (1985 film)

The popular Back to the Future trilogy follows the adventures of teenager Marty McFly, eccentric scientist Doc Brown, and Brown’s time-traveling DeLorean. The films played with ideas of altering history via time travel.

Doctor Who (TV series)

This long-running BBC series follows the adventures of the time-traveling alien Doctor Who, who explores the universe in a sentient time machine known as the TARDIS. Doctor Who frequently explores the implications of time travel.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004 film)

In the third Harry Potter film, Harry and Hermione use a Time-Turner device to travel back in time and save Buckbeak the hippogriff. The film introduced ideas of closed time loops to the franchise.

These and many other fictional tales have helped solidify time travel as a beloved science fiction concept for both creators and audiences.


While time travel remains unlikely based on current physics knowledge, some theoretical avenues – like wormholes and cosmic strings – suggest it may not be impossible according to Einstein’s general relativity. The challenges to stabilization and energy demands are immense, but as an imaginative concept, time travel continues to enthral. As physics advances, perhaps more definitive answers will emerge on the possibility of this most tantalizing of science fiction notions becoming science fact. For now, the prospect remains caught between theoretical potential and practical implausibility.