Unraveling the Mysteries of Time Travel
By Mu Feng & Quan Heng
Talk of time travel brings many much-loved films, television shows and books to mind. American favorites such as Somewhere in Time and Back to the Future and Asian time-travel fantasies such as A Step Into the Past and Scarlet Heart have delighted millions of viewers and readers worldwide.
The protagonist often travels through time under the most bizarre of circumstances, interacting with people of another era. Time-travel plots appeal to our imagination — when the present intersects with historical events or the unpredictable future, we can be sure that the results will be astounding. Do you think time travel is possible?
A Tale of Two Time Travelers
Numerous records document accidental time travel. Charlotte Anne Moberly and Eleanor Jourdain, both English teachers, experienced a bizarre incident while visiting the Palace of Versailles in August 1901.
Despite being armed with a travel guidebook, they got lost while making their way from Le Grand Trianon to Petit Trianon.
As they walked, they saw that every woman and child was dressed in 18th-century clothing and standing motionless like wax figurines. A little further down the road, they met a man wearing a cloak and a bicorne (a hat famously worn by Napoleon). At the garden in front of the palace, they glimpsed a fair-haired lady wearing a light summer dress and broad white hat, painting away. Moberly and Jourdain felt uneasy about what they saw and quickened their steps. As they arrived at Petit Trianon, things were back to normal again.
After the incident, the women began to search for an explanation for their unusual experience. They discovered that there were no fancy-dress events held on the grounds that day. The man in the cloak and bicorne was thought to resemble the French nobleman Comte de Vaudreuil. The lady painting on the lawn resembled Marie Antoinette, the wife of King Louis XVI. It dawned on the women that they might have traveled through time into the Palace of Versailles in the 18th century.
The two ladies later published a book titled An Adventure, describing the events and people of that day. Many readers believed their story, as they were both well-educated and had no reason for a tall tale. The descriptions in the book were too vivid to be lies. The book described structures that existed during the 18th century but had been later destroyed. These structures were never mentioned in any travel guidebooks and the women would never have known they existed unless they had actually seen them in “real life.”
Many other readers dismissed the women’s claims. Critics with knowledge of psychology believed that Moberly and Jourdain may have experienced hysteria caused by the distress of being lost, leading to hallucinations.
How could time travel happen so easily? Is there any scientific explanation or evidence of time travel?
Time to Travel
In 1916, Austrian physicist Ludwig Flamm postulated his theory that a connection, known as a wormhole, can exist between two points in different spaces and times. In the 1930s, Albert Einstein and Nathan Rosen suggested that one could enter a wormhole and exit to a different point in time, essentially traveling through time.
Renowned English astrophysicist Professor Stephen Hawking was convinced that it is theoretically possible to travel through time in the following three ways:
It is widely believed that wormholes require special conditions, such as magnetic fields, to appear. Professor Hawking, however, believed that wormholes exist everywhere, just that they are so tiny they cannot be seen with the naked eye. Tiny gaps consisting of energy are found within all matter in the Universe, including time. Professor Hawking believed that wormholes, smaller than atoms and molecules, exist within this quantum foam. If we can enlarge these tiny wormholes into portals big enough to accommodate humans, we can theoretically time travel through them.
2. Black holes
According to Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity, black holes are formed when a massive star collapses at the end of its life cycle, creating a region in space where gravitational effects are so great that everything, including light, is sucked into it. It is widely accepted that nothing can escape a black hole.
In 2014 Professor Hawking posited that black holes are not eternal prisons; matter can exit a black hole and even go to another Universe. If we wish to travel via a black hole to another space and time, we must be prepared that it is a journey of no return. Professor Hawking remarked, “If the black hole is spinning, it is possible to reach another Universe. However, we will not be able to return to our own Universe. Hence, as much as I am interested in space travel, I’m not going to try this.”
3. Traveling at the speed of light
According to the Theory of Special Relativity, no object in the Universe can travel faster than the speed of light. To avoid being sucked by the gravitational pull of a black hole into another Universe and being unable to escape, one must travel through space using a machine that can almost match the speed of light. Due to the high speed of the machine, time onboard it would seem like minutes or hours while several years pass by on Earth. Thus, the machine’s passengers would be transported into the “future.”
The Complications of Time Travel
A popular incongruity in time-travel reasoning is the “grandfather paradox.” If you went to the past and killed your grandfather before he had your father, then you would not exist. Here’s the problem: If you do not exist, then who killed your grandfather?
To solve the problem of time paradoxes, Russian astrophysicist Igor Dmitriyevich Novikov developed the Novikov self-consistency principle, which asserts that while one can travel to the past, it is impossible to create events to alter the course of history. The time traveler may experience a re-enactment of history but would be subjected to events that unfold to prevent a time paradox.
Even if we can solve the paradoxes of time travel, will we actually be able to journey through time? According to Professor Hawking, even if we could expand wormholes and travel at nearly the speed of light, we might be able to move forward in time and reach the future, but not go back into the past. If we were to reach the future, the catch is that we would not be able to return to the present.
Would you be game for a trip with no return? There is no limit to the human imagination or sense of wonderment. Expanding the imagination to include time travel can bring a fresh sense of wonder to the mysteries of our world in the present moment.