pre·scient – Adjective – having or showing knowledge of events before they take place; “a prescient warning”
I guess it’d be weird if I didn’t at least acknowledge the recent “scientific” hunt for time travelers.
Two physicists at Michigan Technological University, Robert Nemiroff and Teresa Wilson, submitted a paper to arXiv.org on Decemeber 26, 2013 detailing their search for evidence of time travelers on the Internet. They scoured search engine data and social networks for any trace that someone from the future may be visiting us online.
And what did they find?
Not a thing.
Well, aside from the occasional time traveler who refuses to put away her cell phone, of course.
At any rate, I took the liberty of reading the entire paper (all eleven pages), and thought I’d break it down for you here. No, I don’t have much else going on at the moment, and I just finished watching all six episodes of Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace. Thanks for asking.
The Online Browsing Habits of Internet Time Travelers
“Time travel has captured the public imagination for much of the past century, but little has been done to actually search for time travelers. Here, three implementations of Internet searches for time travelers are described, all seeking a prescient mention of information not previously available.”
The paper begins with a brief overview of the idea of time travel, its roots in ancient history, such as the Indian Mahabharata, and contemporary fiction like Doctor Who and Back to the Future. It then raises the very real possibility of time travel to the future, and the controversy surrounding our ability to travel into the past. Will it ever be possible? Could we use black holes and closed timelike curves to venture through time?
Maybe, maybe not.
But, assuming time travel is possible, the paper quickly ventures into its three criteria for potential evidence of time travelers on the Internet: search terms on Twitter that may indicate information from the future; search engine inquiries of specific terms that may indicate knowledge of a (then-) future event; and direct communications requesting responses from time travelers.
“…even time travelers who want to advertise their presence may do so ineffectively, those who want to hide their presence might make a revealing mistake, and those indifferent might or might not leave traceable Internet content…”
To find evidence of these potential time travelers, Nemiroff and Wilson set about looking for “prescient information” from January 2006 to September 2013. To do so, they picked two terms they believed would be both unique enough for their use to be limited to a specific point in time, and important enough for travelers from the future to remember: Comet ISON and Pope Francis.
Their reasoning for these two terms was simple:
Comet ISON was set to burn brighter than the moon when it was first discovered in September 2012, and such an event would likely be remembered into the future. (In retrospect, Comet ISON wasn’t much to get excited about, as it, well, evaporated. I’m not sure anyone here and now is bothered remembering it, much less any time travelers.)
Likewise, the election of the new pope was significant in that the previous pope stepped down rather suddenly, and Jorge Mario Bergoglio was the first pope to ever select the name Pope Francis.
It would then be odd for anyone to have spoken of either Comet ISON or Pope Francis prior to September 2012 and March 2013, respectively, leaving the two scientists to focus on any mentions of these two terms prior to their public awareness as potential evidence of time travelers.
“Exploratory searches on Twitter indicated the ability to find all tweets that mentioned any of our preferred search terms. Also, Twitter does not allow backdated tweets. We therefore considered our search on Twitter to be our most comprehensive search for once-prescient content placed on the Internet.”
Now, this is where the search gets kind of funky. The paper goes on to describe how hashtags – those words with the # symbol in front of them you see on Twitter – were used to discern prescient information, so things like #CometISON and #PopeFrancis.
They also looked into search engines like Google and even Facebook’s built-in search thing, but discovered that search engines don’t really know what they’re doing half the time (due to things like result order or backdating, which is posting something with an earlier time-stamp).
Twitter, believe it or not, ended up being the most accurate resource for timed information, as the service does not allow backdating of posts, and all (excluding deleted or private) tweets are available from the beginning of Twitter’s existence. It’s like a closed timelike social network.
And that’s right: Exploratory searches on Twitter. This stuff is heavy.
Unfortunately, those searches didn’t yield positive results, except for one mention of Pope Francis in a tweeted blog post that was deemed “overtly speculative and not prescient.” Likewise, delving into Google Trends revealed no prescient search queries for either Comet ISON or Pope Francis, although this information was deemed unreliable.
— Rob Schwarz (@Dimentoid) February 11, 2013
Oh, I hope they didn’t mean that post.
Are You A Time Traveler?
Last but certainly not least, the researchers publicly reached out to any time travelers on the Internet and made a simple request: Travel back in time and either tweet or email the hashtag #ICanChangeThePast2 or #ICannotChangeThePast2 on or before August 2013.
The first would mean that time travel to the past is possible, and that the past can be changed. The second would also mean that time travel to the past is possible, but that the traveler does not believe he or she can change the past. Needless to say, neither hashtag was found on or before August 2013 on either Twitter or in the author’s email account.
And that’s about the end of it, really. No evidence of time travel to be found.
While the research itself may seem like a waste of time, Nemiroff admits it was mostly just for fun, and it’s an interesting read nonetheless. Although, personally, if I were looking to research instances of prescient information on the Internet, I’d probably cast a wider net and look into the various time travel forums and characters like John Titor. You know, not that I haven’t already.
It’s also fair to consider that, in the paper’s conclusion, the researchers remind us that their search is in no way conclusive:
“Although the negative results reported here may indicate that time travelers from the future are not among us and cannot communicate with us over the modern day Internet, they are by no means proof…it may be physically impossible for us to find such information as that would violate some yet-unknown law of physics…
Furthermore, time travelers may not want to be found, and may be good at covering their tracks. Additionally, time travelers just may not have left the specific event tags that we were searching for.”
Anyway, you can read the entire paper in .PDF format over at arXiv.org, titled “Searching the Internet for evidence of time travelers.”