This Might Be the Most Disappointing Academic Paper of the Year So Far

The Citizen's Guide to the Future
Jan. 3 2014 7:29 PM

Physics Professors Search Internet for Time Travelers, Don't Find Any

Stephen Hawking time travellers party
The search for time travelers has so far resulted in disappointment.

Screenshot / YouTube

Undergrads may come up with some amusing thesis topics, but when it comes to truly quixotic research agendas, they’ve got nothing on the pros.

In a paper pre-published on arXiv, a pair of actual physics professors detail their exhaustive efforts to canvass the Internet for evidence of time travelers. Drs. Robert J. Nemiroff and Teresa Wilson of Michigan Technological University had me at the first line of the abstract: "Time travel has captured the public imagination for much of the past century, but little has been done to actually search for time travelers." Say, that’s a good point!

Will Oremus Will Oremus

Will Oremus is Slate's senior technology writer.

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They go on to explain that they approached the problem by scouring the Web for tweets, Google searches, and other online postings about events—such as a comet or the naming of a new pope—that hadn't happened yet at the time they were posted. "Given practical verifiability concerns," the researchers note, "only time travelers from the future were investigated." That's understandable: Time travelers from the past presumably wouldn’t have had prescient insights to offer.

Sadly, it seems, neither did any time travelers from the future. “No time travelers were discovered,” the researchers report, in what must rank as an early front-runner for most disappointing sentence of 2014. They conclude: “Although these negative results do not disprove time travel, given the great reach of the Internet, this search is perhaps the most comprehensive to date.”

I hope I’m not insulting the good professors when I admit that I’m not entirely shocked by their findings, nor overawed by their methods. That said, they certainly deserve credit for trying. If the examples cited in their literature review are any indication, the previous contenders for “most comprehensive search for time travelers” had set a rather low bar:

In May of 2005, then graduate student A. Dorai at MIT publicised and held a convention for time travelers [17]. No one claiming to come from the future showed up [17]. S. Hawking did a similar experiment in July of 2012, holding a personal party for time travelers, but sending out the invitations only after the party [18]. No one claiming to be a time traveler showed up [18].

The full paper is worth reading, particularly the section titled “Types of Time Travelers,” in which the researchers propose an admirably concise, if rather hypothetical, taxonomy of chrononauts. The professors also display a judicious awareness of the perils of false positives in the section detailing their search for prescient Internet queries. They dismiss, for instance, a 2006 Google search for 2009’s “Comet McNaught” as evidence of time travel, noting that McNaught has in fact been discovering various other comets since 1989. 

Whether those virtues will result in the paper qualifying for publication in a peer-reviewed journal remains to be seen. If nothing else, it would make for a worthy addition to lolmythesis.com: “We searched the Internet for time travelers and didn’t find any.”

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

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