How physicists are using the internet to hunt for time travelers from the future

Hint: It involves Twitter and Facebook

Back to the Future
(Image credit: (Screen shot))

What would you do with a time machine? Bet on horses that won against the odds? Skateboard down the back of a brontosaurus before it went extinct and stopped being called a brontosaurus? Reclaim the lost love of your life? One can dream.

For a moment, though, let's assume that it is possible to manipulate the space-time continuum, and that scientists of the future will make a time machine that is affordable enough to be ubiquitous. It follows that time machines would be being used at this very instant. Indeed, time travelers would probably be all around us.

So: How do we find them? Physicists Teresa Wilson and Robert Nemiroff at Michigan Technological University came up with an ingenious and rather fun experiment for sussing out potential future folk. And it involved the internet.

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Wilson and Nemiroff decided to scan social media (from today) for clues pointing to time travelers (from tomorrow). They decided to focus their efforts on two fairly unpredictable historical events: The comet ISON (September 2012) and the selection of Pope Francis (March 2013).

The thinking goes that if a time traveler were to slip up and mention either event on a social network (Twitter, Facebook, Google+) before those events took place, it might just be a valuable bread crumb pointing to a real-life human from the future. They called these clues "prescient search queries."

They hit a few snags. Google+ proved to be too unwieldy to search. So that was out. And Facebook presented another problem, since you can simply backdate posts on your timeline.

That left Wilson and Nemiroff with Twitter, which proved easy enough to search for prescient clues.

Unfortunately, they didn't turn up much:

No clearly prescient content involving "Comet ISON", "#cometison", "Pope Francis", or "#popefrancis" was found from any Twitter tweet — ever. One candidate was found — an interesting speculative discussion using the term "Pope Francis" in a blog post advertised by a tweet, but upon close inspection and consideration, that blog post was deemed overtly speculative and not prescient. Searches were made both on the embedded Twitter search box and on the Twitter search service Topsy ( Each of these search terms occurred numerous times — hundreds for Comet ISON and thousands for Pope Francis — but, with the one noted exception, only after 2012 September for Comet ISON and only after 2013 March for Pope Francis. [PDF]

In other words, time travelers do not currently appear to be living among us.

Now, clearly the experiment had some faults. But it's still an interesting thought exercise. Perhaps time travelers from the future are just that much more savvy, and are really good at covering their tracks. Or maybe in the distant future, our species advances to a point at which Twitter and Facebook have diminishing returns, and stays away from social media entirely. One can dream.

Source: Popular Science

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Chris Gayomali is the science and technology editor for Previously, he was a tech reporter at TIME. His work has also appeared in Men's Journal, Esquire, and The Atlantic, among other places. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.