Can We Travel Through Time to the Past?

Artwork of a Galaxy as Whirlpool in Space

MARK GARLICK​ / Science Photo Library / Getty Images

Going back in time to visit an earlier era is a fantastic dream. It's a staple of SF and fantasy novels, movies, and TV shows. Who wouldn't like to go back and see the dinosaurs or watch the birth of the universe or meet their great-great grandparents? What could possibly go wrong Could someone travel to a previous era to right a wrong, make a different decision, or even completely alter the course of history? Has it happened? Is it even possible?

There are a lot of questions about travel into the past, but not very many solutions. The best answer science can give us right now is: it's theoretically possible. But, no one has done it. 

Traveling Into the Past

It turns out that people time travel all the time, but only in one direction: from the past to the present and moving into the future. Unfortunately, no one has any control over how quickly that time passes and nobody can stop time and continue to live. It seems that time is a one-way street, always moving forward.

This is all right and proper. It also fits with Einstein's theory of relativity because time only flows in one direction—forward. If time flowed the other way, people would remember the future instead of the past. That sounds very counter-intuitive. So, on the face of it, traveling into the past seems to be a violation of the laws of physics.

But not so fast! It turns out that there are theoretical considerations to take into account if somebody wants to build a time machine that goes back to the past. They involve exotic gateways called wormholes, or some science fictional-sounding creation of gateways using a technology not yet available to science. 

Black Holes and Wormholes

A black hole is an object so compact that nothing can escape its gravitational pull. Not even light. On Earth an object needs to be launched with a speed of 11 km/s if it is to escape the planet's gravity and go into orbit. But the escape velocity of a black hole exceeds the speed of light. Since nothing can travel faster than this ultimate speed, black holes suck in everything including light, which makes them utterly dark and invisible. In this image, we can see a black hole, but only because it is surrounded by a superheated disc of material, an accretion disc. The closer to the hole the material gets, the more and more of its light is captured, which is why the hole grows darker towards its center.

The idea of building a time machine, like those often depicted in science fiction films, is likely the stuff of dreams. Unlike the traveler in H.G. Wells's Time Machine, no one has figured out how to build a special carriage that goes from now to yesterday. However, astrophysics gives us one possible pathway: one could possibly harness the power of a black hole to venture through time and space. How would that work?

According to general relativity, a rotating black hole could create a wormhole—a theoretical link between two points of space-time, or perhaps even two points in different universes. However, there's a problem with black holes. They've long been thought to be unstable and therefore un-traversable. However, recent advances in physics theory have shown that these constructs could, in fact, provide a means of traveling through time. Unfortunately, we have almost no idea what to expect by doing so.

Theoretical physics is still trying to predict what would happen inside the wormhole, assuming one could even approach such a place. More to the point, there's no current engineering solution that would allow us to build a craft that would let make that trip safely. Right now, as it stands, once a ship enters the black hole, it's going to get crushed by incredible gravity. The ship, and everyone aboard are made one with the singularity at the heart of the black hole.

But, for the sake of argument, what if it were possible to pass through a wormhole? What would people experience? Some suggest it would probably be a lot like Alice falling through the rabbit hole. Who knows what we would find on the other side? Or in what time frame? Until someone can devise a safe way to make that trip, we aren't likely to find out.

Causality and Alternate Realities

The idea of traveling into the past raises all sorts of paradoxical issues. For instance, what happens if a person goes back in time and kills their parents before they can conceive their child? Lots of dramatic stories have been built around that one. Or, the idea that someone could go back and kill a dictator and change history, or save the life of a famous person. An entire episode of Star Trek was built around that idea.

It turns out that the time traveler effectively creates an alternate reality or parallel universe. So, if someone did travel back and prevent someone else's birth, or murdered someone, a younger version of the victim would never come to be in that reality. And, it might or might not carry on as if nothing had changed. By going back in time, the traveler creates a new reality and would, therefore, never be able to return to the reality they once knew. (If they then tried to travel into the future from there, they would see the future of the new reality, not the one they knew before.) Consider the outcome of the movie "Back to the Future". Marty McFly changes reality for his parents back when they were in high school, and that changes his own reality. He gets back home and finds his parents aren't quite the same as when he left. Did he create a new alternate universe? Theoretically, he did.

Wormhole Warnings!

This brings us to another issue that is rarely discussed. The nature of wormholes is to take a traveler to a different point in time and space. So if someone left Earth and traveled through a wormhole, they could be transported to the other side of the universe (assuming they are even still in the same universe we currently occupy). If they wanted to travel back to Earth they would either have to travel back through the wormhole they just left (bringing them back, presumably, to the same time and place), or journey by more conventional means. 

Artistic depiction of two spaceships against a blueish night sky, with circles of energy depicting a wormhole through space.
Two spaceships enter a wormhole in outer space to get to a universe in another part of the galaxy. Wormholes also are invoked in SF for time travel purposes. Corey Ford / Stocktrek Images

Assuming the travelers would even be close enough to make it back to Earth in their lifetimes from wherever the wormhole spat them out, would it still be the "past" when they returned? Since traveling at speeds approaching that of light makes time slow down for the voyager, time would proceed very, very quickly back on Earth. So, the past would fall behind, and the future would become the past... that's the way time works flowing forward

So, while they exited the wormhole in the past (relative to time on Earth), by being so far away it's possible that they wouldn't make it back to Earth at any reasonable time relating to when they left. This would negate the whole purpose of time travel altogether. 

So, Is Time Travel to the Past Really Possible?

The control board inside the car in
In "Back to the Future" a specially outfitted DeLorean was the "vehicle" that took the movie's characters back and forth in time. Charles Eshelman /  Getty Images 

Possible? Yes, theoretically. Probable? No, at least not with our current technology and understanding of physics. But perhaps someday, thousands of years into the future, people could harness enough energy to make time travel a reality. Until that time, the idea will just have to stay relegated to the pages of science-fiction or for viewers to make repeated showings of Back to the Future