Evading quantum barrier to time travel
by I. Peterson
Ruling out the possibility of traveling back in time has turned out to be trickier than many physicists had supposed.
Two researchers have now shown that quantum effects do not necessarily prevent the occurrence of loops in time. Li-Xin Li and J. Richard Gott III of Princeton University present their case in the April 6 Physical Review Letters.
Einstein's special theory of relativity unifies space and time as aspects of a single, four-dimensional entity known as space-time. His general theory of relativity describes how the presence of matter warps the fabric of space-time.
Physicists have found that general relativity equations yield many solutions representing different space-times. Sometimes, sufficient warping of a particular space-time makes possible the existence of paths known as closed timelike curves (SN: 3/28/92, p. 202; 11/5/88, p. 302). A traveler moving along such a path would find that his or her watch always runs forward, even though the traveler eventually ends up where -- and when -- he or she started.
In 1982, William A. Hiscock of Montana State University in Bozeman and Deborah A. Konkowski of the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., calculated the quantum state of the space, or vacuum, pervading a simple type of space-time called Misner space, which includes closed timelike curves. Their result indicated that such a combination of gravitational space-time and vacuum quantum state could not exist.
Noting that result, Stephen W. Hawking of the University of Cambridge in England proposed the chronology protection conjecture, stating that physical laws do not permit the appearance of closed timelike curves. For example, quantum theory could conspire to prevent time travel by ruling out the existence of space-times with such paths.
Misner space can exhibit more than one type of vacuum state, however. Li and Gott demonstrate that one of these states permits the occurrence of time loops. That state is self-consistent, meaning that going back in time doesn't alter what happens later in the system.
"We have found a counterexample to Hawking's conjecture," Gott says. "Quantum effects do not automatically enforce chronology protection in every case."
That doesn't mean a person could build a machine to travel back in time. The amount of space-time warping required for such a feat would lead to all sorts of practical problems.
The calculations also involve crucial approximations and may not apply to the "real" cosmos, Konkowski says.
However, the possible existence of closed timelike curves under certain extreme conditions may offer a solution to the problem of what came before the Big Bang, which most cosmologists believe started our universe.
In a paper submitted for publication, Li and Gott explore the question of whether anything in the laws of physics would prevent the universe from creating itself. "The universe wasn't made out of nothing," Gott suggests. "It arose out of something, and that something was itself. To do that, the trick you need is time travel."
Li and Gott speculate that a universe undergoing the rapid early expansion known as inflation could give rise to baby universes, one of which (by means of a closed timelike curve) would turn out to be the original universe.
As they did for Misner space, the two physicists found a self-consistent vacuum state, demonstrating that closed time loops can occur under inflationary conditions in certain space-times. Hence, the researchers say, "the laws of physics may allow the universe to be its own mother."
Gott, J.R., III, and L.-X. Li. Preprint. Can the universe create itself? (Available at http://xxx.lanl.gov/abs/astro-ph/9712344.)
______. 1998. Self-consistent vacuum for Misner space and the chronology protection conjecture. Physical Review Letters 80(April 6):2980.
Peterson, I. 1992. Timely questions. Science News 141(March 28):202.
______. 1988. Wormholes and time machines. Science News 134(Nov. 5):302.
Simon, J.Z. 1994. The physics of time travel. Physics World (December):27.
Wheeler, J.C. 1996. Of wormholes, time machines, and paradoxes. Astronomy (February):52.
Additional information about the physics of time travel can be found at http://math.ucr.edu/home/baez/physics/time_travel.html and http://daniel.drew.edu/~dups/munoz.html.
J. Richard Gott III
Department of Astrophysical Sciences
Princeton, NJ 08544
Deborah A. Konkowski
Department of Mathematics
U.S. Naval Academy
Annapolis, MD 21402
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