William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

#ICanChangeThePast2, Or, Tweeting Time Travel

My #twin went to the #past and all I got was this #LousyHashTag

You’re a time traveler stuck in July 2012. How depressing. You have time on your hands. Time to kill, that is. How to pass the time?

Twitter, naturally. Great time waster. A true time sink. What to tweet about? Maybe the death of Ernest Borgnine or the Syrian uprising? Nah. Who wants to spend time reading that kind of thing? Why now tweet about stuff nobody yet knows about, stuff you do know about since you’re from the future!

You’d lead off with, “How about that #popefrancis?” followed by “Nobody saw #cometison coming. Heh.” And, because you’re a playful sort, you’d mix topics: “#cometison. A harbinger of #popefrancis?”

Of course, since Comet ISON wasn’t discovered until 21 September 2012 and Cardinal Bergoglio wasn’t made Pope until March 2013, nobody would have a clue what you’re going on about. You’d gain no followers. People would think you, like so many others on the interwebs, had slipped a knot.

But late in 2013 if we were to search for people using these hash tags, we’d be able to figure you were a time traveler, because how else could you know?

This kind of searching was the idea of Robert Nemiroff and Teresa Wilson from the Department of Physics, Michigan Technological University, the true winter wonderland, in their “Searching the Internet for evidence of time travelers.

Only it didn’t work. No time travelers came back to 2012, or slightly earlier, to tweet about a yet-to-discovered comet or yet-to-be-installed Holy Father.

The authors called the kind of tweets they did not discover “prescient information”, figuring only a time traveler would know about future events and then blow his cover on yakking about himself.

[T]ime 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…

Were a time traveler from the future to access the Internet of the past few years, they might have left once-prescient content that persists today. Alternatively, such information might have been placed on Internet by a third party discussing something unusual they have heard.

What about the comet and pope?

Not being time travelers ourselves, we cannot know for sure what present-day labels will remain popular into the future, but focusing on modern renditions of terms used by historically long-standing and internationally known institutions seemed pragmatic. Based on these criteria, two main labels were chosen: Comet ISON and Pope Francis.

So there. Incidentally, why did they use Twitter and not Google?

Although providing the ability to sort identified content by date, several exploratory tests on Google found an initially surprising number of web pages that contained seemingly prescient information. Upon further inspection, however, all potentially-prescient content on those web pages was clearly non-prescient.

Anyway, all that passive searching didn’t work. Why not something bolder?

A post was created in 2013 September…[and] time travelers were requested to respond with a communication including either the hashtagged term “#ICanChangeThePast2” or “#ICannotChangeThePast2” on or before 2013 August.

If a time traveler saw the message and then came back he’d surely admit whether he’s there to see who won this year’s World Series and so alter his bank account. Right? Consider: “in a plastic history universe, a time traveler might have the ability to go back and change history so that the Wars of the Roses never occurred”. I’d rather the time traveler stopped World War I, but we all have our favorites.

Bad news, though. “Unfortunately, as of this writing, no prescient tweets or emails were received.” But the good news about science is that the research never ends. “[W]e will continue to search, on occasion, for active tweets and emails involving potential time travel.”

I don’t see how time travel tweets don’t involve the standard and well known time-traveling paradoxes, but I’m willing to be educated. Maybe there’s some other way to use the Internet to smoke out the time travelers among us. You guys have any ideas?

17 Comments

  1. It’s always fun to search for something when you only have a vague idea what to look for.

  2. Why would I want to travel backwards? Forward would be more fun. (Look at Biff and his book of bets)

  3. The problem with stopping WW1 is that most of us would never be born in the altered future. Contingency is a bummer. Also if you discover a time traveller, the time cops will seek you out and correct the threat to the time lines. Best to keep a low profile.

    The authors are definitely candidates for the Ig Nobel Prize. Incidentally, the best time paradox story is here.

    http://cla.calpoly.edu/~lcall/303/heinlein_all_you_zombies.pdf

  4. The last couple of paragraphs in Zombies leads me to think the story is more about solipsism than time travel.

    I [took a headache powder] once — and you all went away

    and

    I know where I came from — but where did all you zombies come from?

  5. Likely a more pertinent story is Robert Silverberg’s Up the Line

  6. Scotian,

    The real problem with trying to change history is that anything significant either personally or in terms of recorded history that the time traveler does is already accounted for in the history he knows before he leaves.

  7. Of course there are no “prescient tweets”. Are you really so foolish as to imagine that we in the future are incapable of policing Twitter? Usually, when we delete their comments (or more likely, their accounts) we post some nonsense about “spam”.

    The hardest thing about time travel is the method of compensation. It’s hard to keep a straight face when I win the lottery over and over and I have to keep telling people I’m going to quit my job, buy a car and a house for my mom.

  8. I am continuously traveling to the future… just at a slug’s pace in the greater scheme of things.

    If I could physically travel back in time and change the past, I would want to bring a friend. You know… mischief loves company too.

  9. JH,

    I seem to travel forward in 8 hour jumps once per day. I go to bed at night; close my eyes; and when I open them I’m 8 hours (more or less) into the future. I’ve never been able to catch myself making the jump. I seem to fall asleep like a watching cat every time.

    If your going to jump back to create mischief you shouldn’t take witnesses along.

  10. It’s just a theory, but wasn’t a man called Nostradamus a time traveller.

  11. “The authors are definitely candidates for the Ig Nobel Prize”

    On the contrary, this is a great stuff– just type of nonsense we should all engage in once in a while.

  12. DAV,

    If I had the ability of time travel, I doubt the avengers could catch me.

    Anyway, you’ve got me thinking about whom I could bring. I would be busy weighing all my friends on a trust-o-meter for the next few days.

  13. “Maybe there’s some other way to use the Internet to smoke out the time travelers…”

    Therein lies the answer to the question, and it is probably something medical. Coming to a state near you in the predictable future.

  14. “it is probably something medical.”

    As in: “Wow! Not only do these people get to SEE a doctor; they get to see any they choose!”

  15. “Not only do these people get to SEE a doctor; they get to see any they choose!”

    This medical marijuana stuff could have some interesting side effects.

  16. Dear Dr. Briggs:

    At first glance this research seemed silly but but now I don’t think it is. It is a little odd, and the focus on social media seems naive, but overall its a fun idea that may be worth some follow-up.

    Not knowingly knowing any time-travelers (in the traditional sense at least) I don’t know what might motivate them – but consider star trek’s Dr. McCoy. Trapped in his past he would not twit about transitory events like lotteries, sports, politics or even the election of another more or less run of the mill pope.

    What he might do, however, is become a faith healer. It’s a hands-on healing profession with decent PR and financial rewards that (in his case only) don’t require any moral compromise. And some of them have adherents whose claims for them exceed reasonable predictions for longer term placebic efficacy…

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