Just in Time

11 October 2019

Time traveling hipster. Canadian Museum of History (CMH)
A photo from 1941. The man in glasses seems out of place, and is sometimes referred to as the Time Traveling Hipster.

On November 2, 2000 a set of posts began to appear on a forum about time travel. Writing under the name TimeTravel_0, the author claimed to have understanding of what it takes to build a time machine. In later posts he claimed to have actually traveled from the year 2036, with a mission to save the world. In many of these later posts he wrote under the pseudonym for which he would be known: John Titor.

Titor clearly understood some aspects of physics and time travel theories, and knew quite a bit about a 1970s portable computer known as the IBM 5100. According to Titor, the IBM 5100 was central to his mission. The specificity of his posts, as well as his willingness to make predictions about the future made him a bit of a legend. He’s featured in several fictional works such as Steins;Gate, and is often mentioned in discussions about time travel.

Titor stopped posting in 2001, and none of his predictions came to be, so there isn’t much reason to take his claims seriously. Of course, one could argue that his time journey changed history, but it’s far more likely that the author was just making things up. An Internet troll who was ahead of his time, you might say. But general relativity does hint at some small possibility of time travel. Suppose someone actually did travel to the past. Could their internet presence prove their existence?

In 2013 Robert Nemiroff and Teresa Wilson set out to study this question.1 Using Internet archives and search histories, they wanted to see if there was evidence of what they called “prescient Internet communication.” That is, posts or searches that indicated knowledge of a famous event before it occurred.

In their research they focused on two widely known events: Comet ISON and Pope Francis. Comet ISON was discovered on September 21, 2012, and is the only comet to have that name. Pope Francis was elected on March 16, 2013, and is the first pope to take that name. These terms would be widely known after their announcement, but have little chance of being used earlier.

As expected, searches of Internet history as well as social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook found no mention of these terms before their announcement. Similarly, Internet searches as recorded by Google showed no activity for these terms until they became public, at which point their popularity skyrocketed.

The authors also looked at active attempts by time travelers to verify their presence. In September of 2013 they requested that time travelers post the hashtags #ICanChangeThePast2 or #ICannotChangeThePast2 on Twitter some time in the past. No time traveler took up the challenge, and these terms did not appear on the net before their announcement.

As you might expect, the study found no evidence of time travelers. Either they don’t exist, or they’re keeping quiet about it. But it’s a fun little study, and it just goes to show that even wild scientific claims can always be tested.

  1. Nemiroff, Robert J., and Teresa Wilson. “Searching the Internet for evidence of time travelers.” arXiv preprint arXiv:1312.7128 (2013). ↩︎