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Search of the Internet Reveals No Evidence of Time Travelers

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Sorry, time travel enthusiasts: A recent study conducted by researchers at Michigan Technological University’s Department of Physics searched the Internet for signs of prescient content and found nothing. “The discovery of time travel into the past could be transformative not only to physics but to humanity,” study authors Robert Nemiroff and Teresa Wilson note in the paper. “This is perhaps the most comprehensive search to date.” Here’s how they came to their conclusion—and why there might still be hope.

Search Engines and Social Media

The first step was figuring out who they weren’t looking for. Nemiroff and Wilson ruled out looking for travelers who came from the past to the future for two reasons: The technology to create a time machine didn’t exist in the past and because “we were unable to conceive of a simple method that would clearly indicate that informational traces they might have left were evidence of time travel from the past and not just simple knowledge of the past.”

Having eliminated time travelers from the past from their Internet search, Nemiroff and Wilson had to determine how to best look for travelers from the future who might have left content that was once prescient. They decided to look for content between January 2006 and September 2013 using two search terms that originated during that time period, were sufficiently unique, and would still be well known and important in the future. The terms they settled on were Comet ISON, which was discovered on September 21, 2012, and Pope Francis, who was elected on March 16, 2013, and was the first pope to choose the name Francis. The researchers believed that there would be very little reason for anyone without prescient knowledge to be using those terms before they entered the popular lexicon. And because the use of hashtags is widespread and makes information easier to find, the researchers included the hashtags “#cometison” (but not #comet and #ison, which would not have returned information about just Comet ISON) and “#popefrancis” in their searches.

Nemiroff and Wilson first turned to search engines to look for evidence of time travelers. But Google turned out to be unreliable; recent advertisements on older news stories returned many results that, at first glance, appeared to be prescient. Bing, meanwhile, “did not appear to have a sufficient ability to filter results by posting dating to be useful,” the paper notes. Facebook and Google-Plus also weren't useful: Facebook allows the backdating of posts, and Google-Plus didn’t always sort search results chronologically, which made it difficult to dig up potentially prescient content.

The team then turned to Twitter, which had a number of advantages: The microblogging platform sorts searches chronologically and doesn’t allow backdating. They looked for their terms using Twitter’s own search, which enabled them to look all the way back to 2006 (when the service was created) and via the Topsy, a Twitter search service. Unfortunately,

No clearly prescient content involving “Comet ISON,” “#cometison,” “Pope Francis,” or “#popefrancis” was found from any Twitter tweet—ever. … Each of these search terms occurred numerous times—hundreds for Comet ISON and thousands for Pope Francis—but, with one noted exception, only after 2012 September for Comet ISON and 2013 March for Pope Francis.

That one exception the researchers mention was a blog that involved speculative discussion of “Pope Francis” that was advertised in a tweet, but the researchers concluded that the tweet and blog were not prescient.

Searching the Searches

Nemiroff and Wilson also looked for prescient queries on Internet search engines. “A time traveler … might have searched for a prescient term to see whether a given event was yet to occur,” they write. “We searched online databases for potentially prescient search terms themselves.”

A search of Google Trends revealed a number of searches, but the team didn’t consider them early enough to be prescient. Still, they don’t consider their results reliable, because Google Trends only reported back on terms with a large search volume. According to Google Trends, for example, there were no instances of “#cometison” ever being searched for, but during a manual search, the researchers did uncover some instances of that term being used. What’s more,

Google Trends only reported on the prevalence of searches as normalized to the largest search volume the desired time window, and not in absolute terms. … Search terms “Comet ISON” reported a zero score for all days from January 2004 through September 2012, the month that Comet ISON was discovered, but numerous search queries thereafter. This zero score, however, was normalized to the peak score set to 100 for 2013 March. The raw numbers of searches for March 2013 were not revealed by Google Trends. Therefore, to our understanding, the zero score really meant "less than 0.5 percent of the March 2013 value", which could well be greater than zero. Quite possibly, a single prescient search for Comet ISON would not have been recorded.

The team also searched the search engine of NASA’s Astronomy Picture of the Day website, during which a handful of results returned for ISON—but all appeared to be misspellings or “extraneous information.”

Emailing the Evidence

The researchers used one last test to tease our time travelers: They asked them to reveal themselves. In September 2013, Nemiroff and Wilson created a post online that asked time travelers to either tweet or email two hashtags—"#ICanChangeThePast2" or "#ICannotChangethePast2"—before August 2013.

A message incorporating the hashtagged term "#ICannotChangeThePast2" would indicate that time travel to the past is possibile but that the time traveler believes that they do not have the ability to alter the authors' past. ... Conversely, a message incorporating "ICanChangeThePast2" would indicate that time travel to the past is possible and that the time traveler can demonstrate the ability to alter the authors' past.

Asking the time travelers whether or not they could change the past would help the researchers determine what theories of time travel might hold water (the Novikov Self-Consistency Conjecture, which holds that history is fixed, or plastic time, in which history can be changed, leading to things like the Grandfather paradox).

Unfortunately, no instance of either of these hashtags appeared before August 2013, and none appeared in September 2013, either. The researchers didn't receive any emails that provided evidence of time travelers.

But there’s still hope…

Nemiroff and Wilson's search for prescient content turned up nothing, but they say that's no reason to give up hope. Changes to the NASA APOD search engine could have rendered their search incomplete, they note. Also, "although the negative results reported here may indicate that time travelers from the future are not among us and cannot communicate with us over the modern day Internet, they are by no means proof." The researchers might have missed traces either due to human error or because Internet catalogs were incomplete. What's more, time travelers might not be able to leave even informational traces, or it might be impossible to find anything left by them because it would violate "some yet-unknown law of physics." And what if time travelers don't want to be found?

You can read Nemiroff and Wilson's paper here.

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Look Up! The Lyrid Meteor Shower Arrives Saturday Night
Scott Butner, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Scott Butner, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

There is a thin line between Saturday night and Sunday morning, but this weekend, look up and you might see several of them. Between 11:59 p.m. on April 21 and dawn on Sunday, April 22, the Lyrid meteor shower will peak over the Northern Hemisphere. Make some time for the celestial show and you'll see a shooting star streaking across the night sky every few minutes. Here is everything you need to know.

WHAT IS THE LYRID METEOR SHOWER?

Every 415.5 years, the comet Thatcher circles the Sun in a highly eccentric orbit shaped almost like a cat's eye. At its farthest from the Sun, it's billions of miles from Pluto; at its nearest, it swings between the Earth and Mars. (The last time it was near the Earth was in 1861, and it won't be that close again until 2280.) That's quite a journey, and more pressingly, quite a variation in temperature. The closer it gets to the Sun, the more debris it sheds. That debris is what you're seeing when you see a meteor shower: dust-sized particles slamming into the Earth's atmosphere at tens of thousands of miles per hour. In a competition between the two, the Earth is going to win, and "shooting stars" are the result of energy released as the particles are vaporized.

The comet was spotted on April 4, 1861 by A.E. Thatcher, an amateur skywatcher in New York City, earning him kudos from the noted astronomer Sir John Herschel. Clues to the comet's discovery are in its astronomical designation, C/1861 G1. The "C" means it's a long-period comet with an orbit of more than 200 years; "G" stands for the first half of April, and the "1" indicates it was the first comet discovered in that timeframe.

Sightings of the Lyrid meteor shower—named after Lyra, the constellation it appears to originate from—are much older; the first record dates to 7th-century BCE China.

HOW CAN I SEE IT?

Saturday night marks a first quarter Moon (visually half the Moon), which by midnight will have set below the horizon, so it won't wash out the night sky. That's great news—you can expect to see 20 meteors per hour. You're going to need to get away from local light pollution and find truly dark skies, and to completely avoid smartphones, flashlights, car headlights, or dome lights. The goal is to let your eyes adjust totally to the darkness: Find your viewing area, lay out your blanket, lay down, look up, and wait. In an hour, you'll be able to see the night sky with great—and if you've never done this before, surprising—clarity. Don't touch the smartphone or you'll undo all your hard ocular work.

Where is the nearest dark sky to where you live? You can find out on the Dark Site Finder map. And because the shower peaks on a Saturday night, your local astronomy club is very likely going to have an event to celebrate the Lyrids. Looking for a local club? Sky & Telescope has you covered.

WHAT ELSE IS GOING ON UP THERE?

You don't need a telescope to see a meteor shower, but if you bring one, aim it south to find Jupiter. It's the bright, unblinking spot in the sky. With a telescope, you should be able to make out its stripes. Those five stars surrounding it are the constellation Libra. You'll notice also four tiny points of light nearby. Those are the Galilean moons: Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto. When Galileo discovered those moons in 1610, he was able to prove the Copernican model of heliocentricity: that the Earth goes around the Sun.

THERE'S BAD WEATHER HERE! WHAT DO I DO?

First: Don't panic. The shower peaks on the early morning of the 22nd. But it doesn't end that day. You can try again on the 23rd and 24th, though the numbers of meteors will likely diminish. The Lyrids will be back next year, and the year after, and so on. But if you are eager for another show, on May 6, the Eta Aquariids will be at their strongest. The night sky always delivers.

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Can You 'Hear' These Silent GIFs?
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GIFs are silent—otherwise they wouldn't be GIFs. But some people claim to hear distinct noises accompanying certain clips. Check out the GIF below as an example: Do you hear a boom every time the structure hits the ground? If so, you may belong to the 20 to 30 percent of people who experience "visual-evoked auditory response," also known as vEAR.

Researchers from City University London recently published a paper online on the phenomenon in the journal Cortex, the British Psychological Society's Research Digest reports. For their study, they recruited more than 4000 volunteers and 126 paid participants and showed them 24 five-second video clips. Each clip lacked audio, but when asked how they rated the auditory sensation for each video on a scale of 0 to 5, 20 percent of the paid participants rated at least half the videos a 3 or more. The percentage was even higher for the volunteer group.

You can try out the researchers' survey yourself. It takes about 10 minutes.

The likelihood of visual-evoked auditory response, according to the researchers, directly relates to what the subject is looking at. "Some people hear what they see: Car indicator lights, flashing neon shop signs, and people's movements as they walk may all trigger an auditory sensation," they write in the study.

Images packed with meaning, like two cars colliding, are more likely to trigger the auditory illusion. But even more abstract images can produce the effect if they have high levels of something called "motion energy." Motion energy is what you see in the video above when the structure bounces and the camera shakes. It's why a video of a race car driving straight down a road might have less of an auditory impact than a clip of a flickering abstract pattern.

The researchers categorize vEAR as a type of synesthesia, a brain condition in which people's senses are combined. Those with synesthesia might "see" patterns when music plays or "taste" certain colors. Most synesthesia is rare, affecting just 4 percent of the population, but this new study suggests that "hearing motion synesthesia" is much more prevalent.

[h/t BPS Research Digest]

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