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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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NOAA, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
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Animals
Watch the First-Ever Footage of a Baby Dumbo Octopus
NOAA, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
NOAA, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Dumbo octopuses are named for the elephant-ear-like fins they use to navigate the deep sea, but until recently, when and how they developed those floppy appendages were a mystery. Now, for the first time, researchers have caught a newborn Dumbo octopus on tape. As reported in the journal Current Biology, they discovered that the creatures are equipped with the fins from the moment they hatch.

Study co-author Tim Shank, a researcher at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, spotted the octopus in 2005. During a research expedition in the North Atlantic, one of the remotely operated vehicles he was working with collected several coral branches with something strange attached to them. It looked like a bunch of sandy-colored golf balls at first, but then he realized it was an egg sac.

He and his fellow researchers eventually classified the hatchling that emerged as a member of the genus Grimpoteuthis. In other words, it was a Dumbo octopus, though they couldn't determine the exact species. But you wouldn't need a biology degree to spot its resemblance to Disney's famous elephant, as you can see in the video below.

The octopus hatched with a set of functional fins that allowed it to swim around and hunt right away, and an MRI scan revealed fully-developed internal organs and a complex nervous system. As the researchers wrote in their study, Dumbo octopuses enter the world as "competent juveniles" ready to jump straight into adult life.

Grimpoteuthis spends its life in the deep ocean, which makes it difficult to study. Scientists hope the newly-reported findings will make it easier to identify Grimpoteuthis eggs and hatchlings for future research.

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Penn Vet Working Dog Center
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
New Program Trains Dogs to Sniff Out Art Smugglers
Penn Vet Working Dog Center
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

Soon, the dogs you see sniffing out contraband at airports may not be searching for drugs or smuggled Spanish ham. They might be looking for stolen treasures.

K-9 Artifact Finders, a new collaboration between New Hampshire-based cultural heritage law firm Red Arch and the University of Pennsylvania, is training dogs to root out stolen antiquities looted from archaeological sites and museums. The dogs would be stopping them at borders before the items can be sold elsewhere on the black market.

The illegal antiquities trade nets more than $3 billion per year around the world, and trafficking hits countries dealing with ongoing conflict, like Syria and Iraq today, particularly hard. By one estimate, around half a million artifacts were stolen from museums and archaeological sites throughout Iraq between 2003 and 2005 alone. (Famously, the craft-supply chain Hobby Lobby was fined $3 million in 2017 for buying thousands of ancient artifacts looted from Iraq.) In Syria, the Islamic State has been known to loot and sell ancient artifacts including statues, jewelry, and art to fund its operations.

But the problem spans across the world. Between 2007 and 2016, U.S. Customs and Border Control discovered more than 7800 cultural artifacts in the U.S. looted from 30 different countries.

A yellow Lab sniffs a metal cage designed to train dogs on scent detection.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

K-9 Artifact Finders is the brainchild of Rick St. Hilaire, the executive director of Red Arch. His non-profit firm researches cultural heritage property law and preservation policy, including studying archaeological site looting and antiquities trafficking. Back in 2015, St. Hilaire was reading an article about a working dog trained to sniff out electronics that was able to find USB drives, SD cards, and other data storage devices. He wondered, if dogs could be trained to identify the scents of inorganic materials that make up electronics, could they be trained to sniff out ancient pottery?

To find out, St. Hilaire tells Mental Floss, he contacted the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, a research and training center for detection dogs. In December 2017, Red Arch, the Working Dog Center, and the Penn Museum (which is providing the artifacts to train the dogs) launched K-9 Artifact Finders, and in late January 2018, the five dogs selected for the project began their training, starting with learning the distinct smell of ancient pottery.

“Our theory is, it is a porous material that’s going to have a lot more odor than, say, a metal,” says Cindy Otto, the executive director of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center and the project’s principal investigator.

As you might imagine, museum curators may not be keen on exposing fragile ancient materials to four Labrador retrievers and a German shepherd, and the Working Dog Center didn’t want to take any risks with the Penn Museum’s priceless artifacts. So instead of letting the dogs have free rein to sniff the materials themselves, the project is using cotton balls. The researchers seal the artifacts (broken shards of Syrian pottery) in airtight bags with a cotton ball for 72 hours, then ask the dogs to find the cotton balls in the lab. They’re being trained to disregard the smell of the cotton ball itself, the smell of the bag it was stored in, and ideally, the smell of modern-day pottery, eventually being able to zero in on the smell that distinguishes ancient pottery specifically.

A dog looks out over the metal "pinhweel" training mechanism.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

“The dogs are responding well,” Otto tells Mental Floss, explaining that the training program is at the stage of "exposing them to the odor and having them recognize it.”

The dogs involved in the project were chosen for their calm-but-curious demeanors and sensitive noses (one also works as a drug-detection dog when she’s not training on pottery). They had to be motivated enough to want to hunt down the cotton balls, but not aggressive or easily distracted.

Right now, the dogs train three days a week, and will continue to work on their pottery-detection skills for the first stage of the project, which the researchers expect will last for the next nine months. Depending on how the first phase of the training goes, the researchers hope to be able to then take the dogs out into the field to see if they can find the odor of ancient pottery in real-life situations, like in suitcases, rather than in a laboratory setting. Eventually, they also hope to train the dogs on other types of objects, and perhaps even pinpoint the chemical signatures that make artifacts smell distinct.

Pottery-sniffing dogs won’t be showing up at airport customs or on shipping docks soon, but one day, they could be as common as drug-sniffing canines. If dogs can detect low blood sugar or find a tiny USB drive hidden in a house, surely they can figure out if you’re smuggling a sculpture made thousands of years ago in your suitcase.

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