Time travel is theoretically possible, new calculations show. But that doesn't mean you could change the past.

ScreenshotDoc Brown and Marty McFly in ‘Back to the Future.’
  • Time travel is possible based on the laws of physics, according to new calculations from researchers at the University of Queensland.
  • But time-travellers wouldn’t be able to alter the past in a measurable way, they say – the future would stay the same.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Imagine you could hop into a time machine, press a button, and journey back to 2019, before the new coronavirus made the leap from animals to humans.

What if you could find and isolate patient zero? Theoretically, the pandemic wouldn’t happen, right?

Not quite, because then future-you wouldn’t have decided to time travel in the first place.

For decades, physicists have been studying and debating versions of this paradox: If we could travel back in time and change the past, what would happen to the future?

A new study offers a potential answer: Nothing.

“Events readjust around anything that could cause a paradox, so the paradox does not happen,” Germain Tobar, the study’s author and a student at the University of Queensland, told IFLScience.

His work, published in the journal Classical and Quantum Gravity last week, suggests that according to the rules of theoretical physics, anything you tried to change in the past would be corrected by subsequent events.

Put simply: It’s theoretically possible to go back in time, but you couldn’t change history.

China wuhan travel silenceThomas Peter/ReutersPeople in Beijing pay tribute to China’s coronavirus victims during a national moment of silence on April 4, 2020.

The grandfather paradox

Physicists have considered time travel to be theoretically possible since Einstein came up with his theory of relativity. Einstein’s calculations suggest it’s possible for an object in our universe to travel through space and time in a circular direction, eventually ending up at a point on its journey where it’s been before — a path called a closed time-like curve.

Still, physicists continue to struggle with scenarios like the coronavirus example above, in which time-travellers alter events that already happened. The most famous example is known as the grandfather paradox: Say a time-traveller goes back to the past and kills a younger version of his or her grandfather. The grandfather then wouldn’t have any children, erasing the time-traveller’s parents and, of course, the time-traveller, too. But then who would kill Grandpa?

A take on this paradox appears in the movie “Back to the Future,” when Marty McFly almost stops his parents from meeting in the past — potentially causing himself to disappear.

Time travel dogTimothy A. Clary/Getty ImagesA dog dressed as Marty McFly from ‘Back to the Future’ attends the annual Tompkins Square Halloween Dog Parade in New York City, October 24, 2015.

To address the paradox, Tobar and his supervisor, Dr. Fabio Costa, used the “billiard-ball model,” which imagines cause and effect as a series of colliding billiard balls, and a circular pool table as a closed time-like curve.

Imagine a bunch of billiard balls laid out across that circular table. If you push one ball from position X, it bangs around the table, hitting others in a particular pattern.

The researchers calculated that even if you mess with the ball’s pattern at some point in its journey, future interactions with other balls can correct its path, leading it to come back to the same position and speed that it would have had you not interfered.

“Regardless of the choice, the ball will fall into the same place,” Dr Yasunori Nomura, a theoretical physicist at UC Berkeley, told Business Insider.

Scientists time travelUniversity of QueenslandFabio Costa (left) with Germain Tobar (right). Tobar’s calculations, supervised by Costa, suggest that time travel without paradoxes is possible.

Tobar’s model, in other words, says you could travel back in time, but you couldn’t change how events unfolded significantly enough to alter the future, Nomura said. Applied to the grandfather paradox, then, this would mean that something would always get in the way of your attempt to kill your grandfather. Or at least by the time he did die, your grandmother would already be pregnant with your mother.

Back to the coronavirus example. Let’s say you were to travel back to 2019 and intervene in patient zero’s life. According to Tobar’s line of thinking, the pandemic would still happen somehow.

“You might try and stop patient zero from becoming infected, but in doing so you would catch the virus and become patient zero, or someone else would,” Tobar told the University of Queensland.

Nomura said that although the model is too simple to represent the full range of cause and effect in our universe, it’s a good starting point for future physicists.

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