Are Wormholes Tunnels for Time Travel?

Stefan Lovgren
for National Geographic News
September 16, 2005
As any self-respecting science fiction fan knows, wormholes—theoretical shortcuts through space and time—make for excellent time travel portals.

The latest movie to transport people into the past is this summer's A Sound of Thunder, based on the classic 1952 Ray Bradbury novella. In it, a group of hunters build a time machine, which looks like a wormhole of sorts, to travel back to the dinosaur era. There, things go awry when one hunter kills a butterfly, which completely changes the course of history.

The movie was widely panned by critics and seems to have quickly slipped out of theaters. But the questions it raises—the mystery of time and the possibilities of traveling through it—remain among the thorniest in physics, keeping a growing number of scientists occupied.

It's not like scientists are looking for a way to actually travel through time. But some believe that theorizing about how it could be done—maybe by using a wormhole in space—will help them understand and perhaps even revise the laws of physics.

"Traversable wormholes are extremely useful as gedanken experiments"—the term describes experiments that can be reasoned theoretically but are impractical to carry out—"to probe the limitations of general relativity," said Francisco Lobo, an astrophysicist at the University of Lisbon in Portugal.

Quantum Leap

Albert Einstein's relativity theory set the speed of light as the universal speed limit and showed that distance and time are not absolute but instead are affected by one's motion.

A clock in motion will always appear to run slowly compared with one at rest, because time is relative to the speed at which a body is moving. That fact would, in theory, allow for time travel—at least if you have a very fast spaceship.

Consider this: If an astronaut travels into space for six months at a substantial fraction of light speed and takes another six months to return to Earth, he would land in the future.

While a year will have elapsed on the astronaut's clock, tens of thousands of years may have gone by on Earth, depending on how close to light speed the astronaut traveled.

"The bottom line is that time travel is allowed by the laws of physics," said Brian Greene, a Columbia University physics professor and the author of The Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time, and the Texture of Reality.

But the laws of space and time as Einstein laid them out may be revised by the quirky rules of quantum theory. Quantum theory describes the microscopic randomness that fills the universe.

At the subatomic scale, where the universe is jumpy and discontinuous, physicists don't know how gravity behaves. They theorize that space and time could collapse.

"We may discover some new laws of physics that could change the rules," said Richard Gott, an astrophysicist at Princeton University.

Jumping Through

Relativity theory does not allow for travel into the past. But such travel could possibly be achieved using Einstein-Rosen bridges, better known as wormholes.

The theoretical shortcuts through space and time connect two distant points in space, like a worm tunnel through an apple.

Kip Thorne, a gravitational theorist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, showed in 1988 that these tunnels could be kept open by an exotic form of matter known as Casimir energy.

This energy, which has been measured in a laboratory, is a sort of quantum vacuum. Weighing less than zero, Casimir energy would have an anti-gravitational effect, keeping the wormhole's walls apart.

"It has been conjectured that general relativity prohibits the existence of negative energy densities, [but] quantum mechanics demonstrates that the vacuum may not always have a zero energy density," Lobo said.

Gott, the Princeton scientist, envisions the wormhole effect as being like that of a mirrored garden ball. When looking through the wormhole, however, one would not see a reflection of that same garden, but instead a garden on, say, Alpha Centauri, the star closest to our solar system.

"You can jump through the wormhole and pop out on Alpha Centauri, and you've just gone through a very narrow tunnel that connects these two very distant places," Gott said. "The shortcut of the wormhole allows you to beat a light beam to Alpha Centauri."

If one opening of the wormhole was moved around using the gravitational effect of a spaceship traveling at a speed close to light, a clock at the opening would run slow compared to one on the other end of the wormhole. This could turn the wormhole into a portal between two different times, past and future.

"I should point out that these wormholes are not something you put in your kitchen. Each mouth weighs 100 million solar masses," Gott said, referring to a unit of measurement equal to the mass the sun. "This is a galactic-scale engineering project at best."

Phantom Energy

But the material needed to construct and support wormholes has been given a boost from the recent discovery that the universe is undergoing an accelerated expansion, says Lobo, the University of Lisbon scientist.

A possible driver of this cosmic expansion, he says, is "phantom energy," a hypothetical matter that may comprise as much as 70 percent of the universe.

Phantom energy may be pushing space apart and is so anti-gravitational that it will eventually rip everything apart, ending everything. However, before then, it could be used to prop open wormholes, Lobo theorizes.

"In a rather speculative scenario, one could imagine an absurdly advanced civilization mining the cosmic fluid for phantom energy necessary to construct and sustain a traversable wormhole," he said.

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