We’re obsessed with time. We spend, waste, count, measure, invest, lose, and take it. We think and write about time to no end.

And then there’s time travel.

Long the realm of science fiction and theoretical physics, we may be closing in a a way to determine if it’s actually possible. Enter Vanderbilt University theoretical physiciss Thomas Weiler and graduate fellow Chui Man Ho, who’ve envisioned an experimental observations that could be made possible by the Large Hadron Collider (LHC).

First a bit of background. In 2007, Weiler – with Vanderbilt’s James Dent, Heinrich Päs (Universität Dortmund) and Sandip Pakvasa (University of Hawaii) – wrote a paper entitled Neutrino Time Travel. The idea (based on investigations by Weiler, Päs and Pakvasa) was that so-called sterile neutrinos effectively traveled faster than light by tunneling though higher dimensions – a feat known as superluminal bulk shortcuts.

If this reminds you of string theory, you’re right. Their idea was based in part on the concept of branes, a construct in renowned Princeton physicist and sting theorist Ed Whitten‘s widely-discussed M-theory. Long story short, their tantalizing takeaway was that “In principle sterile neutrinos propagating in the extra dimension may be manipulated in a way to test the chronology protection conjecture experimentally.”

In other words, there may be a way to see if this is really happening.

Fast forward to the present and the LHC.

In their current paper, Causality-Violating Higgs Singlets at the LHC, Weiler and Ho turn to the yet-to-be-found Standard Model-bequeathing Higgs boson – or more precisely, the lesser-known but equally mysterious Higgs singlet, which particle physicists postulate will be created alongside the Higgs boson in the LHC’s high-energy particle collisions.

Illustration of singlet time travel theory. When a pair of protons collide in the Large Hadron Collider, the resultant explosion may create a special type of particle, called a Higgs singlet, that is capable of traveling forward and back in time. It would do so by leaving familiar three-dimensional space to travel in an extra dimension. (Jenni Ohnstad / Vanderbilt)

It’s the Higgs singlets, Weiler and Ho theorize, that accomplish this multidimensional dance to show up in the past or future without violating Einstein’s speed-of-light cap on the velocity of mass. It’s what’s the researchers describe as “analytic solutions to the geodesic equations of motion,” meaning that by exploiting higher spatial dimensions, the singlets avoid spacetime’s temporal restrictions.

Great! When can we leave? Why haven’t my great-great-grandkids visited?

Aye, there’s the rub: Higgs singlets are the only particles the authors hypothesize as having the properties suitable to getting there from here. That said, if they’re right and if we can figure out out to generate Higgs singlets in a controlled manner, zipping messages to the past and future might be achievable.

Still a pretty rad idea, though.

But wait! Doesn’t their basing their theory on M-theory – the theory-of-everything big daddy of string theory – prove string theory to be true? Wouldn’t it be time to stop dissing string theorists?

Patience, grasshopper. While time trippin’ Higgs singlets may indeed demonstrate that M- and string theories successfully predict actual events – in itself a monumental achievement – truth is another matter altogether. Let’s not forget that before Galileo, before Kepler, before Copernicus, there was the world according to Ptolemy: Earth was believed to be at the center of the universe and the celestial bodies attached to fixed spheres that rotated around us. Predictive? You bet. True? Not even close.

This correspondence (or lack of it) between theory and reality – despite any predictive or other pragmatic benefit that a theory provides – is a much deeper issue in the philosophy of science, and one which I’m gearing up to address. Stay tuned.

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4 Responses to Back to the Future Redux

  1. Donna Dambrot says:

    I wish I knew what you were talking about, it sounds really interesting!

  2. Stuart says:

    Vindication on the way… express from the future.

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