Tweeting time travelers? Researchers look for signs

If real Doctor Whos are out there, they may have left traces of their feats online. Two researchers went looking for their time-traveling trails.

Amanda Kooser
Freelance writer Amanda C. Kooser covers gadgets and tech news with a twist for CNET. When not wallowing in weird gear and iPad apps for cats, she can be found tinkering with her 1956 DeSoto.
Amanda Kooser
2 min read
Matt Smith as the Doctor
There are plenty of signs of Matt Smith online. BBC

If Marty McFly were real, would he use Twitter? Researchers set out to wring any traces of time travelers out of the online world. Astrophysicist Robert Nemiroff and physics graduate student Teresa Wilson from Michigan Technological University released their findings with a paper titled "Searching the Internet for evidence of time travelers."

The researchers start by acknowledging the theoretical possibility for time travel into the future. Stephen Hawking's famously unattended time travel party in 2009 gets a mention. (He sent out the invitations after the party was over.)

The search for signs of time travelers involved scouring the Internet for prescient information. "Specifically, we search for content that should not have been known at the time it was posted," the paper says. The scientists narrowed down some search terms that had specific windows for entering popular use, and looked for mentions of those terms prior to them entering the lexicon. "Comet ISON" and "Pope Francis" both fit the bill.

At first, Google seemed like it was a time-traveler bloodhound. "Although providing the ability to sort identified content by date, several exploratory tests on Google found an initially surprising number of Web pages that contained seemingly prescient information. Upon further inspection, however, all potentially-prescient content on those Web pages was clearly non-prescient. One prominent reason for this was the appearance of recent advertisements on older news stories," the researchers found.

Twitter, with its popularity and inability to backdate tweets, became a focus for the scientists. Here's the disappointing part: They found no prescient tweets on either Comet ISON or Pope Francis. Absolutely zip. Which really just means that time travelers probably don't like to use Twitter.

The researchers conducted a couple of other tests, including putting out a request for response from time travelers, but the results were the same. Not all hope is lost, though. "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 paper concludes. It could just mean that time travelers are really good at hiding from the prying eyes of the Internet.

(Via Boing Boing)