There’s a new round of nonsense about theoretical physics making its way through the media, especially the British tabloids. The original source is a preprint from a few months ago by Aref’eva and Volovich entitled Time Machine at the LHC (it refers to another earlier one by other authors If LHC is a Mini-Time-Machines Factory, Can We Notice?). These papers discuss the possibility that the LHC will produce not just black holes, but also wormholes that would be “Mini-Time-Machines” (MTMs).
New Scientist now has a cover story based on this which begins:
As you may have heard, this will be the year. The Large Hadron Collider – the most powerful atom-smasher ever built – will be switched on, and particle physics will hit pay-dirt. Yet if a pair of Russian mathematicians are right, any advances in this area could be overshadowed by a truly extraordinary event. According to Irina Aref’eva and Igor Volovich, the LHC might just turn out to be the world’s first time machine.
The article invokes work by Nima Arkani-Hamed and others to justify the idea that the LHC will produce black holes and possibly wormholes, and Kip Thorne to justify the possibility of time travel. Several physicists are quoted in favor of the plausibility of the underlying idea, it not its practicality.
The story has now made it to the Sun, which has two stories: Time Travel Russia’s in and Visits From Crack to the Future. According to the Sun, the LHC will be switched on in May (not true….) and from that time on time travel will be possible:
The laws of physics suggest that no one from the future will be able to travel back any further than when the machine was switched on — with 2008 being Year Zero.
According to the Daily Mail:
Time travel could be a reality within just three months, Russian mathematicians have claimed. They believe an experiment nuclear scientists plan to carry out in underground tunnels in Geneva in May could create a rift in the fabric of the universe.
The Telegraph has Time travellers from the future ‘could be here in weeks’, but the article at least has some skeptical quotes, for instance from David Deutsch, who describes the idea as “not cranky”, but unlikely to work.
New Scientist does seem to realize that this kind of silliness may have gone too far, publishing an article by Michael Hanlon entitled Is Big Science peddling science pornography?. I think Hanlon raises extremely important questions that the physics community needs to address, although he makes a mistake by pinning this on “Big Science”. The people working hard to make projects like the LHC a reality are not the culprits here, irresponsible theorists are. Hanlon writes:
Physics and cosmology stories are like this these days. Once it was all hard sums and red-shifted galaxies; awesome enough one would have thought. Now it’s time machines and universe-eating particles.
Does any of this bear any relation to reality? Or is Big Physics guilty of some serious sexing-up, drifting away from the realm of hard data and into the softer universe of science pornography?
As well as accidental time machines we are told of cosmic strings – gigantic filaments of super-stuff that warp and tear space-time like ladders in a pair of celestial stockings – and crashing branes, titanic slabs of maths that give rise to the big bang in the exotically lovely ekpyrotic universe of Neil Turok.
Not crazy enough for you? What about the multiverse? One of the biggest sell-out lectures at last year’s Hay-on-Wye festival in Wales starred the UK’s astronomer royal, Martin Rees, who entertained his audience with a discussion of the possibility, indeed the probability, of multiple worlds – endless parallel realities existing in a gargantuan super-reality that makes what we think of as the universe as insignificant as a gnat on an elephant’s backside. Or there’s the simulation argument, philosopher Nick Bostrom’s delicious idea that since it should be possible to replicate an entire universe in a computer, and that this could be done countless times, statistical cleverness proves that we are not the real McCoy but the figments of some electronic entity’s imagination.
…Scientists, and people like me who stick up for science, are happy to pour scorn on astrologers, homeopaths, UFO-nutters, crop-circlers and indeed the Adam-and-Eve brigade, who all happily believe in six impossible things before breakfast with no evidence at all. Show us the data, we say to these deluded souls. Where are your trials? What about Occam’s razor – the principle that any explanation should be as simple as possible? The garden is surely beautiful enough, we say, without having to populate it with fairies.
The danger is that on the wilder shores of physics these standards are often not met either. There is as yet no observational evidence for cosmic strings. It’s hard to test for a multiverse. In this sense, some of these ideas are not so far, conceptually, from UFOs and homeopathy. If we are prepared to dismiss ghosts, say, as ludicrous on the grounds that firstly we have no proper observational evidence for them and secondly that their existence would force us to rethink everything, doesn’t the same argument apply to simulated universes and time machines? Are we not guilty of prejudice against some kinds of very unlikely ideas in favour of others?
Update: The time travel story has even made it to the Chronicle.