Can Physicists Find Time Travelers on Facebook?

Two researchers just completed what was perhaps the most comprehensive search for people from the future so far.
If you were from the future, would you pause to tweet? (Reuters) 

Twitter and Facebook have been asked to save journalism and overthrow autocrats. Now, two physicists have proposed an application even more ambitious: Can social media find time travelers?

Robert Nemiroff and Teresa Wilson, two researchers at Michigan Technological University, thought they might. In a study released online last week, the two scoured Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and a few other websites to find “prescient information”—that is, tweets and statuses about current events posted before the events became current. The only way someone could write such a post, they reasoned, is if they were visiting… from the future.

They specifically looked for posts about two topics, both chosen for their universality and future notability. The first was Comet ISON, an unusually bright comet discovered in September 2012. (Histories of bright comets have been “generally well kept by societies and journals around the world,” they write.) The second was Pope Francis, made leader of the largest sect of the world’s most popular religion in March 2013.

So, in the fall of this year, Nemiroff and Wilson searched Twitter, Facebook, and Google+ for references to Comet ISON and Pope Francis. They searched both the keywords—“Pope Francis”—and, on Twitter, the hashtagged version—“#popefrancis.”

Immediately, the two would-be time hunters ran into issues.

Pope Francis tweets, but he is not, to our knowledge, a time traveler. (Reuters)

The first: Google+ doesn’t always order search results by time, confusing the research, they found. “It was therefore too difficult, in practice, to find older and potentially prescient informational mentions,” they lament. They abandoned the network.

Facebook search proved perhaps more frustrating. The service allows statuses to be backdated: A user could have made a post in the summer of 2013 about Pope Francis, then dated it to April 2008. As such, a user would look exactly like a time traveler. Furthermore—and perhaps even worse—Facebook frequently failed to return results for statuses posted too far in the past.

Attention, Facebook and Google+: Your social network’s crappy search is preventing humanity from finding time travelers from the future.

Even working through these issues, Nemiroff and Wilson failed to find a single particularly prescient post on Facebook or Google+. 

On Twitter, though, they did find one tweet, posted before March 2013, referencing “Pope Francis.” Once they consulted the blog post it advertised, though, they the tweet “deemed overtly speculative and not prescient.” 

Apparently, if time travelers are on a social network, they aren’t using it to spoil the news.

Comet ISON, one of the two topics Nemiroff and Wilson searched for (TRAPPIST/EOS)

The physicists made other attempts to discover future time travelers. One of the study’s authors, Robert Nemiroff, helps run NASA’s long-running online feature, the Astronomy Picture of the Day. He looked at logs of search requests performed on the site to see if anyone had searched for Comet ISON before it was discovered. He found, unfortunately, no prescient searches.

Presented by

Robinson Meyer is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where he covers technology.

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