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Of Time Travel and Funding

Traveling to the planets takes big money and we’ve been part of the squabbing over where NASA money in particular ought to be allocated. But what about projects that take small money? The term is relative, of course, but John Cramer (University of Washington) thinks $20,000 should suffice to run his experiment in time travel, and with NASA’s Institute for Advanced Concepts now shutting down, he’s having a hard time raising it. This Seattle Post-Intelligencer story has more.

We’ve looked at Cramer’s work before, but a brief summary is in order. It involves Einstein’s ‘spooky action at a distance,’ the so-called Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen effect. Quantum entanglement seems to mean that two entangled particles influence each other no matter how far distant in space. That action appears to be instantaneous, which introduces the paradoxical outcome of suggesting that something can communicate faster than the speed of light.

Einstein, of course, would say that’s flat out impossible. Quantum theorists, for their part, have come up with ways of explaining entanglement that don’t involve communication, but Cramer disagrees. He believes that communication does occur but involves movement both forwards and backwards in time. To test the proposition, he would send entangled photons along fiber-optic cables of different lengths, causing the one taking the longer path to be delayed.

Because the photons are engangled, a measurement of one as a particle or a wave determines what happens to the other. Cramer wonders whether he can’t use this effect to make a signal arrive before it was sent. Here’s a description of his idea that the San Francisco Chronicle reprinted from New Scientist:

[Cramer’s] extra twist is to run the photons you choose how to measure through several kilometers of coiled-up fiber-optic cable, thereby delaying them by microseconds. This delay means that the other beam will arrive at its detector before you make your choice. However, since the rules of quantum mechanics are indifferent to the timing of measurements, the state of the other beam should correspond to how you choose to measure the delayed beam. The effect of your choice can be seen, in principle, before you have even made it.

Note the ingenuity of the experiment, its elegant simplicity, and its modest budget. This test of what Cramer calls the transactional interpretation of quantum mechanics could tell us whether particle interactions do indeed move both backward and forward in time, a phenomenon known as retrocausality. If they do, we’ve taken a step forward in working out what could one day become the unification of quantum mechanics and relativity. “In 20 years, nobody has been able to tell me why this can’t work,” says Cramer.

With government funding unlikely, the case for cutting-edge experiments funded by philanthropy is stronger than ever. The key here is that the kind of money the Tau Zero Foundation and others will need to raise for a given project isn’t necessarily vast. We’ve already seen that players like Elon Musk and Paul Allen are committed to using part of their personal fortunes for the advancement of space exploration. As the Foundation begins to explore the philanthropic terrain, keep your fingers crossed that less expensive projects like Cramer’s will soon find a receptive audience.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Fred Kiesche April 10, 2007, 10:30

    While I respect Dr. Cramer and I’m all for giving money to things like this, why NASA? Time travel is not a new form of propulsion, a better spacesuit, a probe to Mars, a way of exploring the oceans of various icy moons, a way of doing in-situ resource utilization, etc.

    I hate to be the curmudgeon here, but I’d rather NASA fund stuff closer to its core than stuff like this.

  • Christopher L. Bennett April 10, 2007, 11:42

    Ahh, but Cramer’s experiments, if there’s anything to them, could lead to new methods of long-distance communication, which would certainly be of use in space exploration.

    And the thing about new knowledge is, you can’t know in advance what it might be good for until you’ve actually found it. So limiting yourself only to research whose benefits are already evident is circular and self-defeating.

  • Vic April 10, 2007, 15:26

    I’ve been hearing about this theory for a while now, and I’m surprised someone hasn’t taken a risk and fund Dr. Cramer’s experiments. If his experiments prove anything (faster than light transmissions/travel, time travel, etc.), they would be useful in basically everything with communications.

  • aaron April 10, 2007, 15:27

    UFOs aliens are future human going back to the present!

  • Stink Winkerton April 10, 2007, 15:29

    Ok, here’s the conundrum: If this proves time travel were possible, why wouldn’t the people who are able to time travel in the future (after the technology is developed) go back in time and invest in the technological development? Thus, removing the problem of funding time traveling?

    The fact that funding is difficult, while not proving that time travel is impossible, lends itself to the idea that it will never happen.

  • Marty Aavik April 10, 2007, 15:31

    Well, of course it will work, but why should we care? The photon going down the longer fiber will still travel within relativistic limits, so if we extrapolate this to space flight, we can send a photon (say) 1 light year out, and we’ll know the answer before it arrives. Or, more interestingly, we can send a photon one light year out, then let the far side “read” it which will untangle our photon so we can “read” it. Fine. But we can’t send any information via this path, since neither side controls what it’s photon will “look like” when read.

    Don’t mean to be snarky, but I thought this was debunked as a method of faster-than-light communication a long time ago.

  • Time Traveler April 10, 2007, 15:37

    The Apollo Moon missions were suppost to be a drain on the country’s tax and yet they yielded the micro chip which yielded INTEL, MICROSOFT, HP, DELL, APPLE, and added dramatically to the US economy.

    Basic research in interesting areas on average is a VERY good investment. There are many times that with hindsight we can say look we wasted that money but over the long haul its money very well spent because the wins are so MASSIVE.

  • Glen April 10, 2007, 16:02

    I agree with Marty. This experiment is old news. Leads nowhere.

  • Richard April 10, 2007, 16:03

    I think Raymond Laflamme gives a lecture on why this proposed experiment is a misunderstanding of quantum optics.

    The basic argument is that the two photons in the experiment are created at the same moment in the non-linear crystal that down-converts the initial beam. These two photons are by definition on the same light-cone – if you measure one photon at one point, you get a random result and you simultaneously know the result that a measurement of the other photon would yield, but you’ve not sent information outside the light-cone by doing this – the results of the measurements are random and uncontrolled. For the person on the far side who is looking at the other photon to make sense of what he sees, you need to communicate the classical information about what the random (result of the) measurement you performed actually was.

    It might be worthwhile and interesting to check that you can’t send information faster than light using this method, and really understand why it doesn’t work, but I think that if you apply for funding in such a way that success is defined as “we send information faster than light”:

    a) you’ll be setting yourself or your grad students up for a big disappointment,
    b) you’ll be shot out of the water by the peer review process

    In fact, I would bet that Cramer is well aware that it’s not possible to send information faster than the speed of light, but he needs to hype the science in order to generate funding… sad, really.

  • Doc B April 10, 2007, 16:04

    Your not thinking 4th dimensionally about it, if they came back we would know time travel existed, and would not have to do the experiment.

  • ins0mniak April 10, 2007, 16:06

    Regardless of the cost, why does NASA have to conduct the experiment? Pardon me for asking what you might think of as the obvious, but couldn’t this experiment be conducted anywhere by anyone willing to fund the experiment?

  • The Kenosha Kid April 10, 2007, 16:07

    Here’s why it won’t work:
    If you’re able to see the effect before the cause, then you can take a different action than what would have precipitated the effect, and possibly change the outcome of the triggering effect you saw in the first place. This obviously can’t happen.

  • Lethil April 10, 2007, 16:12

    If this test proves that time travel is possible its a great achievment in the scientific community but…

    Just my own opinion, probably on my own but still, is the ability of time travel actually a good thing? If this works and everyone jumps on the time travel thing, we eventually can actually travel in time try to think about how many problems can come out of that.

    Yes good things can happen as well but how many things can then be done such as, i dont know, maybe extremely well executed murders. Killing the mother of someone who had an amazing idea to fix the world but some terrorist organizations thinks he should be stopped.

    Im just playing the devils advocate right know but is what im saying not true?

  • Pair a Ducks April 10, 2007, 16:15

    The problem I see with so much theorizing over such a small experiment is that it’s not really helpful. We can all speculate wildly as Sci-fi writers, but it doesn’t really matter much to the end result. Time travel is absolutely rife with paradox, that’s why it’s so fun as a Sci-fi plot line, you have complete creative freedom to roam wherever your imagination takes you, because we have no idea what will really happen.

    In other words, we should try to get this experiment funded to SEE the ACTUAL results. It seems a small price to pay to know the answer… Is time travel molecularly possible on the quantum level? Unless of course the completion of this experiment somehow disrupts the spacetime continuum, altering our timeline in inconceivable ways… I’m all for mankind continuing to exist!

    So, how about a link to donate to funding this experiment? This is the power of the internet my friends. We could have this thing funded by lunchtime if enough people hear about it.

  • Darnell Clayton April 10, 2007, 16:22

    If NASA ever funded a project like this, I would vote for its removal as a governmental agency.

    Semi-joking aside, this has nothing to do with space, but rather “far out” concepts that may be better suited for a private venture than public (imagine what the taxpayers would say?)

    Lets stick with colonizing our solar system (and beyond) for the time being. If he wants to get funding so badly, he should talk to Bill Gates as it would enable him to go back in time and invent the iPod (and thus make millions).

  • Lost in time April 10, 2007, 16:40

    The Kenosha Kid Says:
    April 10th, 2007 at 16:07

    Here’s why it won’t work:….

    Yo KK remember that human being cannot travel faster than 15 miles an hour or the air would collapse in our lungs. This was the reasoning more than 150 years ago. Now we know that is not the case. The beauty of science is conducting the experiment to show that either you’re right and it won’t work or that we need to re-think our reasoning. Either way the experiment must go forward (or back in time).

  • Administrator April 10, 2007, 16:54

    One thing I should note re funding, as some people seem to think I’m calling for NASA to pay for this experiment. The opportunity here is for private philanthropy, as noted in the last paragraph, especially when the amounts involved are relatively small.

  • Ron April 10, 2007, 17:25

    I was about to post the same thing as Marty Aavik until I noticed he had beaten me to it. What a load of BS.

    “In 20 years, nobody has been able to tell me why this can’t work,” says Cramer.

    That’s undoubtedly because he is too stupid to understand the explanation of why it wouldn’t prove anything even if the “experiment” were performed, nor would it be useful for anything.

  • Andrew April 10, 2007, 17:34

    How can people say that time travel has nothing to do with space exploration? It has EVERYTHING to do with space exploration. Infact, it is speedy travel that is the only limiting factor in our current explorations. If we could get to mars in a day or even a month, we’d be there doing experiments right now. 20k doesn’t seem like too much money, where are the gov’t grants?

  • Zach April 10, 2007, 17:39

    This is stupid. Quantum entaglement doesn’t suggest faster than light communication. Anyone who thinks so is ignorant.

  • I know it works April 10, 2007, 17:44

    I have senn it before, it will come again. Not really a problem, unless you get stuck. The bad part of it all is the way it looks the same in a way.. but some fundamentals are missing! It’s annoying the hell out of me!

    The thing is, it branches.. The possiblities are endless.. In my universe timetravel was just invented a copule of years ago.

    Arhg, to hell with it!

  • IronEye April 10, 2007, 17:56

    Agree with Kenosha Kid 100%. Quantum systems are sensitive to measurement itself as weird as this sounds. Monitoring photon A on the end of the short pipe will cause photon B to resolve on the end of the long pipe. Whichever side is monitored first — by whichever means — causes the other side to resolve the opposite way. Quantum systems “know” what measurement is no matter how tricky we may try to be. This is not to say that time can’t flow backward (if time even exists as a measurable quantity), just that the quantum world “knows” something about ourselves that we do not (the means by which we measure) & thereby gains a kind of context over us in which to “surmise” our actions. Truly understanding how time can flow backward then means gaining context over the quantum realm, or “knowing” something about it that it doesn’t know about itself (the means by which it knows our means). This is possible (I’ve been researching it for 15+ years), but unfortunately once such context is gained the “surmiser” becomes irrelevant to the context they were making the measurement from — the context in which time only moves forward!

  • Eric April 10, 2007, 17:59

    I’m a student at the University of Washington (where Dr. Cramer is doing his research), and while i’m all for my school piling on the guv’ment money, I am inclined to agree that this doesn’t fall directly under NASA’s scope.

    That’s not, however, to say that the Institute for Advanced Concepts, or any successor to it, would be making a bad decision by investing in this sort of research, and here’s why:

    1, The University of Washington is the largest research institution in the world, with some of the top engineering programs in the US, and many of the most influential physicists, astronomers, etc. If Dr. Cramer can present a decent case, he will get his money from other sources, but in turn that may mean less funding for other research at the UW which might be more directly applicable.

    2, As a previous poster mentioned, this is the type of research that helps establish auxiliary benefits in parallel fields, so while this experiment may not have direct application to anything NASA is currently working on, it’s not hard to see its application arising in things like Quantum Computing, SETI, and other fields that NASA might have its nose in.

    So maybe the money doesn’t come from NASA. Maybe it comes from DARPA, or a NSF grant, or from Paul Allen. I don’t really care. If something is worth investigating, it’s worth investigating.

  • Skepticle but Intrigued April 10, 2007, 18:09

    I personally don’t think it’s possible to travel through time. The only existing time is the continual present. The past is in our memories and the future is an anticipated present. Our brains are the ones that process time. A planet without humans doesn’t care about time. The only reason we care about time is because we have little of it, we’re mortal.
    Why should we care about traveling to the past (If it were possible) what benefit would we have? Would we be able to visit ourself, that would scare the S**t out of me. Or would we be able to warn others of impending doom? We’re all going to die anyway and changing the past or visiting it (if possible) would do more harm than good. Why not fund cancer research for cures instead and get rid of the pharmaceutical mafias. Take care of now not yesterday and tomorrow will take care of itself.

    My 2 cents.

  • Mr. Obvious April 10, 2007, 18:38

    If everyone who posted so far would contribute – that would be about $740 each.

  • Skepticle but Intrigued April 10, 2007, 18:51

    What have you contributed Mr. Obvious??
    64 characters that’s it.

    If you care so much open up a paypal account and join the cause.

  • Kenneth Stein April 10, 2007, 19:09

    It’s an interesting theory and the fact that he’s developed an experiment to test it is ingenious. If funding for experiments is based on something more than the reasonableness of short term financial return, his idea will find funding. Humanity in general will benefit as a result of this experiment and therefore, John Cramer’s experiment ought to be funded through philanthropic efforts. Philanthropy is defined as the dispensing or receipt of aid in the form of a gift from funds intentioned for humanitarian purposes after all!

  • Ron S April 10, 2007, 19:17

    $20K isn’t much. For someone of Dr. Cramer’s background I expect he could self-fund this amount with very little pain. He is also then not beholden to any outside funder, whether done as a grant or shared ownership any tangible outcome.

    I strongly suspect he does not need the money. His motivations may lie in a totally different direction. I do suspect his claims are nonsense, however I don’t have any depth of knowledge in the area to say the experiment is pointless.

  • James Tao April 10, 2007, 19:31

    The NCIIA funds lamer projects than this. I don’t see why they wouldn’t want to fund something like this.

  • Greg April 10, 2007, 19:35

    I would donate the entire amount if I believed time travel might be possible but I believe just the opposite. Therefore I would not contribute the ‘time of day’ let alone my hard earned money.

    In the end, if my beliefs are proved wrong, I will still not feel foolish. I must put my money in what I believe, not in what someone else believes

  • Marc April 10, 2007, 20:27

    I’m not willing to make any speculation based on how people are replying to each other. I would rather us fund this just to see if it works or not. It can’t hurt. It’s only $20,000 which is (like) nothing for space exploration.

  • Darral April 10, 2007, 20:44

    So we can call the Space Shuttle and tell it not to try to land because it burned up on re-entry?

  • Rauser April 10, 2007, 21:19

    So what kind of professor worth his salt can’t pony up $20k out of all the grant money he’s doubtlessly sitting on? Come on, $20 grand is chump change when it comes to graduate school programs. 10 years ago when I was in engineering grad school, no professor even wanted to touch a 20g program–there were much bigger bucks to be had out there from the large corporate sponsors. 20 grand wouldn’t even fund 1 PhD–it’s not worth the time or bother.

  • Joseph Mahaney April 11, 2007, 0:27

    In my view, governments provide funding for research because unless companies see a possible product with profit potential in the immediate future there isn’t much interest to invest the necessary resources to do R & D.

    On the other, history has shown that wealthy individuals can provide much needed funding to pursue such open ended question for both the short term and long term scientific or technological questions.

    I would consider the success or failure of such an experiment having short term and long term implications for both space communications and more down to earth applications.

  • Adam April 11, 2007, 1:34

    What a lot of ill-informed grizzling!

    If anyone bothered to go look Cramer has a description of the experiment online, as well as a lot of theoretical work that justifies it.

    And, contra what’s commonly claimed, using entanglement for FTL information transfer hasn’t been disproven. The authors of that particular study disproved something but no one has yet demonstrated the relevance to FTL communication.

    So do your homework guys!


    BTW when is FTL NOT relevant to space-travel???

  • mz April 11, 2007, 8:39

    Even if you can’t decide the *contents* of the entangled photon, something still happens to the other photon when you measure yours, right? And this action can convey information, no?

    So, say we send 8 entangled photons in numbered boxes from 0-7 with a starship to alpha centauri. Now, after 100 years, they arrive and measure photons in boxes 2, 3 and 5. We see those measurement effects in duplicate boxes on earth, no? Boxes 2, 3 and 5 show activity while 0, 1, 4, 6 and 7 are just as before. So they just sent an 8-bit message with bits 2, 3 and 5 flagged one and others zero. With enough entangled photons that are kept in order, you can send any message.

  • ljk April 11, 2007, 9:02

    New Experiment Probes Weird Zone Between Quantum and Classical

    Wired News April 11, 2007


    Scientists at the Max Planck
    Institute for Quantum Optics have
    created a tiny silicon cantilever
    arm on a chip. After being cooled
    down to 0.0001 degrees above
    absolute zero, it will become the
    first object in the observable world
    scaled down to interact in the
    slippery world of quantum mechanics.
    With a minute magnet attached at one…


    Scots scientists unveil ‘spray-on’ computer

    Scotsman April 7, 2007


    Scottish scientists have developed
    a computer the size of a matchstick
    head, thousands of which can be
    sprayed onto patients to give a
    comprehensive analysis of their
    condition. The individual
    appliances, or “specks,” will form
    networks that can be programmed like
    ordinary computers. Spraying them
    directly onto a person creates the


  • Sebastian April 11, 2007, 10:06

    It works, I’m from the future and just came back to fund the project, which I’ve funded before as well. I’ll stop by my house once again and have some tea with myself and my wife.

    Would it be cheating if she knowingly slept with me, but the other me doesn’t know? See? Does are the real ethical dilemmas…

  • freddy April 11, 2007, 10:38

    The university of washington is not the largest research university in the world. I don’t know which university is, but washington most certainly is not.

    That being said, anyone who has studied quantum mechanics, especially on a graduate level should realize this is not a worthwhile endeavor.

    For those of you saying things like: “gee that would be really cool, I don’t know anything about quantum mechanics, but I bet it works” I would suggest that you just go ahead and trust us on this one.

  • Stephen April 11, 2007, 10:40

    What if it could be done even cheaper? He doesn’t need to own the fiber – just borrow it. Since it’s basic research in communications, perhaps some communications company would loan him use of existing cable. Perhaps the detectors and emitters also already exist. This experiment could possibly be ‘managed’ into existence. And all the ‘loaning’ organizations could get something out of it. It can be arranged that everyone gets something out of it, no matter what the outcome of the experiment is.

    Perhaps, too, the Discovery Channel could document the experiment from end to end. That would be very low production costs, and produce a very entertaining show. Again, without regard to the outcome.

    The experiment works if the measurements say something. It fails if it fails to say something. But time travel need not be demonstrated for success.

    You can’t prove GR wrong by assuming it is right.

  • Otafu April 11, 2007, 10:56

    Im quite sure Google guys are from the future.

    Other possible future comebacks:
    * Elvis
    * Numa dance guy
    * Schumacher
    * Bill Gate$

    and … well, 2 or 3 more.


  • Sebastian April 11, 2007, 11:07

    “Perhaps, too, the Discovery Channel could document the experiment from end to end.”

    Yeah, that’s excellent!! Leave it to the Myth Busters!

  • David Berman April 11, 2007, 13:24

    Why ask Nasa for money? Just sell them a hammer and voila, you have your $20G

  • Philip Sportel April 11, 2007, 14:30

    Maybe I’m totally silly but…

    If you know a future result, then alter events to change that result:

    a) The first result is now in the past, and has become incorrect. (Why does the “correctness” of a result need to be immutable?)
    b) The new future is changed. (Why should it be impossible for the future to change course?)

    All this would prove is that the universe is non-deterministic.