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Do the laws of physics forbid the operation of time machines?

Abstract

We address the question of whether it is possible to operate a time machine by manipulating matter and energy so as to manufacture closed timelike curves. This question has received a great deal of attention in the physics literature, with attempts to prove no-go theorems based on classical general relativity and various hybrid theories serving as steps along the way towards quantum gravity. Despite the effort put into these no-go theorems, there is no widely accepted definition of a time machine. We explain the conundrum that must be faced in providing a satisfactory definition and propose a resolution. Roughly, we require that all extensions of the time machine region contain closed timelike curves; the actions of the time machine operator are then sufficiently “potent” to guarantee that closed timelike curves appear. We then review no-go theorems based on classical general relativity, semi-classical quantum gravity, quantum field theory on curved spacetime, and Euclidean quantum gravity. Our verdict on the question of our title is that no result of sufficient generality to underwrite a confident “yes” has been proven. Our review of the no-go results does, however, highlight several foundational problems at the intersection of general relativity and quantum physics that lend substance to the search for an answer.

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Correspondence to Christopher Smeenk.

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Earman, J., Smeenk, C. & Wüthrich, C. Do the laws of physics forbid the operation of time machines?. Synthese 169, 91–124 (2009). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-008-9338-2

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  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-008-9338-2

Keywords

  • General relativity
  • Time travel
  • Time machines
  • QFT on curved spacetime
  • Causality
  • Closed timelike curves