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Astrophysics Professor Explains Einstein's Theory of Time Travel

Candace Braun

Time travel to both the past and the future is possible; but you can't go back in time and kill your grandmother. At least that's J. Richard Gott III's theory.

Dr. Gott, a professor of astrophysical sciences at Princeton University and the author of Time Travel in Einstein's Universe, explains in straight forward language how time travel to the future is possible, basing his findings on theories of Albert Einstein, Stephen Hawking, and Kip Thorne. Speaking to a standing-room-only crowd at the Princeton Public Library on Monday, Dr. Gott said it is actually possible to travel 1,000 years into the future: "It's just a matter of money.... We know we can do this."

The event was part of Think Einstein, a series marking the centennial of Einstein's miracle year. One hundred years ago, or annus mirabilis, in 1905, Einstein, a former Princeton resident, published five of his six major papers, including the beginnings of his theory of relativity. The theory has fascinated Dr. Gott throughout his lifetime, even as far back as high school, when he won first place overall honors in both the 1964 and 1965 International Science & Engineering Fairs.

Now, Dr. Gott is one of the only professors in the U.S. to teach an undergraduate course on the theory of relativity.

"Einstein has been a great asset to us at Princeton University," said Dr. Gott, adding that his presence is still found throughout Princeton, even in Lahiere's restaurant where you can call ahead and request Einstein's table. And while his home at 112 Mercer Road has not been memorialized as a museum at the request of the scientist, residents can still walk by the house, now owned by the Institute for Advanced Study, and remember the days when Einstein would walk down the street to study and work at the Institute.

Dr. Gott began his lecture by reading a passage from his book, which jokes about how, because of his extreme interest in time travel, his neighbors and colleagues believe he has a time machine hidden in his garage. He told his audience that he even had a request sent to him in the mail asking him to give a lecture on a date six months ago, the joke being that he would use his time machine to attend.

"I told them sure, I'll attend," he said with a smile.

The professor is also known for his teal blazer, which he wore Monday and which he wears to all of his lectures after a colleague suggested that he bought it in the future because blazers that color aren't sold today.

But despite his many jokes on time travel, Dr. Gott was able to provide his audience with several understandable theories on why time travel is possible, and why he believes that one day it will actually happen.

Einstein's theories on time travel were way ahead of his time, according to Dr. Gott, who said that after Isaac Newton wrote the rules of relativity in 1895, which stated that time travel wasn't possible, Einstein disproved him 10 years later, with his theory of special relativity, which has been proven correct many times over.

However, he cautioned: "[A time machine] is not something you can build in your garage in New Jersey.... This is something only super civilizations could attempt." The machine would have to weigh more than the sun, something that we do not have the funding or capabilities for at this point, he said.

The astrophysics professor said he believes that time travel will happen in the future, but he believes that time travellers wouldn't be able to change the past, as has been the plot line for time travel movies such as Back to the Future.

"Time travellers to the past don't change the past; they were part of it," he said, explaining the conservative time travel theory which states that it wouldn't be possible to go back in time and kill yourself or kill your relative, such as a grandmother, because it would mean you never got to the present to be able to travel through time in the first place.

As an example, Dr. Gott joked that it's possible that time travellers have gone back to the Titanic to warn the people of the iceberg, but either they ignored the warning, or the weight of all the stowaway time travellers on the ship sunk the boat anyway.

The radical theory on why time travellers can't change the past, is that when an action in the past is changed from what it had originally been, an alternate universe would be created, but the original would remain intact. So the two universes would co-exist, but never overlap one another. Dr. Gott also discussed other theories of how time travel is possible, including a worm hole, which would connect two different points in time at one place, or a black hole, which is much riskier.

"A black hole is a hotel where you check in, but you don't check out," joked the scientist. "If you're lucky you could pop out into another universe, but it wouldn't be this one."

Dr. Gott received a B.S. degree in mathematics, summa cum laude, from Harvard University in 1969, and received his doctorate in astrophysics from Princeton University in 1972. After briefly working at the California Institute of Technology and Cambridge University, he returned to Princeton in 1976, where he eventually became a full professor of astrophysics. In 1988 he was the recipient of the President's Award for Distinguished Teachers at Princeton. For 14 years Dr. Gott also served as the chair of judges of the National Westinghouse and Intel Science Talent Search.

To continue with the celebration of Einstein's Miracle Year, a bust of Einstein will be unveiled at Princeton Borough Hall on Monday, April 18, at 10 a.m. Residents will be able to view the new memorial to Einstein on or after that date.

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