Could humans use black holes to time travel?

An artist's illustration of a black hole. The center of black holes are examples of singularities.
An artist's illustration of a black hole. (Image credit: solarseven via Getty Images)

Black holes form natural time machines that allow travel to both the past and the future. But don’t expect to be heading back to visit the dinosaurs any time soon.

At present, we don’t have spacecraft that could get us anywhere near a black hole. But, even leaving that small detail aside, attempting to travel into the past using a black hole might be the last thing you ever do.

What are black holes?

A black hole is an extremely massive object that is typically formed when a dying star collapses in on itself.

Like planets and stars, black holes have gravitational fields around them. A gravitational field is what keeps us stuck to Earth, and what keeps Earth revolving around the Sun.

As a rule of thumb, the more massive an object is, the stronger its gravitational field.

Earth's gravitational field makes it extremely difficult to get to space. That’s why we build rockets: we have to travel very fast to break out of Earth's gravity.

Read more: How gravitational waves can 'see inside' black holes

The gravitational field of a black hole is so strong that even light can't escape it. That's impressive, since light is the fastest thing known to science!

Incidentally, that’s why black holes are black: we can't bounce light off a black hole the way we might bounce a flashlight's beam off a tree in the dark.

Stretching space

Albert Einstein's general theory of relativity tells us matter and energy have a curious effect on the universe. Matter and energy bend and stretch space. The more massive an object is, the more space is stretched and bent around it.

A massive object creates a kind of valley in space. When objects come near, they fall into the valley.

3D illustration of the Earth and Sun on distorted spacetime. This shows the gravity and general theory of relativity concept.

3D illustration of the Earth and Sun on distorted spacetime. (Image credit: vchal via Shutterstock)

That's why, when you get close enough to any massive object, including a black hole, you fall towards it. It's also why light can't escape a black hole: the sides of the valley are so steep that light isn't going fast enough to climb out.

The valley created by a black hole gets steeper and steeper as you approach it from a distance. The point at which it gets so steep that light can't escape is called the event horizon.

Event horizons aren't just interesting for would-be time travellers: they're also interesting for philosophers, because they have implications for how we understand the nature of time.

Stretching time

When space is stretched, so is time. A clock that is near a massive object will tick slower than one that is near a much less massive object.

A clock near a black hole will tick very slowly compared to one on Earth. One year near a black hole could mean 80 years on Earth, as you may have seen illustrated in the movie Interstellar.

In this way, black holes can be used to travel to the future. If you want to jump into the future of Earth, simply fly near a black hole and then return to Earth.

If you get close enough to the centre of the black hole, your clock will tick slower, but you should still be able to escape so long as you don't cross the event horizon.

Loops in time

What about the past? This is where things get truly interesting. A black hole bends time so much that it can wrap back on itself.

Imagine taking a sheet of paper and joining the two ends to form a loop. That's what a black hole seems to do to time.

This creates a natural time machine. If you could somehow get onto the loop, which physicists call a closed timelike curve, you would find yourself on a trajectory through space that starts in the future and ends in the past.

Inside the loop, you would also find that cause and effect get hard to untangle. Things that are in the past cause things to happen in the future, which in turn cause things to happen in the past!

The catch

So, you've found a black hole and you want to use your trusty spaceship to go back and visit the dinosaurs. Good luck.

There are three problems. First, you can only travel into the black hole's past. That means that if the black hole was created after the dinosaurs died out, then you won’t be able to go back far enough.

Second, you'd probably have to cross the event horizon to get into the loop. This means that to get out of the loop at a particular time in the past, you'd need to exit the event horizon. That means travelling faster than light, which we're pretty sure is impossible.

Third, and probably worst of all, you and your ship would undergo "spaghettification." Sounds delicious, right?

Sadly, it's not. As you crossed the event horizon you would be stretched flat, like a noodle. In fact, you'd probably be stretched so thin that you'd just be a string of atoms spiralling into the void.

So, while it's fun to think about the time-warping properties of black holes, for the foreseeable future that visit to the dinosaurs will have to stay in the realm of fantasy.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Sam Baron
Associate professor, Australian Catholic University

Sam Baron is an associate professor at the Australian Catholic University whose areas of expertise include metaphysics, philosophy of science, philosophy of mathematics, philosophy of time and metaphilosophy. Sam completed his PhD in philosophy 2012 at the University of Sydney. Since then, he has published widely on topics in metaphysics and philosophy of science, in a range of philosophy journals.

  • bolide2
    The typical illustration of the idea of gravity as curvature of spacetime--a massive object shown on a distorted grid of "space," as illustrated in the article--is inadequate. It still requires us to imagine a force of gravity operating to move the object. Otherwise, why should the mere fact of being in curved space cause it to move?

    If gravity is actually just a curvature of spacetime--

    Place two massive objects in empty space, near to each other but motionless relative to each other. Their mutual gravitational attraction (as Newton would say) will cause them to move toward each other. But how would Einstein explain that? What causes these objects, initially relatively at rest, to begin to be in relative motion?
  • skynr13
    Why wouldn't just mutual gravitational attraction be the answer? Basically, there attraction from this effect would make them want to just clunk into each other, to there possible destruction. But depending on there makeup the gravity they produce differs linearly, then they could begin orbiting each other for a time.
    Also, you are correct about the grid being inadequate. The curve or gravity well is not a dimple under the mass. It is within the mass, like two cones that emerge from the poles, where gravity is strongest. So, this gravity is also what attracts the two objects making the two objects appear to try to leapfrog over one another as they approach. It is also what causes them to go into orbit and develop a spin rotation in a kind of haphazard way.
  • phrixus
    You're right that the 2D representation doesn't work very well. The thing is, the 3D picture you have in your head also doesn't work very well; in order to make it work, you need four dimensions. Remember that general relativity is about "spacetime", not just space. Nothing is ever actually stationary; everything is always traveling at C. If it's stationary in space, it's traveling at C in the time direction. As it moves in space, it diverts some fraction of its motion in time into space.

    Now, given that picture, we can reduce it back to two dimensions to make it possible to visualize. Imagine an infinite plane with two dots moving on parallel tracks at identical speeds. Overlay a grid over the plane to make the warping easier to see. Now, rather than distorting the plane in a third dimension like the typical rubber-sheet analogy, just "pinch" the grid lines inward towards each of the objects.

    If there's only one object, the effect is totally symmetrical and doesn't affect its trajectory at all. If there are two objects, though, each one starts to run into slightly skewed grid lines caused by the other one. In an attempt to follow a straight-line path, they end up curving towards each other, and the effect gets stronger the closer they are to each other (because the grid lines get more and more bent). Eventually, they collide and electromagnetic forces overwhelm the gravitational forces that are trying to make them occupy the same space.

    To say that again, it's hard to imagine with stationary objects, but there's no such thing as a stationary object in spacetime. With moving objects, you can imagine how they'd warp towards each other; if all their initial motion is in the time dimension, that warpage basically rotates part of their motion into the spatial dimensions. That's also why gravitational fields cause time dilation, because they rotate the "stationary" direction away from the time axis.