UW professor aims to make time travel a reality

SEATTLE -- Physicists, mathematicians, philosophers and that guy talking to himself on a street corner all have opinions about validity of time travel.

So does Dr. John Cramer, professor Emeritus of Physics at the University of Washington. He wants to make it a reality.

But Cramer's form of time travel is not the teleportation characterized by Hollywood and science fiction. As time travel goes, Cramer thinks in baby steps. He's working on the possibility receiving a message milliseconds before it's sent.

"I have to admit, this is pushing the envelope and often the envelop pushes back," says Cramer, a nuclear physicist who has worked on projects involving the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland.

In the basement of the campus physics building, Cramer is fiddling with laser beams to prove what Einstein called "spooky action at a distance". He's splitting photons through a series of synthetic crystals to demonstrate that quantum non-locality can be used to communicate.

For those of us who never took high school physics, this is what he's trying to do in layman's terms: If you took a pair of photons created at the same time and altered one of those photons, in theory the other photon would be altered instantly -- even if it was separated by an entire galaxy.

That would mean communication could travel faster than the speed of light over long distances. The ramifications of something Einstein didn't think was possible but theoretically could happen would be incredible. Physicists call it "nonlocal quantum communication."

"You could do real-time communication with objects on other plants," says Cramer. "You could put on a virtual reality helmet and be driving your remote dune buggy on Mars."

That means NASA could operate a rover on Mars in real time. Normally it takes 22 minutes for a signal traveling at the speed of light to reach Mars.

That's step one in a two-step process. Cramer admits it's big first step.

"I think it's a long shot but it's a long shot with such important implications, it's worth it," says Cramer.

But Cramer has been at step one for nearly a decade with no success. He's had funding issues and technical problems.

"You have to be able to efficiently detect the entangled photons before you can do any real measurements and we have not been able to do that yet," says Cramer.

If Cramer can prove step one, step two becomes even more fascinating.

"If you can communicate using non-locality then you can communicate faster than light and backwards in time," says Cramer. "I'm a little scared of what happens if it does happen because the implications are so bizarre."

And who could most likely profit immediately from such technology? Wall Street. Sixty-percent of the daily trade volume on the New York Stock Exchange involves high frequency trades made by computer programs. These trades happen in fractions of a second with traders earning or losing fractions of a penny at a time.

"Milliseconds is what it's all about now," says Tom Cock, Managing Director of Vestory, an investment advisory firm in Kirkland.

Speed and distance is now so important, large brokerage houses have their trading computers inches away from the main computers running the exchanges in order to cut down on lag time.

"So that when trades are made in the exchange, they can immediately see those trades and respond to them in an algorithmic way that allows them to have advantages over the everyman," says Cock.

If a trader's computer could see how the market responds to a trade milliseconds before it's actually made, the implications would be enormous.

"Then the field is not level at all," says Cock.

"I think 50 milliseconds might be interesting to Goldman Sachs," says Cramer sheepishly.

While some interpret Einstein's theory of relatively to mean nothing can travel faster than the speed of light, Cramer says that doesn't apply to his experiments.

"If there is something lurking in the woodwork which actually prevents you from doing this, I don't know what it is," says Cramer.

That's coming from a scientist who knows what he's talking about. Then again, maybe it's already happened.
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