Electron-positron collisions at SLAC produce a Υ(4s) resonance that results in an entangled pair of B mesons. Source: http://physics.aps.org/articles/v5/129

Recall the outrageously cool movie from the 1980s, Back to the Future? Marty McFly and Doc Brown were stretching scientific boundaries, righting the future, all while making sure not to meet their future selves. Fast-forward and time travel may be closer than we think. (Close, relatively speaking of course.)

If you like exceptions to the rule, well, you’re in luck because the Department of Energy’s (DOE) SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory has achieved something quite impressive – the BaBar experiment.

The BaBar experiment investigates the most fundamental questions about the universe by getting back to basics with elementary particles. It’s a global collaboration of physicists delving into the nature of antimatter, the relationship of quarks and leptons and crossing over into areas of physics yet to be explored.

Earlier this week, scientists working on the BaBar project made the first direct observation of a violation to the concept known as time reversal symmetry. Their work was published in Physical Review Letters if you want to journey into the world of  B mesons.

How did they do it?

Data from billions of particle collisions, nearly 10 years worth, were poured over and sifted through by researchers on this project. They examined a chain of particle transformations in which B mesons flipped between two different states called B-zero and B-even. This quantum entanglement of B mesons enables information about the first decaying particle to be used to determine the state of its partner at the time of the decay. This allowed the team to find that these transformations happened six times more often in one direction than the other.

Largely by thinking there was something wrong with the picture they were looking at was how missing pieces of the puzzle were filled in, according to the physics coordinator for BaBar, Fabio Anulli of the National Institute for Nuclear Physics in Rome. The BaBar data they had showed evidence of change-parity symmetry violation, so this was a good place to start looking. In fact, just looking at the data in a slightly different way allowed them to the see time violation.

Given the abundance of data the BaBar team had to work with, they were able to measure the T-violation to the 14 sigma level – a high level of statistical significance. Basically meaning there is only 1 chance in 1043 that this effect is not real. Recall the Higgs boson discovery this past summer; that was granted a 5 sigma level. The results demonstrate that the direction of time matters, at least for some elementary particle processes. This provides a strong confirmation that a few subatomic processes like to do things on their own schedule – they have a preferred direction of time, changing into one another much more often in one way, than they change in the other. Time does not run the same forwards as backwards.

The findings – full of futuristic possibilities

What does this mean for the future? This discovery may rock our world in ways we haven’t even conceived of yet. It could have implications for business, for communications, for me getting to Brisbane instantaneously without first stopping for a layover at LAX. We may have perhaps inched closer to that time travelling ease marvelously displayed in Star Trek. Stay tuned.

Discoveries such as this make us think about the beauty of science. The vectors and numbers and B mesons – scientists work that stuff out to provide the beautiful possibilities that are so important to the human race. It may be small now, but we’re definitely on to something bigger. Think how many picture frames we may just be able to tilt to get the answers we seek.