Wanted: Time travelers forecasting on social media

Scientists at Michigan Technological University wanted to see if they could catch any such slips by residents of the future. So Robert Nemiroff, professor of physics, and graduate student Teresa Wilson conducted a whimsical study in hopes of identifying accurate predictions of future events. They are presenting their study at the American Astronomical Society Meeting on Monday.

The online platform that allowed them to look most comprehensively for prescient posts was Twitter, because the social network doesn’t allow back-dating. Facebook users can alter timestamps on posts, and the popular search engines Google and Bing were not as helpful as Twitter in looking for “prescient information,” the authors found.

Study authors focused on two major search terms they believe will have lasting significance for years to come: Comet ISON and Pope Francis. They looked for mentions of these from January 2006 to September 2013.

Before the identification of comet ISON in 2012, there were no mentions that the researchers could find of this icy space rock. Similarly, before Jorge Bergoglio took on his papal name in 2013, the phrase “Pope Francis” did not appear in the researchers’ search results, except for one person’s blog, which appears to have been speculating — not remembering something from the future.