If the world’s largest atom smasher - the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) - ever finds the elusive Higgs boson particle, the giant instrument could be the first machine capable of causing matter to travel backwards in time.

Researchers at Vanderbilt University propose in their long shot theory that the collider - a particle accelerator to study the smallest known particles - could be used as a time machine. This approach to time travel could be used to send messages to the past or the future, they say.

“Our theory is a long shot,” says Tom Weiler, physics professor at Vanderbilt University, “but it doesn’t violate any laws of physics or experimental constraints.”

Inside the collider, two beams of subatomic particles called 'hadrons' travel at close to the speed of light with very high energies before colliding with one another. Physicists will use the supercollider to recreate the conditions just after the Big Bang and analyze the particles created in the collisions.

One of the major goals of the collider, which began regular operation last year, is to find the elusive Higgs boson: the particle that physicists invoke to explain why particles like protons, neutrons and electrons have mass.

The researchers say if the collider succeeds in producing the Higgs boson, it will also create a second particle, called the Higgs singlet, at the same time. They theorize that these singlets should have the ability to jump into an extra, fifth dimension where they can move across time.

Weiler and Vanderbilt graduate fellow Chui Man Ho’s theory is based on M-theory, a theory that requires 10 or 11 dimensions instead of our familiar four. This has led to the suggestion that our universe may be like a four-dimensional membrane or brane floating in a multi-dimensional space-time called the bulk.

This view implies that the basic building blocks of our universe are permanently stuck to the brane and so cannot travel in other dimensions.

The test of the researchers’ theory will be whether the physicists monitoring the collider begin seeing Higgs singlet particles and spontaneous appearance of their decay or scattered particles. If they do, Weiler believes that they will have been produced by particles that travel back in time to appear before the collisions that produced them.

One of the attractive things about this approach to time travel is that it avoids all the big paradoxes, Weiler says. Because time travel is limited to these special particles, it is not possible for a man to travel back in time and murder one of his parents before he himself is born, for example. However, if scientists could control the production of Higgs singlets, they might be able to send messages to the past or future.

It may be that for the first time our scientific community has built accelerators capable of producing time-traveling particles, and also detectors capable of sensing them, the researchers say.