The quest to find those who have come back from the future all started over a poker game.

Astrophysicist Robert Nemiroff and his students were playing cards (for chips) last summer, chatting about Facebook. They wondered: If there were time travelers among us, would they be on social media? How would you find them? Could you Google them?

“We had a whimsical little discussion about this,” said Nemiroff, a professor at Michigan Technological University. The result was a serious-but-fun effort to tease out travelers from the future by sifting through the Internet. Unfortunately, they have uncovered no DeLorean time machines, but that hasn’t made the search less interesting.

You can’t just put out a cattle call for time travelers and expect good results. So Nemiroff’s team developed a search strategy based on what they call prescient knowledge. If they could find a mention of something or someone on the Internet before people should have known about it, that could indicate that whoever wrote it had traveled from the future.

They selected search terms relating to two recent phenomena, Pope Francis and Comet ISON, and began looking for references to them before they were known to exist. Their work was exhaustive: they used a variety of search engines, such as Google and Bing, and combed through Facebook and Twitter. In the end, it was decided that Twitter would be the time traveler’s social media outlet of choice.

In an interview with Raw Story, Dr. Nemiroff was asked why he believed travelers from the future would use Twitter. “Twitter is an echo of what’s going on in society,” he said, “so I’d ask you, ‘Why do you think a traveler wouldn’t use Twitter?’”

“Besides,” he continued, “it wouldn’t have to be the traveler himself who used Twitter. Someone could have overheard him say something prescient, and put that on Twitter in a way that would be magnified through conversation.”

Once the search was focused on Twitter, the researchers selected search terms that were both unique and of historical importance. Nemiroff wanted to choose something that would still be relevant and of significance in 20 years’ time, so he so he and Wilson decided on “Comet ISON” and “Pope Francis.” Any mention of “Comet ISON” before September 12, 2012 or “Pope Francis” before March 16, 2013 would then be considered an indication of prescient knowledge.

One potentially precognitive mention of “Pope Francis” was found on a blog linked to in a tweet, but the post was deemed “overtly speculative and not prescient,” as it was merely speculating about the possibility of a South American pope and suggested “Francis” as a potential name among manyothers.

In the case of Comet ISON, there were no mentions before it burst on the scene in September 2012. They also searched for prescient inquiries submitted to search engines and combed through the Astronomy Picture of the Day site, which Nemiroff co-edits. Still no luck.

For their last and perhaps most ingenious effort, the researchers created a post in September 2013 asking readers to email or tweet one of two messages on or before August 2013:

“#ICanChangeThePast2” or “#ICannotChangeThePast2.” Alas, their invitation went unanswered. And, they received no insights into the inherent contradictions of time travel.

“In our limited search we turned up nothing,” Nemiroff said. “I didn’t really think we would. But I’m still not aware of anyone undertaking a search like this. The Internet is essentially a vast database, and I thought that if time travelers were here, their existence would have already come out in some other way, maybe by posting winning lottery numbers before they were selected. “

A poster based on their study, “Searching the Internet for Evidence of Time Travelers,” (http://arxiv.org/abs/1312.7128) coauthored by Nemiroff and physics graduate student Teresa Wilson, will be presented Monday, Jan. 6, at the American Astronomical Society meeting in Washington, DC.

Nemiroff, who normally publishes on more arcane subjects, such as gravitational lensing and gamma-ray bursts, says this recent endeavor is not as big a stretch for him as some might think. “I’m always doing stuff on space and time,” he said, adding, “This has been a lot of fun.”

So, if you’re a time traveler from the future, be sure to let Nemiroff know. Or, better still, tell us here at Unknown Country, where a warm welcome awaits those from the past, present and future! Subscribe today to keep this unique community going.