[tt] Is time an illusion? - fundamentals - 19 January 2008 - New Scientist

Brian Atkins <brian at posthuman.com> on Thu Jan 31 01:47:00 UTC 2008


IT IS the invisible presence that governs your world. Trailing you like an 
unshakeable shadow, it ticks and tocks incessantly - you can sense it in your 
heartbeat, in the rising and setting of the sun, and in your daily rush to make 
meetings, trains and deadlines. It brings order to our lives through the 
categories of past, present and future.

Time. There is nothing with which we are so familiar, and yet when you try to 
pin it down you find only a relentless torrent of questions. Why does time 
appear to flow? What makes it different from space? What exactly is it? It's 
enough to make your neurons misfire, then sizzle and smoke.

You are not alone. Physicists have long struggled to understand what time really 
is. In fact, they are not even sure it exists at all. In their quest for deeper 
theories of the universe, some researchers increasingly suspect that time is not 
a fundamental feature of nature, but rather an artefact of our perception. One 
group has recently found a way to do quantum physics without invoking time, 
which could help pave a path to a time-free "theory of everything". If correct, 
the approach suggests that time really is an illusion, and that we may need to 
rethink how the universe at large works.

For decades, physicists have been searching for a quantum theory of gravity to 
reconcile Einstein's general relativity, which describes gravity at the largest 
scales, with quantum mechanics, which describes the behaviour of particles at 
the tiniest scales. One reason it has been so difficult to merge the two is that 
they are built on incompatible views of time. "I am more and more convinced that 
the problem of time is key both to quantum gravity and to issues in cosmology," 
says Lee Smolin of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, 
Ontario, Canada.

According to general relativity, time is stitched together with space to form 
four-dimensional space-time. The passage of time is not absolute - no cosmic 
clock ticks away the hours of the universe. Instead, time differs from one frame 
of reference to the next, and what one observer experiences as time, another 
might experience as a mixture of time and space. For Einstein, time is a useful 
measure of things, but nothing special.

Not so in quantum mechanics. Here time plays a key role, keeping track of the 
ever-changing probabilities that define the microworld, which are encoded in the 
"wave function" of a quantum system. The clock by which the wave function 
evolves records not just the time in one particular frame of reference, but the 
absolute time that Einstein worked so hard to topple. So while relativity treats 
space and time as a whole, quantum mechanics splits the universe into two parts: 
the quantum system being observed and the classical world outside. In this 
fractured universe, a clock always remains outside the quantum system (see Diagram).

Something has to give. The fact that the universe has no outside, by definition, 
suggests that quantum mechanics will be the one to surrender - and to many, this 
suggests that time is not fundamental. In the 1990s, for instance, physicist 
Julian Barbour proposed that time must not exist in a quantum theory of the 
universe. All the same, physicists are loath to throw out quantum theory, as it 
has proven capable of extraordinarily accurate predictions. What they need is a 
way to do quantum mechanics in the absence of time.
Single quantum event

Carlo Rovelli, a physicist at the University of Marseille in France, has found 
just that. In the past year, he and his colleagues have worked out a method to 
compress multiple quantum events in time into a single event that can be 
described without reference to time (Physical Review D, vol 75, p 084033).

It is an intriguing achievement. While Rovelli's approach to dealing with time 
is one of many, and researchers working on other models of quantum gravity may 
have different opinions on the matter, nearly every physicist agrees that time 
is a key obstacle to finding an ultimate theory. Rovelli's approach seems 
tantalisingly close to surmounting that obstacle. His model builds upon research 
into generalising quantum mechanics by physicist James Hartle at the University 
of California, Santa Barbara, as well as Rovelli's earlier work on quantum systems.

The idea is this: suppose we have an electron characterised by its spin, a 
quantum property that is either "up" or "down" along whatever direction you 
measure it. Say we want to make two consecutive measurements of its spin, one in 
the x direction and one in the y direction. The probabilities of the possible 
outcomes will depend on the order in which we perform the measurements. That's 
because a measurement "collapses" the indeterminate state of the wave function, 
forcing it to commit to a given state; the first measurement will change the 
particle's state, which affects the second measurement.

Say we already know the electron's spin is up in the x direction. If we now 
measure the spin in the x direction followed by the y direction, we will find 
the x spin up - no change there - and then there is a 50:50 chance of finding 
the y spin up or down. But if we begin by measuring the y spin, that disturbs 
the spin in the x direction, creating a 50-50 probability for both measurements.

If reordering the measurements in time changes the probabilities, how can we 
calculate the probabilities of sequences of events without reference to time? 
The trick, says Rovelli, is to adjust the boundary between the quantum system 
under observation and the classical outside world where measuring devices are 
considered to reside. By shifting the boundary, we can include the measuring 
device as part of the quantum system.

In that case we no longer ask, "What is the probability of the electron having 
spin up and then spin down?" Instead we ask, "What is the probability of finding 
the measuring devices in a particular state?" The measuring device no longer 
collapses the wave function; rather, the electron and the measuring device 
together are described by a single wave function, and a single measurement of 
the entire set-up causes the collapse.

Where has time gone? Evolution in time is transformed into correlations between 
things that can be observed in space. "To give an analogy," Rovelli says, "I can 
tell you that I drove from Boston to Los Angeles but I passed first through 
Chicago and later through Denver. Here I am specifying things in time. But I 
could also tell you that I drove from Boston to LA along the road marked in this 
map. So I can replace the information about which measurement happens first in 
time with the detailed information about how the observables are correlated."

That Rovelli's approach yields the correct probabilities in quantum mechanics 
seems to justify his intuition that the dynamics of the universe can be 
described as a network of correlations, rather than as an evolution in time. 
"Rovelli's work makes the timeless view more believable and more in line with 
standard physics," says Dean Rickles, a philosopher of physics at the University 
of Sydney in Australia.

With quantum mechanics rewritten in time-free form, combining it with general 
relativity seems less daunting, and a universe in which time is fundamental 
seems less likely. But if time doesn't exist, why do we experience it so 
relentlessly? Is it all an illusion?

Yes, says Rovelli, but there is a physical explanation for it. For more than a 
decade, he has been working with mathematician Alain Connes at the College de 
France in Paris to understand how a time-free reality could give rise to the 
appearance of time. Their idea, called the thermal time hypothesis, suggests 
that time emerges as a statistical effect, in the same way that temperature 
emerges from averaging the behaviour of large groups of molecules (Classical and 
Quantum Gravity, vol 11, p 2899).

Imagine gas in a box. In principle we could keep track of the position and 
momentum of each molecule at every instant and have total knowledge of the 
microscopic state of our surroundings. In this scenario, no such thing as 
temperature exists; instead we have an ever-changing arrangement of molecules. 
Keeping track of all that information is not feasible in practice, but we can 
average the microscopic behaviour to derive a macroscopic description. We 
condense all the information about the momenta of the molecules into a single 
measure, an average that we call temperature.

According to Connes and Rovelli, the same applies to the universe at large. 
There are many more constituents to keep track of: not only do we have particles 
of matter to deal with, we also have space itself and therefore gravity. When we 
average over this vast microscopic arrangement, the macroscopic feature that 
emerges is not temperature, but time. "It is not reality that has a time flow, 
it is our very approximate knowledge of reality that has a time flow," says 
Rovelli. "Time is the effect of our ignorance."

Cosmic time

It all sounds good on paper, but is there any evidence that the idea might be 
correct? Rovelli and Connes have tested their hypothesis with simple models. 
They started by looking at the cosmic microwave background (CMB) radiation that 
pervades the sky - relic heat from the big bang. The CMB is an example of a 
statistical state: averaging over the finer details, we can say that the 
radiation is practically uniform and has a temperature of just under 3 kelvin. 
Rovelli and Connes used this as a model for the statistical state of the 
universe, tossing in other information such as the radius of the observable 
universe, and looked to see what apparent time flow that would generate.

What they got was a sequence of states describing a small universe expanding in 
exactly the manner described by standard cosmological equations - matching what 
physicists refer to as cosmic time. "I was amazed," says Rovelli. "Connes was as 
well. He had independently thought about the same idea, and was very surprised 
to see it worked in a simple calculation."

To truly apply the thermal time hypothesis to the universe, however, physicists 
need a theory of quantum gravity. All the same, the fact that a simple model 
like that of the CMB produced realistic results is promising. "One of the 
traditional difficulties of quantum gravity was how to make sense of a theory in 
which the time variable had disappeared," Rovelli says. "Here we begin to see 
that a theory without a time variable can not only still make sense, but can in 
fact describe a world like the one we see around us."

What's more, the thermal time hypothesis gives another interesting result. If 
time is an artefact of our statistical description of the world, then a 
different description should lead to a different flow of time. There is a clear 
case in which this happens: in the presence of an event horizon.

When an observer accelerates, he creates an event horizon, a boundary that 
partitions off a region of the universe from which light can never reach him so 
long as he continues to accelerate. This observer will describe a different 
statistical state of the universe from an observer who doesn't have a horizon, 
since he is missing information that lies beyond his event horizon. The flow of 
time he perceives should therefore be different.

Using general relativity, however, there is another way to describe his 
experience of time. The geometry of the space-time he inhabits, as defined by 
his horizon, determines a so-called proper time - the time flow he would 
register if he were carrying a clock. The thermal time hypothesis predicts that 
the ratio of the observer's proper time to his statistical time - the time flow 
that emerges from Connes and Rovelli's ideas - is the temperature he measures 
around him.

It so happens that every event horizon has an associated temperature. The best 
known case is that of a black hole event horizon, whose temperature is that of 
the "Hawking radiation" it emits. Likewise, an accelerating observer measures a 
temperature associated with something known as Unruh radiation. The temperature 
Rovelli and Connes derived matches the Unruh temperature and the Hawking 
temperature for a black hole, further boosting their hypothesis.

"The thermal time hypothesis is a very beautiful idea," says Pierre Martinetti, 
a physicist at the University of Rome in Italy. "But I believe its 
implementation is still limited. For the moment one has just checked that this 
hypothesis was not contradictory when a notion of time was already available. 
But it has not been used in quantum gravity."

Others also urge caution in interpreting what it all means for the nature of 
time. "It is wrong to say that time is an illusion," says Rickles. "It is just 
reducible or non-fundamental, in the same way that consciousness emerges from 
brain activity but is not illusory."

So if time really does prove to be non-fundamental, what are we to make of it? 
"For us, time exists and flows," says Rovelli. "The point is that this nice flow 
becomes something much more complicated at the small scale."

At reality's deepest level, then, it remains unknown whether time will hold 
strong or melt away like a Salvador Dali clock. Perhaps, as Rovelli and others 
suggest, time is all a matter of perspective - not a feature of reality but a 
result of your missing information about reality. So if your brain hurts when 
you try to understand time, relax. If you really knew, time might simply disappear.

 From issue 2639 of New Scientist magazine, 19 January 2008, page 26-29
Brian Atkins
Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence

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