Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The Direction of Time

Sean Carroll, a senior research associate in physics at the California Institute of Technology, has a wonderfully rich and accessible article in the Scientific American that attempts to address a real puzzle: why does time seem to only move in one direction. Here are some excerpts:

Among the unnatural aspects of the universe, one stands out: time asymmetry. The microscopic laws of physics that underlie the behavior of the universe do not distinguish between past and future, yet the early universe—hot, dense, homogeneous—is completely different from today’s—cool, dilute, lumpy. The universe started off orderly and has been getting increasingly disorderly ever since. The asymmetry of time, the arrow that points from past to future, plays an unmistakable role in our everyday lives: it accounts for why we cannot turn an omelet into an egg, why ice cubes never spontaneously unmelt in a glass of water, and why we remember the past but not the future. And the origin of the asymmetry we experience can be traced all the way back to the orderliness of the universe near the big bang. Every time you break an egg, you are doing observational cosmology.

The arrow of time is arguably the most blatant feature of the universe that cosmologists are currently at an utter loss to explain. Increasingly, however, this puzzle about the universe we observe hints at the existence of a much larger spacetime we do not observe. It adds support to the notion that we are part of a multiverse whose dynamics help to explain the seemingly unnatural features of our local vicinity.

. . .

One bold but simple strategy is just to say: perhaps the very far past is not different from the future after all. Perhaps the distant past, like the future, is actually a high-entropy state. If so, the hot, dense state we have been calling “the early universe” is actually not the true beginning of the universe but rather just a transitional state between stages of its history.

. . .

Like any good high-entropy state, the tendency of empty space is to just sit there, unchanging. So the problem is: How do we get our current universe out of a desolate and quiescent spacetime? The secret might lie in the existence of dark energy.

In the presence of dark energy, empty space is not completely empty. Fluctuations of quantum fields give rise to a very low temperature—enormously lower than the temperature of today’s universe but nonetheless not quite absolute zero. All quantum fields experience occasional thermal fluctuations in such a universe. That means it is not perfectly quiescent; if we wait long enough, individual particles and even substantial collections of particles will fluctuate into existence, only to once again disperse into the vacuum. (These are real particles, as opposed to the short-lived “virtual” particles that empty space contains even in the absence of dark energy.)

Among the things that can fluctuate into existence are small patches of ultradense dark energy. If conditions are just right, that patch can undergo inflation and pinch off to form a separate universe all its own—a baby universe. Our universe may be the offspring of some other universe.

. . .

This scenario, proposed in 2004 by Jennifer Chen of the University of Chicago and me, provides a provocative solution to the origin of time asymmetry in our observable universe: we see only a tiny patch of the big picture, and this larger arena is fully time-symmetric. Entropy can increase without limit through the creation of new baby universes.

Best of all, this story can be told backward and forward in time. Imagine that we start with empty space at some particular moment and watch it evolve into the future and into the past. (It goes both ways because we are not presuming a unidirectional arrow of time.) Baby universes fluctuate into existence in both directions of time, eventually emptying out and giving birth to babies of their own. On ultralarge scales, such a multiverse would look statistically symmetric with respect to time—both the past and the future would feature new universes fluctuating into life and proliferating without bound. Each of them would experience an arrow of time, but half would have an arrow that was reversed with respect to that in the others.

The idea of a universe with a backward arrow of time might seem alarming. If we met someone from such a universe, would they remember the future? Happily, there is no danger of such a rendezvous. In the scenario we are describing, the only places where time seems to run backward are enormously far back in our past—long before our big bang. In between is a broad expanse of universe in which time does not seem to run at all; almost no matter exists, and entropy does not evolve. Any beings who lived in one of these time-reversed regions would not be born old and die young—or anything else out of the ordinary. To them, time would flow in a completely conventional fashion. It is only when comparing their universe to ours that anything seems out of the ordinary—our past is their future, and vice versa. But such a comparison is purely hypothetical, as we cannot get there and they cannot come here.

. . .

But the take-home lesson is not any particular scenario for the structure of spacetime on ultralarge scales. It is the idea that a striking feature of our observable cosmos—the arrow of time, arising from very low entropy conditions in the early universe—can provide us with clues about the nature of the unobservable universe.



Read it all here.

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