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The Arrow of Time

The laws of nature, except the second law of thermodynamics, are symmetric in time.
Reversing the time in the dynamical equations of motion simply describes everything
going backwards. The second law is different. Entropy must never decrease in time,
except statistically and briefly.

Many natural processes are apparently irreversible. Irreversibility is intimately


connected to the direction of time. Identifying the physical reasons for the observed
irreversibility, the origin of irreversibility, would contribute greatly to understanding the
apparent asymmetry of nature in time, despite nature's apparently perfect symmetry
in space.

In 1927, Arthur Stanley Eddington coined the term "Arrow of Time" in his book The
Nature of the Physical World. He connected "Time's Arrow" to the one-way direction
of increasing entropy required by the second law of thermodynamics. This is now
known as the"thermodynamic arrow."
(Nature of the Physical World, 1927, p.328-9)

In his later work, Eddington identified a "cosmological arrow," the direction in which
the universe is expanding, as shown by Edwin Hubble about the time Eddington first
defined the thermodynamic arrow.

New Pathways in Science, 1937, p.328-9)


There are now at least five other proposed arrows of time (discussed below). We can
ask whether one arrow is a "master arrow" that all the others are following, or perhaps
time itself is just a given property of nature that is otherwise irreducible to something
more basic, as is space.

Given the four-dimensional space-time picture of special relativity, and given that the
laws of nature are symmetric in space, we may expect the laws to be invariant under
a change in time direction. The laws do not depend on position in space or direction,
they are invariant under translations and rotations, space is assumed uniform and
isotropic. But time is not just another spatial dimension. It enters into calculations of

event separations as an imaginary term (multiplied by the square root of minus 1).
Nevertheless, all the dynamical laws of motion are symmetric under time reversal.
So the basic problem is - how can macroscopic irreversibility result from microscopic
processes that are fundamentally reversible?

Long before Eddington, scientists asked deep questions about the direction of time.
Perhaps the first to explore the connection with physics was Ludwig Boltzmann, who
with James Clerk Maxwell investigated the statistical motions of the atoms and
molecules of gases.

If the laws of nature are time symmetric, perhaps the "arrow of time" is to be found in
the "initial" conditions, although this may be a circular concept, since "initial,"current,"
and "final" states are all defined with respect to time. Since the dynamical laws are
time reversible, scientists as early as Isaac Newton understood that one could
calculate all the motions of a system by assuming "final conditions" and working
backwards in time.

Nevertheless, most physicists have assumed the universe must have begun in a highly
ordered (low entropy) state and it has been "running down" (entropy or disorder
increasing) ever since. In the nineteenth century, this was called the "heat death" of
the universe. This view has the unfortunate implication that all the information in the
current universe was present at the beginning, which is friendly to some theological
ideas like pre-destination, but distinctly unfriendly to ideas of human free will.

Boltzmann assumed that the universe was infinitely old and that our current state is
the consequence of a massive statistical fluctuation away from equilibrium and
maximum entropy, a condition to which we must ultimately return.

Would time itself be reversed if we could make the entropy decrease? That is unlikely,
since entropy decrease anywhere (creating negative entropy or negentropy, a term
coined by Leon Brillouin) must be accompanied by an increase elsewhere, to satisfy
the second law. Otherwise we could use the local reduction in the entropy to build a
perpetual motion machine.

Put another way, if we could reverse the time, would entropy decrease? What can time
reversal really mean? A thought experiment suggests not. Consider a closed perfume
bottle inside a large empty container. Remove the bottle top and what would happen
assuming that time is flowing backwards? It seems likely that the perfume molecules
would leave the bottle whatever time is doing.

For Aristotle, time was a measure of motion and change and for practical purposes,
many scientists have thought that time reversal is approximated by the reversal of all
the velocities or momenta of material particles at an instant, starting from their current
positions.

If we could reverse the motions of every material body (a practical impossibility, and
perhaps a violation of Heisenberg's uncertainty principle), would that make the entropy
decrease? Ludwig Boltzmann agreed that it might, but only for a while. His intuition
was that a system could not return to a highly ordered original state, such as every
molecule back in the perfume bottle.
J. Willard Gibbs thought otherwise, if the detailed path information in all the
macroscopic motions is still available as microscopic information (if information is a
conserved quantity), then reversal of all the motions should be exactly like a movie
played backwards.

The fundamental question of information philosophy is cosmological and ultimately


metaphysical. What is the process that creates information structures in the universe?
Given the second law of thermodynamics, which says that any system will over time
approach a thermodynamic equilibrium of maximum disorder or entropy, in which all
information is lost, and given the best current model for the origin of the universe,
which says everything began in a state of equilibrium some 13.75 billion years ago,
how can it be that living beings are creating and communicating new information every
day? Why are we not still in that state of thermal equilibrium?

It is perhaps easier for us to see the increasing complexity and order of information
structures on the earth than it is to notice the increase in chaos that comes with
increasing entropy, since the entropy is radiated away from the earth into the night
sky, then away to the cosmic microwave background sink of deep space.

David Layzer is a Harvard cosmologist who in the early 1970's made it clear that in an
expanding universe the entropy would increase, as required by the second law of
thermodynamics, but that the maximum possible entropy of the universe might
increase faster than the actual entropy increase. This would leave room for an
increase of order or information at the same time the entropy is increasing!

Layzer pointed out that if the equilibration rate of the matter (the speed with which
matter redistributes itself randomly among all the possible states) was slower than the
rate of expansion, then the "negative entropy" or "order" (defined as the difference
between the maximum possible entropy and the actual entropy) would also
increase. Claude Shannonidentified this negative entropy with information, though
visible structural information in the universe may be less than this "potential" for
information.

Layzer called the direction of information increase the "historical arrow."


In a 1975 article for Scientific American called The Arrow of Time, Layzer wrote:
the complexity of the astronomical universe seems puzzling.

This is the fundamental question of information philosophy


Isolated systems inevitably evolve toward the featureless state of thermodynamic
equilibrium. Since the universe is in some sense an isolated system, why has it not
settled into equilibrium? One answer, favored by many cosmologists, is that the
cosmological trend is in fact toward equilibrium but that too little time has elapsed for
the process to have reached completion... I shall argue that this view is fundamentally

incorrect. The universe is not running down, and it need not have started with a marked
degree of disequilibrium; the initial state may indeed have been wholly lacking in
macroscopic as well as microscopic information.

Suppose that at some early moment local thermodynamic equilibrium prevailed in the
universe. The entropy of any region would then be as large as possible for the
prevailing values of the mean temperature and density. As the universe expanded
from that hypothetical state the local values of the mean density and temperature
would change, and so would the entropy of the region. For the entropy to remain at its
maximum value (and thus for equilibrium to be maintained) the distribution of energies
allotted to matter and to radiation must change, and so must the concentrations of the
various kinds of particles. The physical processes that mediate these changes
proceed at finite rates; if these "equilibration" rates are all much greater than the rate
of cosmic expansion, approximate local thermodynamic equilibrium will be maintained;
if they are not, the expansion will give rise to significant local departures from
equilibrium.
This is the Layzer's seminal theory of thegrowth of order in the universe
These departures represent macroscopic information; the quantity of macroscopic
information generated by the expansion is the difference between the actual value of
the entropy and the theoretical maximum entropy at the mean temperature and
density.
(Scientific American, December, 1975, p.68)

In his 1989 book The Emperor's New Mind, Roger Penrose speculated on the
connection between information, entropy, and the arrow of time.
Recall that the primordial fireball was a thermal state a hot gas in expanding thermal
equilibrium. Recall, also, that the term 'thermal equilibrium' refers to a state of
maximum entropy. (This was how we referred to the maximum entropy state of a gas
in a box.) However, the second law demands that in its initial state, the entropy of our
universe was at some sort of minimum, not a maximum!

What has gone wrong? One 'standard' answer would run roughly as follows:

True, the fireball was effectively in thermal equilibrium at the beginning, but the
universe at that time was very tiny. The fireball represented the state of maximum
entropy that could be permitted for a universe of that tiny size, but the entropy so
permitted would have been minute by comparison with that which is allowed for a
universe of the size that we find it to be today. As the universe expanded, the permitted
maximum entropy increased with the universe's size, but the actual entropy in the
universe lagged well behind this permitted maximum. The second law arises because
the actual entropy is always striving to catch up with this permitted maximum.
(The Emperor's New Mind, p.328-9)

Penrose's "standard" answer is a clear reference to the pioneering work of Harvard


cosmologist David Layzer, especially his 1975 Scientific American article "The Arrow
of Time." Layzer explained the the growth of order in the universe as the maximum
possible entropy of the expanding universe increasing faster than the actual entropy,
because the equilibration rates for matter and radiation are slower than the expansion
rate.

Other Arrows of Time


The Radiation Arrow
Whether they be electromagnetic waves or waves in water, we only observe wavelike
disturbances that propagate outwards in space away from the disturbance. These
waves are described by what is called the retarded potential. In his 1909 discussion
of waves and particles, Albert Einstein described the possibility of incoming spherical
waves:

According to our prevailing theory, an oscillating ion generates a spherical wave that
propagates outwards. The inverse process does not exist as an elementary process.
A converging spherical wave is mathematically possible, to be sure; but to approach
its realization requires a vast number of emitting entities. The elementary process of
emission is not invertible. In this, I believe, our oscillation theory does not hit the mark.
Newton's emission theory of light seems to contain more truth with respect to this point
than the oscillation theory since, first of all, the energy given to a light particle is not
scattered over infinite space, but remains available for an elementary process of
absorption.

("On the Development of Our Views Concerning the Nature and Constitution of
Radiation," , orig. German,Physikalische Zeitschrift, 10, 817-825, 1909)
In 1945, John Wheeler and his student Richard Feynman attempted to symmetrize
Maxwell's equations for electromagnetic fields with an "Absorber Theory of Radiation,"
that combined retarded (outgoing waves) and advanced potentials (incoming
spherical waves) for radiation. They later described the theory as a mistake.

The Cosmological Arrow (expansion of the universe)


We can define a cosmological direction of time as the direction in which the universe
is expanding. There are excellent reasons for seeing this as the most fundamental of
all arrows, even the one driving some of the others. Without expansion, a static
universe would settle into thermal equilibrium and there would be no changes. There
would be no entropy increase to show Eddington's thermodynamic arrow. There would
be no information increase, as seen in Layzer's historical arrow.
Without the cosmological arrow, all the other arrows could not be realized.

References
Davies, P.C.W 1977 The Physics of Time Asymmetry, University of California Press.
Gold, T. 1967 The Nature of Time, Cornell University Press.
Reichenbach, H, 1956 The Direction of Time, University of California Press.
Zeh, H.D. 2010 The Physical Basis of the Direction of Time 5th ed., Springer-Verlag
Berlin

The Arrow of Time


The arrow of time refers to the way we always see things progressing in a particular
direction, e.g. eggs may break, but they never spontaneously reform

Time appears to have a direction, to be inherently directional: the past lies behind us
and is fixed and immutable, and accessible by memory or written documentation; the
future, on the other hand, lies ahead and is not necessarily fixed, and, although we
can perhaps predict it to some extent, we have no firm evidence or proof of it. Most of
the events we experience are irreversible: for example, it is easy for us to break an
egg, and hard, if not impossible, to unbreak an already broken egg. It appears
inconceivable to us that that this progression could go in any other direction. This oneway direction or asymmetry of time is often referred to as the arrow of time, and it is
what gives us an impression of time passing, of our progressing through different
moments. The arrow of time, then, is the uniform and unique direction associated with
the apparent inevitable flow of time into the future.

The idea of an arrow of time was first explored and developed to any degree by the
British astronomer and physicist Sir Arthur Eddington back in 1927, and the origin
of the phrase is usually attributed to him. What interested Eddington is that exactly the
same arrow of time would apply to an alien race on the other side of the universe as
applies to us. It is therefore nothing to do with our biology or psychology, but with the
way the universe is. The arrow of time is not the same thing as time itself, but a feature
of the universe and its contents and the way it has evolved.

Is the Arrow of Time an Illusion?


As we have seen in the section on Relativistic Time, according to the Theory of
Relativity, the reality of the universe can be described by four-dimensional spacetime, so that time does not actually flow, it just is. The perception of an arrow of
time that we have in our everyday life therefore appears to be nothing more than
an illusion of consciousness in this model of the universe, an emergent quality that
we happen to experience due to our particular kind of existence at this particular point
in the evolution of the universe.

Perhaps even more interesting and puzzling is the fact that, although events and
processes at the macroscopic level the behaviour of bulk materials that we
experience in everyday life are quite clearly time-asymmetric (i.e. natural
processes DO have a natural temporal order, and there is an obvious forward direction
of time), physical processes and laws at the microscopic level, whether classical,
relativistic or quantum, are either entirely or mostly time-symmetric. If a physical
process is physically possible, then generally speaking so is the same process run
backwards, so that, if you were to hypothetically watch a movie of a physical process,
you would not be able to tell if it is being played forwards or backwards, as both would
be equally plausible.

In theory, therefore, most of the laws of physics do not necessarily specify an arrow of
time.

There

is,

however,

an

important

exception:

the Second

Law

of

Thermodynamics.

Thermodynamic Arrow of Time


Most of the observed temporal asymmetry at the macroscopic level the reason we
see time as having a forward direction ultimately comes down to thermodynamics,
the science of heat and its relation with mechanical energy or work, and more
specifically to the Second Law of Thermodynamics. This law states that, as one
goes forward in time, the net entropy (degree of disorder) of any isolated or closed
system will always increase (or at least stay the same).

The concept of entropy and the decay of ordered systems was explored and clarified
by the German physicist Ludwig Boltzmann in the 1870s, building on earlier ideas
of Rudolf Clausius, but it remains a difficult and often misunderstood idea. Entropy
can be thought of, in most cases, as meaning that things (matter, energy, etc) have a
tendency to disperse. Thus, a hot object always dissipates heat to the atmosphere
and cools down, and not vice versa; coffee and milk mix together, but do not then
separate; a house left unattended will eventually crumble away, but a pile of bricks
never spontaneously forms itself into a house; etc. However, as discussed below, it is
not quite as simple as that, and a better way of thinking of it may be as a tendency
towards randomness.

It should be noted that, in thermodynamic systems that are NOT closed, it is quite
possible that entropy can decrease with time (e.g. the formation of certain crystals;
many living systems, which may reduce local entropy at the expense of the
surrounding environment, resulting in a net overall increase in entropy; the formation
of isolated pockets of gas and dust into stars and planets, even though the entropy of
the universe as a whole continues to increase; etc). Any localized or temporary
instances

of

order

within

the

universe

are

therefore

in

the

nature

of

epiphenomena within the overall picture of a universe progressing inexorably towards


disorder.

It is also perhaps counter-intuitive, but nevertheless true, that overall entropy actually
increases even as large-scale structure forms in the universe (e.g. galaxies,
clusters, filaments, etc), and that dense and compact black holes have incredibly high
entropy, and actually account for the overwhelming majority of the entropy in todays
universe. Likewise, the relatively smooth configuration of the very early universe (see
the section on Time and the Big Bang) is actually an indication of very low overall
entropy (i.e. high entropy does not necessarily imply smoothness: random
lumpiness, like in our current universe, is actually a characteristic of high entropy).
Most of the processes that appear to us to be irreversible in time are those that start
out, for whatever reason, in some very special, highly-ordered state. For example, a
new deck of cards are in number order, but as soon as we shuffle them they become
disordered; an egg is a much more ordered state than a broken or scrambled egg; etc.
There is nothing in the laws of physics that prevents the act of shuffling a deck of cards
from producing a perfectly ordered set of cards there is always a chance of that, it is
just a vanishingly small chance. To give another example, there are many more
possible disordered arrangements of a jigsaw than the one ordered arrangement that
makes a complete picture. So, the apparent asymmetry of time is really just
anasymmetry of chance things evolve from order to disorder not because the
reverse is impossible, but because it is highly unlikely. The Second Law of
Thermodynamics is therefore more a statistical principle than a fundamental law
(this was Boltzmanns great insight). But the upshot is that, provided the initial
condition of a system is one of relatively high order, then the tendency will almost
always be towards disorder.

Thermodynamics, then, appears to be one of the only physical processes that is NOT
time-symmetric, and so fundamental and ubiquitous is it in our universe that it may be
single-handedly responsible for our perception of time as having a direction. Indeed,
several of the other arrows of time noted below (arguably) ultimately come back to the
asymmetry of thermodynamics. Indeed, so clear is this law that the measurement of
entropy has been put forward a way of distinguishing the past from the future, and the
thermodynamic arrow of time has even been put forward as the reason we can
remember the past but not the future, due to the fact that the entropy or disorder was
lower in the past than in the future.

Cosmological Arrow of Time


It has been argued that the arrow of time points in the direction of the universes
expansion, as the universe continues to grow bigger and bigger since its beginning
in the Big Bang (see the section on Time and the Big Bang). It became apparent
towards the beginning of the 20thCentury, thanks to the work of Edwin Hubble and
others, that space is indeed expanding, and the galaxies are moving ever further apart.
Logically, therefore, at a much earlier time, the universe was much smaller, and
ultimately concentrated in a single point or singularity, which we call the Big Bang.
Thus, the universe does seem to have some intrinsic (outward) directionality. In our
everyday lives, however, we are not physically conscious of this movement, and it is
difficult to see how we can perceive the expansion of the universe as an arrow of time.
The cosmological arrow of time may be linked to, or even dependent on, the
thermodynamic arrow, given that, as the universe continues to expand and heads
towards an ultimate Heat Death or Big Chill, it is also heading in a direction of
increasing entropy, ultimately arriving at a position of maximum entropy, where the
amount of usable energy becomes negligible or even zero. This accords with the
Second Law of Thermodynamics in that the overall direction is from the current semiordered state, marked by outcroppings of order and structure, towards a completely
disordered state of thermal equilibrium. What remains a major unknown in modern
physics, though, is exactly why the universe had a very low entropy at its origin, the
Big Bang.

Recently, some physicists (led by Julian Barbour, Tim Koslowski and Flavio
Mercati) have suggested that perhaps, when the universe we know began,

another parallel mirror universewas simultaneously created in which time flows in


the other direction. The idea was triggered by a theoretical experiment to recreate the
beginnings of the universe, which appeared to yield two separate universes with
different arrows of time, but it remains unproven (and perhaps forever unprovable).
It is also possible although less likely according to the predictions of current physics
that the present expansion phase of the universe could eventually slow, stop, and
then reverse itself under gravity. The universe would then contract back to a mirror
image of the Big Bang known as the Big Crunch (and possibly a subsequent Big
Bounce in one of a series of cyclic repetitions). As the universe contracts and
collapses, entropy will in theory start to reduce and, presumably, the arrow of time
will reverse itself and time will effectively begin to run backwards. In this scenario,
then, the arrow of time that we experience is merely a function of our current place in
the evolution of the universe and, at some other time, it could conceivably change its
direction. However, there are paradoxes associated with this view because, looked at
from a suitably distant and long-term viewpoint, time will continue to progress
forwards (in some respects at least), even if the universe happens to be in a
contraction phase rather than an expansion phase. So, the cosmic asymmetry of time
could still continue, even in a closed universe of this kind.

Radiative Arrow of Time


Waves always radiate away from a source
Waves,

like

light,

radio

waves,

sound

waves,

water

waves,

etc,

are

always radiative and expand outwards from their sources. While theoretical equations
do allow for the opposite (covergent) waves, this is apparently never seen in nature.
This asymmetry is regarded by some as a reason for the asymmetry of time.
It is possible that the radiative arrow may also be linked to the thermodynamic arrow,
because radiation suggests increased entropy while convergence suggests increased
order. This becomes particularly clear when we consider radiation as having a particle
aspect (i.e. as consisting of photons) as quantum mechanics suggests.

Quantum Arrow of Time


The

whole

mechanism

conventional Copenhagen

of quantum
interpretation of

mechanics (or
it)

is

based

at

least

the

on Schrdingers

Equation and the collapse of wave functions (see the section on Quantum Time),

and this appears to be a time-asymmetric phenomenon. For example, the location of


a particle is described by a wave function, which essentially gives various probabilities
that the particle is in many different possible positions (or superpositions), and the
wave function only collapses when the particle is actually observed. At that point, the
particle can finally be said to be in one particular position, and all the information from
the wave function is then lost and cannot be recreated. In this respect, the process is
time-irreversible, and an arrow of time is created.

Some physicists, including the team of Aharonov, Bergmann and Lebowitz in the
1960s, have questioned this finding, though. Their experiments concluded that we only
get time-asymmetric answers in quantum mechanics when we ask time-asymmetric
questions, and that questions and experiments can be framed in such a way that the
results are time-symmetric. Thus, quantum mechanics does not impose time
asymmetry on the world; rather, the world imposes time asymmetry on quantum
mechanics.

It is not clear how the quantum arrow of time, if indeed it exists at all, is related to the
other arrows, but it is possible that it is linked to the thermodynamic arrow, in that
nature shows a bias for collapsing wave functions into higher entropy states versus
lower ones.

Weak Nuclear Force Arrow of Time


Of the four fundamental forces in physics (gravity, electromagnetism, the strong
nuclear force and the weak nuclear force), the weak nuclear force is the only one
that does not always manifest complete time symmetry. To some limited extent,
therefore, there is a weak force arrow of time, and this is the only arrow of time which
appears to be completely unrelated to the thermodynamic arrow.

The weak nuclear force is a very weak interaction in the nucleus of an atom, and is
responsible for, among other things, radioactive beta decay and the production of
neutrinos. It is perhaps the least understood and strangest of the fundamental forces.
In some situations the weak force is time-reversible, e.g. a proton and an electron can
smash together to produce a neutron and a neutrino, and a neutron and a neutrino
smashed together CAN also produce a proton and an electron (even if the chances of

this happening in practice are very small). However, there are examples of the weak
interaction that are time-irreversible, for example the case of the oscillation and decay
of neutral kaon and anti-kaon particles. Under certain conditions, it has been shown
experimentally that kaons and anti-kaons actually decay at different rates, indicating
that the weak force is not in fact time-reversible, thereby establishing a kind of arrow
of time.

It should be noted, though, that this is not such a strong or fundamental arrow of time
as the thermodynamic arrow (the difference is between a process that could go either
way but in a slightly different way or at a different rate, and a truly irreversible process
like entropy that just cannot possibly go both ways). Indeed, it is such a rare
occurrence, so small and barely perceivable in its effect, and so divorced from any of
the other arrows, that it is usually characterized as an inexplicable anomaly.

Causal Arrow of Time


Although not directly related to physics, causality appears to be intimately bound up
with times arrow. By definition, a cause precedes its effect. Although it is surprisingly
difficulty to satisfactorily define cause and effect, the concept is readily apparent in the
events of our everyday lives. If we drop a wineglass on a hard floor, it will subsequently
shatter, whereas shattered glass on the floor is very unlikely to subsequently result in
an unbroken held wine glass. By causing something to happen, we are to some extent
controlling the future, whereas whatever might do we cannot change or control the
past.

Once again, though, the underlying principle may well come back to the
thermodynamic arrow: while disordered shattered glass can easily be made out of a
well-ordered wineglass, the reverse is much more difficult and unlikely.

Psychological Arrow of Time


A

variant

of

the

causal

arrow

is

sometimes

referred

to

as

the psychological or perceptual arrow of time. We appear to have an innate sense


that our perception runs from the known past to the unknown future. We anticipate the
unknown, and automatically move forward towards it, and, while we are able to

remember the past, we do not normally waste time in trying to change the already
known and fixed past.

Stephen Hawking has argued that even the psychological arrow of time is ultimately
dependent on the thermodynamic arrow, and that we can only remember past things
because they form a relatively small set compared to the potentially infinite number of
possible disordered future sets.

Anthropic Principle
Some thinkers, including Stephen Hawking again, have pinned the direction of the
arrow of time on what is sometimes called the weak anthropic principle, the idea that
the laws of physics are as they are solely because those are the laws that allow the
development of sentient, questioning beings like ourselves. It is not that the universe
is in some way designed to allow human beings, merely that we only find ourselves
in such a universe because it is as it is, even though the universe could easily have
developed in a quite different way with quite different laws.
Thus, Hawking argues, a strong thermodynamic arrow of time is a necessary condition
for intelligent life as we know it to develop. For example, beings like us need to
consume food (a relatively ordered form of energy) and convert it into heat (a relatively
disordered form of energy), for which a thermodynamic arrow like the one we see
around us is necessary. If the universe were any other way, we would not be here to
observe it.

The arrow of time


The universe may have one past (the Big Bang) and two
futures
BY
ANDREW GRANT
2:23PM, JULY 10, 2015

LOOKING TO THE FUTURE(S) In this illustration, the dual faces of the Roman god Janus gaze at
the universe in opposing directions of time. A new simulation suggests that gravity sends an orderly
universe in two temporal directions.
JAMES PROVOST

In T.H. Whites fantasy novel The Once and Future King, Merlyn the magician suffers
from a rare and incurable condition: He experiences time in reverse. He knows what
will happen, he laments, but not what has happened. I have to live backwards from
in front, while surrounded by a lot of people living forwards from behind, he explains
to a justifiably confused companion.
While Merlyn is fictional, the backward flow of time should not be. As the society of
ants in Whites novel proclaimed, everything not forbidden is compulsory, and the
laws of physics do not forbid time to run backward. Equations that determine the
acceleration of a rocket or the momentum of a billiard ball all work just as well with
time flowing backward as forward. Yet unlike Merlyn, we remember the past but not
the future. We get older but never younger. There is a distinct arrow of time pointing
in one direction.

For nearly 140 years, scientists have tried to rule out the backward flow of time by
way of natures preference for disorder. Left alone, nature transforms the neat into
the messy, a one-way progression that many physicists have used to define times
direction. But if nature prefers disorder now, it always has. The challenge is figuring
out why the universe started out so orderly thereby allowing disorder to grow and
time to march forward when the early universe should have been messy. Despite
many proposals, physicists have not been able to agree on a satisfying explanation.
A new paper offers a solution. The secret ingredient, the authors say, is gravity.
Using a simple simulation of gravitationally interacting particles, the researchers
show that an orderly universe should always arise naturally at one point in time.
From there, the universe branches in opposing temporal directions. Within each
branch, time flows toward increasing disorder, essentially creating two futures that
share one past. Its the only clear, simple idea thats been put forward to explain the
basis of the arrow of time, says physicist Julian Barbour, a coauthor of
the study published last October in Physical Review Letters.
It may be clear and simple, but its far from being the only idea attempting to explain
the mystery of times arrow. Many scientists (and philosophers) over the decades
have proposed ideas for reconciling natures time-reversible laws with times
irreversible flow. Barbour and colleagues admit that the arrow of time issue is far
from settled theres no guarantee that their simple simulation captures all the
complexities of the universe we know. But their study offers an unusually elegant
mechanism for explaining times arrow, along with some tantalizing implications.
Attacking the arrow-of-time mystery along the lines Barbour and colleagues suggest
may reveal that the universe is eternal.

NATURE FAVORS DISORDER Marbles arranged by color (top) depict an ordered, low-entropy
state. But of all possible arrangements of the marbles, the most likely are messy, high-entropy
states (bottom).
J. HIRSHFELD

Mixing marbles
Nobody knows exactly why time doesnt flow backward. But most scientists have
suspected that the explanation depends on the second law of thermodynamics,
which describes natures fondness for messiness. Consider a jar containing 100
numbered marbles, 50 of them red and 50 blue. Someone with way too much free
time then takes a picture of every possible arrangement of the marbles (yes, this
would take far longer than a human lifetime) and creates a giant collage. Even
though every photo depicts a different arrangement of numbered marbles, the vast

majority of images would look very similar: a jumble of red and blue. Very few photos
would have all the red marbles on one side of the jar and all the blue on the other. A
photo picked at random would be far more likely to show a state of disorder than one
of order.
Physicists in the 19th century recognized this propensity for disorder by thinking
about the flow of heat in steam engines. When two containers of gas are exposed to
each other, the faster-moving molecules of the higher-temperature container (think
the blue marbles) tend to mix with the slower molecules (red marbles) of the cooler
container. Eventually the combined contents of the containers will settle at an
equilibrium temperature because a disordered state of blended hot and cold is most
likely.
In the mid-19th century, physicists introduced the notion of entropy to quantify the
disorder of a heat-shifting system. Austrian physicist Ludwig Boltzmann sharpened
the definition by relating entropy to the number of ways that one could arrange
microscopic components to produce an indistinguishable macroscopic state. The jar
with segregated red and blue marbles, for example, has low entropy because only a
few arrangements of the numbered marbles could produce that color pattern.
Similarly, there are many combinations of speedy and sluggish molecules that will
produce a gas at equilibrium temperature, the highest possible entropy. The fact that
there are far more ways to achieve high entropy than low provides the foundation for
the second law of thermodynamics: The entropy of a closed system tends to
increase until reaching equilibrium, the maximum state of disorder.
The second law explains why cream easily mixes into coffee but doesnt unmix, and
why Humpty Dumpty wont spontaneously reassemble after his fateful fall. Crucially,
the second law also defines a thermodynamic arrow of time. The drive toward
maximum entropy is an irreversible process in a universe governed by timereversible physical laws. The second law suggests that time flows from past to
present to future because the universe is progressing from an ordered low-entropy
state to a disordered high-entropy one.
Unfortunately, physicists had to make a major assumption to connect entropy and
the arrow of time. If entropy has been increasing since the Big Bang, 13.8 billion
years ago, then the universes original entropy must have been low enough that
even today the universe is not close to equilibrium. Yet as the jar of marbles reveals,
there are not many ways for entropy to be low. If you randomly picked the universes
initial entropy value out of a hat, youd almost certainly pick equilibrium, says

Anthony Aguirre, a cosmologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz. A


universe in equilibrium would be like the thoroughly mixed container of gas
molecules: unchanging, with no heat flowing, no eggs to break, no pockets of order
remaining to transform into disorder. And thats not what scientists see when they
look at the universe, both in the past and today.
This early-universe entropy dilemma bothers many physicists. They want to prove
that the universe is typical, that it did not need an exceptionally lucky break to evolve
into its current condition. But framing the Big Bang era in terms of entropy is a
slippery proposition. Back then, matter and energy were confined to a hot, dense
ball. Some physicists consider that to be an orderly, low-entropy state; others say it
resembles a packed container of gas molecules in equilibrium. Most physicists agree
that the second law of thermodynamics is vital for explaining times arrow, but they
still want to develop a simple theory that explains the flow of time.

The Janus point


Barbour is in this camp of time thinkers. Like a random low-entropy state, he is a
rarity in physics: a freelancer. After completing his Ph.D. in 1968 at the University of
Cologne in Germany, he quit academia so that he could focus on fundamental
physics rather than obtaining tenure. He lives in a small English parish (population
285) where the rural charm and centuries-old houses create the illusion that time has
slowed since the Age of Enlightenment.
Barbours dive into the arrow-of-time question began several years ago. He was
thinking about the n-body problem, which requires determining the motion of multiple
objects that are tugging on each other due to gravity. He wondered whether gravity,
which clearly influences the movement of matter, could also impact the movement of
time. Barbour worked on the problem with Tim Koslowski of the University of New
Brunswick in Fredericton, Canada, and Flavio Mercati of the Perimeter Institute for
Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Canada. They set up a toy universe a simple
simulation used to examine the workings of the complex cosmos without all the
messy details. This universe consisted of 1,000 particles in limitless space that
interacted solely through Newtonian gravity.
Story continues below infographic

Back and forth

In a simulated universe, gravity packs particles together (middle). The particles later
disperse and clump (left and right). The graph shows complexity rising in both cases,
creating opposing arrows of time (t).
Credit: J. Barbour, T. Koslowski and F. Mercati/Physical Review Letters 2014
Barbour, Koslowski and Mercati did not just toss in some particles and press play.
Assuming a forward flow of time would have defeated the purpose of the exercise.
Instead, they let the simulation rip and recorded a series of snapshots, like frames in
a movie. Each frame captured the positions of the particles and recorded the
systems complexitya measure that quantified the spread and clustering of the
particles. (For the most part, complexity increases along with entropy.) Then the
researchers pieced together the frames to create a coherent motion picture, much
like someone ordering stills from a video that captures the motion of a swinging
pendulum.
After running the simulation many times with varying numbers of particles, Barbour
and colleagues noticed an unmistakable pattern. At some instant during each
simulation, all the particles would clump together into a homogeneous ball, a
moment of minimum complexity. Then the complexity would increase. As the
elapsed time from the instant of minimum complexity increased in either direction of
time, so did the number of clumps and the distances between them.

Barbour and his team immediately made a connection to our universe and its arrow
of time. At a single instant, the toy universes 1,000 particles had formed a packed,
uniform ball, which resembles the conditions at the Big Bang. From there the ball
had expanded into a sparse, clumpy arrangement that is more reminiscent of todays
galaxy clusterdotted cosmos. This expansion, the shift from simplicity to complexity,
occurred in both directions of time. That means that all the matter and energy that
have evolved to create the cosmos we see today could also be evolving
independently in the other direction of time. What we know as the universe could
actually be just one of a pair that exists in the same space but at different times.
The researchers concluded that an observer living in either universe would perceive
time as flowing in the direction of increasing complexity, from the Big Bangesque
blob to the present. The arrow of time for an observer on one side of the timeline
would appear to run backward from the perspective of an observer on the other side,
but that would be academic: An observer could never compare notes with his or her
counterpart because that would require burrowing backward through time.
Crucially, the researchers proposal demonstrates what Boltzmann could not nearly
140 years ago: that asymmetry in time can arise naturally from time-symmetric
physical laws. In fact, Barbour and colleagues proved mathematically that if the real
universe behaves like the toy one, then a gravity-driven arrow of time must have
arisen. This inevitability could solve the problem of why entropy in the early universe
was so low. Barbour and colleagues say that the Big Bang could represent the one
minimum-complexity moment in time that always arises when gravity is at work. The
researchers named this pivotal instant the Janus point, after the Roman god of
beginnings, who has one face looking toward the past and another toward the future.
The proof that they give is nice and elegant, Aguirre says. But he warns that
Barbour has a long way to go to prove that his simulation, which simplifies gravity
and ignores quantum physics, can approximate the actual universe. Barbour says
his team is working to confirm that particles would behave similarly in a universe
governed by general relativity, Einsteins all-encompassing theory of gravity.

Everlasting universe
If Barbours proposal holds up, it will offer intriguing evidence that the universe is
eternal, with no beginning and no end of time. Today, many cosmologists consider
the Big Bang as the start of the universes forward-pointing arrow of time. But
Barbours simulation suggests the Big Bang serves as the starting point of two

arrows that both point toward increasing disorder. The universe we know, which is
guided by one of the arrows, has evolved to enable the development of stars,
galaxies and life; the universe on the other side of the Janus point, undetectable to
us but made of the same starting ingredients, may be very similar.
In some ways, Barbours proposal is much like one made in 2004 by cosmologists
Sean Carroll and Jennifer Chen when they were at the University of Chicago. They
also envisioned an eternal universe, though it existed in an equilibrium state. The
catch was that occasional quantum fluctuations could spark the birth of low-entropy
universes that break away, expand and evolve toward higher entropy (SN: 6/19/10,
p. 26). Baby universes could pinch off in either temporal direction, ensuring a local
arrow of time while preserving an overall time symmetry.

The general struggle for existence of animate beings is not a


struggle for raw materials ... nor for energy ... but a struggle for
entropy, which becomes available through the transition of energy
from the hot sun to the cold Earth.

Ludwig Boltzmann, Universitt Wien


Aguirre, who described an eternal multiverse with local arrows of time in 2003, says
these recent studies should give cosmologists pause when they consider whether
the Big Bang truly marked the beginning of time. The idea of a universe with a
beginning has become so entrenched that many cosmologists seem unwilling to
entertain the notion of an eternal universe, he says. While he doesnt expect that his
work or that of Carroll, Chen or Barbour will sway his colleagues, he says that future
astronomical observations might support the case for an eternal multiverse (SN:
6/7/08, p. 23).
Barbours findings also open up a possibility that would get Boltzmann rolling in his
grave. If gravity is the crucial ingredient that explains why time flows forward,
Barbour says, then perhaps a new measure that incorporates gravity should replace
the steam engineinspired concept of entropy. Barbour is not arguing that entropy is
useless or that the second law is wrong, but he questions whether entropy can be
usefully applied to describe the universe as a whole.
Lawrence Schulman, a physicist at Clarkson University in Potsdam, N.Y., shares
Barbours entropy trepidation. Its very hard to define entropy for the entire
universe, says Schulman, who suggested in 1999 that time could run backward in
some regions of the cosmos. A box of gas molecules has boundaries, he says,
making it easy to describe the entire large-scale configuration of the gas; the
universe stretches beyond the billions of light-years in all directions that are visible to
us. And gravity plays a far greater role in the evolution of the universe than it does in
a small container of lightweight gas molecules.
As a replacement for entropy, Barbour, Koslowski and Mercati, in an upcoming
paper, suggest a metric called entaxy. From the Greek for toward order, entaxy
measures the degree of order created by gravity. It is essentially the opposite of
entropy. Based on their simulation, maximum entaxy occurs at the Janus point, when
gravity pulls matter and energy together into one orderly clump. As the universe
evolves in both directions from that orderly point, entaxy decreases as matter
spreads apart and forms ever-smaller clumps. The entaxy of the universe has been
decreasing ever since the Big Bang, Barbour says.
Carroll, who is now at Caltech and wrote a 2010 book on the arrow of time, remains
staunchly on Team Boltzmann. Gravity is essential for understanding what an
increasing-entropy universe looks like, he says, but that doesnt mean that gravity

should be integrated into the measurement of the universes disorder. You know
entropy when you see it, he says, even if the universe presents more challenges
than a steam engine or a jar of marbles.
Carroll praises the work of Barbour and colleagues, but he thinks similar simulations
would work just as well if the particles exerted no gravitational influence on each
other. He is working with MIT cosmologist Alan Guth to create a simulation without
gravity. Barbours toy universe is simple but specific, Carroll says. We want our
model to be simple and generic. We literally have no forces or interactions. The
particles move in a straight line and bounce off each other like billiard balls. While
Carroll and Guth have yet to produce a paper, Carroll says their toy universe also
results in a Janus-like point with diverging arrows of time toward increasing entropy.
Guth and Carroll may indeed demonstrate that arrows of time can emerge without
gravitys involvement. Alternatively, Barbour and his team may devise a more
complete theory that incorporates general relativity and entaxy. Or maybe these
simulations have nothing to say about times arrow in the actual universe.
Regardless of where the research leads, Barbour says he takes satisfaction in the
simplicity of the approaches. It would be fitting, he says, if observing the behavior of
a simple set of particles, which provided the first vital clue toward understanding the
arrow of time, ends up finally resolving the problem once and for all.