New Quantum Theory Could Explain the Flow of Time

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coffee_entanglement_webAs a hot cup of coffee equilibrates with the surrounding air, coffee particles (white) and air particles (brown) interact and become entangled mixtures of brown and white states. After some time, most of the particles in the coffee are correlated with air particles; the coffee has reached thermal equilibrium. Image: Lidia del Rio

Coffee cools, buildings crumble, eggs break and stars fizzle out in a universe that seems destined to degrade into a state of uniform drabness known as thermal equilibrium. The astronomer-philosopher Sir Arthur Eddington in 1927 cited the gradual dispersal of energy as evidence of an irreversible “arrow of time.”

But to the bafflement of generations of physicists, the arrow of time does not seem to follow from the underlying laws of physics, which work the same going forward in time as in reverse. By those laws, it seemed that if someone knew the paths of all the particles in the universe and flipped them around, energy would accumulate rather than disperse: Tepid coffee would spontaneously heat up, buildings would rise from their rubble and sunlight would slink back into the sun.

“In classical physics, we were struggling,” said Sandu Popescu, a professor of physics at the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom. “If I knew more, could I reverse the event, put together all the molecules of the egg that broke? Why am I relevant?”

Surely, he said, time’s arrow is not steered by human ignorance. And yet, since the birth of thermodynamics in the 1850s, the only known approach for calculating the spread of energy was to formulate statistical distributions of the unknown trajectories of particles, and show that, over time, the ignorance smeared things out.

Now, physicists are unmasking a more fundamental source for the arrow of time: Energy disperses and objects equilibrate, they say, because of the way elementary particles become intertwined when they interact — a strange effect called “quantum entanglement.”

“Finally, we can understand why a cup of coffee equilibrates in a room,” said Tony Short, a quantum physicist at Bristol. “Entanglement builds up between the state of the coffee cup and the state of the room.”Popescu, Short and their colleagues Noah Linden and Andreas Winter reported the discovery in the journal Physical Review E in 2009, arguing that objects reach equilibrium, or a state of uniform energy distribution, within an infinite amount of time by becoming quantum mechanically entangled with their surroundings. Similar results by Peter Reimann of the University of Bielefeld in Germany appeared several months earlier in Physical Review Letters. Short and a collaborator strengthened the argument in 2012 by showing that entanglement causes equilibration within a finite time. And, in work that was posted on the scientific preprint site in February, two separate groups have taken the next step, calculating that most physical systems equilibrate rapidly, on time scales proportional to their size. “To show that it’s relevant to our actual physical world, the processes have to be happening on reasonable time scales,” Short said. Read More


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