Category: Relativity

Is time an observable? or is it a mere parameter?

I’ve just put my long paper “Time dispersion and quantum mechanics” up on the physics archive.   If you are here, it is very possibly because you have at one point or another talked with me about some of the ideas in this paper and asked to see the paper when it was done.  But if you just googled in, welcome!

The central question in the paper is “is time fuzzy? or is it flat” Or in more technical language, “it time an observable? or is it a mere parameter?”

To recap, in relativity, time and space enter on a basis of formal equivalence. In special relativity, the time and space coordinates rotate into each other under Lorentz transformations. In general relativity, if you fall into a black hole time and the radial coordinate appear to change places on the way in. And in wormholes and other exotic solutions to general relativity, time can even curve back on itself.

For all its temporal shenanigans, in relativity everything has a definite position in time and in space.  But in quantum mechanics, the three space dimensions are fuzzy.  You can never tell where you are exactly along the x or y or z positions.  And as you try to narrow the uncertainty in say the x dimension, you inevitably (“Heisenberg uncertainty principle”) find the corresponding momentum increasing in direct proportion. The more finely you confine the fly, the fiercer it buzzes to escape. But if it were not for this effect, the atoms that make us — and therefore we ourselves in turn — could not exist (more in the paper on this).

So in quantum mechanics space is complex,  but time is boring. It is well-defined, crisp, moves forward at the traditional second per second rate.  It is like the butler Jeeves at a party at Bertie Wooster’s Drone’s Club:  imperturbable, stately, observing all, participating in nothing. 

Given that quantum mechanics and relativity are the two best theories of physics we have, this curious difference about time is at a minimum, how would Jeeves put it to Bertie?, “most disconcerting sir”.

Till recently this has been a mere cocktail party problem: you may argue on one side, you may argue on the other, but it is more an issue for the philosophers in the philosophy department than for the experimenters in the physics department.

But about two years ago, a team led by Ossiander managed to make some experimental measurements of times less than a single attosecond.    As one attosecond is to a second as a second is to the age of the universe, this is a number small beyond small.

But more critically for this discussion, this is roughly about how fuzzy time would be if time were fuzzy.  A reasonable first estimate of the width of an atom in time is the time it would take light to cross the atom — about an attosecond.

And this means that we can — for the first time — put to experimental test the question:  is time fuzzy or flat? is time an observable or a parameter?

To give the experimenters well-defined predictions is a non-trivial problem. But it’s doable. If we have a circle we can make some shrewd estimates about the height of the corresponding sphere.  If we have an atomic wave function with well-defined extensions in the three space dimensions, we can make some very reasonable estimates about its extent in time as well.

The two chief effects are non-locality in time as an essential aspect of every wave function and the complete equivalence of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle for time/energy to the Heisenberg uncertainty principle for space/momentum.

In particular, if we send a particle through a very very fast camera shutter, the uncertainty in time is given by the time the camera shutter is open. 

In standard quantum mechanics, the particle will be clipped in time.  Time-of-arrival measurements at a detector will show correspondingly less dispersion. 

But if time is fuzzy, then the uncertainty principle kicks in.  The wave function will be diffracted by the camera shutter. If the uncertainty in time is small, the uncertainty in energy will be large, the particle will spread out in time, and time-of-arrival measurements will show much greater dispersion. 

Time a parameter — beam narrower in time.  Time an observable — beam much wider in time.

And if we are careful we can get estimates of the size of the effect in a way which is not just testable but falsifiable.  If the experiments do not show the predicted effects at the predicted scale, then time is flat.

Of course, all this takes a bit of working out.  Hence the long paper.

There was a lot to cover:  how to do calculations in time on the same basis as in space, how to define the rules for detection, how to extend the work from single particles to field theory, and so on. 

The requirements were:

  • Manifest covariance between time and space at every step,
  • Complete consistency with established experimental and observational results,
  • And — for the extension to field theory — equivalence of the free propagator for both Schrödinger equation and Feynman diagrams.

I’ve been helped by many people along the way, especially at the Feynman Festivals in Baltimore & Olomouc/2009; at some conferences hosted by QUIST and DARPA; at The Clock and the Quantum/2008 conference at the Perimeter Institute; at the Quantum Time/2014 conference Pittsburgh; at   Time and Quantum Gravity/2015 in San Diego; and most recently at the  Institute for Relativistic Dynamics (IARD) conference this year in Yucatan.  An earlier version of this paper was presented as a talk at this last conference & feedback from the participants was critical in helping to bring the ideas to final form.

Many thanks! 

If you get a chance to look at the paper and have some comments to make, please send! 

Particularly interesting are ideas for experimental tests that are within the reach of current technology.

PS The paper has been submitted to the IOP Conference Proceedings series.  The copy on the archive is formatted per their requirements so is formatted for A4 paper, and with no running heads or feet.  I have formatted for US Letter here.


Time and Quantum Mechanics accepted at IARD conference

The physics paper I’ve been working on for several years, Time & Quantum Mechanics, has been accepted for presentation at a plenary session of the 2018 meeting of  the IARD — The International Association for Relativistic Dynamics. I’m very much looking forward to this:  the paper should be a good fit to the IARD’s program.

Abstract:

In quantum mechanics the time dimension is treated as a parameter, while the three space dimensions are treated as observables.  This assumption is both untested and inconsistent with relativity.

From dimensional analysis, we  expect quantum effects along the time axis to be of order an attosecond.  Such effects are not ruled out by current experiments.  But they are large enough to be detected with current technology, if sufficiently specific predictions can be made.

To supply such we use path integrals.  The only change required is to generalize the usual three dimensional paths to four.  We treat the single particle case first, then extend to quantum electrodynamics.

We predict a large variety of testable effects.  The principal effects are additional dispersion in time and full equivalence of the time/energy uncertainty principle to the space/momentum one.  Additional effects include interference, diffraction, resonance in time, and so on.

Further the usual problems with ultraviolet divergences in QED disappear.  We can recover them by letting the dispersion in time go to zero.  As it does, the uncertainty in energy becomes infinite — and this in turn makes the loop integrals diverge.  It appears it is precisely the assumption that quantum mechanics does not apply along the time dimension that creates the ultraviolet divergences.

The approach here has no free parameters; it is therefore falsifiable.  As it treats time and space with complete symmetry and does not suffer from the ultraviolet divergences, it may provide a useful starting point for attacks on quantum gravity.

Invisibility: Theory & Practice

I’ve posted my talk on the Theory & Practice of Invisibility  to ShareShare.  I’ve given the talk at Balticon, FOSSCON, & Capclave, & will be giving it at Philcon in a few weeks.

At Capclave, NASA asked if I would give it at their Goddard Space Center, once the sequester is lifted.  Nice to be asked!

Balticon records the talks in the science track, so at some point a video record should be online.  The last page on SlideShare has the references; I’d start there.

I’m not really sure why I decided to do invisibility for Balticon; Miriam Kelly, who organizes the science track at Balticon, asked me what I was going to talk about this year, & the next morning I woke up knowing the title.  Then there was the awkward few weeks while I tried to attach a talk to the title.

It’s a great subject; the main problem was really to throw enough out that the rest would fit into a 50 minute hour.  Seemed to go OK, lots of questions during the talk & afterwards in the halls.  That’s the real test.

One thing I like about the subject is that it leads in so many directions, among which:

  1. It’s about the math.  One of the limiting factors is just getting enough control over the mathematics of bending light to create the appropriate cloaking effect.  Any subject that borrows math from general relativity in the interests of simplifying itself is complex!
  2. It’s about the money.  The more money, the more transparency! In general, you can make things invisible from specific angles, over specific frequency ranges, to a certain level of quality.
  3. It’s not about the media:  the general approaches for making something invisible are the same for visible light, for radar, for sound waves.  One application under discussion is to make cities invisible from earthquakes:  arrange for the seismic shocks to pass around the city for instance.
  4. The hype to results ratio is still pretty high.  This is normal when an area is just starting; longer term, the most important uses are likely to be ones we haven’t even dreamt of.
  5. Making  things invisible & making them visible are two sides of the same coin, like attack & defense in war, to master either we must master both.
  6. And, finally, while the future of invisibility may not be clear, our motives in studying it are transparent: it’s interesting, potentially profitable, and fun.

 

 

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