Light’s hourglass

Terry Pratchett’s anthropomorphic character Death (who always speaks in UPPER CASE with a voice that sounds like tombstones falling) has a thing about hourglasses.  So do physicists, but theirs don’t have sand in them.  And they don’t so much represent Eternity as describe it.  Maybe.

The prior post was all about spacetime events (an event is the combination of a specific (x,y,z) spatial location with a specific time t) and how the Minkowski diagram divides the Universe into mutually exclusive pieces:

  • “look but don’t touch” — the past, all the spacetime events which could have caused something to happen where/when we are
  • “touch but don’t look” — the future, the events where/when we can cause something to happen
  • “no look, no touch” — the spacelike part that’s so far away that light can’t reach us and we can’t reach it without breaching Einstein’s speed-of-light constraint
  • “here and now” — the tiny point in spacetime with address (ct,x,y,z)=(0,0,0,0)

Light_s hourglassLast week’s Minkowski diagram was two-dimensional.  It showed time running along the vertical axis and Pythagorean distance d=√(x²+y²+z²) along the horizontal one.  That was OK in the days before computer graphics, but it  loaded many different events onto the same point on the chart.  For instance, (0,1,0,0), (0,-1,0,0), (0,0,1,0) and (0,0,0,1) (and more) are all at d=1.

This chart is one dimension closer to what the physicists really think about.  Here we have x and y along distinct axes.  The z axis is perpendicular to all three, and if you can visualize that you’re better at it than I am.  The xy plane (and the xyz cube if you’re good at it) is perpendicular to t.

That orange line was in last week’s diagram and it means the same thing in this one.  It contains events that can use light-speed somehow to communicate with the here-and-now event.  But now we see that the line into the future is just part of a cone (or a hypercone if you’re good at it).

If we ignite a flash of light at time t=0, at any positive time t that lightwave will have expanded to a circle (or bubble) with radius d=c·t. The circles form the “future” cone.

Another cone extends into the past.  It’s made up of all the events from which a flash of light at time at some negative t would reach the here-and-now event.

The diagram raises four hotly debated questions:

  • Is the pastward cone actually pear-shaped?  It’s supposed to go back to The Very Beginning.  That’s The Big Bang when the Universe was infinitesimally small.  Back then d for even the furthest event from (ct,0,0,0) should have been much smaller than the nanometers-to-lightyears range of sizes we’re familiar with today.  But spacetime was smaller, too, so maybe everything just expanded in sync once we got past Cosmic Inflation.  We may never know the answer.
  • What’s outside the cones?  You think what you see around you is right now?  Sorry.  If the screen you’re reading this on is a typical 30 inches or so distant, the light you’re seeing left the screen 2½ nanoseconds ago.  Things might have changed since then.  We can see no further into the Universe than 14 billion lightyears, and even that only tells us what happened 14 billion years ago.  Are there even now other Earth-ish civilizations just 15 billion lightyears away from us?  We may never know the answer.
  • How big is “here-and-now”?  We think of it as a size=zero mathematical point, but there are technical grounds to think that the smallest possible distance is the Planck length, 1.62×10-35 meters.  Do incidents that might affect us occur at a smaller scale than that?  Is time quantized?  We may never know the answers.
  • Do the contents of the futureward cone “already” exist in some sense, or do we truly have free will?  Einstein thought we live in a block universe, with events in future time as fixed as those in past time.  Other thinkers hold that neither past not future are real.  I like the growing block alternative, in which the past is real and fixed but the future exists as maybes.  We may never know the answer.

~~ Rich Olcott

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You can’t get there from here

In this series of posts I’ve tried to get across several ideas:

  • By Einstein’s theories, in our Universe every possible combination of place and time is an event that can be identified with an “address” like (ct,x,y,z) where t is time, c is the speed of light, and x, y and z are spatial coordinates
  • The Pythagorean distance between two events is d=√[(x1-x2)2+(y1-y2)2+(z1-z2)2]
  • The Minkowski interval between two events is √[(ct1-ct2)2 d2]
  • When i=√(-1) shows up somewhere, whatever it’s with is in some way perpendicular to the stuff that doesn’t involve i

That minus sign in the third bullet has some interesting implications.  If the time term is bigger then the spatial term, then the interval (that square root) is a real number.  On the other hand, if the time term is smaller, the interval is an imaginary number and therefore is in some sense perpendicular to the real intervals.

We’ll see what that means in a bit.  But first, suppose the two terms are exactly equal, which would make the interval zero.  Can that happen?

Sure, if you’re a light wave.  The interval can only be zero if d=(ct1-ct2).  In other words, if the distance between two events is exactly the distance light would travel in the elapsed time between the same two events.

In this Minkowski diagram, we’ve got two number lines.  The real numbers (time) run vertically (sorry, I know we had the imaginary line running upward in a previous post, but this is the way that Minkowski drew it).  Perpendicular to that, the line of imaginary numbers (distance) runs horizontally, which is why that starscape runs off to the right.Minkowski diagram
The smiley face is us at the origin (0,0,0,0).  If we look upwards toward positive time, that’s the future at our present locationLooking downward to negative time is looking into the past.  Unless we move (change x and/or y and/or z), all the events in our past and future have addresses like (ct,0,0,0).

What about all those points (events) that aren’t on the time axis?  Pick one and use its address to figure the interval between it and us.  In general, the interval will be a complex number, part real and part imaginary, because the event you picked isn’t on either axis.

The two orange lines are special.  Each of them is drawn through all the events for which the distance is equal to ct.  All the intervals between those events and us are zero.  Those are the events that could be connected to us by a light beam.

The orange connections go one way only — someone in our past (t less than zero) can shine a light at us that we’ll see when it reaches us.  However, if someone in our future tried to shine a light our way, well, the passage of time wouldn’t allow it (except maybe in the movies).  Conversely, we can shine a light at some spatial point (x,y,z) at distance d=√(x2+y2+z2) from us, but those photons won’t arrive until the event in our future at (d,x,y,z).

space VennThe rest of the Minkowski diagram could do for a Venn diagram.  We at (0,0,0,0) can do something that will cause something to happen at (ct,x,y,z) to the left of the top orange line.  However, we won’t be able to see that effect until we time-travel forward to its t.  That region is “reachable but not seeable.”

Similarly, events to the left of the bottom orange line can affect us (we can see stars, for instance) but they’re in our past and we can’t cause anything to happen then/there.  The region is “seeable but not reachable.”

Then there’s the overlap, the segment between the two orange lines.  Events there are so far away in spacetime that the intervals between them and us are imaginary (in the mathematical sense).  To put it another way, light can’t get here from there.  Neither can cause and effect.

Physicists call that third region space-like, as opposed to the two time-like regions.  Without a warp drive or some other way around Einstein’s universal speed limit, the edge of “space-like” will always be The Final Frontier.

~~ Rich Olcott