Cause, Effect And Time

We’re still at Vinnie’s table by the door of Al’s coffee shop. “Long as we’re talking about black holes, Sy, I read in one of my astronomy magazines that an Event Horizon traps information the same way it traps light. I understand how gravity makes escape velocity for photons go beyond lightspeed, but how does that trap information?”

“Well, to start with, Al, you understand wrong. The whole idea of escape velocity applies to massive objects like rockets that feel the force of gravity. Going up they trade kinetic energy for potential energy; given enough kinetic energy they escape. Photons have zero mass — the only way gravity influences them is by bending the spacetime they fly through.”

“Does the bending also affect information or is that something else?”

Minkowski’s spacetime diagram…

“Fair question, but it’ll take some background to answer it. Good thing I’ve got Old Reliable and my graphics files along. Let’s start with this one. Vinnie’s seen a lot of spacetime graphs like this, Al, but I don’t think you have. Time runs upward, distance runs sideward, okay? Naming a specific time and location specifies an event, just like a calendar entry. Draw a line between two events; the slope is the speed you have to go to get from one to the other.”

“Just the distance, you’re not worrying about direction?”

“Good question. You’re thinking space is 3D and this picture shows only one space dimension. Einstein’s spacetime equations take account of all four dimensions mixing together, which is one reason they’re so hard to solve except in special cases. For where we’re going, distance will be enough, okay?”

“Not gonna argue.”

… compartmentalized by Einstein’s speed limit …

“Now we roll in Einstein’s speed limit. Relativity says that nothing can go faster than light. On a Minkowski diagram like this we draw the lightspeed slope at a 45″ angle. Any physical motion has a slope more vertical than that.”

“Huh?”

“See, Al, you’re going one second per second along time, right? If you’re not making much progress distance‑wise, you don’t do much on Sy’s sideways axis. You move mostly up.”

“Exactly, Vinnie. The bottom and top sections are called ‘timelike‘ because, well, they’re mostly like time.”

“Are the other two sections spacelike?”

“Absolutely. You can’t get from ‘Here & Now‘ to the ‘Too far to see‘ event without going faster than light. Einstein said that’s a no‑no. Suppose that event’s a nova, ‘Now‘ but far away. Astronomers will have to just wait until the nova’s light reaches them at ‘Here‘ but at a later ‘Now.’ Okay, Vinnie, here’s a graphic you haven’t seen yet.”

… and re-interpreted in terms of causality.

“Looks pretty much the same, except for that arrow. What’s cause and effect got to do with time?”

“I don’t want to get into the metaphysical weeds here. There’s a gazillion theories about time — the Universe is expanding and that drives time; entropy always increases and that drives time; time is an emergent property of the underlying structure of the Universe, whatever that means. From an atomic, molecular, mechanical physics point of view, time is the result of causes driving effects. Causes always come first. Your finger bleeds after you cut it, not before. Cause‑effect runs along the time axis. Einstein showed us that cause‑effect can’t travel any faster than lightspeed.”

“That’s a new one. How’d he figure that?”

“Objects move objects to make things happen. They can’t move faster than lightspeed because of the relativity factor.”

“What if the objects are already touching?”

“Your hand and that cup are both made of atoms and it’s really their electric fields that touch. Shifting fields are limited by lightspeed, too.”

“So you’re saying that cause-effect is timelike.”

“Got it in one. Einstein would say causality is not only timelike, but exactly along the time axis. That’s one big reason he was so uncomfortable about action at a distance — a cause ‘Here‘ having an effect ‘There‘ with zero time elapsed would be a horizontal line, pure spacelike, on Minkowski’s graph. Einstein invented the principle of entanglement as a counterexample, thinking it impossible. He’d probably be shocked and distressed to see that today we have experimental proof of entanglement.”

~~ Rich Olcott

The Bottom of Time

“Cathleen, one of my Astronomy magazines had an article, claimed that James Webb Space Telescope can see back to the Big Bang. That doesn’t seem right, right?”

“You’re right, Al, it’s not quite right. By our present state of knowledge JWST‘s infrared perspective goes back only 98% of the way to the Bang. Not quite the Bottom of Time, but close.”

“Whaddaya mean, ‘Bottom of Time‘? I’ve heard people talking about how weird it musta been before the Big Bang. And how can JWST see back in time anyway? Telescopes look across space, not time.”

“So many questions, Mr Feder, and some hiding behind others. That’s his usual mode, Cathleen. Care to tag-team?”

“You’re on, Sy. Well, Mr Feder. The ‘look back in time‘ part comes from light not traveling infinitely fast. We’ve known that for three centuries, ever since Rømer—”

“Roamer?”

“Ole Rømer, a Danish scientist who lived in Newson’s time. Everyone knew that Jupiter’s innermost large moon Io had a dependably regular orbit, circling Jupiter every 49½ hours like clockwork. Rømer was an astronomer when he wasn’t tutoring the French King’s son or being Copenhagen’s equivalent of Public Safety Commissioner. He watched Io closely, kept notes on exactly when she ducked behind Jupiter and when she reappeared on the other side. His observed timings weren’t quite regular, generally off by a few minutes. Funny thing was, the irregularities correlated with the Earth‑Jupiter distance — up to 3½ minutes earlier than expected when Earth in its orbit was closest to Jupiter, similarly late when they were far apart. There was a lot of argument about how that could be, but Rømer, Huygens, even Newton, all agreed that the best explanation was that we only see Io’s passage events after light has taken its time to travel from there to here.”

“Seems reasonable. Why should people argue about that?”

“The major sticking point was the speed that Huygens calculated from Rømer’s data. We now know it’s 186000 miles or 300000 kilometers or one lightsecond per second. Different ways of stating the same quantity. Huygens came up with a somewhat smaller number but still. The establishment pundits had been okay with light transmission being instantaneous. Given definite numbers, though, they had trouble accepting the idea that anything physical could go that fast.”

“Tag, my turn. Flip that distance per time ratio upside down — for every additional lightsecond of distance we’re looking at events happening one second farther into the past. That’s the key to JWST‘s view into the long‑ago. Al, you got that JWST‘s infrared capabilities will beat Hubble‘s vis‑UV ones for distance. Unless there’s something seriously wrong with Einstein’s assumption that lightspeed’s an absolute constant throughout spacetime, we expect JWST to give us visibility to the oldest free photons in the Universe, just 379000 years upward from the Big Bang.”

“Wait, I heard weaseling there. Free photons? Like you gotta pay for the others?”

“Ha, ha, Mr Feder. During those first 379000‑or‑so years, we think the Universe was so hot and so dense that no photon’s wave had much of a chance to spread out before it encountered a charged something and got absorbed. At last, things cooled down enough for atoms to form and stay in one piece. Atoms are neutral. Quantum rules restrict their interaction to only photons that have certain wavelengths. The rest of the photons, and there’s a huge number of them, were free to roam the expanding Universe until they happen to find a suitable absorber. Maybe someone’s eye or if we’re lucky, a sensor on JWST or some other telescope.”

Thanks for this to George Derenburger

“What about before the 300‑and‑something thousand years? Like, before Year Zero? Musta been weird, huh?”

“Well, there’s a problem with that question. You’re assuming there was a Year Minus‑One, but that’s just not the case.”

“Why not? Arithmetic works that way.”

“But the Universe doesn’t. Stephen Hawking came up with a good way to think about it. What on Earth is south of the South Pole?”

“Eeayahh … nope. Can’t get any further south than that.”

“Well, there you are, so to speak. Time’s bottom is Year Zero and you can’t get any further down than that. We think.”

~~ Rich Olcott

Keep calm and stay close to home

Again with the fizzing sound.  Her white satin still looked good.  A little travel-worn, but on her that looked even better.  Her voice still sounded like molten silver — “Hello.”White satin and drunkard walk

“Hello, Anne.  Where you been?”

“You wouldn’t believe.  I don’t believe.  I’ve got to get some control over this.”

“What’s the problem?”

“I never know where I’ll be next.  Or when.  Or even how it’ll look when I get there.  We’ve met before, haven’t we?”

“Yes, we have, and you told me your memory works in circles.  We figured out that when you ‘push,’ you relocate to a reality with a different probability.”

“But it could also be a different time.  Future, past, it’s so confusing.  Sometimes I meet myself and I don’t know whether I’m coming or going.  We never know what to say to each other.  It’s horrible way to be.”

“It sounds awful.  Here, have a tissue.  So, how can I help you?”

“You do theory stuff.  Can you physics a way to let me steer through all this?”

<fizzing sound> Another Anne appeared, next to my file cabinet on the far side of the office.  “Don’t mind me, just passing through.”  <more fizzing>  She flickered away.  My ears itched a little.

“See?  And she always knows more than I do, except when I know more than she does.”

“I’m beginning to get the picture.  Mind if I ask you a few questions?”

“Anything, if it’ll help solve this.”

“When you time-hop, do you use the same kind of ‘push’ feeling that sends you to different probabilities?”

“No-o, it’s a little different, but not much.”

“We found that you have to ‘push’ harder to get to a less-probable reality.  Is there the same kind of difference between past and future hopping?”

“Now you mention it, yes!  It’s always easier to jump to the future.  I have to struggle sometimes when I get too far ahead of myself.”

“Can you do time and probability together?”

“Hard to say.  When I hop I mostly just try to work out when I am, much less whether things are odd.”

“Give it a shot.  Try a couple of ‘nearby places’ and come back here/now.  Just use tiny ‘pushes.’ I don’t want you to get lost again.”

“Me neither.  OK, here I go.” <prolonged flickering and fizzing> “Is this the right place?  I tried a couple of hops here in your office, and <charming blush> stole some of your papers.  Here.”

“Perfect, Anne, objective evidence is always best.  Let’s see…  Yep, this report is one I finished a week ago, looks OK, and this one … I recognize the name of a client I’ve not yet hooked, but the spelling!  The letter ‘c’ isn’t there at all — ‘rekognize,’ ‘sirkle,’ ‘siense’ — that’s low probability for sure.”

“Actually, it felt like higher probability.”

“Whatever.  One more question.  I gather that most of your hops are more-or-less good ones but every once in a while you drop into a complete surprise, something you’re totally not used to.”

“Uh-huh.”

“I’ll bet the surprises happen when you’re in a jam and do a get me out of here jump.”

“Huh!  I’d not made that connection, but you’re right.”

“I think I’ve got the picture.  When you ‘push,’ you somehow displace yourself on a surface that has two dimensions — time and probability.  You move around in those two dimensions independently from how you move in 3-D space.  I take it you’re comfortable dong that but you want more control over it, right?”

“Mmm, yeah.  It’s kind of my special superpower, you know?  I don’t want to give it up entirely.”

“Good, because I wouldn’t know how to make that happen for you.  Best I can do is give you some strategy coaching, OK?”

“That’d be a big help.”Drunkard

“Stay calm.”

“That’s it?  Where’s the physics in that?”

“Ever hear of the Drunkard’s Walk?”

“I’ve seen a few.”

“Well, you’re doing one.”

“Beg pardon?”

“It’s math talk for a stepwise process where every step goes in a random direction.  Your problem is that some of the steps are way too big.  Keep the steps small and you’ll stay in familiar territory.”

<molten silver, coming closer> “Like … here?”

“Stay calm.”

~~ Rich Olcott

Through The Looking Glass, Darkly

The Acme Building is quiet on summer evenings.  I was in my office, using the silence to catch up on paperwork.  Suddenly I heard a fizzing sound.  Naturally I looked around.  She was leaning against the door frame.

White satin looked good on her, and she looked good in it.  A voice like molten silver — “Hello, Mr Moire.”White satin and chessboard 1

“Hello yourself.  What can I do for you?”

“I’m open to suggestions, but first you can help me find myself.”

“Excuse me, but you’re right here.  And besides, who are you?”

“Not where I am but when I am.  Anne.”

“You said it right the first time.”

“No, no, my name is Anne.  At the moment.  I think.  Oh, it’s so confusing when your memory works in circles but not very well.  Do you have the time?”

“Well, I was busy, but you’re here and much more interesting.”

“No, I mean, what time is it?”

I showed her my desk clock — date, time, even the phase of the moon.

“Half past gibbous already?  Oh, bread-and-butter…”

“Wait — circles?  Time’s one-dimensional.  Clock readings increase or decrease, they don’t go sideways.”

“You don’t know Time as well as I do, Mr Moire.  It’s a lot more complicated than that.  Time can be triangular, haven’t you noticed?”

“Can’t say as I have.”

“That paperwork you’re working on, are you near a deadline?”

“Nah.”

“And given that expanse of time, you feel free to permit distractions.  There are so many distractions.”

“You’re very distracting.”

“Thank you, I guess.  But suppose you had an important deadline coming up tomorrow.   That broad flow of possibilities at the beginning of the project has narrowed to just two — finish or don’t finish.  Your Time has closed in on you.”

“So you’re saying we can think of Time as two-dimensional.  The second dimension being…?”

“I don’t know.  I just go there.  That’s the problem.”

“Hmm… When you do, do you feel like you’re turning left or right?”

“No turning or moving forward or backward.  Generally I have to … umm… ‘push’ like I’m going uphill, but that only works if there’s a ‘being pushed’ when I get past that.  Otherwise I’m back where I started, whatever that means.”

“What do you see?  What changes during the episode?”

“Little things. <brief fizzing sound.  She … flickered.>  Like ‘over there’ you’re wearing a bright green T-shirt instead of what you’re wearing here.  And you’re using pen-and-paper instead of that laptop.  Green doesn’t suit you.”

“I know, which is why there’s nothing green in my wardrobe, here.  But that gives me an idea.  Did you always have to ‘push’ to get ‘over there’?”

“Usually.”

“Fine.  OK, I’m going to flip this coin.  While it’s in the air, ‘push’ just lightly and come back to tell me which way the coin fell.”

<fizzing> “Heads.”

“It’s tails here.  OK, we’re going to do that again but this time ‘push’ much harder.”

<louder fizzing> “That was weird.  Your coin rolled off the desk and landed on edge in a crack in the floor so it’s not heads or tails.”

“AaaHAH!”Coins 1

“?”

“Your ‘over theres’ have different levels of probability than ‘over here.’  They’re different realities.  Actually, I’ll bet you travel across ranges of probability.  Or tunnel through them, maybe.  That’d why you have to ‘push’ to get past something that’s less probable in order to get to something that’s more probable.  Like getting past a reality where the coin can just hang in the air or fly apart.”

“I’ve done that.  Once I sneezed while ‘pushing’ and wound up sitting at a tea party where the cream and sugar just refused to stir into the tea.  When I ‘pushed’ from there I practically fell into a coffee shop where the coffee was well-behaved.”

“Case closed.  Now I can answer your question.  Spacewise, you’re in my office on the twelfth floor.  Timewise, I just showed you my clock.  As for which reality, you’re in one with a very high probability because, well, you’re here.”

“So provincial.  Oh, Mr Moire, how little you know.” <fizzing>

On the 12th floor of the Acme Building, high above the city, one man still tries to answer the Universe’s persistent questions — Sy Moire, Physics Eye.

~~ Rich Olcott

And now for some completely different dimensions

Terry Pratchett wrote that Knowledge = Power = Energy = Matter = Mass.  Physicists don’t agree because the units don’t match up.

Physicists check equations with a powerful technique called “Dimensional Analysis,” but it’s only theoretically related to the “travel in space and time” kinds of dimension we discussed earlier.

Place setting LMTIt all started with Newton’s mechanics, his study of how objects affect the motion of other objects.  His vocabulary list included words like force, momentum, velocity, acceleration, mass, …, all concepts that seem familiar to us but which Newton either originated or fundamentally re-defined. As time went on, other thinkers added more terms like power, energy and action.

They’re all linked mathematically by various equations, but also by three fundamental dimensions: length (L), time (T) and mass (M). (There are a few others, like electric charge and temperature, that apply to problems outside of mechanics proper.)

Velocity, for example.  (Strictly speaking, velocity is speed in a particular direction but here we’re just concerned with its magnitude.)   You can measure it in miles per hour or millimeters per second or parsecs per millennium — in each case it’s length per time.  Velocity’s dimension expression is L/T no matter what units you use.

Momentum is the product of mass and velocity.  A 6,000-lb Escalade SUV doing 60 miles an hour has twice the momentum of a 3,000-lb compact car traveling at the same speed.  (Insurance companies are well aware of that fact and charge accordingly.)  In terms of dimensions, momentum is M*(L/T) = ML/T.

Acceleration is how rapidly velocity changes — a car clocked at “zero to 60 in 6 seconds” accelerated an average of 10 miles per hour per second.  Time’s in the denominator twice (who cares what the units are?), so the dimensional expression for acceleration is L/T2.

Physicists and chemists and engineers pay attention to these dimensional expressions because they have to match up across an equal sign.  Everyone knows Einstein’s equation, E = mc2. The c is the velocity of light.  As a velocity its dimension expression is L/T.  Therefore, the expression for energy must be M*(L/T)2 = ML2/T2.  See how easy?

Now things get more interesting.  Newton’s original Second Law calculated force on an object by how rapidly its momentum changed: (ML/T)/T.  Later on (possibly influenced by his feud with Liebniz about who invented calculus), he changed that to mass times acceleration M*(L/T2).  Conceptually they’re different but dimensionally they’re identical — both expressions for force work out to ML/T2.

Something seductively similar seems to apply to Heisenberg’s Area.  As we’ve seen, it’s the product of uncertainties in position (L) and momentum (ML/T) so the Area’s dimension expression works out to L*(ML/T) = ML2/T.

SeductiveThere is another way to get the same dimension expression but things aren’t not as nice there as they look at first glance.  Action is given by the amount of energy expended in a given time interval, times the length of that interval.  If you take the product of energy and time the dimensions work out as (ML2/T2)*T = ML2/T, just like Heisenberg’s Area.

It’s so tempting to think that energy and time negotiate precision like position and momentum do.  But they don’t.  In quantum mechanics, time is a driver, not a result.  If you tell me when an event happens (the t-coordinate), I can maybe calculate its energy and such.  But if you tell me the energy, I can’t give you a time when it’ll happen.  The situation reminds me of geologists trying to predict an earthquake.  They’ve got lots of statistics on tremor size distribution and can even give you average time between tremors of a certain size, but when will the next one hit?  Lord only knows.

File the detailed reasoning under “Arcane” — in technicalese, there are operators for position, momentum and energy but there’s no operator for time.  If you’re curious, John Baez’s paper has all the details.  Be warned, it contains equations!

Trust me — if you’ve spent a couple of days going through a long derivation, totting up the dimensions on either side of equations along the way is a great technique for reassuring yourself that you probably didn’t do something stupid back at hour 14.  Or maybe to detect that you did.

~~ Rich Olcott