Whether through Newton’s gravitation, Maxwell’s electrodynamics, Einstein’s special and general relativity or quantum mechanics, all the equations that best describe our universe work perfectly if time flows forward or backward.
Of course the world we experience is entirely different. The universe is expanding, not contracting. Stars emit light rather than absorb it, and radioactive atoms decay rather than reassemble. Omelets don’t transform back to unbroken eggs and cigarettes never coalesce from smoke and ashes. We remember the past, not the future, and we grow old and decrepit, not young and rejuvenated. For us, time has a clear and irreversible direction. It flies forward like a missile, equations be damned.
For more than a century, the standard explanation for “time’s arrow,” as the astrophysicist Arthur Eddington first called it in 1927, has been that it is an emergent property of thermodynamics, as first laid out in the work of the 19th-century Austrian physicist Ludwig Boltzmann. In this view what we perceive as the arrow of time is really just the inexorable rearrangement of highly ordered states into random, useless configurations, a product of the universal tendency for all things to settle toward equilibrium with one another.
Informally speaking, the crux of this idea is that “things fall apart,” but more formally, it is a consequence of the second law of thermodynamics, which Boltzmann helped devise. The law states that in any closed system (like the universe itself), entropy—disorder—can only increase. Increasing entropy is a cosmic certainty because there are always a great many more disordered states than orderly ones for any given system, similar to how there are many more ways to scatter papers across a desk than to stack them neatly in a single pile.
The thermodynamic arrow of time suggests our observable universe began in an exceptionally special state of high order and low entropy, like a pristine cosmic egg materializing at the beginning of time to be broken and scrambled for all eternity. From Boltzmann’s era onward, scientists allergic to the notion of such an immaculate conception have been grappling with this conundrum.
Boltzmann, believing the universe to be eternal in accordance with Newton’s laws, thought that eternity could explain a low-entropy origin for time’s arrow. Given enough time—endless time, in fact—anything that can happen will happen, including the emergence of a large region of very low entropy as a statistical fluctuation from an ageless, high-entropy universe in a state of near-equilibrium. Boltzmann mused that we might live in such an improbable region, with an arrow of time set by the region’s long, slow entropic slide back into equilibrium.
Today’s cosmologists have a tougher task, because the universe as we now know it isn’t ageless and unmoving: They have to explain the emergence of time’s arrow within a dynamic, relativistic universe that apparently began some 14 billion years ago in the fiery conflagration of the big bang. More often than not the explanation involves ‘fine-tuning’—the careful and arbitrary tweaking of a theory’s parameters to accord with observations.
Many of the modern explanations for a low-entropy arrow of time involve a theory called inflation—the idea that a strange burst of antigravity ballooned the primordial universe to an astronomically larger size, smoothing it out into what corresponds to a very low-entropy state from which subsequent cosmic structures could emerge. But explaining inflation itself seems to require even more fine-tuning. One of the problems is that once begun, inflation tends to continue unstoppably. This “eternal inflation” would spawn infinitudes of baby universes about which predictions and observations are, at best, elusive. Whether this is an undesirable bug or a wonderful feature of the theory is a matter of fierce debate; for the time being it seems that inflation’s extreme flexibility and explanatory power are both its greatest strength and its greatest weakness.
For all these reasons, some scientists seeking a low-entropy origin for time’s arrow find explanations relying on inflation slightly unsatisfying. “There are many researchers now trying to show in some natural way why it’s reasonable to expect the initial entropy of the universe to be very low,” says David Albert, a philosopher and physicist at Columbia University. “There are even some who think that the entropy being low at the beginning of the universe should just be added as a new law of physics.”
That latter idea is tantamount to despairing cosmologists simply throwing in the towel. Fortunately, there may be another way.
Tentative new work from Julian Barbour of the University of Oxford, Tim Koslowski of the University of New Brunswick and Flavio Mercati of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics suggests that perhaps the arrow of time doesn’t really require a fine-tuned, low-entropy initial state at all but is instead the inevitable product of the fundamental laws of physics. Barbour and his colleagues argue that it is gravity, rather than thermodynamics, that draws the bowstring to let time’s arrow fly.
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