Science evolves on Facebook.

On Facebook last fall, I posted about statistical mechanics. Statistical mechanics is the physics of hordes of particles. Hordes of molecules, for example, form the stench seeping from a clogged toilet. Hordes change in certain ways but not in the reverse ways, suggesting time points in a direction. Once a stink diffuses into the hall, it won’t regroup in the bathroom. The molecules’ locations distinguish past from future.

The post attracted a comment by Ian Durham, associate professor of physics at St. Anselm College. Minutes later, we were instant-messaging about infinitely long evolutions.* The next day, I sent Ian a paper draft. His reply made me jump more than a whiff of a toilet would. Would I discuss the paper at a conference he was co-organizing?

I almost replied, Are you sure?

Then I almost replied, Yes, please!

The conference, “Eddington and Wheeler: Information and Interaction,” unfolded this March at the University of Cambridge. Cambridge employed Sir Arthur Eddington, the astronomer whose 1919 observation of starlight during an eclipse catapulted Einstein’s general relativity to fame. Decades later, John Wheeler laid groundwork for quantum information. Though aware of Eddington’s observation, I hadn’t known he’d researched stat mech. I hadn’t known his opinions about time. Time owns a high-rise in my heart; see the fussiness with which I catalogue “last fall,” “minutes later,” and “the next day.” Conference-goers shared news about time in the Old Combination Room at Cambridge’s Trinity College. Against the room’s wig-filled portraits, our projector resembled a souvenir misplaced by a time traveler.


Trinity College, Cambridge.

Presenter one, Huw Price, argued that time has no arrow. It appears to in our universe: We remember the past and anticipate the future. Once a stench diffuses, it doesn’t regroup. The stench illustrates the Second Law of Thermodynamics, the assumption that entropy increases.

If “entropy” doesn’t ring a bell, never mind; we’ll dissect it in future articles. Suffice it to say that (1) thermodynamics is a branch of physics related to stat mech; (2) according to the Second Law of Thermodynamics, something called “entropy” increases; (3) entropy’s rise distinguishes the past from the future by associating the former with a low entropy and the latter with a large entropy; and (4) a stench’s diffusion illustrates the Second Law and time’s flow.

In as many universes in which entropy increases (time flows in one direction), in so many universe does entropy decrease (does time flow oppositely). So, said Huw Price, postulated the 19th-century stat-mech founder Ludwig Boltzmann. Why would universes pair up? For the reason why, driving across a pothole, you not only fall, but also rise. Each fluctuation from equilibrium—from a flat road—involves an upward path and a downward. The upward path resembles a universe in which entropy increases; the downward, a universe in which entropy decreases. Every down pairs with an up. Averaged over universes, time has no arrow.

Freidel Weinert, presenter five, argued the opposite. Time has an arrow, he said, and not because of entropy.

Ariel Caticha discussed an impersonator of time. Using a cousin of MaxEnt, he derived an equation identical to Schrödinger’s. MaxEnt, short for “the Maximum Entropy Principle,” is a tool used in stat mech. Schrödinger’s Equation describes how quantum systems evolve. To draw from Schrödinger’s Equation predictions about electrons and atoms, physicists assume that features of reality resemble certain bits of math. We assume, for example, that the t in Schrödinger’s Equation represents time. A t appeared in Ariel’s twin of Schrödinger’s Equation. But Ariel didn’t assume what physicists usually assume. MaxEnt motivated his assumptions. Interpreting Ariel’s equation poses a challenge. If a variable acts like time and smells like time, does it represent time?**

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A presenter uses the anachronistic projector. The head between screen and camera belongs to David Finkelstein, who helped develop the theory of general relativity checked by Eddington.

Like Ariel, Bill Wootters questioned time’s role in arguments. The co-creator of quantum teleportation wondered why one tenet of quantum physics has the form it has. Using quantum mechanics, we can’t predict certain experiments’ outcomes. We can predict probabilities—the chance that some experiment will yield Possible Outcome 1, the chance that the experiment will yield Possible Outcome 2, and so on. To calculate these probabilities, we square numbers. Why square? Why don’t the probabilities depend on cubes?

To explore this question, Bill told a story. Suppose some experimenter runs these experiments on Monday and those on Tuesday. When evaluating his story, Bill pointed out a hole: Replacing “Monday” and “Tuesday” with “eight o’clock” and “nine” wouldn’t change his conclusion. Which replacements wouldn’t change it, and which would? To what can we generalize those days? We couldn’t answer his questions on the Sunday he asked them.

Little of presentation twelve concerned time. Rüdiger Schack introduced QBism, an interpretation of quantum mechanics that sounds like “cubism.” Casting quantum physics in terms of experimenters’ actions, Rüdiger mentioned time. By the time of the mention, I couldn’t tell what anyone meant by “time.” Raising a hand, I asked for clarification.

“You are young,” Rüdiger said. “But you will grow old and die.”

The comment clanged like the slam of a door. It echoed when I followed Ian into Ascension Parish Burial Ground. On Cambridge’s outskirts, conference-goers visited Eddington’s headstone. We found Wittgenstein’s near an uneven footpath; near tangles of undergrowth, Nobel laureates’. After debating about time, we marked its footprints. Paths of glory lead but to the grave.


Here lies one whose name was writ in a conference title: Sir Arthur Eddington’s grave.

Paths touched by little glory, I learned, have perks. As Rüdiger noted, I was the greenest participant. As he had the manners not to note, I was the least distinguished and the most ignorant. Studenthood freed me to raise my hand, to request clarification, to lack opinions about time. Perhaps I’ll evolve opinions at some t, some Monday down the road. That Monday feels infinitely far off. These days, I’ll stick to evolving science—using that other boon of youth, Facebook.

*You know you’re a theoretical physicist (or a physicist-in-training) when you debate about processes that last till kingdom come.

** As long as the variable doesn’t smell like a clogged toilet.

For videos of the presentations—including the public lecture by best-selling author Neal Stephenson—stay tuned to My presentation appears here

With gratitude to Ian Durham and Dean Rickles for organizing “Information and Interaction” and for the opportunity to participate. With thanks to the other participants for sharing their ideas and time.