Time's Arrow & Archimedes' Point: New Directions for the Physics of Time

Time's Arrow & Archimedes' Point: New Directions for the Physics of Time

Time's Arrow & Archimedes' Point: New Directions for the Physics of Time

Time's Arrow & Archimedes' Point: New Directions for the Physics of Time

Synopsis

Why is the future so different from the past? Why does the past affect the future and not the other way around? What does quantum mechanics really tell us about the world? In this important and accessible book, Huw Price throws fascinating new light on some of the great mysteries of modern physics, and connects them in a wholly original way. Price begins with the mystery of the arrow of time. Why, for example, does disorder always increase, as required by the second law of thermodynamics? Price shows that, for over a century, most physicists have thought about these problems the wrong way. Misled by the human perspective from within time, which distorts and exaggerates the differences between past and future, they have fallen victim to what Price calls the "double standard fallacy": proposed explanations of the difference between the past and the future turn out to rely on a difference which has been slipped in at the beginning, when the physicists themselves treat the past and future in different ways. To avoid this fallacy, Price argues, we need to overcome our natural tendency to think about the past and the future differently. We need to imagine a point outside time -- an Archimedean "view from nowhen" -- from which to observe time in an unbiased way. Offering a lively criticism of many major modern physicists, including Richard Feynman and Stephen Hawking, Price shows that this fallacy remains common in physics today -- for example, when contemporary cosmologists theorize about the eventual fate of the universe. The "big bang" theory normally assumes that the beginning and end of the universe will be very different. But if we are to avoid the double standard fallacy, we need to consider time symmetrically, and take seriously the possibility that the arrow of time may reverse when the universe recollapses into a "big crunch." Price then turns to the greatest mystery of modern physics, the meaning of quantum theory. He argues that in missing the Archimedean viewpoint, modern physics has missed a radical and attractive solution to many of the apparent paradoxes of quantum physics. Many consequences of quantum theory appear counterintuitive, such as Schrodinger's Cat, whose condition seems undetermined until observed, and Bell's Theorem, which suggests a spooky "nonlocality," where events happening simultaneously in different places seem to affect each other directly. Price shows that these paradoxes can be avoided by allowing that at the quantum level the future does, indeed, affect the past. This demystifies nonlocality, and supports Einstein's unpopular intuition that quantum theory describes an objective world, existing independently of human observers: the Cat is alive or dead, even when nobody looks. So interpreted, Price argues, quantum mechanics is simply the kind of theory we ought to have expected in microphysics -- from the symmetric standpoint. Time's Arrow and Archimedes' Point presents an innovative and controversial view of time and contemporary physics. In this exciting book, Price urges physicists, philosophers, and anyone who has ever pondered the mysteries of time to look at the world from the fresh perspective of Archimedes' Point and gain a deeper understanding of ourselves, the universe around us, and our own place in time.

Excerpt

Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana. marx.

Science, like comedy, often demands that we look at familiar things in unfamiliar ways. Miss the new angles, and we miss the point. in comedy it is the comic's job to pitch the task at the right level. Too low, and the joke isn't funny; too high, and the audience doesn't get it. in science, of course, we are on our own. There are no guarantees that Nature's gags have been pitched within reach. Great scientists spend lifetimes trying to nut out the hard ones.

This book is about one of these perspective shifts -- about the need to look at a familiar subject matter from a new vantage point. the subject matter concerned is one of the most familiar of all: it is time, and especially the direction of time. Despite its familiarity, time remains profoundly puzzling. It puzzles contemporary physicists and philosophers who spend large amounts of it thinking about it, as well as countless reflective nonspecialists, in search of a deeper understanding of one of the most central aspects of human life.

This book is about the need to think about time's puzzles from a new viewpoint, a viewpoint outside time. One of my main themes is that physicists and philosophers tend to think about time from too close up. We ourselves are creatures in time, and this is reflected in many ordinary ways of thinking and talking about the world. This makes it very difficult to think about time in an objective way, because it is always difficult to tell whether what we think we see is just a product of our vantage point. in effect, we are too close to the subject matter to see it objectively, and need to step back.

This a familiar idea in the history of science. For example, it took our ancestors a long time to figure out that the Earth and a pebble are the same kind of thing, differing only in size. To take this revolutionary idea on board, one needs to imagine a vantage point from which the Earth and the pebble can both be seen for what they are. Archimedes went one better, and offered to move the Earth, if someone would supply him with this vantage point, and a suitable lever.

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