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An Essay on Time

An Essay on Time

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Published by kahong
An essay on the possible nature of time in the context of a quantum theory of gravity and matter.
An essay on the possible nature of time in the context of a quantum theory of gravity and matter.

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Categories:Types, Research, Science
Published by: kahong on Jan 06, 2010
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About Time
Vishnu Jejjala
, Michael Kavic
, Djordje Minic
, Chia-Hsiung Tze
Institut des Hautes´ Etudes Scientifiques35, Route de Chartres91440 Bures-sur-Yvette, France
Institute for Particle, Nuclear, and Astronomical SciencesDepartment of Physics, Virginia Tech Blacksburg, VA 24061, U.S.A.
We present a novel perspective on the
problem of time
in quantum gravity. Inspiredby Einstein’s analysis of the concept of time and the equivalence principle and guidedby the geometric structure of quantum theory, we offer new insights into the natureand the origin of time
Essay submitted to the FQXi Inaugural Essay Contest on the Nature of Time.
I. Of spacetime and the river
The quest for a theory of quantum gravity is fundamentally an attempt to reconcile twodisparate notions of time. Einstein’s theory of general relativity teaches us that time isultimately an illusion while quantum theory tells us that time evolution is an essential partof Nature. Moreover, the failure to resolve the conflict between these competing notions isat the heart of our inability to properly describe the earliest moment of our Universe, theBig Bang. We will spell out in clear terms the nature of the discrepancy between thesecompeting views and lay out a new proposal for a theory of quantum gravity that providesa clear resolution of the problem of time.Time in quantum mechanics and time in gravity are very different things. In quantummechanics, time is the fundamental evolution parameter of the underlying unitary group.The Hamiltonian operator of a given system generates translations of the initial state intime. Unlike other conjugate quantities in the theory such as momentum and position, therelation between time and energy, which is the observable associated to the Hamiltonian,is distinguished. Time is not an observable in quantum theory in the sense that thereis no associated “clockoperator. In the Schr¨odinger equation time simply enters as aparameter. This conception of time as a Newtonian construct that is global or absolute ina post-Newtonian theory persists even when we promote quantum mechanics to relativisticquantum field theory. An illustration is the microcausality condition requiring two fieldoperators to commute, namely, to have no effect on each other whenever their locationscannot be connected by a light signal.To grasp the notion of time in gravity, we first recall that measurements are also, by theirnature, different in quantum field theory and the general theory of relativity [1]. The specialtheory of relativity and quantum mechanics, as well as their conflation, are formulated interms of particle trajectories, wavefunctions, or fields that are functions (functionals) of positions or momenta. Coordinates, however, must be regarded as auxiliary constructs inthe general theory of relativity. In classical gravity, spacetime is simply an arena in whichevents transpire. The coordinates — including time — that are assigned as labels to theevents are not in themselves especially meaningful due to the general covariance of Einstein’stheory of gravitation. To better understand the role time plays in general relativity we canconsider as an analogy wrapping a birthday present. There are many kinds of paper withwhich to wrap a present just as there are many kinds of coordinates with which to labelevents. As one of these coordinates, time is no more fundamental to the events than thewrapping paper is to the present. However, as we have noted above, quantum theory isill-defined without time. If we attempt to discard it like so much used wrapping paper, welose the essence of the theory and our present is destroyed in the process.Although general relativity is formulated as a local classical field theory, it has distinguish-ing non-local features, as exemplified, for instance by the concept of gravitational energy [2].No local gauge invariant observables can exist within a theory of gravitation [3]. Rather,2
the most natural observables are couched in terms of integrals over all of spacetime. Suchobservables are manifestly diffeomorphism invariant, but the failure of locality is intrinsic totheir definition. The decoupling of scales familiar to local quantum field theories is simplynot tenable in gravity. A chief lesson then is that high energy physics mixes inextricablywith dynamics at low energies.Measurements in a classical theory of gravitation are founded on the
propertiesamong spacetime events. Timelike separation of events is measured by mechanical clocks,whereas spacelike separation is determined more indirectly [4]. We might thus prescribe aclock in Greenwich as a standard reference object and consider other events in spacetimerelative to it. Then, for example, the curvature invariant at an event specified relative tothe ticking of the clock in Greenwich is a quasilocal observable in the theory [5].By contrast within a quantum theory, events cannot themselves be localized to arbitraryprecision. Only for high energies does it even make sense to speak of a local region inspacetime where an interaction takes place. This indeterminacy simply follows from theenergy-time uncertainty relation. However, the measurements that an observer makes withina quantum theory of gravity are necessarily constrained. Experiments are performed in finiteduration and at finite distance scales. The interactions accessed in the laboratory also takeplace in regions of low spacetime curvature. In local quantum field theory, we operatesuccessfully under the conceit that the light cone is rigid. With respect to the vacuum in flatspace, there is an approximate notion of a scattering amplitude, which is the unitary matrixrelating asymptotic initial and final states for an interaction of particles. Even in stringtheory, computing such amplitudes proceeds through analytic continuation of Lorentzianspacetimes into Euclidean spaces with fixed asymptotic conditions. On cosmological scales,this procedure is of course a cheat. Light cones do tilt, and the causal structure is not static.In general settings, no choice of coordinates will ensure the existence of a global timelikedirection throughout all of spacetime. Even if such a coordinate system were to exist, aslocal observers we do not
a priori 
know what the asymptotic behavior of the metric will beat late times. The only data available about spacetime are events in the observer’s past lightcone. Each observer has a different past light cone consistent with the histories of all theother observers, and the future causal structure is partially inferred from these data.In a quantum theory of gravity, the spacetime metric is expected to fluctuate. In con-sequence, notions such as whether two events are spacelike separated become increasinglyblurred as fluctuations amplify. Indeed, Lorentzian metrics exist for almost all pairs of pointson a spacetime manifold such that the metric distance is not spacelike [6]. Clearly the no-tion of time, even locally, becomes problematic in such quantum gravitational regimes. Thefailure of microcausality means that the intuitions and techniques of quantum field theorymust be dramatically revised in any putative theory of quantum gravity.Given the overwhelming success of local quantum field theory as the bedrock for our un-derstanding of Nature in all its (albeit non-gravitational) quantum interactions, it is temptingto retain its underlying precepts as we refine and deepen our analysis. But there is an in-3

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