The arrow of time (4): entropy and reversibility, pictured in designs

So…I do not see any convincing answers in physics to the basic question of `what is time?’. To wrap up this complicated subject for now, I will show some half-designs for the IMAPP symposium (which I did not elaborate on since the Francesco del Cossa design that I showed earlier clearly was superior), and reformulate earlier questions on time and entropy.

The first question already is hard to formulate without falling into much inaccuracy as well as absurdity. But here goes anyway: suppose we have two situations / configurations S1 and S2 of a closed system U [for Universe] such that S1 is exactly the same as S2 in every conceivable non-time-related way (particles, waves, constellations,…down to every last photon). Then I would say that

A: Within U there is no time difference between S1 and S2, in other words they are also time identical.
B: Therefore time in U corresponds to (some measure of) the difference between configurations of U.

Hence my earlier `formula’ ΔTime \approx ΔEntropy.

Thus the question of (ir)reversibility, known as `arrow of time’, in my eyes could well be a tautology. To see this, consider the statement: `we cannot lower the entropy of the system U when going forward in time’. When ΔTime `equals’ ΔEntropy this more or less becomes equivalent to: `we cannot lower the entropy of the system U when the entropy is increasing’…

Also, it raises the question whether time is a `local’ phenomenon (non-uniform). One half-design that I made for the IMAPP symposium centered around this entropy idea:

arrow of time, entropy

(click for enlargement, you might notice different `reversal arrows’ which I added pictorially, to express the questions surrounding this subject)

Next, in my eyes the question of causality and reversibility is intimately connected to our own consciousness. We seem to experience things exclusively in the present, but! we do not even know what `experience’ and `the present’ mean. Anything we experience stems from neurons firing in our brain; anything we see/hear/sense in this way has a time lag as compared to the stimulus which provoked our senses…

Somehow we retain memories (unreliable!) from past events, and we experience time as moving forward, probably because our consciousness is hardwired that way. See Immanuel Kant‘s Kritik der Reinen Vernunft, we quote from wikipedia:

Kant proposed a “Copernican Revolution” in philosophy. Kant argued that our experiences are structured by necessary features of our minds. In his view, the mind shapes and structures experience so that, on an abstract level, all human experience shares certain essential structural features. Among other things, Kant believed that the concepts of space and time are integral to all human experience, as are our concepts of cause and effect.[3] One important consequence of this view is that one never has direct experience of things, the so-called noumenal world, and that what we do experience is the phenomenal world as conveyed by our senses. These claims summarize Kant’s views upon the subject–object problem.

In my humble and ignorant opinion, Kantian philosophy is not eclipsed by Einstein’s relativity and its concomitant spacetime. A real discussion of relativistic spacetime is beyond both me and the scope of this series of blog posts, but perhaps it is relevant to notice that causality in relativistic spacetime hinges on `light cones’ (image by Stib):


When it comes to reversibility and the arrow of time, the Kantian crux seems to me: what do we mean with the word causality?

If our consciousness were hardwired `the other way round’, could we not perceive reality as follows: a billiard ball rolling `kauses’ a billiard cue to hit the ball which in turn `kauses’ a billiard player to appear at the billiard table etc. etc.

With this in mind I made the following Escherian half-design:

arrow of time, Escherian style, frank waaldijk
(click for enlargement)

and since I found this half-design to be too sterile, I also made another one based more on entropy and human experience (which is approximate, vague, sketchy):

arrow of time, Escherian sketch style, frank waaldijk
(click for enlargement)

This last design was a close contender (but lost to the Del Cossa design, see the first posts in this series), however it lacked the depiction of a human interaction, intervention, … I also tried yet another half-design, before finally picking the Del Cossa design:

Centauresse Vezelay, arrow of time, frank waaldijk

(click for enlargement, the arrow shooter comes from a centaur sculpture in the Basilique Sainte-Marie-Madeleine of Vézelay, the original photo was taken by Vassil)

In the end , the Del Cossa design, apart from its visual strength, had another interesting feature which proved decisive: the golden circle held by its arrow-bearing protagonist. To me this circle symbolized both mathematics, and two other conundrums of time: can there be a first moment in time? is time circular (another way of looking at reversibility)?:

arrow of time, frank waaldijk
(click for enlargement, almost final design, just the sponsors omitted)

Hope you enjoyed this cross-over between science, philosophy and graphical design!

Postscript: if you’ve come this far, then the following very recent article should interest you: new quantum theory could explain the flow of time. It seems that every few years or so, a new insight in `the arrow of time’ is claimed…which in a way illustrates how hard the problems surrounding time really are.

Entropy, entanglement, energy dispersal… they all start with an E so perhaps I could just pimp up my `formula’ thus: ΔT = H(ΔE), where H is some appropriate function (multiplication with constant would be nice but is probably far too simplistic).

Isn’t cosmology just the most marvelous religion? The really amazing part of physics to me is that we actually succeed in increasing our capabilities to manipulate Nature, even when (in my eyes) we remain largely ignorant of the real mechanisms at work. On the other hand, I’m highly pessimistic about whether this increase in manipulative activities will be beneficial to humanity, and life on earth in general.

[End of series]

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The arrow of time (3): what is it, actually?

No, but honestly: what is meant by the term `the arrow of time’? I cannot get my head around it, unfortunately. This seemingly puts me in an unenviable minority position, enhanced by my obvious ignorance of relevant theories in modern physics.

My problem is this: If we do not know at all what time is, then how can we determine that there is an arrow of time?

As an illustration, let us look at the second law of thermodynamics, as related to the arrow of time via entropy (quote from wikipedia: entropy (arrow of time)):

Entropy is the only quantity in the physical sciences (apart from certain rare interactions in particle physics; see below) that requires a particular direction for time, sometimes called an arrow of time. As one goes “forward” in time, the second law of thermodynamics says, the entropy of an isolated system can increase, but not decrease. Hence, from one perspective, entropy measurement is a way of distinguishing the past from the future. However in thermodynamic systems that are not closed, entropy can decrease with time: many systems, including living systems, reduce local entropy at the expense of an environmental increase, resulting in a net increase in entropy. Examples of such systems and phenomena include the formation of typical crystals, the workings of a refrigerator and living organisms.

Entropy, like temperature, is an abstract concept, yet, like temperature, everyone has an intuitive sense of the effects of entropy. Watching a movie, it is usually easy to determine whether it is being run forward or in reverse. When run in reverse, broken glasses spontaneously reassemble, smoke goes down a chimney, wood “unburns”, cooling the environment and ice “unmelts” warming the environment. No physical laws are broken in the reverse movie except the second law of thermodynamics, which reflects the time-asymmetry of entropy. An intuitive understanding of the irreversibility of certain physical phenomena (and subsequent creation of entropy) allows one to make this determination.

By contrast, all physical processes occurring at the microscopic level, such as mechanics, do not pick out an arrow of time. Going forward in time, an atom might move to the left, whereas going backward in time the same atom might move to the right; the behavior of the atom is not qualitatively different in either case. It would, however, be an astronomically improbable event if a macroscopic amount of gas that originally filled a container evenly spontaneously shrunk to occupy only half the container.

In previous posts I already conjectured a similar view on time and entropy, perhaps a bit more radical: ΔTime \approx ΔEntropy.

The above conjecture is vague and needs improvement, the gist is that entropy and time are cut from the same cloth. But as I said I am rather hampered by my overwhelming ignorance of modern physics.

Still, it seems to me that what is usually called `the arrow of time’ depends on an experimentally unconfirmed ideal view of time as an independent and qualitatively different dimension (an `objective clock’ or perhaps `subjective clock’ which runs independently of other physical processes/attributes, at least on the nanoscale; precisely here might lie the difficulty in reconciling quantum mechanics with general relativity).

One should read at this point the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on time, to hopefully help gain some insight in what I’m trying to say.

[Also I think I remember a vivid related portraying of time by Kurt Vonnegut in Slaughterhouse-Five (I read this over 30 years ago, so inaccuracy is inevitable). As I remember this portraying, time is similar to the other dimensions, which leads to all things existing in four equivalent dimensions...only our human consciousness is like a train which moves in a certain fixed direction. And from that train we can only look out through a very narrow window (the present), hence we see the landscape pass us by in a more or less linear time fashion, moment after moment. If we would be able to break free from the train, then our sensation of time would be radically changed.]

If I may, let me put forward an aphorism which I discovered through my telescope on a meteorite made of antimatter :-). It perhaps illustrates my thoughts on a possible reversal of time: namely that time could well be a phenomenon produced by our consciousness, in other words an anthropomorphic artefact:

We anti-time humans have no memory to speak of, alas!, and can only rely on our often patchy foresight of our future

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The arrow of time (2): Francesco del Cossa

[continued from the previous post:]


arrow of time, frank waaldijk
(click for enlargement)

The Arrow of Time (almost final design)

The basis of the design is formed by a detail from the fresco `Allegory of March: the triumph of Minerva’ by Francesco del Cossa (1430-1477 apprx).






Of course this is not meant as an art blog, but nonetheless I like to point out sources and alterations. You can see (if you are so inclined) that I did some work with Photoshop and Illustrator to revitalize the fresco detail sufficiently for use in an A_0 poster.

The visual strength of the design (to which I referred in the previous post) for me stems from multiple factors. One of these is the pretty superficial clue of the arrow which is held by the central figure…but a more content-related factor is the wear-and-tear of the fresco itself. We see that it is old…because of the wear, the damages, which is the physical manifestation of time (increase in entropy; whether this supports the idea of an arrow of time will be discussed in later posts).

Finally, this mysterious circle held in the other hand to me signifies a combination of mathematics, infinity, divinity…and mystery of course.

Other designs that I made sometimes were more intriguing, but they lacked this direct intuitive appeal.

(to be continued)

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The arrow of time (1)

Three years ago I was asked to design a poster for the symposium `The Arrow of Time’, organized by IMAPP (Institute for Mathematics, Astrophysics and Particle Physics).

I would like to show the final design that I made, and also some other partial designs. Perhaps more relevant to this blog’s purpose, I also would like to pose the question: does the arrow of time really exist? Let me start however with the poster:


arrow of time, frank waaldijk
(click for enlargement)

The Arrow of Time (almost final design, since for the final design I had to add the logos of the sponsors, which seldom is an improvement [yet I managed to avoid real disruption])

I chose this design over other designs (which sometimes were stronger conceptually) because of its visual strength.

(To be continued)

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All bets are off, to disprove the strong physical Church-Turing Thesis (foundations of probability, digital physics and Laplacian determinism 3)

(continued from previous post)

Let H0 be the hypothesis: `the real world is non-computable’ (popularly speaking, see previous post), and H1 be PCTT+ (also see the previous post).

For comparison we introduce the hypothesis H2: `the real world produces only rational (real) numbers’.

H2 is assumed to have been the original world view of ancient Greek mathematicians (Pythagoreans), before their discovery that \sqrt{2} is irrational (which is `rumoured’ to have caused a shock but I cannot find a reliable historical reference for this).

The rational numbers in [0,1] have Lebesgue measure 0, so we can start constructing (T_{40,m})_{m\in \mathbb{N}} such that T_{40}=\bigcup_{m\in \mathbb{N}} T_{40,m} has Lebesgue measure less than 2^{-40}, and such that T_{40} contains all rational numbers in [0,1].

If we then take our coin-flip-randomly produced x\in [0,1], I personally don’t think that we will encounter an m\in\mathbb{N} for which we see that T_{40,m} contains x.

This opinion is supported by the fact that we can easily construct a non-rational number…at least in theory. Take for instance e, the basis of the natural logarithm, which equals \Sigma_{n\in\mathbb{N}}\frac{1}{n!}. We can in fact construct T_{40} in such a way that T_{40} does not contain e, and assume this to be the case here.

On the one hand, this does not depend on infinity, since we can simply look at approximations of e. We construct T_{40} such that for any m\in\mathbb{N} the 2m+2^{\rm th} binary approximation to e is positively apart from T_{40,m}. On the other hand, any finite approximation to e is still rational…and so we can only construct e as an irrational number in the sense described above.

With regard to the existence of non-computable reals, the situation in my humble opinion is very different. We cannot construct a non-computable real, as result of the Church-Turing Thesis (which I have no reason to doubt). Any construction of a real which we recognize as such will consist of a finite set of construction instructions…in other words a Turing machine.

So to make a reasonable case for the existence of non-computable reals, we are forced to turn to Nature. In the previous post, we flipped our coin to produce a random x in [0,1]. We argued that finding m\in\mathbb{N} for which S_{40,m} contains x would force us to reject the hypothesis H0 (`the real world is non-computable’).

So what result in this coin-tossing experiment could force us to reject H1, the strong physical Church-Turing thesis (PCTT+, `the universe is a computer’)?

To be able to reject H1 in the scientific hypothesis-testing way, we should first assume H1. [This might pose a fundamental problem, because if we really assume H1, then our perception of probability might change, and we might have to revise the standard scientific hypothesis-testing way which seems to be silently based on H0. But we will for the moment assume that the scientific method itself needs no amendment under H1.]

Under H1 x has to fall in some S_{40,m}. Failure to do so even if we let m\in\mathbb{N} grow very large, might indicate H1 is false. For scientific proof we should avail of some number M\in\mathbb{N} such that (under H1) the probability that x is not in \bigcup_{m\in \mathbb{N}, m<M} S_{40,m} is less than 2^{-40}.

This reverse probability has had me puzzled for some time, and sent me on the quest for a probability distribution on the natural numbers. In the thread `drawing a natural number at random’ I argued that some indication could be taken from Benford's law, and for discrete cases from Zipf’s law. Anyway, very tentatively, the result of this thread was to consider relative chances only. If for 1\leq n,m \in \mathbb{N} we denote the relative Benford chance of drawing n vs. drawing m by: \frac{P_B(n)}{P_B(m)}, then we find that \frac{P_B(n)}{P_B(m)} = \frac{\log{\frac{n+1}{n}}}{\log{\frac{m+1}{m}}}. The relative Zipf chance of drawing n vs. drawing m would be given by \frac{P_Z(n)}{P_Z(m)} = \frac{m}{n}.

In both cases, the relevant density function is f(x)=\frac{1}{x}. The important feature of this distribution is twofold:

1) The smaller natural numbers are heavily favoured over the larger. (`Low entropy’).

2) There is no M\in\mathbb{N} such that even the relative probability of drawing m\in\mathbb{N} larger than M\in\mathbb{N} becomes less than 2^{-40}. (Because \log x tends to infinity).

Fools rush in where angels fear to tread. I know, and so let me fall squarely in the first category. Yet this train of thought might provoke some smarter people to come up with better answers, so I will just continue. I do not believe these relative chances can simply be applied here, there are too many unknowns and assumptions. But it cannot do harm to try and get some feel for the reverse probability needed to disprove H1.

For this tentative argument then, disregarding some technical coding issues, we consider (under H1) our coin-flip random x to equal some computable x_s computed by a Turing machine with random number s\in\mathbb{N}, drawn from some extremely large urn with low entropy (favouring the smaller natural numbers).

Even with this favouring of the smaller natural numbers, still we cannot begin to indicate M\in\mathbb{N} such that (under H1) the probability that x is not in \bigcup_{m\in \mathbb{N}, m<M} S_{40,m} is less than 2^{-40}. Perhaps if we would know the size of the urn (which in this case would seem to be the universe itself) we could say something more definite on M. But all things considered, it seems to me that M could easily be astronomically large, far larger than our limited computational resources can ever handle.

In other words: all bets are off, to disprove H1.

And so also, if H1 is true, it could very well take our coin-flip experiment astronomically long to find this out.

But I still think the experiment worthwhile to perform.



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An experiment to (dis)prove the strong physical Church-Turing Thesis (foundations of probability, digital physics and Laplacian determinism 2)

There seems to be a pervasive role of `information’ in probability, entropy and hence in physics. But the precise nature of this role escapes me, I’m afraid. I may have said before somewhere in this thread that I do not put too much faith in the classical model of probability as described by Laplace (see previous post, showing Laplace stated similar doubts himself).

One reason for this is an argument/experiment related to digital physics which has not received enough attention, I believe. I equate the term `digital physics’ with the strong physical Church-Turing thesis PCTT+: `Every real number produced by Nature is a computable real number‘ (the Universe is a computer).

The argument/experiment runs like this:

1. Denote with [0,1]_{_{\rm REC}} the recursive unit interval, that is the set of computable reals in [0,1]. We can effectively construct coverings of [0,1]_{_{\rm REC}} which classically have arbitrarily small Lebesgue measure. In fact we can for any n give a countable sequence of intervals (S_{n,m})_{m\in \mathbb{N}} such that the recursive interval [0,1]_{_{\rm REC}} is covered by (S_{n,m})_{m\in \mathbb{N}}, and such that the sum of the lengths of the intervals (S_{n,m})_{m\in \mathbb{N}} does not exceed 2^{-n}. (see [Bridges&Richman1987] Varieties of Constructive Mathematics Ch. 3, thm. 4.1; the coverings are not constructively measurable because the measure limit cannot be achieved constructively, but this doesn’t affect the probability argument).

2. Flipping a coin indefinitely yields a (for practical purposes potentially infinite) sequence x\in\{0,1\}^{\mathbb{N}}, we can see x as a binary real number in [0,1]. Let \mu denote the standard Lebesgue measure, and let A\subseteq [0,1] be Lebesgue measurable. Then in classical probability theory the probability that x is in A equals \mu(A). (Assuming the coin is `fair’ which leads to a uniform probability distribution on [0,1]).

3. Let H0 be the hypothesis: `the real world is non-computable’ (popularly speaking), and H1 be PCTT+ (mentioned above). Then letting the test size \alpha be 2^{-40} , we can start constructing (S_{40,m})_{m\in \mathbb{N}}. Notice that S_{40}=\bigcup_{m\in \mathbb{N}}(S_{40,m}) has Lebesgue measure less than 2^{-40}. H0 is meant to be interpreted mathematically as: classical mathematics is a correct description of physics, the Lebesgue measure of the non-computable reals in [0,1] equals 1, and the uniform probability distribution applies for a coin-flip-randomly produced real in [0,1].

4. Therefore the probability that x is in S_{40} is less than 2^{-40}. If we ever discover an m such that x is in the interval S_{40,m}, then according to the rules of hypothesis testing I think we would have to discard H0, and accept H1, that is PCTT+.

5. Even if the uniform probability distribution is not perfectly satisfied, the above argument still obtains. Any reasonable probability distribution function (according to H0) will be uniformly continuous on [0,1], yielding a uniform correspondence between positive Lebesgue measure and positive probability of set membership.

This seems to me a legitimate scientific experiment, which can be carried out. An interesting form would be to have people add their flips of a coin to the sequence x. I am really curious what the implications are. But several aspects of this experiment remain unclear to me.

I’ve been trying to attract attention to the possibility of carrying out this experiment, so far rather unsuccessfully. Perhaps someone will point out a fallacy in the reasoning, otherwise I think it should be carried out.

Still, there is a snag of course. Assuming H1, that is PCTT+, we are `sure’ to see x fall in some S_{40,m}…but how long would we have to wait for the right m to crop up?

This question then becomes the subject of the reverse hypothesis test: assuming H1, can we determine M\in \mathbb{N} such that with probability less than 2^{-40} we do not see x fall into any S_{40,m} for m\leq M?

If so we could use the experiment also to disprove PCTT+.

Finally, if we should in this way somehow `prove’ PCTT+, what remains of the standard scientific method of statistical hypothesis testing?

All these questions were raised in my paper `On the foundations of constructive mathematics — especially in relation to the theory of continuous functions‘ (2005, circulated as preprint since 2001).

I have yet to receive an answer…so here another invitation to comment. Don’t hesitate to point out where I go wrong.

Notice that a similar experiment can be done for the rational numbers (also of zero Lebesgue measure). I’m confident that such an experiment would not statistically yield that all reals are rational, but the reverse question remains interesting. These reverse questions were the motivation for the thread on `drawing a natural number at random’. This type of question is heavily entropy-related, I feel, and I will discuss this in the next post.

Finally, at this moment I consider PCTT+ the best scientific formulation of Laplacian determinism, which explains the title of these posts.

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Foundations of probability, digital physics and Laplacian determinism

In this thread of posts from 2012, the possibility of drawing a natural number at random was discussed. In the previous post I rediscussed an entropy-related solution giving relative chances. This solution also explains Benford’s law.

In the 2012 thread, I was working on two fundamental questions, the first of which

QUESTION 1   Is our physical world finite or infinite?

was treated to some degree of satisfaction. But its relation to the second question still needs exposition. So let me try to continue the thread here by returning to:

QUESTION 2   What is the role of information in probability theory?

In my (math) freshman’s course on probability theory, this question was not raised. Foundations of probability were in fact ignored even in my specialization area: foundations of mathematics. Understandable from a mathematical point of view perhaps…but not from a broader foundational viewpoint which includes physics. I simply have to repeat what I wrote in an earlier post:

(Easy to illustrate the basic problem here, not so easy perhaps to demonstrate why it has such relevance.) Suppose we draw a marble from a vase filled with an equal amount of blue and white marbles. What is the chance that we draw a blue marble?

In any high-school exam, I would advise you to answer: 50%. In 98% of university exams I would advise the same answer. Put together that makes … just kidding. The problem here is that any additional information can drastically alter our perception of the probability/chance of drawing a blue marble. In the most dramatic case, imagine that the person drawing the marble can actually feel the difference between the two types of marbles, and therefore already knows which colour marble she has drawn. For her, the chance of drawing a blue marble is either 100% or 0%. For us, who knows? Perhaps some of us can tell just by the way she frowns what type of marble she has drawn…?

It boils down to the question: what do we mean by the word `chance’? I quote from Wikipedia:

The first person known to have seen the need for a clear definition of probability was Laplace.[citation needed] As late as 1814 he stated:

The theory of chance consists in reducing all the events of the same kind to a certain number of cases equally possible, that is to say, to such as we may be equally undecided about in regard to their existence, and in determining the number of cases favorable to the event whose probability is sought. The ratio of this number to that of all the cases possible is the measure of this probability, which is thus simply a fraction whose numerator is the number of favorable cases and whose denominator is the number of all the cases possible.

— Pierre-Simon Laplace, A Philosophical Essay on Probabilities[4]

This description is what would ultimately provide the classi(Easy to illustrate the basic problem here, not so easy perhaps to demonstrate why it has such relevance.) Suppose we draw a marble from a vase filled with an equal amount of blue and white marbles. What is the chance that we draw a blue marble?

One easily sees however that this `definition’ avoids the main issue. Laplace did not always avoid this main issue however:

Laplace([1776a]; OC, VIII, 145):

Before going further, it is important to pin down the sense of the words chance and probability. We look upon a thing as the effect of chance when we see nothing regular in it, nothing that manifests design, and when furthermore we are ignorant of the causes that brought it about. Thus, chance has no reality in itself. It is nothing but a term for expressing our ignorance of the way in which the various aspects of a phenomenon are interconnected and related to the rest of nature.


We may regard the present state of the universe as the effect of its past and the cause of its future. An intellect which at a certain moment would know all forces that set nature in motion, and all positions of all items of which nature is composed, if this intellect were also vast enough to submit these data to analysis, it would embrace in a single formula the movements of the greatest bodies of the universe and those of the tiniest atom; for such an intellect nothing would be uncertain and the future just like the past would be present before its eyes.

—Pierre Simon Laplace, A Philosophical Essay on Probabilities[37]

In the meantime I came across some work by Albert Tarantola, and this work is really heartening! In a seminal paper Inverse problems = quest for information (together with Bernard Valette) Tarantola already states that we should consider any probability distribution as an information state (subjective even) regarding the phenomenon under study, and vice versa: every information state can be described by a probability distribution function on some appropriate model space.

Now we’re talking!

To surprise me further: Tarantola describes the quandary that measure density functions like f(x)= \frac{1}{x} cause (the integral diverges) and offers exactly the same solution: look at relative probabilities of events, instead of absolute probabilities. To top it off, Tarantola emphasizes that the measure density function f(x)=\frac{1}{x} plays a very important role in inverse problems…

So now I need to study this all, in order also to join these ideas to the perspective of digital physics and Laplacian determinism.

(to be continued)

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