The end of time

The end of time - image for article by Greg Alder

This just might be the end of time. And space. And cause and effect. Plus a host of rules and principles to boot.

It’s a big call, I know. Read on and then decide if this is as big a deal as it seems to be.

So, the story starts in 1935 with correspondence between Albert Einstein and Erwin Schrödinger (he of the simultaneously dead and alive cat, or the neither dead nor alive cat – depending on your point of view).

Of particular concern to Einstein and Schrödinger was what Schrödinger dubbed entanglement. According to this new quantum mechanics theory, if quantum systems meet, but then separate, it becomes impossible to measure the features of one without instantly influencing the state of the other – even if there’s a huge distance between them.

Because the theory seems to violate some pretty basic laws, it’s been the subject of a lot of experiments to understand the entanglement of properties across space.

Whilst this is bamboozling enough, physicists at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University wondered if this entanglement might happen not just across space but across time. In essence, their experiments were designed to test if two systems existing at different times could be made to entangle.

In 2013, the physicists revealed that they’d successfully been able to entangle 2 protons that never co-existed.

I’m no quantum physicist. I won’t pretend to fully understand how the experiment was designed.

The first conclusion that we non-scientists might make is the remarkable one that an event that happened millions of years ago could affect something we’re doing today. Because each system affects the other, there’s a more preposterous conclusion that things we do today are capable of influencing things that happened in the past.

Is that even possible?

Well, it is if we accept that simultaneity isn’t the absolute state that Newton said it was, but is relative – and is of our own making.

I wrestled with this for a while. For a long time, in fact. And then I thought of something that is a lay version (and even a mundane version) of the theory – the long-distance phone call.

I have always been amused and puzzled how I can have a phone conversation with a friend in California across eighteen time zones. On the phone we hear each other’s questions in real time, and we answer in real time. And yet he is hearing my questions 18 hours before I ask them.

We’ve created time to suit us. We expect time to behave identically everywhere, and in all circumstances. We expect friends and colleagues to abide by the same principles of time as we do. If we set a 10am meeting, we both expect the other to be there at the same time.

Now it seems that time doesn’t want to play our game – or rather that time can be manipulated.

It looks like Rod Serling’s narration that introduced The Twilight Zone got it right:

There is a fifth dimension beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge.

I’d normally thank you for taking the time to read this. But now I’m wondering if you read this before I wrote it.

(I was made aware of the theory and the experiment referred to here in an article by Elise Crull, assistant professor in history and philosophy of science at the City College of New York, published on the Aeon website. Yo can read Professor Crull’s article here.)

Photo by Rob Bates via Unsplash

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