Eddington 1927: Time’s Arrow

Time arrow

This paper presents Chapter IV (section 2) from the book THE NATURE OF THE PHYSICAL WORLD by A. S. EDDINGTON. The contents of this book are based on the lectures that Eddington delivered at the University of Edinburgh in January to March 1927.

The paragraphs of original material are accompanied by brief comments in color, based on the present understanding.  Feedback on these comments is appreciated.

The heading below links to the original materials.


Time’s Arrow

The great thing about time is that it goes on. But this is an aspect of it which the physicist sometimes seems inclined to neglect. In the four-dimensional world considered in the last chapter the events past and future lie spread out before us as in a map. The events are there in their proper spatial and temporal relation; but there is no indication that they undergo what has been described as “the formality of taking place”, and the question of their doing or undoing does not arise. We see in the map the path from past to future or from future to past; but there is no signboard to indicate that it is a one-way street. Something must be added to the geometrical conceptions comprised in Minkowski’s world before it becomes a complete picture of the world as we know it. We may appeal to consciousness to suffuse the whole—to turn existence into happening, being into becoming. But first let us note that the picture as it stands is entirely adequate to represent those primary laws of Nature which, as we have seen, are indifferent to a direction of time. Objection has sometimes been felt to the relativity theory because its four-dimensional picture of the world seems to overlook the directed character of time. The objection is scarcely logical, for the theory is in this respect no better and no worse than its predecessors. The classical physicist has been using without misgiving a system of laws which do not recognise a directed time; he is shocked that the new picture should expose this so glaringly.

The primary laws are indifferent to the direction of time. The universal viewpoint sees time as a sequence that can be laid down on a map, such as, a timeline. The direction of time becomes relevant only for the localized, subjective viewpoint.

Without any mystic appeal to consciousness it is possible to find a direction of time on the four-dimensional map by a study of organization. Let us draw an arrow arbitrarily. If as we follow the arrow we find more and more of the random element in the state of the world, then the arrow is pointing towards the future; if the random element decreases the arrow points towards the past. That is the only distinction known to physics. This follows at once if our fundamental contention is admitted that the introduction of randomness is the only thing which cannot be undone.

An organization of many elements may be represented through a universal viewpoint. But we may see random elements appear where universal laws are unknown, and a subjective viewpoint is applied. The direction in which random elements appear is the direction of future. The introduction of randomness is the only thing which cannot be undone.

I shall use the phrase “time’s arrow” to express this one-way property of time which has no analogue in space. It is a singularly interesting property from a philosophical standpoint. We must note that—

  1. It is vividly recognised by consciousness.
  2. It is equally insisted on by our reasoning faculty, which tells us that a reversal of the arrow would render the external world nonsensical.
  3. It makes no appearance in physical science except in the study of organization of a number of individuals.

Here the arrow indicates the direction of progressive increase of the random element.

Physical science deals with universal, objective viewpoint. The one-way property of time appears only when the number of variables increases and the changes in individual variables cannot be predicted. The progressive increase of the random element points to the direction of time.

Let us now consider in detail how a random element brings the irrevocable into the world. When a stone falls it acquires kinetic energy, and the amount of the energy is just that which would be required to lift the stone back to its original height. By suitable arrangements the kinetic energy can be made to perform this task; for example, if the stone is tied to a string it can alternately fall and re-ascend like a pendulum. But if the stone hits an obstacle its kinetic energy is converted into heat-energy. There is still the same quantity of energy, but even if we could scrape it together and put it through an engine we could not lift the stone back with it. What has happened to make the energy no longer serviceable?

When kinetic energy converts into heat energy of equal quantity, the heat energy cannot be fully converted back to kinetic energy.

Looking microscopically at the falling stone we see an enormous multitude of molecules moving downwards with equal and parallel velocities—an organized motion like the march of a regiment. We have to notice two things, the energy and the organization of the energy. To return to its original height the stone must preserve both of them.

When the stone falls on a sufficiently elastic surface the motion may be reversed without destroying the organization. Each molecule is turned backwards and the whole array retires in good order to the starting-point—

The famous Duke of York

With twenty thousand men,

He marched them up to the top of the hill

And marched them down again.

History is not made that way. But what usually happens at the impact is that the molecules suffer more or less random collisions and rebound in all directions. They no longer conspire to make progress in any one direction; they have lost their organization. Afterwards they continue to collide with one another and keep changing their directions of motion, but they never again find a common purpose. Organization cannot be brought about by continued shuffling. And so, although the energy remains quantitatively sufficient (apart from unavoidable leakage which we suppose made good), it cannot lift the stone back. To restore the stone we must supply extraneous energy which has the required amount of organization.

The organization of kinetic energy is lost when it converts into heat energy. This organization cannot restore itself on its own. Therefore, the heat energy cannot be restored back to the same kinetic energy.

Here a point arises which unfortunately has no analogy in the shuffling of a pack of cards. No one (except a conjurer) can throw two half-shuffled packs into a hat and draw out one pack in its original order and one pack fully shuffled. But we can and do put partly disorganized energy into a steam-engine, and draw it out again partly as fully organized energy of motion of massive bodies and partly as heat-energy in a state of still worse disorganization. Organization of energy is negotiable, and so is the disorganization or random element; disorganization does not forever remain attached to the particular store of energy which first suffered it, but may be passed on elsewhere. We cannot here enter into the question why there should be a difference between the shuffling of energy and the shuffling of material objects; but it is necessary to use some caution in applying the analogy on account of this difference. As regards heat-energy the temperature is the measure of its degree of organization; the lower the temperature, the greater the disorganization.

In a heat engine as a part of heat energy gets organized into mechanical energy, another part of the same heat energy gets more disorganized. The degree of organization is represented by temperature.

Some of the original organization is lost because heat energy finds it easy to establish new equilibrium organization between parts and with the environment at micro level.


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