I recently returned to my roots, contributing to a new paper with Tim Ralph (who was my PhD advisor) on the very same topic that formed a major part of my PhD. Out of laziness, let me dig up the relevant information from an earlier post:
“The idea for my PhD thesis comes from a paper that I stumbled across as an undergraduate at the University of Melbourne. That paper, by Tim Ralph, Gerard Milburn and Tony Downes of the University of Queensland, proposed that Earth’s own gravitational field might be strong enough to cause quantum gravity effects in experiments done on satellites. In particular, the difference between the strength of gravity at ground-level and at the height of the orbiting satellite might be just enough to make the quantum particles on the satellite behave in a very funny non-linear way, never before seen at ground level. Why might this happen? This is where the story gets bizarre: the authors got their idea after looking at a theory of time-travel, proposed in 1991 by David Deutsch. According to Deutsch’s theory, if space and time were bent enough by gravity to create a closed loop in time (aka a time machine), then any quantum particle that travelled backwards in time ought to have a very peculiar non-linear behaviour. Tim Ralph and co-authors said: what if there was only a little bit of space-time curvature? Wouldn’t you still expect just a little bit of non-linear behaviour? And we can look for that in the curvature produced by the Earth, without even needing to build a time-machine!”
In our recent paper in New Journal of Physics, for the special Focus on Gravitational Quantum Mechanics, Tim and I re-examined the `event formalism’ (the fancy name for the nonlinear model in question) and we derived some more practical numerical predictions and ironed out a couple of theoretical wrinkles, making it more presentable as an experimental proposal. Now that there is growing interest in quantum gravity phenomenology — that is, testable toy models of quantum gravity effects — Tim’s little theory has an excitingly real chance of being tested and proven either right or wrong. Either way, I’d be curious to know how it turns out! On one hand, if quantum entanglement survives the test, the experiment would stand as one of the first real confirmations of quantum field theory in curved space-time. On the other hand, if the entanglement is destroyed by Earth’s gravitational field, it would signify a serious problem with the standard theory and might even confirm our alternative model. That would be great too, but also somewhat disturbing, since non-linear effects are known to have strange and confusing properties, such as violating the fabled uncertainty principle of quantum mechanics.
You can see my video debut here, in which I give an overview of the paper, complete with hand-drawn sketches!
(Actually there is a funny story attached to the video abstract. The day I filmed the video for this, I had received a letter informing me that my application for renewal of my residence permit in Austria was not yet complete — but the permit itself had expired the previous day! As a result, during the filming I was half panicking at the thought of being deported from the country. In the end it turned out not to be a problem, but if I seem a little tense in the video, well, now you know why.)
“What are exactly are the limits for having an object time-travel that is a bit larger than a single particle? Or what was the scope of your work? I am asking because papers as your thesis are very often hyped in popular media as `It has been proven that time-travel does work’ (Insert standard sci-fi picture of curved space here). As far as I can decode the underlying papers such models are mainly valid for single particles (?) but I have no feeling about numbers and dimensions, decoherence etc.”
Yep, that is pretty much THE question about time travel – can we do it with people or not? (Or even with rats, that would be good too). The bottom line is that we still don’t know, but I might as well give a longer answer, since it is just interesting enough to warrant its own blog post.
First of all, nobody has yet been able to prove that time travel is either possible or impossible according to the laws of physics. This is largely because we don’t yet know what laws govern time travel — for that we’d almost certainly need a theory of quantum gravity. In order for humans to time-travel, we would probably need to use a space-time wormhole, as proposed by Morris, Thorne and Yurtsever in the late eighties . Their paper originated the classic wormhole graphic that everyone is so fond of:
However, there are at least a couple of compelling arguments why it should be impossible to send people back in time, one of which is Stephen Hawking’s “Chronology Protection Conjecture”. This is commonly misrepresented as the argument “if time travel is possible, where are all the tourists from the future?”. While Stephen Hawking did make a comment along these lines, he was just joking around. Besides, there is a perfectly good reason why we might not have been visited by travellers from the future: according to the wormhole model, you can only go back in time as far as the moment when you first invented the time machine, or equivalently, the time at which the first wormhole mouth opens up. Since we haven’t found any wormhole entrances in space, nor have we created one artificially, it is no surprise that we haven’t received any visitors from the future.
The real Chronology Protection Conjecture involves a lot more mathematics and head-scratching. Basically, it says that matter and energy should accumulate near the wormhole entrance so quickly that the whole thing will collapse into a black hole before anybody has time to travel through it. The reason that it is still only a conjecture and has not been proven, is that it relies upon certain assumptions about quantum gravity that may or may not be true — we won’t know until we have such a theory. And then it might just turn out that the wormhole is somehow stable after all.
The other reason why time travel for large objects might be impossible is that, in order for the wormhole to be stable and not collapse in on itself Hawking-style, you need matter with certain quantum properties that can support the wormhole against collapse . But it might turn out that it is just impossible to create enough of this special matter in the vicinity of a wormhole to keep it open. This is a question that one could hope to answer without needing a full theory of quantum gravity, because it depends only on the shape of the space-time and certain properties of quantum fields within that space-time. However, the task of answering this question is so ridiculously difficult mathematically that nobody has yet been able to do it. So the door is still open to the possibility of time-travelling humans, at least in theory.
To my mind, though, the biggest reason is not theoretical but practical: how the heck do you create a wormhole? We can’t even create a black hole of any decent size (if any had shown up at the LHC they would have been microscopic and very short-lived). So how can we hope to be able to manipulate the vast amounts of matter and energy required to bend space-time into a loop (and a stable loop no less), without annihilating ourselves in the process? Even if we were lucky to find a big enough, ready-made wormhole somewhere out in space, it will almost certainly be so far away as to make it nearly impossible to get there, due to sheer demands on technology. It’s a bit like asking, could humans ever build a friendly hotel in the centre of the sun? Well, it might be technically possible, but there is no way it would ever happen; even if we could raise humungous venture capital for the Centre-of-the-Sun Hotel, it would just be too damn hard.
The good news is that it might be more feasible to create a cute, miniature wormhole that only exists for a short time. This would require much smaller energies that might not destroy us in the process, and might be easier to manipulate and control (assuming quantum gravity allows it at all). So, while there is as yet no damning proof that time-travel is impossible, I still suspect that the best we can ever hope to do is to be able to send an electron back in time by a very short amount, probably not more than one millisecond — which would be exciting for science nerds, but perhaps not the headline that the newspapers would have wanted.
 Fun fact: while working on the movie “Contact”, Carl Sagan consulted Kip Thorne about the physics of time-travel.
 For the nerds out there, you need matter that violates the averaged null energy condition (ANEC). You can look up what this means in any textbook on General Relativity — for example this one.
One of the best things about the internet is that it gives the public unprecedented access to the cutting edge of science. For example, on Friday I uploaded my entire PhD thesis, “Causality Violation and Nonlinear Quantum Mechanics”, to the arXiv, where it can now be read by my contemporaries, colleagues, parents, neighbours and any pets that can read human-speak. The downside is, as my parents pointed out, my thesis is not written in English but in gobbledegook that makes no sense to anybody outside of the quantum physics community. So, while most work at the cutting edge of physics is available to anyone to read, almost nobody can understand it — and those who can, have access to journal subscriptions anyway! Oh, the irony. In order to remedy this problem, I’ve decided to translate my thesis from jargon into words that most people can understand (I’m not the first one to have this idea – check out Scott Aaronson’s description of his own research using the 1000 most common words in English).
Like any PhD thesis, my work is on a really small, pigeonhole topic that is part of a much bigger picture — like one brick in the wall of a huge building that is being constructed. I’ll start by talking about the whole building, which represents all of physics, and then slowly zoom in on the single, tiny brick that I focused on intensely for three and a half years. One thing about doing a PhD is that it teaches you to be very Zen about your work. We can’t all expect to be like Einstein, who single-handedly constructed an entire wing of the building — us regular scientists have to content ourselves with the laying of a single brick. In the end, the whole structure will only stand if every single brick is placed carefully and correctly. Sherlock Holmes once observed that, from a single drop of water, “a logician could infer the possibility of an Atlantic or a Niagara without having seen or heard of one or the other. So all life is a great chain, the nature of which is known whenever we are shown a single link of it.” In the same way, the contribution of just a single brick to the building of physics is significant. After all, one cannot know how to place the individual brick without having first consulted the blueprint of the entire building. In this sense, the individual brick is as significant as the entire structure.
But enough philosophical mumbo-jumbo! Let’s get concrete. Modern physics can be roughly divided up into two separate theories. The first is Einstein’s theory of gravity, called General Relativity. This theory applies to all heavy objects that are affected by gravity, like planets, galaxies, and your mum. The theory says that heavy objects cause space and time to bend and curve around them in a special way. When the objects move through this curved space-time, they follow paths that bring them closer together, creating the appearance of an attractive force — the “force” normally known as gravity. If you want to fly rockets through space or deduce how the galaxy formed, or predict how heavy objects move around each other in space, you need this theory.
The other theory is Quantum Mechanics. This governs the behaviour of things that are very small, like atoms and the smaller parts of atoms. It turns out that even light is composed of a vast number of very small particles, called photons. If you have a very weak source of light that emits only a few photons at a time, it too is described by quantum mechanics. All quantum particles possess wave-like behaviour under certain conditions, which is described by something called the “wave-function” of the particle. Since we are made entirely out of atoms, you might ask: how come our bodies are not governed by quantum mechanics too? The answer is that, although in theory there could be a wave-function for larger objects like human bodies, in practice it is extremely difficult to create the special conditions needed to see the quantum behaviour of such large collections of atoms. The process whereby quantum effects become harder to observe in bigger objects is called “decoherence”, and it is still not completely understood.
Now comes the interesting part: it turns out that gravity is very weak. We can feel the Earth’s gravitational pull because the Earth is really, really heavy. But, in theory, you and I are also heavy enough to cause space-time to bend, just a little bit, around our bodies. This means you should be pulled towards me by gravity, and I towards you. However, because we are not nearly as heavy as the Earth, our gravitational pull on each other is far too weak for us to notice (though people have observed the gravitational attraction between large, heavy balls suspended by wires). By the time you get down to molecules, atoms and quantum mechanics, the gravitational force is so tiny that it can be completely ignored. On the other hand, because of decoherence, quantum mechanics can usually be ignored for anything much larger than molecules. This means that it is very rare to find a situation in which both quantum effects and gravitational effects both need to be taken into account; it is almost always a case of just one or the other.
The trouble is, if there were an in-between situation where both theories become significant, we do not know how quantum mechanics and gravity would overlap. One example is when a star becomes so heavy that it collapses under its own gravity into a black hole. The singularity at the centre of the hole is small enough that quantum mechanics should become important. As for being heavy, well, a black hole is so heavy that even light cannot go fast enough to escape from its gravitational attraction. Another in-between case would occur if we ever manage to make instruments that can measure space and time to extremely high accuracy, at a level called the “Planck scale”. If we are ever able to measure such tiny distances and times, we might expect to observe the curving of space-time due to very low-mass objects like atoms. So far, such precision is beyond our technology, and black holes have only been observed very indirectly. But when we finally do begin to probe these things, we will need a theory to describe them that incorporates both gravity and quantum mechanics together — a theory of “quantum gravity”. But despite roughly a hundred years of effort, we still do not have such a theory.
Why is it so hard to do quantum mechanics and gravity at the same time? This question alone is the subject of much debate. For now, you’ll just have to take my word that you can’t simply mash the two together (it has something to do with the fact that “space-time” is no longer clearly defined at the Planck scale). One approach is to consider a specific example of something that needs quantum gravity to describe it, like a black hole, and then try to develop a kind of “toy” theory of quantum gravity that describes only that particular situation. Once you have enough toy theories for different situations, you might be able to stick them together into a proper theory that includes all of them as special cases. This is easier said than done — it relies on us being able to come up with a wide variety of “thought experiments” that combine different aspects of quantum mechanics and gravity. But thought experiments like these are very rare: you’ve got black holes, Roger Penrose’s idea of a massive object in a quantum superposition, and a smattering of lesser known ideas. Are there any more?
This is where I come in. The idea for my PhD thesis comes from a paper that I stumbled across as an undergraduate at the University of Melbourne. The paper, by Tim Ralph, Gerard Milburn and Tony Downes of the University of Queensland, proposed that Earth’s own gravitational field might be strong enough to cause quantum gravity effects in experiments done on satellites. In particular, the difference between the strength of gravity at ground-level and at the height of the orbiting satellite might be just enough to make the quantum particles on the satellite behave in a very funny “non-linear” way, never before seen at ground level. Why might this happen? This is where the story gets bizarre: the authors got their idea after looking at a theory of time-travel, proposed in 1991 by David Deutsch. According to Deutsch’s theory, if space and time were bent enough by gravity to create a closed loop in time (aka a time machine), then any quantum particle that travelled backwards in time ought to have a very peculiar “non-linear” behaviour. Tim Ralph and co-authors said: what if there was only a little bit of space-time curvature? Wouldn’t you still expect just a little bit of non-linear behaviour? And we can look for that in the curvature produced by the Earth, without even needing to build a time-machine!
I was so fascinated by this idea that I immediately wrote to Tim Ralph. After some discussions, I visited Brisbane for the first time to meet him, and soon afterwards I began my PhD at the Uni of Queensland under Tim’s supervision. My first task was to understand Deutsch’s model of time-travel in more detail. (Unfortunately, the idea of time-travel is notorious for attracting crackpots, so if you want to do legitimate research on the topic you have to couch it in jargon to convince your colleagues that you have not gone crazy — hence the replacement of “time-travel” with the more politically-correct term “causality violation” in the title of my thesis). David Deutsch is best known for being one of the founding fathers of the idea of a quantum computer. That gave him enough credibility amongst physicists that we were willing to listen to his more eccentric ideas on things like Everett’s many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, and the quantum mechanics of time-travel. On the latter topic, Deutsch made the seminal observation that certain well-known paradoxes of time travel — for instance, what happens if you go back in time and kill your past self before he/she enters the time machine — could be fixed by taking into account the wave-function of a quantum particle as it travels back in time.
Roughly speaking, the closed loop in time causes the wave-function of the particle to loop back on itself, allowing the particle to “interact with itself” in a non-linear way. Just like Schrödinger’s cat can be both dead and alive at the same time in a quantum superposition, it is possible for the quantum particle to “kill it’s past self” and “not kill it’s past self” at the same time, thereby apparently resolving the paradox (although, you might be forgiven for thinking that we just made it worse…).
Here was a prime example of a genuine quantum gravity effect: space-time had to be curved in order to create the time-machine, but quantum mechanics had to be included to resolve the paradoxes! Could we therefore use this model as a new thought experiment for understanding quantum gravity effects? Luckily for me, there were a few problems with Deutsch’s model that still needed to be ironed out before we could really take seriously the experiment proposed by Ralph, Milburn and Downes. First of all, as I mentioned, Deutsch’s model introduced non-linear behaviour of the quantum particle. But many years earlier, Nicolas Gisin and others had argued that any non-linear effects of this type should allow you to send signals faster than light, which seemed to be against the spirit of Einstein’s theory of relativity. Secondly, Deutsch’s model did not take into account all of the quantum properties of the particle, such as the spread of the particle’s wave function in space and time. Without that, it remained unclear whether the non-linear behaviour should persist in Earth’s gravitational field, as Ralph and co-authors had speculated, or whether the space-time spread of the wave-function would some how “smear out” the non-linearity until it disappeared altogether.
In my thesis, I showed that it might be possible to keep the non-linear behaviour of the Deutsch model while also ensuring that no signals could be sent faster than light outside of the time-machine. My arguments were based on some work that had already been done by others in a different context — I was able to adapt their work to the particular case of Deutsch’s model. In addition, I re-formulated Deutsch’s model to describe what happens to pulses of light, such that the space-time spread of the light could be taken into account together with the other quantum properties of light. Using this model, I showed that even if a pulse of light were sent back in time without interacting with its past self at all (no paradoxes), the wave-function of the light would still behave in a non-linear way. Using my model, I was able to describe exactly when the non-linear effects would get “smeared out” by the wave-function, and confirmed that the non-linear effects might still be observable in Earth’s gravitational field without needing a time-machine, thereby lending further support to the speculative work of Ralph and co. that had started it all.
So, that’s my PhD in a nutshell! Where to next? Right now I have decided to calm down a little bit and steer towards less extreme examples of a quantum gravity thought experiments. In particular, rather than looking at outright “causality violation”, I am investigating a peculiar effect called “indefinite causality”, in which space-time is not quite curved enough to send anything backwards in time, but where it is also not clear which events are causes and which ones are their effects. Hopefully, I’ll be able to understand how quantum mechanics fits into this weird picture — but that’s a topic for another post.