Remember to take it slow

“Spiros, can you explain to me this whole business about time being an illusion?”

These were William Shatner’s words to me, minutes after I walked into the green room at Silicon Valley’s Comic Con. The iconic Star Trek actor, best known for his portrayal of James Tiberius Kirk, captain of the starship Enterprise, was chatting with Andy Weir, author of The Martian, when I showed up at the door. I was obviously in the wrong room. I had been looking for the room reserved for science panelists, but had been sent up an elevator to the celebrity green room instead (a special room reserved for VIPs during their appearance at the convention). Realizing quickly that something was off, I did what anyone else would do in my position. I sat down. To my right was Mr. Weir and to my left was Mr. Shatner and his agent, Mr. Gary Hasson. For the first few minutes I was invisible, listening in casually as Mr. Weir revealed juicy details about his upcoming novel. And then, it happened. Mr. Shatner turned to me and asked: “And who are you?” Keep calm young man. You can outrun him if you have to. You are as entitled to the free croissants as any of them. “I am Spiros,” I replied. “And what do you do, Spiros?” he continued. “I am a quantum physicist at Caltech.” Drop the mic. Boom. Now I will see myself out before security…


“Spiros, can you explain to me this whole business about time being an illusion?”

Huh, I wonder if he means the… “You know, how there is no past, present or future in quantum mechanics,” Mr. Shatner continued. “Well, yes,” I responded, “that is called the arrow of time, an emergent direction in the time parameter found in the equation describing evolution in quantum physics. By the way, that time parameter itself is also emergent.” And then things got out of hand. “Wait a minute, are you telling me that not just the arrow of time, but time itself as a concept is an illusion?” asked Mr. Shatner with genuine excitement. “Yes. For starters, the arrow of time itself is a consequence of an emergent asymmetry between events that are all equally likely at the microscopic level. Think about flipping a fair coin one hundred times, for example. The probability of getting all heads is astronomically small. Zero point zero zero zero… with thirty zeroes before the one. Same is true if I ask you how likely it is that you flip fifty heads and then fifty tails,” I said and waited. “OK… still following,” Mr. Shatner assured me, so I continued, “but, say that you have trouble keeping track of all the different positions of the heads and tails; all you care about is counting how many times you flipped heads and how many times you flipped tails. What is the probability that you would count one hundred heads?” I asked. Mr. Shatner thought for a second, and so did Mr. Weir, before they answered almost in unison, “Well, it is still astronomically small. Just like before.” Yes! Holy cow, Batman, this is actually happening. I am having a conversation about physics with captain Kirk and the mastermind behind this year’s Golden Globe winner for Best Motion Picture: Musical or Comedy! This makes no sense! And I am not talking about the movie award – The Martian was hilarious.


“Exactly,” I replied. “But what about flipping the coin and counting fifty heads and fifty tails?” I asked. I could see that their wheels were spinning. What was I getting at? How was this different from before? “Does it have to be the first fifty heads, or can it be any which way, as long as it is fifty?” asked Mr. Weir. Bingo. “Any which way. We can only keep track of the number of them, not their position,” I reminded him. “Well, there are many more ways then to get fifty heads,” noted Mr. Shatner. “Yes there are,” I agreed and continued, “In fact, there are about one thousand billion billion billion combinations that all give fifty heads and fifty tails. In other words, one in ten times you flip a coin a hundred times, you will count exactly fifty heads and fifty tails. Think about this for a second. The probability of counting exactly fifty heads the first time you flip a coin a hundred times is thirty orders of magnitude larger than counting one hundred heads. Remember that any particular configuration of heads and tails is equally – astronomically – unlikely. But if you zoom out, then magic happens and an emergent asymmetry appears. A really huge asymmetry, at that.” They were hooked. It was time for the grand finale. “So, which events then are more likely for us to experience in the next second, if all of them are equally likely at some fundamental level?” I asked. Mr. Shatner responded first: “The ones that have billions of microscopic configurations that all look the same when you zoom out. Like the fifty heads thing.” Then, Mr. Weir, turning to Mr. Shatner added, “That’s the arrow of time following the direction of entropy as it increases.” I nodded (maybe a little too eagerly) and looked at my phone to see that it was close to noon. It would take me about five minutes to walk to Room 2 of the San Jose convention center, where Mr. Weir was to headline a panel titled “Let’s Go to Mars!” There was no way I was missing that panel. I knew that by now there would be a very long line of eager attendees waiting to hear Mr. Weir and Mr. Adam Savage (of Mythbusters fame) talk about Mars exploration. With some luck, I could walk there with Mr. Weir and sneak in without being noticed by the door police. I told Mr. Weir that it was time for us to go downstairs. He got up, I got up and…

“Spiros, where do you think you are going? Come here, sit right next to me. You promised to explain how time works. You can’t leave me hanging now!” Mr. Shatner was adamant.

I looked to Mr. Hasson and Mr. Weir, who were caught in the middle of this. “I… I can come back and we can talk more after Andy’s panel… My panel isn’t until 2 o’ clock,” I pleaded. Mr. Shatner did not think so. Science could not wait another second. He was actually interested in what I had to say, so I turned to Mr. Weir apologetically and he nodded with understanding and a “good luck, kid” kind-of-smile. Mr. Hasson seemed pleased with my choice and made some room for me to sit next to the captain.


“Now, where were we? Ah yes, you were going to explain to me how time itself is an illusion. Something about time in quantum evolution being emergent. What do you mean?” asked Mr. Shatner, cutting right to the chase. It was time for me to go all in: “Well, you see, there is this equation in quantum mechanics – Erwin Schrodinger came up with it – that tells us how the state of the universe at the quantum level changes with time. But where does time come from? Is it a fundamental concept, or is there something out there without which time itself cannot exist?” I waited for a second, as Mr. Shatner contemplated my question. He was stumped. What could possibly be more fundamental than time? Hmm… “Change,” I said. “Without change, there is no time and, thus, no quantum evolution. And without quantum evolution there is no classical evolution, no arrow of time. So everything hinges on the ability of the quantum state of the visible universe to change.” I paused to make sure he was following, then continued, “But if there is change, then where does it come from? Wherever it comes from, unless we end up with a timeless, unchanging and featureless entity, we will always be on the hook for explaining why it is changing, how it is changing and why it looks the way it does and not some other way,” I said and waited a second to let this sink in. “Spiros, if you are right, then how the heck can you get something out of nothing? If the whole thing is static, how come we are not frozen in time?” asked pointedly Mr. Shatner. “We are not the whole thing,” I said, maybe a bit too abruptly. “What do you mean we are not the whole thing? What else is there?” questioned Mr. Shatner. At this point I could see a large smile forming on Mr. Hasson’s face. His old friend, Bill Shatner, was having fun. A different kind of fun. A different kind of Comic Con. Sure, Bill still had to sit at a table in the main Exhibit Hall to greet thousands of fans, sign their favorite pictures of him and, for a premium, stand next to them for a picture that they would frame and display in their homes for decades to come. “Spiros, do you have a card?” interjected Mr. Hasson. Hmm, how do I say that this is not a thing among scientists… “I ran out. Sorry, everyone wants one these days, so… Here, I can type my email and number in your phone. Would that work?” I said, stretching the truth 1/slightly. “That would be great, thanks,” replied Mr. Hasson.


With Mr. Stan Lee at the Silicon Valley Comic Con. At 93, Mr. Lee spent the whole weekend with fans, not once showing up at the green room to take a break. So I hunted him down with help from Mr. Hasson.

“Hey, stop distracting him! We are so close to the good stuff!” blasted Mr. Shatner. “Go on, now, Spiros. How does anything ever change?” asked Mr. Shatner with some urgency in his voice. “Dynamic equilibrium,” I replied. “Like a chemical reaction that is in equilibrium. You look from afar and see nothing happening. No bubbles, nothing. But zoom in a little and you see products and reactants dissolving and recombining like crazy, but always in perfect balance. The whole remains static, while the parts experience dramatic change.” I let this simmer for a moment. “We are not the whole. We are just a part of the whole. We are too big to see the quantum evolution as it happens in all its glory. But we are also too small to remain unchanged. Our visible universe is in dynamic equilibrium with a clock universe with which we are maximally entangled. We change only because the state of the clock universe changes randomly and we have no control over it, but to change along with it so that the whole remains unchanged,” I concluded, hoping that he would be convinced by a theory that had not seen the light of day until that fateful afternoon. He was not convinced yet. “Wait a minute, why would that clock universe change in the first place?” he asked suspiciously. “It doesn’t have to,” I replied, anticipating this excellent question, and went on, “It could remain in the same state for a million years. But we wouldn’t know it, because the state of our visible universe would have to remain in the same state also for a million years. We wouldn’t be able to tell that a million years passed between every microsecond of change, just like a person under anesthesia can’t tell that they are undergoing surgery for hours, only to wake up thinking it was just a moment earlier that they were counting down to zero.” He fell silent for a moment and then a big smile appeared on his face. “Spiros, you have an accent,” he said, as if stating the obvious. “Can I offer you a piece of advise?” he asked, in a calm voice. I nodded. “One day you will be in front of a large crowd talking about this stuff. When you are up there, make sure you talk slow so people can keep up. When you get excited, you start speaking faster and faster. Take breaks in-between,” he offered. I smiled and thanked him for the advise. By then, it was almost one o’ clock and Mr. Weir’s panel was about to end. I needed to go down there for real this time and meet up with my co-panelists, Shaun Maguire and Laetitia Garriott de Cayeux, since our panel was coming up next. I got up and as I was leaving the room, I heard from behind,

“Remember to take it slow, Spiros. When you are back, you will tell me all about how space is also an illusion.”

Aye aye captain!

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About spiros

Spyridon Michalakis does research on quantum many-body physics and topological quantum order at Caltech's Institute for Quantum Information and Matter, where he is also the manager for outreach activities.

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