Of parallel universes and two possible futures

When fantasy and science-fiction readers ponder the possibility of alternate time zones, they are doing more than exercising wishful thinking. They might be considering a concept that some physicist think could be a real phenomenon.

According to Scientific American, not every physicist believes that time moves the way we perceive it in daily life. To us, time moves forward (sometimes blindingly so). Stars emit light, the universe expands, and we grow older each day. However, if a fascinating theory of the workings of gravity is true, the big bang is not the beginning and “we may live in a past of a parallel universe.”

The physics is extremely complicated and much too dense for the lay person to understand, but the gist of what Julian Barbour of the University of Oxford, Tim Koslowski of the University of New Brunswick, and Flavio Marcati of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics are saying is that all matter starts in a low-complexity state and then expands outward in both temporal directions. That means there would be two symmetrical and opposite flows of time. Gravity then pulls matter together into ordered structures.

At that point time can go on two divergent paths. As Scientific American puts it, “the model has one past but two futures.” However, the observer will be able only to see one of the two.

“It is the nature of gravity to pull the universe out of its primordial chaos and create structure, order, and complexity,” Mercati said in Scientific American. “All the solutions break into two epochs, which go on forever in the two time directions, divided by this central state, which haas very characteristic properties.”

If you are scratching your head about now, realize that many other physicists are doing the same thing, for this theory is far from universally popular The model is considered crude and doesn’t address quantum physics or general relativity. Still, the meaning of the two futures theory is mind-blowing. It would suggest there was no cosmic beginning, but a timeless and eternal universe.

“This two-futures solution would exhibit a single, chaotic past in both directions, meaning there would be essentially two universes on either side of this central state,” Barbour said. “If they were complicated enough, both sides could sustain observers who would perceive time going in opposite directions. Any intelligent beings there would define their arrow of time as moving away from this central state. They would think we now live in their deepest past.” And to that, I can only add a big wow!

Some physicists disagree saying that increasing entropy in the future is causing time to flow forward. One researcher, Sean Carroll of the California Institute of Technology says, “Everything that happens in the universe to distinguish the past from the future is ultimately because the entropy is lower in one direction and higher in the other.”

Carroll praises the work of Barbour, Koslowski, and Mercati and asks, “Is our universe like that? That’s the hard part.”

Fortunately for readers of fantasy literature, imagining two futures is the easy part.

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