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Daily RC Article 152

The Unidirectional Flow: Understanding Time's Arrow through Entropy


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What does it mean to say that time has a direction, an arrow pointing from the past to the future? Think about watching a movie played in reverse or seeing something running the “wrong way” in time. A classic example is a diver and a pool. If the diver dives, and then there is a big splash, followed by waves bouncing around in the water, all is normal. But if we see a pool that starts with waves, which collect into a big splash, in the process lifting a diver up onto the board, we know the movie is being played backward…

Certain events in the real world always happen in the same order. It’s dive, splash, waves; never waves, splash, spit out a diver. Take milk and mix it into a cup of black coffee; never take coffee with milk and separate the two liquids. Sequences of this sort are called irreversible processes.

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Irreversible processes are at the heart of the arrow of time. Events happen in some sequences, and not in others. Furthermore, this ordering is perfectly consistent throughout the observable universe. Someday we might find a planet in a distant solar system that contains intelligent life, but nobody suspects that we will find a planet on which the aliens regularly separate milk and coffee with a few casual swirls of a spoon. Why isn’t that surprising? It’s a big universe out there; things might very well happen in all sorts of sequences. But they don’t. For certain kinds of processes, there seems to be an allowed order that is somehow built into the very fabric of the world.

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The arrow of time is the brute fact about our universe; the fact that things happen in one order and not in the reverse order is deeply ingrained in how we live in the world. Why is it like that? The answer lies in the concept of “entropy”. Like energy, entropy tells us something about the state of a physical system; specifically, it measures how disorderly the system is. The entropy of a cup of coffee along with a separate teaspoon of milk is low, because there is a particular orderly segregation of the molecules into “milk” and “coffee,” while the entropy of the two mixed together is comparatively large. All of the irreversible processes that reflect time’s arrow – we can turn eggs into omelettes but not omelettes into eggs, perfume disperses through a room but never collects back into the bottle, etc.– share a common feature: Entropy increases throughout, as the system progresses from order to disorder. 

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Whenever we disturb the universe, we tend to increase its entropy. The reason why entropy wants to increase is deceptively simple: There are more ways to be disorderly than to be orderly, so an orderly arrangement will naturally tend toward increasing disorder. And if everything in the universe evolves toward increasing disorder, it must have started out in an exquisitely ordered arrangement. This whole chain of logic, purporting to explain why you can’t turn an omelette into an egg, apparently rests on a deep assumption about the very beginning of the universe: It was in a state of very low entropy, very high order

Time's arrow, the unidirectional flow of events from past to future, is tied to irreversible processes rooted in the concept of entropy. Irreversible events?like milk mixing into coffee or the dispersal of perfume?show that the universe progresses from order to disorder, reflected in the increase of entropy. This unidirectional flow suggests that the universe, once in a highly ordered state with low entropy, now evolves toward increasing disorder. The arrow of time, dictated by entropy, shapes the fundamental directionality of events, influencing how the universe unfolds from its orderly origins to its current state of increasing disorder.
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