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Physicists Simulate the End of Time in a Maryland Lab

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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End of time experimentLast September I had an article in Scientific American about what it would mean for time to end—how the world might cease to unfold in a unidirectional sequence of cause and effect. Some processes, for example, could cause time to morph into just another dimension of space. Last week experimenters announced that they have simulated such a temporal calamity in the laboratory. Unable to keep up with the gush of physics papers on the preprint server anymore, I came across this one on the arXiv blog, which I highly recommend to all physics aficionados.

What Igor Smolyaninov of the University of Maryland and his colleagues have done is indirect—an analogy to an analogy. They did not bring time as we know it to a crashing halt. Rather, they created an experimental version of the spacetime diagrams that physicists routinely draw. On these diagrams, one of the axes—by convention, the vertical one—is designated time. Then, lines represent objects in motion. New geometrical rules are imposed to ensure that nothing travels faster than light. Smolyaninov’s group in effect constructed a composite diagram: the bottom half was spacetime, the top was spacespace. At the midway point, the vertical axis abruptly changed from time to space, the rules of geometry reverted to their usual Euclidean form, and the fun was to figure out what happened to matter at that junction.

This model faithfully reproduces spacetime because of a remarkable fact: the equations describing spacetime, based on Einstein’s theories of relativity, are mathematically identical to the equations describing ordinary fluid and solid systems. Scientists often talk in terms of metaphors, but this is a case where the metaphor is more than a mere comparison, but an exact model. Many physicists have taken advantage of this fact to build fluid models of black holes and, last year, groups in Canada and Italy claimed to detect the analogue of Hawking radiation in these models. Some theorists are so taken by this equivalence that they think spacetime might literally be a type of fluid.

Smolyaninov and his colleagues create their analogues using plasmons, which are a two-dimensional form of light that moves along the interface between a metal and an insulator. Plasmons are readily manipulated with the Flatland equivalents of mirrors, lenses, polarizers, and lasers. In 2006 Scientific American honored Smolyaninov with an SA50 Award for creating analogues of black holes using glycerin droplets that trap plasmons. His team has also built models of gravitational systems that might not exist in the real world, such as wormhole time machines.

In the latest feat, Smolyaninov and his colleagues created the Flatland equivalent of a metamaterial, one with novel optical properties not otherwise seen in nature. They deposited stripes of acrylic on the metal; varying the width and spacing of the stripes altered the effective dielectric permittivity, an electrical property that governs plasmon propagation. In one direction, the permittivity was positive (as in natural materials). In the perpendicular direction, it was negative. The negative direction behaved like the time axis on a spacetime diagram. The paths of plasmons matched the lines physicists would draw to represent the motion of objects.

To bring about the end of time, Smolyaninov and his colleagues adjusted the stripe spacing so that the effective permittivity went from negative to positive. They found that the plasmon strength sharply increased, leading to nonlinear effects that, in spacetime, would correspond to the creation of particles—basically, Hawking radiation. In short, matter would go haywire at end of time. It would not go gentle into that good night.

One of the reasons physicists proposed that time might morph into space was that it might explain cosmic acceleration without any need for dark energy. In essence, as we approach the end of time, our perception of time would slow down, causing cosmic expansion to appear to speed up. The end of time freezes the universe in place like a statue. That doesn’t seem to happen in the University of Maryland model, but perhaps a variant could probe this idea. So I imagine that this will be only the beginning of the study of the end.

End of time experiment (the sample under the microscope, illuminated by blue laser light). Photo courtesy of Igor Smolyaninov





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  1. 1. jtdwyer 9:51 pm 07/28/2011

    As a past long time reader of MIT’s Technology Review, the publisher of “The Physics arxiv Blog” you recommended [http://www.technologyreview.com/blog/arxiv/27030/], I’d say that their readership is much more attuned to applied and materials physics than astrophysics or cosmology.

    It’s been noted in the past that the equations of general relativity can also apply to fluidic flows, but I think it’s a very long stretch to conclude that conditions produced in fluidic or EM field flows must also accurately represent conditions that will occur in astrophysics. Igor Smolyaninov seems to be the principal proponent of building these derived analogies to large scale physical systems. Obviously, these models, of the `end of time’ for example, cannot be validated.

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  2. 2. mmysiuk 10:02 pm 07/28/2011

    Would "matter would go haywire" agree or disagree with a theory of the big rip?

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  3. 3. gmusser 10:10 pm 07/28/2011

    The Big Rip is a very different sort of fate for time. I discuss it in my article last October.

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  4. 4. mmysiuk 10:16 pm 07/28/2011

    Thanks, I’ll go check it out.

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  5. 5. jtdwyer 1:33 am 07/29/2011

    Well, because validation of an ‘end of time’ model would require the realization of an actual ‘end of time’ event? Is that more obvious to you, now?

    Of course, one of the referenced research reports [Mars et al, (2007), "Is the accelerated expansion evidence of a forthcoming change of signature on the brane?", http://arxiv.org/abs/0710.0820v2 speculates that the universe only appears to us observers to be accelerating – towards a state transition of the brane! That could happen!

    Why must you only criticize commentators through personal insults rather than comment on the actual subject of the article? It’s a rhetorical question…

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  6. 6. gmusser 7:58 am 07/29/2011

    Silly me, I meant last September.

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  7. 7. Jan Jitso 10:01 am 07/29/2011

    In his book The Quantum Theory of Gravitation (2003) Vasily Yanchilin describes how the universe will end, namely with speed of light nearing zero and loss of both direction and exact place for all objects. Namely his hypothesis is that mass determines the constellation of the universe and reduces the Heisenberg uncertainty. This leads him to a new qualitative theory of gravitation: Image some mass at x=0 and a tiny particle at x=10. The latter a next moment will be at x=9,999…. due to the Heisenberg uncertainty. However here exists less uncertainty and thus transitions back from x=9,999…. to x=10 will be less frequent. The netto result is movement of the tiny particle towards the external mass. In common language this is called gravitational attraction.
    I suggest to call those transitions say iets in order to save well known words like p.e. electron for the whole of the tiny particle. So more iets go from x=10 to x=9,999…. than the other way. Of course the mass at x=0 will be full of busy iets, but the net result is zero (except for the tiny attraction of the little particle in the example above). When pushing this big object inertial mass becomes active. In the general theory of relativity, formulated a hundred years ago before quantum mechanics existed, inertial mass is thought aequivalent with gravitational mass. Not so in the new theory, for the latter constitutes the universe and the speed of light as well the Planck change with the expansion. This means that info from supernovae Ia has to be adjusted, which makes superfluous inflation, cosmological constant and negative energy. In a situation with inertial mass only propagation of electromagnetic waves and Planck remain constant.
    So at the edge of the universe and at its end according to Yanchilin light looses all speed and everything becomes undetermined. He call this chaos. Time there is absent too, non existent.
    This russian scientist recently prepared a manuscript on pro and contra of black holes (big masses in reality) and looks for an editor. It will contain results of further results from research after 2003.
    Now a question for reflection: An electron can pass two holes simultaneously. Say some iets pass a hole and some other iets the second one (which are separated on macroscopic scale, although not distinguishable with naked eyes). But you can observe an object with bigger mass in complete rest; not having trembling edges like the lonely electron "trembles" with iets. Does this support the hypothesis that mass reduces the Heisenberg uncertainty?

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  8. 8. robert schmidt 10:24 am 07/29/2011

    @JT, "because validation of an ‘end of time’ model would require the realization of an actual ‘end of time’ event?" who says? Are you the guy who makes up the rules for science? Who says every experiment must be "validated" by real world phenomenon to be useful? Who says that every experiment must result in a conclusive theory? JT says, I guess. But who the heck is JT?

    "Why must you only criticize commentators through personal insults rather than comment on the actual subject of the article? It’s a rhetorical question…" I guess it is because I go to the root of the issue. As I have said before, there is not enough info in these articles to conclusively establish their hypothesis. It is news. It is what is going on. But you seem to think, almost without exception, that they are all wrong and that you have the inside track, if only they had asked you instead of going through the time and expense of performing experiments. I have no issue with the subject of the article. There may be some questions but you aren’t going to get the answers in the comments section. There are usually links to the actual science in the article. If not, google it. If not read an actual peer reviewed journal. If not. do the science! So to me the real issue is the general lack of humility of many commenter’s who think they have it all figured out without going through the trouble of being informed. You are more informed than most but seem to fall into the, a-little-knowledge-is-dangerous-thing camp. Why do I make a big deal about it, because it is the root of the AGW denier movement, the creationist movement, policy issues such as the general funding of science and the management of resources. The scientifically illiterate general population is destroying the planet because they have no respect for science. They all think their intuition trumps decades of research and painstaking analysis. As I’ve said, show some humility.

    I think a person shows greater wisdom by asking well-considered, probing questions instead of making absolute statements.

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  9. 9. jtdwyer 3:57 pm 07/29/2011

    Following your own advice, you should google "model validation" and and perform the research on that subject you demand of others. You’ll find that I”m not alone in my concern that the results of all types of models are commonly being presented as authoritive sources of information without their results ever haven been being thoroughly investigated much less proven.

    In fact, I did read the research reports referenced in this article and it was on the basis of that research that I made my comments:
    "It’s been noted in the past that the equations of general relativity can also apply to fluidic flows, but I think it’s a very long stretch to conclude that conditions produced in fluidic or EM field flows must also accurately represent conditions that will occur in astrophysics."

    I may be direct in my assessments but I do my best to avoid personal remarks or insults. You have absolutely no basis for insulting me nor lecturing me on how to comment on any articles, other than your compulsion to attack those you perceive to be insulting "Science". Humility indeed! Follow your own advice!

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  10. 10. Postman1 5:27 pm 07/29/2011

    JT- I always enjoy reading your comments, even when I may not reach the same conclusions. In this case you have hit the nail on the head. Thanks.

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  11. 11. kebil 9:33 pm 07/29/2011

    I don`t think it is quite correct to state that "scientific models are presented as authoritive sources of information without their results ever haven been being thoroughly investigated, much less proven".

    Researchers build various models of a diverse array of phenomena, and then use these models to derive novel hypotheses, many of which are well beyond being proven by present data. I don`t take these models nor the hypothesis derived form them as being authoritative, nor do I believe they are intended to be perceived in this way. The models are used to provide insights into phenomena which are difficult to study directly, and to be a spring board to deriving new hypothesis`s (hypothesii?) that can hopefully be tested and confirmed or denied.

    These are simply models, simplified, smaller scale, analogs of phenomena that are difficult to directly test. I don`t think, nor have I ever read of, the models in question being presented as actual recreations of the phenomena in question. Rather, they have some characteristics which may enable them to mimic certain features of the subject in question. Perhaps the authors do not qualify their statements and conclusions as much as you would like, but it seems to be common for authors to present their ideas in a strong voice, rather than qualifying each statement. The audience generally understands this, and no single paper is taken to be the final answer to each question, rather it is a variety of voices approaching the question from varied directions that eventually provides something that can be said to be somewhat authoritative.

    Lastly, Scientific American is not a primary reference source of research. It is rather a summary of the latest news in various fields presented in a language that the educated lay person can understand. Sometimes their is information that is lost, or altered, in the translation from the vernacular of the researchers in their particular field, and what is hoped to be text comprehensible to the readers of the magazine. It could even be the case that the authors of various articles may have gaps in their understand, or interpret or present something incorrectly, and that makes it appear that the researchers have made incorrect assumptions or drawn erroneous conclusions when in fact it was the SA author that was mistaken.

    I appreciate your comments JT, even if I do not always agree with you. You appear to have a fairly wide breadth of understanding and interests, but I think attacking what the researchers have said based on second hand sources is unfair.

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  12. 12. robert schmidt 10:11 pm 07/29/2011

    @JT, it is your pedestrian view of the roll of models in science that is the problem. As I stated, there are purposes for models other than making an authoritative statement about the nature of reality. They can be used to generate points of discussion such as, to what extent can the fluid model be applied to spacetime or this model represents what we understand, how does that compare to reality, what are we missing. Your misrepresentation perpetuates many unfounded criticisms of science i.e. it is entirely dependent on unverified models. It is a common refrain from the AGW deniers. But the facts are, it is the layperson’s lack of understanding of science that is the problem. It reminds me of a co-worker who once told me that the health problems of Dolly the Sheep was proof that scientists didn’t know what they were doing. I just laughed…well not quite but anyway… In his mind he thought that Dolly was a statement by the scientific community saying, we know everything about cloning. The fact is, Dolly was the scientific community saying, this is what we know about cloning, what have we gotten right, what do we still need to learn? Your comments always seem very similar. You seem to be in a rush to tell scientists that they don’t know everything, sadly though you seem to also be saying that you do.

    I think I could quite accurately label your comment as a straw man. You have oversimplified and misrepresented the position of the article in order to invalidate it. "but I do my best to avoid personal remarks or insults" I don’t care. Can I put it more plainly? I would rather you make personal remarks than arrogantly attack every article you read because in your uneducated opinion all the scientists are clueless about their field of research. I prefer people who tell it like it is to those that spout B.S.

    "Follow your own advice!" I do. You won’t find me here making authoritative statements about things I know nothing about. And if I do please feel free to call me out. You won’t find me crying about what a nasty brute you are. Even on articles where I do have some level of knowledge you are more likely to find me asking questions, and sometimes even getting thoughtful replies from the author. It takes a significant effort to understand many of the subjects presented here. But it is usually quite easy to identify a B.S. artist.

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  13. 13. Quinn the Eskimo 2:06 am 07/30/2011

    End of Time? Will this have ramifications for our 401k’s?

    Will this be before or *after* Social Security goes broke. I mean we gotta plan for this.

    Specifically, when is this going to happen? I mean besides; "later."

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  14. 14. E-boy 4:26 am 07/30/2011

    You talk about JT being a bit on the arrogant side but quickly go into rhetoric about the unwashed masses. Between the two of you I’d say you’re the arrogant one. Maybe more background in neurology, human behavior and the like might aquaint you with the phrase "Wisdom of the masses". Democracy is a remarkably effective form of government inspite of the fact that many people who participate in it aren’t well educated and don’t hold the same opinions as others. I bring this up because people used to talk about the unwashed masses being incapable of governing themselves. I’m so happy there are smart people like you out there to tell us how it really ought to be done. What would we ever do without you? Maybe, if you can deflate your head a little you might do something about what needs to be fixed in this world instead of blaming it on others. Basically if you aren’t part of the fix you’re part of the problem and finger pointing, and name calling aren’t going to fix anything. Go ahead and name call and belittle those who don’t share your illustrious opinions though because we all know how well that works.

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  15. 15. jtdwyer 7:48 am 07/30/2011

    Thanks all who made supportive comments. My objectives in commenting are to express my thoughts regarding these reports and to stimulate consideration of alternative views. I certainly don’t expect general acceptance of these ideas…

    kebil – your comments are well taken. However, I think in this case these models are being presented as representative simulations of cosmological events.

    Actually, my statement was:
    "…I”m not alone in my concern that the results of all types of models are commonly being presented as authoritive sources of information without their results ever haven been being thoroughly investigated much less proven."

    Results of all kinds of models are commonly being presented as indicating specific results that support some specific conclusion. Oftentimes a model is being used because the processes being evaluated cannot be adequately observed. That means that the results cannot be reasonably confirmed. In the case of these physical models, two different methods of representation were used to ‘confirm’ each others’ results.

    The primary research report upon which this article is based – Smolyaninov et al, (2011), "Hyperbolic metamaterial interfaces: Hawking radiation from Rindler horizons and the "end of time"",
    http://arxiv.org/abs/1107.4053
    - the abstract concludes:
    "…if the boundary is perpendicular to the time-like direction an unusual physics situation is created, which can be called "the end of time". It appears that in the lossless approximation electromagnetic field diverges at the interface in both situations. Experimental observations of the "end of time" using plasmonic metamaterials confirm this conclusion."

    While the researchers attempted to provide some confirmation of their results, it is impossible for them to validate conditions that have (hopefully) never before occurred in the history of the universe. Therefore the results of their model are entirely speculative.

    Moreover, I object to the idea that flow conditions present in three spatial dimensions within an electromagnetic field, with one arbitrarily selected to represent the dimension of time in four dimensional spacetime, can produce any meaningful results.

    I can only relate this to the three dimensional model of four dimensional spacetime using a rubber sheet and balls of varying weight which employ gravity to illustrate the effects of gravity.

    I don’t know how many newspapers carried these reports, but if you Google "simulate end of time", the most relevant of the many results refer to ‘a Maryland Lab’.

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  16. 16. jgrosay 8:23 am 07/30/2011

    The concept of an analogy between spacetime and a fluid opens the way to study it thru things such as the Reynolds number, an adimensional number that expresses the relationship between inertia and viscosity forces inside a fluid. Some years ago, a shot of an star core was published, the core,remnant of a supernova explosion, was travelling in space and building a shock wave behind it,just as supersonic planes do. Knowing the speed of the star core travel, can this be used to calculate some features of the space it’s travelling thru ?. Even if it’s an empty, and so the shock wave will be produced in the space-time itself, or if it has some kind of matter, dark or just not illuminated, is this a reasonable approach to finding some information ?. As an aficionado: thru what radio waves do travel ? Ocean waves are also waves, but the oscillating thing is water, what does oscillate in a radio wave ?

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  17. 17. debu 9:07 am 07/30/2011

    There is no begining or end of time. To understand you have to know entropy and how time is the change of entropy. So time may stop if entropy change stops but again starts if entropy changes. Time is not dimension neither reality. It is illusion Our universe is matter and positive entropy path where as out side universe antimatter on negative entropy. A time will come when outer universe will be tends to zero entropy so that a BIG BOUNCE ON CP VIOLATION WILL AGAIN GIVE BIRTH TO TWO UNIVERSES ON OPPOSITE ENTROPY PATH. THE BLACK HOLES ESCAPED EVAPORATION WILL ACT AS SEEDS FOR AGAIN STARS AND GALAXY FORMATIONS ETC ETC . SO TIME WILL NEVER END AND OUR UNIVERSES ARE ETERNAL RECYCLIC.

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  18. 18. dantevialetto 10:34 am 07/30/2011

    All the infinitesimal instants of the fluid space-time, with the possible sub-sets of space-space and time-time perhaps, are infinite, like the molecules of running water of a river are infinite. But we can imagining that at every infinitesimal instant is associated an integer numbers of the set Z, because they are also infinite.

    In this way a naiv-time, like the one which we are experiencing every day, is infinite in the past and in the future. But, without taking account of the elasticity of the space-time, is the real time also infinite? Is it possible in other words to find a mathematical proof which shows that time is either finite or infinite?
    The numbers Z are in some way static, because we can have and use them every time we want. The time instead, at least the time of us poor human beings, is never stopping and goes always in only one direction without for us – in this epoch at least – to have the possibility to go back. It is like the time is dynamic, in contrast of the of the all sets of all numbers. So one infinitesimal instant must start in some finite point because it isn’t static, it moves! So our time should be finite, and the only way to link it with the infinity of the numbers it is to cycle it over and over again an infinite times, so at the end – after billions of billions of years – it will come again at the same point like before . . . and so it will be always the same, like to turn around the world one come always at the same point.

    When we are thinking of an enormous big quantity of something, and so also for the time or the space-time, we are psychologically induced to think that is infinite. And in fact is difficult to think that first or later a molecule of a river will come in the same point, also because, before this could happen, our Earth will be burned by the Sun! But if we suppose that all the molecules of water are infinite, we can associated them with all the infinity of the integer numbers Z!

    But perhaps all this is just philosophy which has nothing to do with the end of time! Sorry!

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  19. 19. Zephir 5:44 pm 07/30/2011

    These experiments have a good meaning in dense aether model of vacuum. In this model the space-time is represented with tiny density fluctuations of hypothetical particle environment. How the space-time transition appears in AWT:

    http://www.aetherwavetheory.info/images/physics/aether/blackholefallpart.gif

    This model enables to interpret the space-time with behavior of the water surface.

    aetherwavetheory.blogspot.com/2008/09/aether-and-definition-of-time.html

    And the behavior of vacuum with of metamaterial behavior of the foam, forming this vacuum.

    aetherwavetheory.blogspot.com/2009/07/awt-and-metamaterial-character-of.html

    IMO these experimental analogies simply have no meaning without particle model of vacuum on mind. Without such models these analogies are still correct, but they’re are actually ad-hoced, because there is no other good reason, why the behavior of space-time should follow the behavior of metamaterials.

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  20. 20. kkkbian 9:49 am 07/31/2011

    amazing

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  21. 21. appgravity 6:00 pm 07/31/2011

    Would this concept work if the time and space analogues were exchanged, i.e. space-time changes into time-time and space becomes another dimension of time? This question is based on the idea that perhaps space is a manifestation of time as a result of a (non spacial) digital reality (holographic) where time (some non-matter oscillation) a speedlimit (perhaps a fundamental nested time reference) is all that is needed to generate space.

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  22. 22. Dr. Strangelove 10:53 pm 07/31/2011

    The shock wave produced by a supernova explosion propagates in an electromagnetic field. As such, I don’t think you can deduce features of spacetime. You could if it was a gravity wave propagating in a gravitational field. Electromagnetic waves such as radio, light, microwave, etc. propagate in electromagnetic field.

    @JT
    You should view the experiment as a simulation of spacetime. You could simulate spacetime in a computer model. Instead physicists simulated spacetime through actual experiments with metamaterials. As in all simulations, it can be interpreted as a prediction or a possibility of what can occur in reality.

    Btw, since the equations of spacetime based on general relativity are identical to the equations of fluid dynamics, spacetime should behave like a fluid. Otherwise, the equations will not be identical. Right?

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  23. 23. jtdwyer 4:38 am 08/1/2011

    Models can produce accurate or inaccurate predictions. The conditions produced in these analogous simulations are not being validated.

    I’m neither a physicist nor mathematician, but as I understand the equations of fluid dynamics are NOT IDENTICAL to those related to spacetime in general relativity, but there is some significant correspondence between them. Please see:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fluid_dynamics

    Not all conditions that may be produced in an experimental fluid can be reproduced in universal spacetime.

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  24. 24. Peter Gimpel 6:23 pm 08/3/2011

    I would be interested to edit Prof. Yanchilin’s book if he is still looking for an editor.

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  25. 25. verdai 3:52 pm 08/29/2011

    It’s real trying to wade thru these comments as well as the article, which may be coming from the same kinds of source …
    It’s just that I cannot reconcile the equating of time with space or either with matter/mass/mathematics.

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  26. 26. MUNDIALIZACION 2:31 pm 11/10/2011

    Only one time? What about many times? Infinite past, current times and future times?

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  27. 27. evabrown 10:29 pm 02/16/2012

    I am hardly qualified to discuss matters of such;
    I do however have a question.
    It has plagued/bothered/oft-time neutered me; but here goes:
    How can something(a sporting event, a chess match)that achieves its conclusion when the bell(?) sounds?
    Given the infinite amount of seconds between any 2 integers, how does a game even start?
    Again-I am not a scholar of physics, just curious.
    Thanks.

    Link to this

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