What is the nature of time? A new hypothesis

Quantum particles are timeless, quantum physics can not tell us anything about the nature of time; relativity theory is symmetrical and doesn’t show the ‘arrow of time’, tempting some scientists to claim ‘time is an illusion’. Entropy, however, determines the arrow of time. Further, it is understood that the inevitable increase of entropy provides an arrow of time. But what is ‘time’: is it something real? What is the true ‘essence’ of time? We will look into this by entering a little bit into non-equilibrium thermodynamics, a little-known field of research.

In recent years, the hope that quantum physics and general relativity can be reconciled, perhaps in the form of loop quantum gravity theory, has been growing in popularity. A general understanding has grown that any phenomenon in our world should be explainable based on such theories is a reductionistic approach in both science and philosophy. It is widely refused that the properties and laws of complex systems cannot be understood, even if any properties of the isolated components are known, but only if accepting that the interactions of the different components in the system lead to new phenomena – ’emergence’. Emergence is said to be subjective and only based on the unavailability of a deeper scientific explanation (ie, a knowledge gap which will be filled in the years to come).

Thermodynamics and entropy

There are hundreds of popular science books and articles about relativity, quantum theory – even loop quantum gravity – and cosmology, but practically none about thermodynamics, let alone about non-equilibrium thermodynamics and its new modern view on entropy. ‘Entropy’ (same as ‘temperature’) is only defined on the macroscopic matter level (starting with atoms and molecules) and can not be reduced to quantum particles; we need (non-equilibrium) thermodynamics for a complete understanding of our world. And while quantum particles – including photons are timeless – many claim that ‘time is an illusion’. But I believe that thermodynamics can explain the nature, the essence of time, and that time is a phenomenon that exists in reality. Here I try with a new hypothesis to explain the nature (the essence) of time by linking time with entropy flow.

Non-equilibrium thermodynamics

Non-equilibrium thermodynamics was developed by Ilya Prigogine (Noble Prize 1977), and is a theory capable of explaining the complexity and dynamics of our world on a cosmic and a global scale, as well as in plants, animals, and ourselves. The main difference between equilibrium thermodynamics and its second law is that it asserts: entropy is increasing on the cosmic scale, but looking at local, open systems with overcritical energy input, entropy cannot continue indefinitely as matter falls into black holes. Complex processes and structures are possible only if an overcritical amount of energy is introduced, leading to so-called ‘dissipative structures’. These complex structures represent a minimal entropy amount compared to disorder = maximum entropy. (A popular science book introducing it can be found here and here).

I entered this field when I discovered that dispersions (colloidal systems) are not structureless (ie, dispersed particles are not, as taken for granted before, statistically evenly distributed in the dispersion matrix, but form highly complex structures. This can only be understood as follows: based on equilibrium thermodynamics, dispersions are systems in which entropy has increased, in line with the assumption that the dispersed particles are at positions representing highest probability = maximum entropy. However, that’s not what we observe if carefully investigating the arrangement of dispersed particles in multiphase systems: they are found in thin layers surrounding volumes with no dispersed particles at all and formed branched pearl-chain structures during a self-organising process involving a complex mechanism happening with the adsorbed layer of the dispersant molecules. This the contrary of statistical homogeneity and maximum entropy, but represents a minimum in entropy.

There is a thermodynamic resolution of this apparent contradiction to the second law of thermodynamics: the entropy flow generated during dispersion will be exported as soon as the energy influx becomes supercritical, and this is the case as soon as we enter into turbulent flow. Outside of the dispersion system, entropy increases and radiates from the Earth into the universe.

Entropy’s direction

There is some accepted understanding that entropy increase determines the ‘arrow of time’, while others refuse to acknowledge any relationship between entropy and time, but even Prigogine did not elaborate on what the nature of time truly is. I now put forward the following hypothesis for discussion:

Time is created by the flow of entropy. The production or export of entropy from open systems leads to an entropy flow through three-dimensional space, whereby the fourth dimension of spacetime, time, is formed. The time we measure is proportional to the entropy production, to the flow of entropy. Time is a kind of matrix in which entropy flows.

Entropy production and flow are connected with change. With this understanding, time is an emergent phenomenon created by the flow of entropy. The more entropy flows (= the more change occurring), the quicker time is passing by, and vice versa. In consequence, there is no universal time, not in the universe, not on earth, not in ourselves. We humans just determine ‘time’ as what we measure when looking at the sun (daily sunrise and sunset) and the yearly seasons – or in modern terms – ‘ground-state hyperfine transition frequency of the cesium-133 atom, to be 9,192,631,770 when expressed in the unit Hz, which is equal to s−1’, as the second is defined in SI base units. Each clock produces entropy, also atomic clocks, and when comparing their time measurement on earth with what we observe in a satellite with slower or quicker time flow, this is without doubt linked with more or less intensive entropy flow. So, my hypothesis can principally be tested in space using chemical clocks.

Dr Bernhard Wessling is a chemist with deep experimental and theoretical research experience in non-equilibrium thermodynamics and complex systems (colloidal physics/chemistry and turbulence).

Wessling, B, (2022) What a Coincidence! On unpredictability, complexity and the nature of time, Springer 2022, Springer. link.springer.com/book/10.1007/978-3-658-40671-4

Ben-Naim, A (2020) Entropy and Time, Entropy, doi.org/10.3390/e22040430

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Wessling, B, (2000) Conductive Polymers as Organic Nanometals, in: Nalwa, H S (ed), Handbook of Nanostructured Materials and Nanotechnology, Vol 5, Academic Press, 501-575. researchgate.net/publication/253651172_Conductive_Polymers_as_Organic_Nanometals[accessed 22-11-2023]

Wessling, B, (1995) Critical shear rate – the instability reasons for the creation of dissipative structures in polymers, [online] Z Phys Chem, www.researchgate.net/publication/202290104_Critical_Shear_Rate_-_the_Instability_Reason_for_the_Creation_of_Dissipative_Structures_in_Polymers [accessed 22-11-2023]

Wessling, B, (1998) Electrical conductivity in heterogeneous polymer systems (V) (1): Further experimental evidence for a phase transition at the critical volume concentration, [online] Polym. Eng. Sci. researchgate.net/publication/243341314_Electrical_conductivity_in_heterogenous_polymer_systems_IV_1_a_new_dynamic_interfacial_percolation_model [accessed 22-11-2023]

Baumert, H, Wessling, B, (2016) On turbulence in dilatant dispersions, [online] Physica Scripta (2016) researchgate.net/publication/303828981_On_turbulence_in_dilatant_dispersions [accessed 22-11-2023]

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