Wednesday, 13 June 2007

Financing Time Travel

A University of Washington scientist who could not obtain funding from traditional research agencies to test his idea that light particles act in reverse time has received more than $35,000 from folks nationwide who didn't want to see this admittedly far-fetched idea go unexplored.

"This country puts a lot more money into things that seem to me much crazier than this," said Mitch Rudman, a music industry executive in Las Vegas whose family foundation donated $20,000 to the experiment. "It's outrageous to me that talented scientists have to go looking for a few bucks to do anything slightly outside the box."

What John Cramer is proposing to do is certainly outside the box. It's about quantum retrocausality.

"He's looking into the fundamental qualities of the universe," said Denny Gmur, a scientist who works for a biotechnology firm in Bothell. "I had $2,000 set aside to buy myself a really nice guitar, but I thought, you know, I'd rather support something that's really mind-boggling and cool."
Cramer, a physicist, for decades has been interested in resolving a fundamental paradox of quantum mechanics, the theory that accounts for the behavior of matter and energy at subatomic levels. It's called the Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen paradox.
As the evidence for this has accumulated, several fairly contorted and unsatisfying efforts have been aimed at solving the puzzle. Cramer has proposed an explanation that doesn't violate the speed of light but does kind of mess with the traditional concept of time.

"It could involve signaling, or communication, in reverse time," he said. Physicists John Wheeler and Richard Feynman years ago promoted this idea of "retrocausality" as worth considering. Cramer's version aimed at using retrocausality to resolve the EPR paradox is dubbed (by him) the "transactional interpretation of quantum mechanics."

Most physicists, such as the celebrated cosmologist Stephen Hawking, still believe time can move only in one direction -- forward. Cramer contends there is no hard and fast reason why.

He has proposed a relatively simple bench-top experiment using lasers, prisms, splitters, fiber-optic cables and other gizmos to first see if he can detect "non-local" signaling between entangled photons. He hopes to get it going in July. If this succeeds, he hopes to get support from "traditional funding sources" to really scale up and test for photons communicating in reverse time.

It may be important to note, at this point, that Cramer is not crazy.

On Sunday, he began his annual stint running particle physics experiments at the Brookhaven National Laboratory's Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider. He and others at the national lab use the supercollider to smash together particles, create the hottest matter ever made by humans and study things such as quarks or other subatomic particles.

Cramer, who also writes science fiction books as a hobby, earlier worked at CERN, the world's largest particle physics laboratory, on the border between France and Switzerland. In the 1980s, he was director of the UW's nuclear physics laboratory and today remains a well-respected experimental physicist.

"I'm not crazy," he confirmed. "I don't know if this experiment will work, but I can't see why it won't. People are skeptical about this, but I think we can learn something, even if it fails."
I think he's right. I think the odds are that time's arrow is monodirectional, but it might not be. No matter what the results, the experiment is relatively (relativistically?) cheap and cerainly worth doing.
Cramer said it's possible that the primary goal of his experiment could fail and yet still produce something of value. Some new subtlety about the nature of entanglement could be revealed, he said, even if the photons don't engage in measurable non-local communication. The "disentanglement" itself, he said, could be quite revealing.

"It wouldn't be as nice as a positive result, but it would certainly be interesting and publishable," Cramer said. If there is an interesting negative result or a half-positive result, he said he will buy more precise equipment to see if he can tease out what's happening. Cramer has all the money he needs for this phase, but he hopes to see a second phase.

The University of Washington has set up a special account to which individuals or groups can contribute funds for John Cramer's experiment.

Tax-deductible contributions to the project may be made by contacting Jennifer Raines, UW Department of Physics, at, or mailing a check made out to the University of Washington with a notation on the check directing deposit to the account for "Non-Local Quantum Communication Experiment" to:

Jennifer Raines, Administrator

Department of Physics

University of Washington

Box 351560

Seattle, WA 98195-1560

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