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Researchers successfully sent a simulated elementary particle back in time

Don't start investing in flux capacitors just yet, though.

  • The second law of thermodynamics states that order always moves to disorder, which we experience as an arrow of time.
  • Scientists used a quantum computer to show that time travel is theoretically possible by reverting a simulated particle from an entropic to a more orderly state.
  • While Einstein's general theory of relativity permits time travel, the means to achieve it remain improbable in nature.

In 1895 H.G. Wells published The Time Machine, a story about an inventor who builds a device that travels through a fourth, temporal dimension. Before Wells's novella, time travel existed in the realm of fantasy. It required a god, an enchanted sleep, or a bonk on the head to pull off. After Wells, time travel became popularized as a potentially scientific phenomenon.

Then Einstein's equations brought us into the quantum realm and there a more nuanced view of time. No less than mathematical logician Kurt Gödel worked out that Einstein's equations allowed for time travel into the past. The problem? None of the proposed methods of time travel were ever practical "on physical grounds."

So, "Why stick to physical grounds?" asked scientists from the Argonne National Laboratory, the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology, and ETH Zurich before they successfully sent a simulated elementary particle back in time.

Fair warning: their results are tantalizing but will ultimately dishearten any time lords in training.

The great quantum escape

A quantum computer mixing chamber (Photo: IBM Research/Flickr)

Many of the laws of physics view the future and the past as a difference without a distinction. Not so with the second law of thermodynamics, which states that a closed system always moves from order to disorder (or entropy). Scramble an egg to make your omelet, for example, and you've added a whole lot of disorder into the closed system that was the initial egg.

This leads to an important consequence of the second law: the arrow of time. A process that generates entropy — such as your egg whisking — will be irreversible unless you input more energy. It's why an omelet won't reform back into an egg or why billiard balls don't spontaneously reform a triangle after the break. Like an arrow released, the entropy moves in a single direction, and we witness the effect as time.

We are trapped by the second law of thermodynamics, but the international team of scientists wanted to see if the second law could be violated in the quantum realm. Since such a test is impossible in nature, they used the next best thing: an IBM quantum computer.

Traditional computers, like the one you are reading this on, use a basic unit of information called a bit. Any bit can be represented as either a 1 or a 0. A quantum computer, however, uses a basic unit of information called a qubit. A qubit exists as both a 1 and a 0 simultaneously, allowing the system to compute and process information much faster.

In their experiment, the researchers substituted these qubits for subatomic particles and put them through a four-step process. First, they arranged the qubits in a known and ordered state and entangled them — meaning anything that happened to one affected the others. Then they launched an evolution program on the quantum computer, which used microwave radio pulses to break down that initial order into a more complex state.

Third step: a special algorithm modifies the quantum computer allow disorder to more to order. The qubits are again hit with a microwave pulse, but this time they rewind to their past, orderly selves. In other words, they are de-aged by about one millionth of a second.

According to study author Valerii M. Vinokur, of the Argonne National Laboratory, this is the equivalent of pushing against the ripples of a pond to return them to their source.

Since quantum mechanics is about probability (not certainty), success was no guarantee. However, in a two-qubit quantum computer, the algorithm managed a time jump an impressive 85 percent of the time. When it was upped to three qubits, the success rate dropped to about 50 percent, which the authors attributed to imperfections in current quantum computers.

The researchers published their results recently in Scientific Reports.

Bringing order from chaos

The results are fascinating and spur the imagination, but don't start investing in flux capacitors yet. This experiment also shows us that sending even a simulated particle back in time requires serious outside manipulation. To create such an external force to manipulate even one physical particle's quantum waves is well beyond our abilities.

"We demonstrate that time-reversing even ONE quantum particle is an unsurmountable task for nature alone," study author Vinokur wrote to the New York Times in an email [emphasis original]. "The system comprising two particles is even more irreversible, let alone the eggs — comprising billions of particles — we break to prepare an omelet."

A press release from the Department of Energy notes that for the "timeline required for [an external force] to spontaneously appear and properly manipulate the quantum waves" to appear in nature and unscramble an egg "would extend longer than that of the universe itself." In other words, this technology remains bound to quantum computation. Subatomic spas that literally turn back the clock aren't happening.

But the research isn't solely a high-tech thought experiment. While it will not help us develop real-world time machines, the algorithm does have the potential to improve cutting-edge quantum computation.

"Our algorithm could be updated and used to test programs written for quantum computers and eliminate noise and errors," study author Andrey Lebedev said in a release.

Is non-simulated time travel possible?

As Kurt Gödel proved, Einstein's equations don't forbid the concept of time travel, but they do set an improbably high hurdle to clear.

Writing for Big Think, Michio Kaku points out that these equations allow for all sorts of time travel shenanigans. Gödel found that if the universe rotated and someone traveled fast enough around it, they could arrive to a point before they left. Time travel could also be possible if you traveled around two colliding cosmic strings, traveled through a spinning black hole, or stretched space via negative matter.

While all of these are mathematically sound, Kaku points out that they can't be realized using known physical mechanisms. Similarly, the ability to nudge physical particles back in time remains beyond our reach. Time travel remains science fiction for all intents and purposes.

But time travel may one day become an everyday occurrence in our computers, making us all time lords (in a narrow sense).

Hulu's original movie "Palm Springs" is the comedy we needed this summer

Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti get stuck in an infinite wedding time loop.

Gear
  • Two wedding guests discover they're trapped in an infinite time loop, waking up in Palm Springs over and over and over.
  • As the reality of their situation sets in, Nyles and Sarah decide to enjoy the repetitive awakenings.
  • The film is perfectly timed for a world sheltering at home during a pandemic.
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Two MIT students just solved Richard Feynman’s famed physics puzzle

Richard Feynman once asked a silly question. Two MIT students just answered it.

Surprising Science

Here's a fun experiment to try. Go to your pantry and see if you have a box of spaghetti. If you do, take out a noodle. Grab both ends of it and bend it until it breaks in half. How many pieces did it break into? If you got two large pieces and at least one small piece you're not alone.

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Our ‘little brain’ turns out to be pretty big

The multifaceted cerebellum is large — it's just tightly folded.

Image source: Sereno, et al
Mind & Brain
  • A powerful MRI combined with modeling software results in a totally new view of the human cerebellum.
  • The so-called 'little brain' is nearly 80% the size of the cerebral cortex when it's unfolded.
  • This part of the brain is associated with a lot of things, and a new virtual map is suitably chaotic and complex.

Just under our brain's cortex and close to our brain stem sits the cerebellum, also known as the "little brain." It's an organ many animals have, and we're still learning what it does in humans. It's long been thought to be involved in sensory input and motor control, but recent studies suggests it also plays a role in a lot of other things, including emotion, thought, and pain. After all, about half of the brain's neurons reside there. But it's so small. Except it's not, according to a new study from San Diego State University (SDSU) published in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences).

A neural crêpe

A new imaging study led by psychology professor and cognitive neuroscientist Martin Sereno of the SDSU MRI Imaging Center reveals that the cerebellum is actually an intricately folded organ that has a surface area equal in size to 78 percent of the cerebral cortex. Sereno, a pioneer in MRI brain imaging, collaborated with other experts from the U.K., Canada, and the Netherlands.

So what does it look like? Unfolded, the cerebellum is reminiscent of a crêpe, according to Sereno, about four inches wide and three feet long.

The team didn't physically unfold a cerebellum in their research. Instead, they worked with brain scans from a 9.4 Tesla MRI machine, and virtually unfolded and mapped the organ. Custom software was developed for the project, based on the open-source FreeSurfer app developed by Sereno and others. Their model allowed the scientists to unpack the virtual cerebellum down to each individual fold, or "folia."

Study's cross-sections of a folded cerebellum

Image source: Sereno, et al.

A complicated map

Sereno tells SDSU NewsCenter that "Until now we only had crude models of what it looked like. We now have a complete map or surface representation of the cerebellum, much like cities, counties, and states."

That map is a bit surprising, too, in that regions associated with different functions are scattered across the organ in peculiar ways, unlike the cortex where it's all pretty orderly. "You get a little chunk of the lip, next to a chunk of the shoulder or face, like jumbled puzzle pieces," says Sereno. This may have to do with the fact that when the cerebellum is folded, its elements line up differently than they do when the organ is unfolded.

It seems the folded structure of the cerebellum is a configuration that facilitates access to information coming from places all over the body. Sereno says, "Now that we have the first high resolution base map of the human cerebellum, there are many possibilities for researchers to start filling in what is certain to be a complex quilt of inputs, from many different parts of the cerebral cortex in more detail than ever before."

This makes sense if the cerebellum is involved in highly complex, advanced cognitive functions, such as handling language or performing abstract reasoning as scientists suspect. "When you think of the cognition required to write a scientific paper or explain a concept," says Sereno, "you have to pull in information from many different sources. And that's just how the cerebellum is set up."

Bigger and bigger

The study also suggests that the large size of their virtual human cerebellum is likely to be related to the sheer number of tasks with which the organ is involved in the complex human brain. The macaque cerebellum that the team analyzed, for example, amounts to just 30 percent the size of the animal's cortex.

"The fact that [the cerebellum] has such a large surface area speaks to the evolution of distinctively human behaviors and cognition," says Sereno. "It has expanded so much that the folding patterns are very complex."

As the study says, "Rather than coordinating sensory signals to execute expert physical movements, parts of the cerebellum may have been extended in humans to help coordinate fictive 'conceptual movements,' such as rapidly mentally rearranging a movement plan — or, in the fullness of time, perhaps even a mathematical equation."

Sereno concludes, "The 'little brain' is quite the jack of all trades. Mapping the cerebellum will be an interesting new frontier for the next decade."

Economists show how welfare programs can turn a "profit"

What happens if we consider welfare programs as investments?

A homeless man faces Wall Street

Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs
  • A recently published study suggests that some welfare programs more than pay for themselves.
  • It is one of the first major reviews of welfare programs to measure so many by a single metric.
  • The findings will likely inform future welfare reform and encourage debate on how to grade success.
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