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Mysteries of Modern Physics: Time

Mysteries of Modern Physics: Time

Professor Sean Carroll, Ph.D.
California Institute of Technology

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Mysteries of Modern Physics: Time

Course No. 1257
Professor Sean Carroll, Ph.D.
California Institute of Technology
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4.3 out of 5
78 Reviews
80% of reviewers would recommend this series
Course No. 1257
  • Audio or Video?
  • You should buy audio if you would enjoy the convenience of experiencing this course while driving, exercising, etc. While the video does contain visual elements, the professor presents the material in an engaging and clear manner, so the visuals are not necessary to understand the concepts. Additionally, the audio audience may refer to the accompanying course guidebook for names, works, and examples that are cited throughout the course.
  • You should buy video if you prefer learning visually and wish to take advantage of the visual elements featured in this course. The video version is well illustrated and features nearly 400 illustrations, portraits, diagrams, and graphs. Some of the course's most memorable visuals include an illustration of how wave functions show a quantum object's state is actually just a superposition of where it is, a graphic of entropy states used to measure a system's uncertainty, and a diagram of the universe's expansion over time. There are also portraits of noted figures like Albert Einstein and Ludwig Boltzmann, and illustrations that bring to life concepts and thought experiments including time's arrow and Maxwell's demon.
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Course Overview

Time rules our lives. From the rising and setting of the sun to the cycles of nature, the thought processes in our brains, and the biorhythms in our day, nothing so pervades our existence and yet is so difficult to explain. Time seems to be woven into the very fabric of the universe. But why?

Consider these contrasting views of time:

  • A movie of a person diving into a pool has an obvious arrow of time. When the movie is played backward, everyone recognizes that it shows an event that would never occur in the real world.
  • But zoom in on any part of this scene at the atomic scale and the movie can be run backward or forward and be indistinguishable. Either way, the particle interactions are consistent with the laws of physics.

Why does one movie have an arrow of time moving in only one direction and the other does not? Surprisingly, the search for an answer leads through some of the most pioneering fields of physics, including thermodynamics, relativity, quantum theory, and cosmology.

The key concept is called “entropy,” which is related to the second law of thermodynamics, considered by many scientists to be the most secure law in all of physics. The second law has even been compared to Shakespeare’s plays in its importance to the education of a culturally informed person.

But that’s only the beginning, since the quest for the ultimate theory of time draws on such exciting ideas as black holes, cosmic inflation, and dark energy, before closing in on a momentous question that until recently was considered unanswerable: What happened before the big bang?

In 24 riveting half-hour lectures, Mysteries of Modern Physics: Time takes you on a mind-expanding journey through the past, present, and future, guided by Professor Sean Carroll, noted author and Senior Research Associate in Physics at the California Institute of Technology.

Designed for nonscientists as well as those with a background in physics, Mysteries of Modern Physics: Time shows how a feature of the world that we all experience connects us to the instant of the formation of the universe—and possibly to a multiverse that is unimaginably larger and more varied than the known cosmos.

While focusing on physics, Professor Carroll also examines philosophical views on time, how we perceive and misperceive time, the workings of memory, and serious proposals for time travel, as well as imaginative ways that time has been disrupted in fiction.

Clues to the Origin of Time

Break an egg. Melt an ice cube. Mix coffee and cream. Each starts with an ordered state and ends with one that is much more disorderly. Each is an example of an increase in entropy, which is a measure of the degree of disorder in a closed system. The entropy of the universe was lower in the past; it will be higher in the future. Increasing entropy defines the arrow of time, implying that at the beginning of the universe entropy must have been extraordinarily low. This course seeks to understand why.

Professor Carroll begins like a detective by gathering the facts. What do we know about time, what characterizes it, and how do we measure it? Then he combs the universe for clues, from the contrasting views on time of Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein, to Rudolf Clausius’s invention of the concept of entropy and Ludwig Boltzmann’s brilliant insight about why entropy increases and therefore why time proceeds from past to future.

You explore Boltzmann’s statistical explanation for the nature of time, and you see how, carried to its logical conclusion, it leads to a bizarre scenario called Boltzmann brains. You look at another curious thought experiment, called Maxwell’s demon, which helps explain the presence of order and life in a universe of relentlessly increasing disorder.

In the course of these inquiries, you consider time from many perspectives, including these:

  • A dimension with a difference: Time is the fourth dimension. But unlike the three dimensions that constitute space, time can’t be explored randomly from point to point. You just experience it sequentially second after second. This continuous flow from past to future is the arrow of time.
  • The view from “nowhen”: The present moment seems real in a way that the past and future do not. But to better understand why time and the universe are the way they are, it’s useful to view all moments—past, present, and future—as equally real. This is the view from “nowhen.”
  • Quantum time: Some phenomena at the quantum scale are not reversible with respect to time—unlike all other processes in fundamental physics. Could these events be the origin of the arrow of time? Could they explain why we remember the past but not the future?

You also investigate the past hypothesis, which assumes that atomic theory and fundamental physics cannot account for the difference between the past and the future by themselves. Instead, the arrow of time can only be explained by the initial conditions that gave birth to the universe itself. Which brings you to the big bang, one of the major focuses of this course.

Time to Get This Course

Your time-traveling adventures also include excursions into fiction and film, which Professor Carroll engages with characteristic enthusiasm and wit. While storytellers are seldom concerned with getting the physics right, it’s instructive how they usually get it very wrong:

  • Stopping time: Stories that stop time as the hero moves through a stationary world fail to consider that no one could function in such an environment. Air would be as immovable as a brick wall. Light and sound would stop. No plot would be possible!
  • Time going backward: A character who experiences the arrow of time in reverse faces grave difficulties relating to another character going through time the normal way. They would be like travelers on the highway going in opposite directions.
  • Time travel: Fictional time travelers typically dematerialize and then rematerialize at a different point in time. But real time travel, if it were possible, could not skip over the intervening part of spacetime. Real time travel would be a journey through spacetime.

In the time that has passed since you started reading this, the entropy of the universe has increased. The future of a few moments ago is now the present. You are at a different point in spacetime, even if you haven’t moved from your chair. “What is time?” asked Saint Augustine 1,600 years ago. “If no one asks me, I know. But if I wish to explain it to someone who asks, I know not.” With Mysteries of Modern Physics: Time, you will be much closer to an answer.

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24 lectures
 |  30 minutes each
  • 1
    Why Time Is a Mystery
    Begin your study of the physics of time with these questions: What is a clock? What does it mean to say that “time passes”? What is the “arrow of time”? Then look at the concept of entropy and how it holds the key to the one-way direction of time in our universe. x
  • 2
    What Is Time?
    Approach time from a philosophical perspective. “Presentism” holds that the past and future are not real; only the present moment is real. However, the laws of physics appear to support “eternalism”—the view that all of the moments in the history of the universe are equally real. x
  • 3
    Keeping Time
    How do we measure the passage of time? Discover that practical concerns have driven the search for more and more accurate clocks. In the 18th century, the problem of determining longitude was solved with a timepiece of unprecedented accuracy. Today’s GPS navigation units rely on clocks accurate to a billionth of a second. x
  • 4
    Time’s Arrow
    Embark on the quest that will occupy the rest of the course: Why is there an arrow of time? Explore how memory and aging orient us in time. Then look at irreversible processes, such as an egg breaking or ice melting. These capture the essence of the one-way direction of time. x
  • 5
    The Second Law of Thermodynamics
    Trace the history of the second law of thermodynamics, considered by many physicists to be the one law of physics most likely to survive unaltered for the next thousand years. The second law says that entropy—the degree of disorder in a closed system—only increases or stays the same. x
  • 6
    Reversibility and the Laws of Physics
    Isaac Newton’s laws of physics are fully reversible; particles can move forward or backward in time without any inconsistency. But this is not our experience in the world, where the arrow of time is fundamentally connected to irreversible processes and the increase in entropy. x
  • 7
    Time Reversal in Particle Physics
    Explore advances in physics since Newton’s time that reveal exceptions to the rule that interactions between moving particles are fully reversible. Could irreversible reactions between elementary particles explain the arrow of time? Weigh the evidence for and against this view. x
  • 8
    Time in Quantum Mechanics
    Quantum mechanics is the most precise theory ever invented, yet it leads to startling interpretations of the nature of reality. Probe a quantum state called the collapse of the wave function that may underlie the arrow of time. Are the indications that it shows irreversibility real or only illusory? x
  • 9
    Entropy and Counting
    After establishing in previous lectures that the arrow of time must be due to entropy, begin a deep exploration of this phenomenon. In the 1870s, physicist Ludwig Boltzmann proposed a definition of entropy that explains why it increases toward the future. Analyze this idea in detail. x
  • 10
    Playing with Entropy
    Sharpen your understanding of entropy by examining different macroscopic systems and asking, which has higher entropy and which has lower entropy? Also evaluate James Clerk Maxwell’s famous thought experiment about a demon who seemingly defies the principle that entropy always increases. x
  • 11
    The Past Hypothesis
    Boltzmann explains why entropy will be larger in the future, but he doesn’t show why it was smaller in the past. Learn that physics can’t account for this difference except by assuming that the universe started in a state of very low entropy. This assumption is called the past hypothesis. x
  • 12
    Memory, Causality, and Action
    Can physics shed light on human aspects of the arrow of time such as memory, cause and effect, and free will? Learn that everyday features of experience that you take for granted trace back to the low entropy state of the universe at the big bang, 13.7 billion years ago. x
  • 13
    Boltzmann Brains
    One possible explanation for order in the universe is that it is a random fluctuation from a disordered state. Could the entire universe be one such fluctuation, now in the process of returning to disorder? Investigate a scenario called “Boltzmann brains” that suggests not. x
  • 14
    Complexity and Life
    Discover that Maxwell’s demon from lecture 10 provides the key to understanding how complexity and life can exist in a universe in which entropy is increasing. Consider how life is not only compatible with, but is an outgrowth of, the second law of thermodynamics and the arrow of time. x
  • 15
    The Perception of Time
    Turn to the way humans perceive time, which can vary greatly from clock time. In particular, focus on experiments that shed light on our time sense. For example, tests show that even though we think we perceive the present moment, we actually live 80 milliseconds in the past. x
  • 16
    Memory and Consciousness
    Remembering the past and projecting into the future are crucial for human consciousness, as shown by cases where these faculties are impaired. Investigate what happens in the brain when we remember, exploring different kinds of memory and the phenomena of false memories and false forgetting. x
  • 17
    Time and Relativity
    According to Einstein’s special theory of relativity, there is no such thing as a moment in time spread throughout the universe. Instead, time is one of four dimensions in spacetime. Learn how this “relative” view of time is usefully diagramed with light cones, representing the past and future. x
  • 18
    Curved Spacetime and Black Holes
    By developing a general theory of relativity incorporating gravity, Einstein launched a revolution in our understanding of the universe. Trace how his idea that gravity results from the warping of spacetime led to the discovery of black holes and the big bang. x
  • 19
    Time Travel
    Use a simple analogy to understand how a time machine might work. Unlike movie scenarios featuring dematerializing and rematerializing, a real time machine would be a spaceship that moves through all the intervening points between two locations in spacetime. Also explore paradoxes of time travel. x
  • 20
    Black Hole Entropy
    Stephen Hawking showed that black holes emit radiation and therefore have entropy. Since the entropy in the universe today is overwhelmingly in the form of black holes and there were no black holes in the early universe, entropy must have been much lower in the deep past. x
  • 21
    Evolution of the Universe
    Follow the history of the universe from just after the big bang to the far future, when the universe will consist of virtually empty space at maximum entropy. Learn what is well founded and what is less certain about this picture of a universe winding down. x
  • 22
    The Big Bang
    Explore three different ways of thinking about the big bang—as the actual beginning of the universe; as a “bounce” from a symmetric version of the universe on the other side of the big bang; and as a region that underwent inflationary expansion in a much larger multiverse. x
  • 23
    The Multiverse
    Dig deeper into the possibility that the big bang originated in a multiverse, which provides a plausible explanation for why entropy was low at the big bang, giving rise to the arrow of time. But is this theory and the related idea of an anthropic principle legitimate science or science fiction? x
  • 24
    Approaches to the Arrow of Time
    Use what you have learned in the course to investigate a range of different possibilities that explain the origin of time in the universe. Professor Carroll closes by presenting one of his favorite theories and noting how much remains to be done before conclusively solving the mystery of time. x

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Your professor

Sean Carroll

About Your Professor

Sean Carroll, Ph.D.
California Institute of Technology
Professor Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in Physics at the California Institute of Technology. He earned his undergraduate degree from Villanova University and his Ph.D. in Astrophysics from Harvard in 1993. Before arriving at Caltech, Professor Carroll taught in the Physics Department and the Enrico Fermi Institute at the University of Chicago, and did postdoctoral research at the Massachusetts Institute of...
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Mysteries of Modern Physics: Time is rated 4.2 out of 5 by 78.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Good title - encourages I'm still listening to this and am very pleased. I find the lecturer's voice pleasing & easy to understand. I have had other GC courses that were not so appealing. I will continue to study through the Great Courses, as I have been doing for about 10 years already.
Date published: 2017-04-20
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Engaging, Very interesting. The professor speaks quickly and very clearly. A lot of material gets covered. He presents a complicated subject in an easy to understand way.
Date published: 2017-04-20
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Its Strengths May Not Be Where You'd Like I watched this entire course and I've read a number of other reviews which raise various criticisms, some of which I'd also endorse. But I'll start by saying I am glad I bought the course and glad I spent the time viewing it. Let's start with the lecturer. Sean Carroll is one of the better lecturers I've watched in The Great Courses. Of course they try to select excellent lecturers for all their courses but as some people know, teaching well is really hard work. Being both an expert in your field AND a great teacher is even harder. Carroll is polished, professional, well-modulated, clear in enunciation, sometimes humorous, and well-paced. I've watched two other courses produced by him, both of which I liked better than this one. The problem perhaps is this subject matter. Yes, you could shorten the length without sacrificing anything important. I get the feeling some of these half-hours were added just to end up with 24, though whose agenda that was or why, I'm not sure. The first 3 in particular could be skipped over, and a few other later ones as well. What's good about the course is that it reviews a number of somewhat "interdisciplinary" topics, which for some may be their very first presentation and for others, perhaps the first time they see them as perhaps so connected: particle physics, quantum mechanics, relativity theory, cosmology and yes (sigh) complexity, information theory and thermodynamics. Ultimately it's this last part I found most disappointing. Spoiler: Carroll's final explanation is that it is entropy which drives the directionality of time. I ended the course still believing that this is somehow putting the cart in front of the horse and that it's the directionality of time which plays a causal role in entropy. I ended up believing that modern physics still does not have a proper understanding of the asymmetry or "directional arrow" of time, and perhaps this still awaits another fundamental revolution in our understanding. In the meantime it's a pretty nice if perhaps overly-long and sometimes meandering survey of ideas in modern physics.
Date published: 2017-03-11
Rated 5 out of 5 by from I listen every morning during a 30 minute exercise bike ride. Feel vastly informed on a usually difficult subject. Wonderful!
Date published: 2017-03-08
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Mysteries of Modern Physics - Time The subject matter is fascinating and the lecturer, Sean Carroll, is very good. His explanations are straightforward and comprehensible without talking down to the listener. It is a very enjoyable and worthwhile course. I have one issue, however, and that is the Teaching Company does not make much good use of the graphic possibilities of the DVD medium. Instead of helpful video clips or charts or graphs, you get static photos, whooshing boxes and a lot of hocus pocus. Which is a shame because physics in general, and time and cosmology in particular, could benefit from good graphic presentations.
Date published: 2017-01-22
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Does Anybody Know What Time It Is.... This is a topic I have been interested in; however this stretched my mental capacity. The professor talks about many topics that I never thought about and many that I didn't get. I am not sure the information will be appreciated by the AVERAGE participant but if you are up for the challenge than try it. I tell people about it but dont want to recommend it for fear they wouldnt enjoy it.
Date published: 2017-01-17
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Good Presentation of an Ambiguous Topic The problem with courses like this this is that they have to keep the mathematics at such a low level to get a wide audience, a lot of what is going on is left unexplored. This is not the fault of the instructor, but rather the constraints placed upon him. The second law of thermodynamics, which dominates the course, is really a mathematical idea. Not being able to use differential equations, probability theory, etc. to help explain it is a significant impediment. That having been said, this is a good example of a course on "popular" physics, For those wanting to get a brief introduction to some of the main ideas about time, this is a good course.
Date published: 2016-10-06
Rated 5 out of 5 by from THERMODYNAMICS, COSMOLOGY, PHILOSOPHY, ETC. This is a course in Physics and Philosophy plus…small change (biology, medicine, psychology as well as the most up-to-date branches of these latter disciplines such as brain science and neural science). The physics is mainly thermodynamics and cosmology. My personal opinion is that one can absorb the course reasonably well (I couldn’t absorb it fully) and appreciate what is being said to some large degree (I couldn’t appreciate it in its entirety), i.e., one can understand the significance of the points being made, only if one has a good knowledge of, at the very least advanced high-school if not first year university, physics. For instance, one cannot appreciate how profound the message of lectures 7 and 8 is—however brilliant the lecturing might be—unless one is acquainted with the issues, i.e., topics in particle physics and quantum mechanics. Prior knowledge of philosophy (assuming there exists such a thing), better still, familiarity with the history of philosophical thought and with some of the philosophical debates would also make it easier in places to appreciate what the argument is about. Nevertheless, in my view, such prior knowledge is not essential unless one wants to assess how innovative or radical Carroll’s story is…or whether it is just a monstrous oversimplification. One’s first task should be, however, to understand Carroll’s story, to realize “what’s the big deal”, even as his excellent teaching skills make it relatively easy to follow the lectures. Carroll’s style represents the polar opposite to say Martin Heidegger’s writings which seem so impenetrable to the layman, to give an unrelated (though, come to think about it, Heidegger too is concerned with “time”!) and rather distant example which just came to mind... Prof. Carroll tries to fill-in the likely missing detail of required prior knowledge, and he is quite successful in relation to thermodynamics. It seems to me that, as far as thermodynamics is concerned, Carroll provides meaningful teaching: we can learn rather than (as elsewhere in this series of lectures) listen to, let’s call them, “unilateral announcements”, which we have , so to speak, to swallow without, however, really being able to munch. Having watched Prof. Grossmann’s “Thermodynamics” Great Course, some months ago, not to mention the fact that I have repeatedly watched Prof. Wolfson’s Great Courses on “Physics and our Universe” PLUS “Physics in our Life”, I found Prof. Carroll’s extensive elaboration of the concept of entropy quite illuminating. I still doubt, however, that somebody who has never been exposed to this concept before, stands a chance of reasonably comprehending the basic thesis of Carroll’s “Time”. In addition, I felt that more time and effort should have been devoted to explicating the significance of entropy in cosmology. Some explanation was given (mainly in connection with black holes) but my impression was that many logical steps that would normally occur in a fuller analysis had to be left out. They are probably too difficult, but the link between entropy and cosmology is central to Carroll’s argument. Finally, the brief exposition of relativity theory in these DVDs is, in my view, only suitable for viewers already acquainted with the concepts. It is not enough to constitute a primer. True, there are other Great Courses about relativity. By contrast, in my view, it is not impossible for somebody without any cosmology to follow “Time”: Prof. Carroll does provide a primer in cosmology in the course of these lectures. Given that the issues into which the lectures delve are absolutely profound and mind-boggling par excellence, as I was watching Carroll I realized what a great orator he is (for one thing he doesn’t read from, or even possess, notes!), how powerful and highly intelligent his speech is, and what great vitality and wit characterize his argumentation. It is a miracle (for which his science-popularizing supernatural abilities must take full credit) that Carroll manages to create a coherent account out of all this without creating a colossal muddle. The account is, I reckon, a la carte. Different viewers are likely to attain different levels of comprehension but provided one has some physics one would never drop-out. A feature of this Great Course, which may or may not appear convenient, is that “Time” can be viewed from beginning to end during a relatively brief…time period, e.g., over the course one week. This is because the additional information conveyed to someone who can already handle the physics, is not so much dense or rich (i.e., is not characterized by “complexity” according to the Kolmogorov definition Carroll cites!) as much as it is composed of numerous bits all of which, however, link comfortably together to build a single big argument about what “time” is. All in all, the course presents a challenge but is not overambitious or worse unrealistic. I think I managed to understand what Carroll’s message was 75% of the time in this course compared with a “personal absorption rate” close to 90% when viewing one of Carroll’s other courses, “Dark Matter, Dark Energy”. Even with only 75% of the total prize, I feel pretty pleased with myself and believe that my general knowledge and my understanding of physics have been significantly promoted—thank you Professor Carroll!
Date published: 2016-09-09
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