Physicists reverse time using quantum computer
MOSCOW INSTITUTE OF PHYSICS AND TECHNOLOGY
Researchers from the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology teamed up with colleagues from the U.S. and Switzerland and returned the state of a quantum computer a fraction of a second into the past. They also calculated the probability that an electron in empty interstellar space will spontaneously travel back into its recent past. The study comes out March 13 in Scientific Reports.
“This is one in a series of papers on the possibility of violating the second law of thermodynamics. That law is closely related to the notion of the arrow of time that posits the one-way direction of time: from the past to the future,” commented the study’s lead author Gordey Lesovik, who heads the Laboratory of the Physics of Quantum Information Technology at MIPT.
“We began by describing a so-called local perpetual motion machine of the second kind. Then, in December, we published a paper that discusses the violation of the second law via a device called a Maxwell’s demon,” Lesovik said. “The most recent paper approaches the same problem from a third angle: We have artificially created a state that evolves in a direction opposite to that of the thermodynamic arrow of time.”
What makes the future different from the past
Most laws of physics make no distinction between the future and the past. For example, let an equation describe the collision and rebound of two identical billiard balls. If a close-up of that event is recorded with a camera and played in reverse, it can still be represented by the same equation. Moreover, one could not tell from the recording if it has been doctored. Both versions look plausible. It would appear that the billiard balls defy the intuitive sense of time.
However, imagine that someone has recorded a cue ball breaking the pyramid, the billiard balls scattering in all directions. One need not know the rules of the game to tell the real-life scenario from reverse playback. What makes the latter look so absurd is our intuitive understanding of the second law of thermodynamics: An isolated system either remains static or evolves toward a state of chaos rather than order.
Most other laws of physics do not prevent rolling billiard balls from assembling into a pyramid, infused tea from flowing back into the tea bag, or a volcano from “erupting” in reverse. But we do not see any of this happening, because that would require an isolated system to assume a more ordered state without any outside intervention, which runs contrary to the second law. The nature of that law has not been explained in full detail, but researchers have made great headway in understanding the basic principles behind it.
Spontaneous time reversal
Quantum physicists from MIPT decided to check if time could spontaneously reverse itself at least for an individual particle and for a tiny fraction of a second. That is, instead of colliding billiard balls, they examined a solitary electron in empty interstellar space.
“Suppose the electron is localized when we begin observing it. This means that we’re pretty sure about its position in space. The laws of quantum mechanics prevent us from knowing it with absolute precision, but we can outline a small region where the electron is localized,” says study co-author Andrey Lebedev from MIPT and ETH Zurich.