Paper on the nature of time wins new cosmology prize

Marina Cortes, a Marie Curie Research Fellow in the School's Institute for Astronomy, has been jointly awarded the 2014 Buchalter Cosmology Prize, along with Lee Smolin of the Perimeter Institute (Canada), for their paper “The Universe as a Process of Unique Events” (arXiv:1307.6167).

The judging committee recognised the work as “a remarkable approach for introducing the irreversible flow of time into the foundations of physics.”

This is the first year that the prize, which is worth 10,000 US dollars, has been awarded. It was announced at the American Astronomical Society meeting in Seattle on the 6th of January 2015.

"It's a great, great honour to receive this award. It is of course always an honour to see our work recognized, but this particular work is very special. The ideas in it are very different to those that are commonly accepted in the field, and it took courage and determination in voicing our own views. To see these ideas recognized by our most esteemed peers, and valued in this prize, is a reward beyond imagination. It gives us a strong impetus for continuing to develop them." Marina Cortes, Institute for Astronomy, Edinburgh

Below, Marina summarises her work, which is the result of a collaboration with Lee Smolin.

Time comes first: the arrow of time in cosmology and quantum gravity

We begin from the hypothesis that time is both fundamental and irreversible: a bold assertion, given that most physicists see time as a property that “emerges” as a consequence of more fundamental physical laws. Time results directly from this irreversibility; the future is created continuously out of the present through the activity of time. Every instant of time has a unique “fingerprint”—the signature sum of the instants that preceded it and no others.

These fundamentals results in a universe that is as asymmetric in time as possible. We develop our theory analytically, and show how space-time and partial quantum mechanics can arise from them. We then illustrate this through numerical simulations of a simplified model of a universe in which space has only a single dimension.

The new framework holds significant key implications for fundamental physics. Indeed, we argue that the primacy of time, and its irreversibility, must be incorporated into contemporary physics in order to make progress on key questions that beset the field. We believe that, ultimately, it may point the way to a unification of quantum mechanics with relativity –the “Holy Grail” of contemporary theoretical physics.