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Is event sequencing relative?

  1. Aug 2, 2010 #1
    Is event sequencing relative? Lately I have been thinking of a thought experiment involving a proof for relative event sequencing.

    Absolute sequencing would involve event "a" triggering event "b" and ANY observer perceiving event "a" happening first and event "b" happening second.

    Relative sequencing would involve event "a" triggering event "b" and SOME observers perceiving event "b" happening first even though it was triggered by event "a."
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  3. Aug 2, 2010 #2
    In special relativity, which describes flat spacetime (spacetime in the absence of gravity), and posits that causality propagates no faster than c, it's possible to give a coordinate-indepentent sequence to events if and only if there's a big enough time and a small enough space between them for one event to cause the other.

    I gather it's an open question whether this is true in general. Some scanarios have been proposed which might lead to what are called "closed timelike curves", which (if I've understood this right) would have no natural global orientation. But these are exotic and purely hypothetical beasts.
    Last edited: Aug 2, 2010
  4. Aug 2, 2010 #3
    From the answer you have just posted on another thread Rasalhague, I’m not in any doubt that you are someone with a much better understanding than my own. However, from something I read only quite recently, my understanding is that what Kommandant is proposing is not possible. It is all to do with the fact that the time term in the Minkowski equation is negative. If it is positive, then on a space time diagram with the cause event at the origin, the effect event lies on a circle centred on the origin, and thus raises the possibility of a cause and effect paradox. With the time term negative, the curve produced is a hyperbola. Different observers have different ideas of the spatial distance and time interval between the events, but all observers see the cause event happening first and the effect event happening second.

    There is a further subtlety to it, as you suggest. The pair of curves produced with a vertical transverse axis would represent events that were caused by the event at the origin (northern curve) and events that caused the event at the origin (southern curve). The full diagram would have another hyperbola with a horizontal transverse axis that would appear to suggest the possibility of a cause and effect paradox but for the fact, as you mentioned, that they represent events sufficiently distant in space that light cannot travel from the effect event to the observer in less than the time interval between the events. This is another point about travel faster than light, it would re-raise the possibility of a cause and effect paradox.
  5. Aug 2, 2010 #4
    In GR there is no guarantee (unless we impose certain energy conditions) that one event happens before another event for all observers. Also the distance between two events is not neccesarily unique.
  6. Aug 2, 2010 #5
    In SR, for any two events A and B that are space-like separated, there are frames relative to which (a) A is earlier than B, (b) A is simultaneous with B; (c) A is later than B.

    In SR, for any two events A and B that are time like separated, if A is earlier than B in one frame, it is earlier than B in all frames. Moreover, if A and B are time-like separated, then it is (theoretically) possible for someone at A to, for example, throw a brick at someone at B, and so have some influence at B - i.e. cause things to happen at B.

    In GR, all the same things are true locally. However, globally, there exist solutions of GR where things are able to loop through space time into their own past, and, globally, the idea of a past and future break down somewhat. Though such solutions of GR are physically possible, they appear not to describe our universe.

    One final thing I'd like to add, which will undoubtedly be seized on and misunderstood: causation and signalling aren't quite the same thing. Some people formulate relativity in terms of the idea that *information* can't travel faster than light - e.g. there had better be no way of *synchronising* distant clocks else relativity is kaput. But this limits the speed of communication rather than the speed of causation. So some think that a certain kind of uncontrollable faster than light causation is still compatible with relativity.
  7. Aug 2, 2010 #6
    Okay guys, again I have to concede superior understanding to you. But it does seem to me to be a serious problem if you allow it. The more usual example that I have encountered, that is perhaps easy to conceive, uses billiard balls. (Would I better say pool balls for you?) In the reference frame of being in the room with the player, it is clear that the player strikes the cue ball, then the cue ball strikes the object ball, then the object ball falls into the pocket. If a cause and effect paradox is possible, certain observers would see the object ball fall into the pocket before the cue ball strikes the object ball, which they see before the player strikes the cue ball. Clearly, that is highly paradoxical. Extending the idea even further, imagine the situation where a car on the motorway (freeway) is brought to a halt by an obstruction, and a queue quickly builds up behind. In certain reference frames, observers would see the cars at the back stopping before the cars at the front had reached the obstruction. If you ponder that further you would realise that that would mean cars perceived as being at the back by the ground observer would be perceived by the moving observer as further forward and the cars that the ground observer believed reached the obstruction first would actually have to magically pass through the rear most cars to reach the obstruction.
  8. Aug 2, 2010 #7


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    I think yossell is referring to entanglement. I wouldn't call this "a certain kind of uncontrollable faster than light causation", I'd call it correlation. Extremely weird, but no cause-effect relationship.
  9. Aug 2, 2010 #8

    I'm not sure anything I say contradicts what you say. What's the serious problem you're referring to? In the odd solutions for GR, there are closed causal loops - but this isn't the same as relativity of causation, there's not relativity about what causes what. Rather, there are these strange circular chains of causation.

    On a more general point, the notion of causation doesn't appear directly in formulations of SR or GR. There's spatial-temporal separation, there are time like and space like curves and so on - but not causation. Even the direction of time, what is past and what is future, doesn't obviously appear within the fundamental equations of relativity themselves, and there are some who try to analyse temporal orientation in terms of the increase of entropy or chaos, say. Accordingly, I think one has to work quite hard to show that backwards causation truly is paradoxical, even in SR and GR.
  10. Aug 2, 2010 #9
    Hi Ich,

    my final paragraph was just meant to be purely theoretical. I just wanted to indicate that there are some who think relativity only forbids faster than light signalling, and that this is at least *theoretically compatible* with certain kinds of faster than light causation. I didn't personally want to take a stance on whether entanglement is in fact such a phenomenon - but perhaps, assuming a certain view about the collapse of the wave function, it would be.
  11. Aug 2, 2010 #10


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    Re Ken Natton's billiard ball example: This is exactly the classical system used by a group at Cal Tech in the 90's to investigate these issues. Echeverria, 1991, "Billiard balls in wormhole spacetimes with closed timelike curves: Classical theory, http://authors.library.caltech.edu/6469/ There is a good popular-level presentation of the subject in ch. 14 of Kip Thorne's book Black Holes and Time Warps. The thrust of the CalTech work was that just because a CTC exists, that doesn't necessarily imply that you get time-travel paradoxes. Essentially they tried really hard to produce time-travel paradoxes with a toy classical system, and they couldn't find any.

    Although there are solutions to the field equations of GR that have CTCs, that doesn't mean that our universe has ever had or can ever have CTCs. This is what the chronology protection conjecture is about: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chronology_protection_conjecture

    A good popular-level book about this topic is Gott, Time Travel in Einstein's Universe: The Physical Possibilities of Travel Through Time.
  12. Aug 2, 2010 #11


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    Another thought: Causality is a very difficult concept to define in general, and it means different things in different contexts (classical versus quantum mechanical, etc.). A related but more straightforward concept is whether a given theory has predictive power. For a classical theory like GR, this is relatively easy to define: given certain types of boundary conditions, does the theory have a unique solution? One thing that makes this easier to define than causality is that you don't have to worry about an arrow of time (which is typically defined by thermodynamics). A serious foundational problem with GR is that it doesn't appear to be a valid predictive theory under all circumstances. It generically has solutions with singularities, and singularities typically make it impossible to make predictions. Also, it has solutions with CTCs, and what the Cal Tech group's work was about was essentially the question of whether GR loses the ability to make predictions in the presence of CTCs (which is a different question than whether causality is violated). Although the Cal Tech group always found at least one valid solution to the billiard ball problem for any set of initial conditions, there were typically more than one, which leads to the question of how nature chooses which one to do.

    Basically this kind of thing is the motivation behind the intense interest in the chronology protection conjecture and the cosmic censorship hypothesis. For these two hypotheses to hold is basically the bare minimum that we need if GR is to be a viable, well-founded theory.
  13. Aug 2, 2010 #12


    where [tex]dt[/tex] is the temporal separation between events and [tex]dx[/tex] is the spatial separation between events in frame F. v is the speed of another frame F' wrt F.
    [tex]dt'[/tex] is the temporal separation between events in frame F'

    It is easy to see that there is nothing compelling [tex]dt'[/tex] to have the same sign as [tex]dt[/tex] unless [tex]dt/dx>v/c^2[/tex] or [tex]dx/dt<c^2/v[/tex]

    Now, [tex]c^2/v>c[/tex] so, the above reduces to [tex]dx/dt<c[/tex] which happens trivially if we accept "no faster than light" signalling.
    Last edited: Aug 2, 2010
  14. Aug 2, 2010 #13


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    That's true for a particular choice of two inertial frames with a relative velocity of v; if two events have coordinate separation dx and dt in the unprimed frame, then the other frame will agree on the order of the events provided dx/dt < c^2/v (note that c^2/v is a faster-than-light speed). However, it's also worth noting that in any case where |dx/dt| > c, then it will always be possible to find some other frame with a velocity of v1 relative to the unprimed frame, such that dx/dt < c^2/v1. So, for any events with a space-like separation in one frame (i.e. |dx/dt| > c), you can always find some other frame where the order of the events is reversed; on the other hand, for any events with a time-like separation (|dx/dt| < c) or a light-like separation (|dx/dt| = c), all inertial frames agree on their order.
  15. Aug 2, 2010 #14
    Times we give to an event are just part of a coordinate system choice.

    We can always relabel as such:
    x' = x
    y' = y
    z' = z
    t' = -t

    If the original coordinate system was an inertial coordinate system, then so to is the primed one.

    Some rhetorical questions to promote thinking: Does this mean we switched cause and effect? Does this mean cause and effect are relative? My feeling is no, but I can't define cause-effect well enough to back that up.

    We have an innate sense of what time "is", but this doesn't fit well with the mathematical notion of a coordinate system. Heck, I've had interesting lively discussions with other physicists on just the notion of the "arrow of time". Often it devolves to the realization we can't define cause and effect precisely enough to have a deep discussion. I think this is why so many people like the thermo arrow of time solution, since it skips that question entirely.
  16. Aug 3, 2010 #15
    It seems to me that a good deal of the interactions between experts and non-experts on these forums is a question of walking a fairly fine line between credulous acceptance of anything you are told and valid scepticism and challenge that enhances understanding on the one hand, and between open mindedness to new and difficult concepts and closed minded, stubborn adherence to misconceptions on the other. I accept that it is entirely we, the non-experts who must walk that line.

    So it is with some trepidation that I offer a challenge when several more expert contributors offer a similar message. It is one matter to look at a particular, unfamiliar, counter-intuitive concept and recognise that one of the key obstructions to understanding it lies in the cause and effect view of things that is part of our culture and ingrained into our way of thinking from an early age. It is quite another to offer a philosophical argument that questions the validity of cause and effect ideas all together. I try to be open minded and I am willing to struggle with difficult concepts and try to gain some insight into them without expecting it to come too easily. But perhaps the most diplomatic way of phrasing it is to say that suggestions that cause and effect ideas are completely open to question causes my instinctive defences to rise. Without being too melodramatic, I might offer an example of my objections by suggesting that such a notion could have serious implications for criminal justice.

    Now, clearly such an argument is entirely a philosophical one and not a scientific one. But it is perhaps the reason why I am predisposed to prefer an explanation that holds that cause and effect ideas are entirely compatible with relativity theory.
  17. Aug 3, 2010 #16


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    "Cause and effect" is still valid in relativity provided you assume that no causal influence can travel faster than the speed of light. Different inertial frames never disagree on the order of events with a time-like separation (meaning dx < c*dt between the events, i.e. the distance in light-years between them is smaller than the time in years between them, i.e. a signal moving slower than light could get from one event to the other), and they also never disagree on the order of events with a light-like separation (meaning dx = c*dt between the events, i.e. the distance in light-years between them is exactly equal to the time in years between them, i.e. a signal moving at exactly the speed of light could get from one event to the other). The only case where different inertial frames can disagree on the order of events is when there is a space-like separation between them (meaning dx > c*dt between the events, i.e. the distance in light-years between them is greater than the time in years between them, i.e. a signal would have to move faster than light to get from one to the other), so as long as causal influences never travel faster than light, these disagreements about order only occurs for pairs of events that can have had no causal influence on one another.
  18. Aug 3, 2010 #17


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    That's only in SR, not GR. GR allows CTCs. It's just that we don't know if any process in our universe can create CTCs.
  19. Aug 3, 2010 #18
    And fairly so.
    In my post I didn't mean cause and effect ideas are completely open to question. After all, it is common to essentially define the "causal structure" of spacetime where two events in each other's light cones are causally related, and otherwise not. This is completely coordinate system independent. JesseM and others gave some explicit discussion on this in flat spacetime and inertial coordinate systems related by Lorentz transformations (or translations and rotations as well).

    I was merely trying to point out that "ordering" requires a sense of direction of time. That is difficult to define in a coordinate independent method. There is no generic geometric way to do this just from the metric. One would have to refer to specific physics. In our specific case, maybe cosmological time given that our universe appears it will expand forever. Or maybe something from electro-weak theory as it does not have T symmetry, one could ad-hoc define something as "forward" in time. The most popular "arrow of time" solution is of course the thermodynamics one, the direction of entropy increase.

    The overall point was just to help some interesting thought along the realization that our intuitive feelings of "ordering" in time can't be made rigorous just from the geometry of spacetime (which most answers here are referring to). We need to appeal to something else, along with the causal structure of spacetime.

    Does that clear it up a bit?


    Assuming Ken Natton was responding in part to my previous post, I think you missed the point in your response to him.

    In particular this statement:
    We can always relabel as such:
    x' = x
    y' = y
    z' = z
    t' = -t

    If the original coordinate system was an inertial coordinate system, then so to is the primed one. And Voila, the ordering is changed.

    So while the causal structure of spacetime is important, additional ingredients must be included to obtain an "ordering".
  20. Aug 3, 2010 #19


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    Are you sure that's allowed? In the simplest form of the Lorentz transformation (where we assume both frames have their spatial axes aligned and that the primed frame moves along the x axis of the unprimed frame), this would not be a valid case of the transformation. Do the more general Lorentz transformation equations (where the spatial axes may not be aligned and the direction of relative motion may not be along the x-axis) include this as a special case? If not then the above does not technically qualify as an "inertial frame" in SR. And if so, can you point to some source which gives a form of Lorentz transformation equations which would include the above as a special case?

    Just based on the fact that there are violations of T-symmetry in the Standard model (though not of CPT-symmetry), which I'm pretty sure is considered to be a Lorentz-symmetric theory, I would suspect such a transformation is not allowed under the Lorentz transformation...
  21. Aug 3, 2010 #20
    Can we agree on the following?
    - If you define ordering of events as the ordering of their time labels, then yes ordering is coordinate system dependent (even inside light cones).

    I assume we can agree on that, as I gave an explicit example above. I want to make it clear people tend to use this coordinate system dependent information to define ordering. Which, if you want ordering to be coordinate system independent you obviously then cannot do.

    Once we agree on this, then the thrust of your question has much less meaning. For it just reduces to discussion over whether that specific coordinate system is an inertial coordinate system. This is a separate issue. I don't like to get into terminology disputes, so let's just define an inertial coordinate system so we each know what we mean by the term. That should clarify discussion.

    When global inertial coordinate systems are possible, I would call any coordinate system that has a (-1,1,1,1) diagonal metric everywhere, (or opposite signature depending on your sign choice), an inertial coordinate system. This is essentially how Landau defines it with his homogeneous and isotropic requirement. This is also the definition wiki seems to have settled on http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inertial_frame_of_reference

    As an aside, you seem to be approaching this from the other side: that SR defines what counts as an inertial frame. If you approach SR like this, then it is trivially true as a tautology. The modern definition of SR as requiring the laws of physics to have Poincare symmetry, avoids the definition of inertial frame entirely and therefore, while in addition to being more mathematically rigorous, doesn't depend on a notoriously difficult concept to be defined precisely.

    EDIT: Just read what you appended to the post. Yes the Standard model has Lorentz symmetry. And yes it doesn't have T symmetry. If it did, would you count that as an inertial frame? See why that is not how you should define an inertial frame? If you use "what spatial/time symmetries physics has" to define an inertial frame, then trivially and tautologically all inertial frames will have the physics look the same. The modern definition of SR is the laws of physics have Poincare symmetry (Lorentz symmetry + translations + rotations). So the standard model can fit with SR, and yet still look different in inertial coordinate systems with different handedness (as even hinted at by the wiki article on inertial frames).
    Last edited: Aug 3, 2010
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