A Plain Simple Lecture — Non-ergodic , but … satisfying

There is another talk from the Philosophy of Cosmology Conference in Tenerife 2014 that is in a similar league to Joel Primack’s awesome display of the Bolshoi Simulations of dark matter structure. Only this one I will write about tonight is pretty much words and equations only. No pretty pictures. But don’t let that dissuade you from enjoying the talk by Bob Wald on Gravity and Thermodynamics.

Most physics students might only know Robert Wald from his famous textbook on General Relativity.

Aside: While searching for a nice picture to illuminate this post I came across a nice freehand SVG sketch of Shaun Maguire’s. He’s a postdoc at Caltech and writes nicely in a blog there: Quantum Frontiers. If you are more a physics/math geek than a philosophy/physics geek then you will enjoy his blog. I found it very readable, not stunning poetic prose, but easy-going and sufficiently high on technical content to hold my interest.


Says Maguire, “I’ve been trying to understand why the picture on the left is correct, even though my intuition said the middle picture should be (intuition should never be trusted when thinking about quantum gravity.)” Source: http://quantumfrontiers.com/2014/06/20/ten-reasons-why-black-holes-exist/

That has to do with black hole firewalls, which digresses away from Wald’s talk.

It is not true to say Wald’s talk is plain and simple, since the topic is advanced, only a second course on general relativity would cover the details. And you need to get through a lot of mathematical physics in a first course of general relativity. But what I mean is that Wald is such a knowledgeable and clear thinker that he explains everything crisply and understandably, like a classic old-school teacher would. It is not flashy, but damn! It is tremendously satisfying and enjoyable to listen to. I could hit the pause button and read his slides then rewind and listen to his explanation and it just goes together so sweetly. He neither repeats his slides verbatim, not deviates from them confusingly. However, I think if I were in the audience I would be begging for a few pauses of silence to read the slides. So the advantage is definitely with the at-home Internet viewer.

Now if you are still reading this post you should be ashamed! Why did you not go and download the talk and watch it?

I loved Wald’s lucid discussion of the Generalised Second Law (which is basically a redefinition of entropy, which is that generalised entropy should be the sum of thermodyanmics entropy plus black hole entropy or black hole surface area.)

Then he gives a few clear arguments that provide strong reasons for regarding the black hole area formula as equivalent to an entropy, one of which is that in general relativity dynamic instability is equivalent to thermodynamic instability, hence the link between the dynamic process of black hole area increase is directly connected to black hole entropy. (This is in classical general relativity.)

But then he puts the case that the origin of black hole entropy is not perfectly clear, because black hole entropy does not arise out of the usual ergodicity in statistical mechanics systems, whereby a system in an initial special state relaxes via statistical processes towards thermal equilibrium. Black holes are non-ergodic. They are fairly simple beasts that evolve deterministically. “The entropy for a black hole arises because it has a future horizon but no past horizon,” is how Wald explains it. In other words, black holes do not really “equilibrate” like classical statistical mechanics gases. Or at least, they do not equilibrate to a thermal temperature ergodically like a gas, they equilibrate dynamically and deterministically.

Wald’s take on this is that, maybe, in a quantum gravity theory, the detailed microscopic features of gravity (foamy spacetime?) will imply some kind of ergodic process underlying the dynamical evolution of black holes, which will then heal the analogy with statistical mechanics gas entropy.

This is a bit mysterious to me. I get the idea, but I do not see why it is a problem. Entropy arises in statistical mechanics, but you do not need statistically ergodic processes to define entropy. So I did not see why Wald is worried about the different equilibration processes viz. black holes versus classical gases. They are just different ways of defining an entropy and a Second Law, and it seems quite natural to me that they therefore might arise from qualitatively different processes.

But hold onto you hats. Wald next throws me a real curve ball.

Smaller then the Planck Scale … What?

Wald’s next concern about a breakdown of the analogy between statistical gas entropy and dynamic black hole entropy is a doozie. He worries about the fact the vacuum fluctuations in a conventional quantum field theory are basically ignored in statistical mechanics, yet they cannot (or should not?) be ignored in general relativity, since, for instance, the ultra-ultra-high energy vacuum fluctuations in the early universe get red-shifted by the expansion of the universe into observable features we can now measure.

Wald is talking here about fluctuations on a scale smaller than the Planck length!

To someone with my limited education you begin by thinking, “Oh, that’s ok, we all know (one says knowingly not really knowing) that stuff beyond the Plank scale is not very clearly defined and has this sort of ‘all bets are off’ quality about it. So we do not need to worry about it yet until there is a theory covering the Planck scale.”

But if I understand it correctly, what Wald is saying is that what we see in the cosmic background radiation, or maybe in some other observations (Wald is not clear on this), corresponds to such red shifted modes, so we literally might be seeing fluctuations that were originated on a scale smaller than the Planck length if we probe the cosmic background radiation to highly ultra-red shifted wavelengths.

That was a bit of an eye-opener for me. I was previously not aware of any physics that potentially probed beyond the Planck scale. I wonder if anyone else thought this is surprising? Maybe if I updated my physics education I’d find out that it is not so surprising.

In any case, Wald does not discuss this, since his point is about the black hole case where at the black hole horizon a similar shifting of modes occurs with ultra-high energy vacuum fluctuations near the horizon getting red shifted far from the black hole into “real” observable degrees of freedom.

Wald talks about this as a kind of “creation of new degrees of freedom”. And of course this does not occur in statistical gas mechanics where there are a fixed number of degrees of freedom, so again the analogy he wants between black hole thermodynamics and classical statistical mechanics seems to break down.

There is some cool questioning going on here though. The main problem with the vacuum fluctuations Wald points out is that one does not know how to count the states in the vacuum. So the implicit idea there, which Wald does not mention, is that maybe there is a way to count states of the vacuum, which might then heal the thermodynamics analogy Wald is pursuing. My own (highly philosophical, and therefore probably madly wrong) speculation would be that quantum field theory is only an effective theory, and that a more fundamental theory of physics with spacetime as the only real field and particle physics states counted in a background-free theory kind of way, might, might yield some way of calculating vacuum states.

Certainly, I would imagine that if field theory is not the ultimate theory, then the whole idea of vacuum field fluctuations gets called into suspicion. The whole notion of a zero-point background field vacuum energy becomes pretty dubious altogether if you no longer have a field theory as the fundamental framework for physics. But of course I am just barking into the wind hoping to see a beautiful background-free framework for physics.

Like the previous conundrum of ergodicity and equilibration, I do not see why this degree of freedom issue is a big problem. It is a qualitative difference which breaks the strong analogy, but so what? Why is that a pressing problem? Black holes are black holes, gases are gases, they ought to be qualitatively distinct in their respective thermodynamics. The fact there is the strong analogy revealed by Bekenstein, Hawking, Carter, and others is beautiful and does reveal general universality properties, but I do not see it as an area of physics where a complete unification is either necessary or desired.

What I do think would be awesome, and super-interesting, would be to understand the universality better. This would be to ask further (firstly) why there is a strong analogy, and (secondly) explain why and how it breaks down.

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This post was interrupted by an apartment moving operation, so I ran out of steam on my consciousness stream, so will wrap it up here.

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