Time reversal and CPT symmetry (III)

Pre-scriptum (dated 26 June 2020): While my posts on symmetries (and why they may or may be broken) are somewhat mutilated (removal of illustrations and other material) as a result of an attack by the dark force, I am happy to see a lot of it survived more or less intact. While my views on the true nature of light, matter and the force or forces that act on them – all of the stuff that explains symmetries or symmetry-breaking, in other words – have evolved significantly as part of my explorations of a more realist (classical) explanation of quantum mechanics, I think most (if not all) of the analysis in this post remains valid and fun to read. 🙂

Original post:

Although I concluded my previous post by saying that I would not write anything more about CPT symmetry, I feel like I have done an injustice to Val Fitch, James Cronin, and all those other researchers who spent many man-years to painstakingly demonstrate how the weak force does not always respect the combined charge-parity (C-P) symmetry. Indeed, I did not want to denigrate their efforts when I noted that:

  1. These decaying kaons (i.e. the particles that are used to demonstrate the CP symmetry-breaking phenomenon) are rather exotic and very short-lived particles; and
  2. Researchers have not been able to find many other traces of non-respect of CP symmetry, except when studying a heavier version of these kaons (the so-called B- and D-mesons) as soon as these could be produced in higher volumes in newer (read: higher-energy) particle colliders (so that’s in the last ten or fifteen years only), but so these B- and D-mesons are even more rare and even less stable.

CP violation is CP violation: it’s plain weird, especially when Fermilab and CERN experiments observed direct CP violation in kaon decay processes. [Remember that the original 1964 Fitch-Cronin experiment could not directly observe CP violation: in their experiment, CP violation in neutral kaon decay processes could only be deduced from other (unexpected) decay processes.]

Why? When one reverses all of the charges and other variables (such as parity which – let me remind you – has to do with ‘left-handedness’ and ‘right-handedness’ of particles), then the process should go in the other direction in an exactly symmetric way. Full stop. If not, there’s some kind of ‘leakage’ so to say, and such ‘leakage’ would be ‘kind-of-OK’ when we’d be talking some kind of chemical or biological process, but it’s obviously not ‘kind-of-OK’ when we’re talking one of the fundamental forces. It’s just not ‘logical’.

Feynman versus ‘t Hooft: pro and contra CP-symmetry breaking

A remark that is much more relevant than the two comments above is that one of the most brilliant physicists of the 20th century, Richard Feynman, seemed to have refused to entertain the idea of CP-symmetry breaking. Indeed, while, in his 1965 Lectures, he devotes quite a bit of attention to Chien-Shiung Wu’s 1956 experiment with decaying cobalt-60 nuclei (i.e. the experiment which first demonstrated parity violation, i.e. the breaking of P-symmetry), he does not mention the 1964 Fitch-Cronin experiment, and all of his writing in these Lectures makes it very clear that he not only strongly believes that the combined CP symmetry holds, but that it’s also the only ‘symmetry’ that matters really, and the only one that Nature truly respects–always.

So Feynman was wrong. Of course, these Lectures were published less than a year after the 1964 Fitch-Cronin experiment and, hence, you might think he would have changed his ideas on the possibility of Nature not respecting CP-symmetry–just like Wolfgang Pauli, who could only accept the reality of Nature not respecting reflection symmetry (P-symmetry) after repeated experiments re-confirmed the results of Wu’s original 1956 experiment.

But – No! – Feynman’s 1985 book on quantum electrodynamics (QED) –so that’s five years after Fitch and Cronin got a Nobel Prize for their discovery– is equally skeptical on this point: he basically states that the weak force is “not well understood” and that he hopes that “a more beautiful and, hence, more accurate understanding” of things will emerge.

OK, you will say, but Feynman passed away shortly after (he died from a rare form of cancer in 1988) and, hence, we should now listen to the current generation of physicists.

You’re obviously right, so let’s look around. Hmm… Gerard ‘t Hooft? Yes ! He is 67 now but – despite his age – it is obvious that he surely qualifies as a ‘next-generation’ physicist. He got his Nobel Prize for “elucidating the quantum structure of electroweak interactions” (read: for clarifying how the weak force actually works) and he is also very enthusiastic about all these Grand Unified Theories (most notably string and superstring theory) and so, yes, he should surely know, shouldn’t he?

I guess so. However, even ‘t Hooft writes that these experiments with these ‘crazy kaons’ – as he calls them – show ‘violation’ indeed, but that it’s marginal: the very same experiments also show near-symmetry. What’s near-symmetry? Well… Just what the term says: the weak force is almost symmetrical. Hence, CP-symmetry is the norm and CP-asymmetry is only a marginal phenomenon. That being said, it’s there and, hence, it should be explained. How?

‘t Hooft himself writes that one could actually try to interpret the results of the experiment by adding some kind of ‘fifth’ force to our world view – a “super-weak force” as he calls it, which would interfere with the weak force only.

To be fair, he immediately adds that introducing such ‘fifth force’ doesn’t really solve the “mystery” of CP asymmetry, because, while we’d restore the principle of CP symmetry for the weak force interactions, we would then have to explain why this ‘super-weak’ force does not respect it. In short, we cannot just reason the problem away. Hence, ‘t Hooft’s conclusion in his 1996 book on The Ultimate Building Blocks of the universe is quite humble: “The deeper cause [of CP asymmetry] is likely to remain a mystery.” (‘t Hooft, 1996, Chapter 7: The crazy kaons)

What about other explanations? For example, you might be tempted to think these two or three exceptions to a thousand cases respecting the general rule must have something to do with quantum-mechanical uncertainty: when everything is said and done, we’re dealing with probabilities in quantum mechanics, aren’t we? Hence, exceptions do occur and are actually expected to occur.

No. Quantum indeterminism is not applicable here. While working with probability amplitudes and probabilities is effectively equivalent to stating some general rules involving some average or mean value and then some standard deviation from that average, we’ve got something else going on here: Fitch and Cronin took a full six months indeed–repeating the experiment over and over and over again–to firmly establish a statistically significant bias away from the theoretical average. Hence, even if the bias is only 0.2% or 0.3%, it is a statistically significant difference between the probability of a process going one way, and the probability of that very same process going the other way.

So what? There are so many non-reversible processes and asymmetries in this world: why don’t we just accept this?Well… I’ll just refer to my previous post on this one: we’re talking a fundamental force here – not some chemical reaction – and, hence, if we reverse all of the relevant charges (including things such as left-handed or right-handed spin), the reaction should go the other way, and with exactly the same probability. If it doesn’t, it’s plain weird. Full stop.

OK. […] But… Perhaps there is some external phenomenon affecting these likelihoods, like these omnipresent solar neutrinos indeed, which I mentioned in a previous post and which are all left-handed. So perhaps we should allow these to enter the equation as well. […] Well… I already said that would make sense–to some extent at least– because there is some flimsy evidence of solar flares affecting radioactive decay rates (solar flares and neutrino outbursts are closely related, so if solar flares impact radioactive decay, we could or should expect them to meddle with any beta decay process really). That being said, it would not make sense from other, more conventional, points of view: we cannot just ‘add’ neutrinos to the equation because then we’d be in trouble with the conservation laws, first and foremost the energy conservation law! So, even if we would be able to work out some kind of theoretical mechanism involving these left-handed solar neutrinos (which are literally all over the place, bombarding us constantly even if they’re very hard to detect), thus explaining the observed P-asymmetry, we would then have to explain why it violates the energy conservation law! Well… Good luck with that, I’d say!

So it is a conundrum really. Let me sum up the above discussion in two bullet points:

  1. While kaons are short-lived particles because of the presence of the second-generation (and, hence, unstable) s-quark, they are real particles (so they are not some resonance or some so-called virtual particle). Hence, studying their behavior in interactions with any force field (and, most notably, their behavior in regard to the weak force) is extremely relevant, and the observed CP asymmetry–no matter how small–is something which should really grab our attention.
  2. The philosophical implications of any form of non-respect of the combined CP symmetry for our common-sense notion of time are truly profound and, therefore, the Fitch-Cronin experiment rightly deserves a lot of accolades.

So let’s analyze these ‘philosophical implications’ (which is just a somewhat ‘charged’ term for the linkage between CP- and time-symmetry which I want to discuss here) somewhat more in detail.

Time reversal and CPT symmetry

In the previous posts, I said it’s probably useful to distinguish (a) time-reversal as a (loosely defined) philosophical concept from (b) the mathematical definition of time-reversal, which is much more precise and unambiguous. It’s the latter which is generally used in physics, and it amounts to putting a minus sign in front of all time variables in any equation describing some situation, process or system in physics. That’s it really. Nothing more.

The point that I wanted to make is that true time reversal – i.e. time-reversal in the ‘philosophical’ or ‘common-sense’ interpretation – also involves a reversal of the forces, and that’s done through reversing all charges causing those forces. I used the example of the movie as a metaphor: most movies, when played backwards, do not make sense, unless we reverse the forces. For example, seeing an object ‘fall back’ to where it was (before it started falling) in a movie playing backwards makes sense only if we would assume that masses repel, instead of attract, each other. Likewise, any static or dynamic electromagnetic phenomena we would see in that backwards playing movie would make sense only if we would assume that the charges of the protons and electrons causing the electromagnetic fields involved would be reversed. How? Well… I don’t know. Just imagine some magic.

In such world view–i.e. a world view which connects the arrow of time with real-life forces that cause our world to change– I also looked at the left- and right-handedness of particles as some kind of ‘charge’, because it co-determines how the weak force plays out. Hence, any phenomenon in the movie having to do with the weak force (such as beta decay) could also be time-reversed by making left-handed particles right-handed, and right-handed particles left-handed. In short, I said that, when it comes to time reversal, only a full CPT-transformation makes sense–from a philosophical point of view that is.

Now, reversing left- and right-handedness amounts to a P-transformation (and don’t interrupt me now by asking why physicists use this rather awkward word ‘parity’ for what’s left- and right-handedness really), just like a C-transformation amounts to reversing electric and ‘color’ charges (‘color’ charges are the charges involved in the strong nuclear force).

Now, if only a full CPT transformation makes sense, then CP-reversal should also mean T-reversal, and vice versa. Feynman’s story about “the guy in the ‘other’ universe” (see my previous post) was quite instructive in that regard, and so let’s look at the finer points of that story once again.

Is ‘another’ world possible at all?

Feynman’s assumption was that we’ve made contact (don’t ask how: somehow) with some other intelligent being living in some ‘other’ world somewhere ‘out there’, and that there are no visual or other common references. That’s all rather vague, you’ll say, but just hang in there and try to see where we’re going with this story. Most notably, the other intelligent being – but let’s call ‘it’ a she instead of ‘a guy’ or ‘a Martian’ – cannot see the universe as we see it: we can’t describe, for instance, the Big and Small Dipper and explain to her what ‘left’ and ‘right’ is referring to such constellations, because she’s sealed off somehow from it (so she lives in a totally different corner of the universe really).

In contrast, we would be able, most probably, to explain and share the concept of ‘upward’ and ‘downwards’ by assuming that she is also attracted by some center of gravity nearby, just like we are attracted downwards by our Earth. Then, after many more hours and days, weeks, months or even years of tedious ‘discussions’, we would probably be able to describe electric currents and explain electromagnetic phenomena, and then, hopefully, she would find out that the laws in her corner of the universe are exactly the same, and so we could thus explain and share the notion of a ‘positive’ and a ‘negative’ charge, and the notion of a magnetic ‘north’ and ‘south’ pole.

However, at this point the story becomes somewhat more complicated, because – as I tried to explain in my previous post – her ‘positive’ electric charge (+) and her magnetic ‘north’ might well be our ‘negative’ electric charge (–) and our magnetic ‘south’. Why? It’s simple: the electromagnetic force does respect charge and also parity symmetry and so there is no way of defining any absolute sense of ‘left’ and ‘right’ or (magnetic) ‘north’ and (magnetic) ‘south’ with reference to the electromagnetic force alone. [If you don’t believe, just look at my previous post and study the examples.]

Talking about the strong force wouldn’t help either, because it also fully respects charge symmetry.

Huh? Yes. Just go through my previous post which – I admit – was probably quite confusing but made the point that a ‘mirror-image’ world would work just as well… except when it comes to the weak force. Indeed, atomic decay processes (beta decay) do distinguish between ‘left-handed’ and ‘right-handed’ particles (as measured by their spin) in an absolute sense that is (see the illustration of decaying muons and their mirror-image in the previous post) and, hence, it’s simple: in order to make sure her ‘left’ and her ‘right’ is the same as ours, we should just ask her to perform those beta decay experiments demonstrating that parity (or P-symmetry) is not being conserved and, then, based on our common definition of what’s ‘up’ and ‘down’ (the commonality of these notions being based on the effects of gravity which, we assume, are the same in both worlds), we could agree that ‘right’ is ‘right’ indeed, and that ‘left’ is ‘left’ indeed.

Now, you will remember there was one ‘catch’ here: if ever we would want to set up an actual meeting with her (just assume that we’ve finally figured out where she is and so we (or she) are on our way to meet each other), we would have to ask her to respect protocol and put out her right hand to greet us, not her left. The reason is the following: while ‘right-handed’ and ‘left-handed’ matter behave differently when it comes to weak force interactions (read: atomic decay processes)–which is how we can distinguish between ‘left’ and ‘right’ in the first place, in some kind of absolute sense that is–the combined CP symmetry implies that right-handed matter and left-handed anti-matter behave just the same–and, of course, the same goes for ‘left-handed’ matter and ‘right-handed’ anti-matter. Hence, after we would have had a painstakingly long exchange on broken P-symmetry to ensure we are talking about the same thing, we would still not know for sure: she might be living in a world of anti-matter indeed, in which case her ‘right’ would actually be ‘left’ for us, and her ‘left’ would be ‘right’.

Hence, if, after all that talk on P-symmetry and doing all those experiments involving P-asymmetry, she actually would put out her left hand when meeting us physically–instead of the agreed-upon right hand… Then… Well… Don’t touch it. 🙂

There is a way out of course. And, who knows, perhaps she was just trying to be humorous and so perhaps she smiled and apologized for the confusion in the meanwhile. But then… […] Hmm… I am not sure if such bad joke would make for a good start of a relationship, even if it would obviously demonstrate superior intelligence. 🙂

Indeed, the Fitch-Cronin experiment brings an additional twist to this potentially romantic story between two intelligent beings from two ‘different’ worlds. In fact, the Fitch-Cronin experiment actually rules out this theoretical possibility of mutual destruction and, therefore, the possibility of two ‘different’ worlds.

The argument goes straight to the heart of our philosophical discussion on time reversal. Indeed, whatever you may or may not have understood from this and my previous posts on CPT symmetry, the key point is that the combined CPT symmetry cannot be violated.

Why? Well… That’s plain logic: the real world does not care about our conventions, so reversing all of our conventions, i.e.

  1. Changing all particles to antiparticles by reversing all charges (C),
  2. Turning all right-handed particles into left-handed particles and vice versa (P), and
  3. Changing the sign of time (T),

describes a world truly going back in time.

Now, ‘her’ world is not going back in time. Why? Well… Because we can actually talk to her, it is obvious that her ‘arrow of time’ points in the same direction as ours, so she is not living in a world that is going back in time. Full stop. Therefore, any experiment involving a combined CP asymmetry (i.e. C-P violation) should yield the same results and, hence, she should find the same bias, i.e. a bias going in the very same direction of the equation, i.e. from left to right, or from right to left – whatever (what we label it, depends on our conventions, which we ‘re-set’ as we talked to her, and, hence, which we share, based on the results of all these beta decay experiments we did to ensure we’re really talking about the ‘same’ direction, and not its opposite).

Is this confusing? It sure is. But let me rephrase the logic. Perhaps it helps.

  1. Combined CPT symmetry implies that if the combined CP-symmetry is broken, then T-symmetry is also broken. Hence, the experimentally established fact of broken CP symmetry (even if it’s only 2 or 3 times per thousand) ensures that the ‘arrow of time’ points in one direction, and in one direction only. To put it simply: we cannot reverse time in a world which does not (fully) respect the principle of CP symmetry.
  2. Now, if you and I can exchange meaningful signals (i.e. communicate), then your and my ‘arrow of time’ obviously point in the same direction. To put it simply, we’re actors in the same movie, and whether or not it is being played backwards doesn’t matter anymore: the point is that the two of us share the same arrow of time. In other words, God did not do any combined CPT-transformation trick on your world as compared to mine, and vice versa.
  3. Hence, ‘your’ world is ‘my’ world and vice versa. So we live in the same world with the very same symmetries and asymmetries.

Now apply this logic to our imaginary new friend (‘she’) and (I hope) you’ll get the point.

To make a long story short, and also to conclude our philosophical digressions here on a pleasant (romantic) note: the fact that we would be able to communicate with her, implies that she’d be living in the same world as ours. We know that now, for sure, because of the broken CP symmetry: indeed, if her ‘time arrow’ points in the same direction, then CP symmetry will be broken in just the very same way in ‘her’ world (i.e. the ‘bias’ will have the same direction, in an absolute sense) as it it is broken in ‘our’ world.

In short, there are only two possible worlds: (1) this world and (2) one and only one ‘other’ world. This ‘other’ world is our world under a full CPT-transformation: the whole movie played backwards in other words, but with all ‘charges’ affecting forces – in whatever form and shape they come (electric charge, color charge, spin, and what have you) reversed or – using that awful mathematical term – ‘negated’.

In case you’d wonder (1): I consider the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics as… Well… Nonsense. CPT symmetry allows for two worlds only. Maximum two. 🙂

In case you’d wonder (2): An oscillating-universe theory, or some kind of cyclic thing (so Big Bangs followed by Big Crunches) are not incompatible with my ‘two-possible-worlds’ view of things. However, this ‘oscillations’ would all take place in the same world really, because the arrow of time isn’t being reversed really, as Big Bangs and Big Crunches do not reverse charges and parities–at least not to my knowledge.

But, of course, who knows?


1. You may wonder what ‘other’ asymmetries I am hinting at in this post here. It’s quite simple. It’s everything you see around you, including the works of the increasing entropy law. However, if I would have to choose one asymmetry in this world (the real world), as an example of a very striking and/or meaningful asymmetry, it’s the the preponderance of matter over anti-matter, including the preponderance of (left-handed) neutrinos over (right-handed) antineutrinos. Indeed, I can’t shake off that feeling that neutrino physics is going to spring some surprises in the coming decades.

[When you’d google a bit in order to get some more detail on neutrinos (and solar neutrinos in particular, which are the kind of neutrinos that are affecting us right now and right here), you’ll probably get confused by a phenomenon referred to as neutrino oscillation (which refers to a process in which neutrinos change ‘flavor’) but so the basic output of the Sun’s nuclear reactor is neutrinos, not anti-neutrinos. Indeed, the (general) reaction involves two protons combining to form one (heavy) hydrogen atom (i.e. deuterium, which consists of one neutron, one proton and one electron), thereby ejecting one positron (e+) and one (electron) neutrino (ve). In any case, this is not the place to develop the point. I’ll leave that for my next post.]

2. Whether or not you like the story about ‘her’ above, you should have noticed something that we could loosely refer to as ‘degrees of freedom’ is playing some role:

  1. We know that T-symmetry has not been broken: ‘her’ arrow of time points in the same direction.
  2. Therefore, the combined CP-symmetry of ‘her’ world is broken in the same way as in our world.
  3. If the combined CP-symmetry in ‘her’ world is broken in the same way as in ‘our’ world, the individual C and P symmetries have to be broken in the very same way. In other words, it’s the same world indeed. Not some anti-matter world.

As I am neither a physicist nor a mathematician, and not a philosopher either, please do feel free to correct any logical errors you may identify in this piece. Personally, I feel the logic connecting CP violation and individual C- and P-violation needs further ‘flesh on the bones’, but the core argument is pretty solid I think. 🙂

3. What about the increasing entropy law in this story? What happens to it if we reverse time, charge and parity? Well… Nothing. It will remain valid, as always. So that’s why an actual movie being played backwards with charges and parities reversed will still not make any sense to us: things that are broken don’t repair themselves and, hence, at the system level, there’s another type of irreducible ‘arrow of time’ it seems. But you’ll have to admit that the character of that entropy ‘law’ is very different from these ‘fundamental’ force laws. And then just think about it, isn’t it extremely improbable how we human beings have evolved in this universe? And how we are seemingly capable to understand ourselves and this universe? We don’t violate the entropy law obviously (on the contrary: we’re obviously messing up our planet), but I feel we do negate it in a way that escapes the kind of logical thinking that underpins the story I wrote above. But such remarks have nothing to do with math or physics and, hence, I will refrain from them.

4. Finally, for those who’d feel like some kind of ‘feminist’ remark on my use of ‘us’ and ‘her’, I think the use of ‘her’ is explained to underline the idea of ‘other’ and, hence, as a male writer, using ‘her’ to underscore the ‘other’ dimension comes naturally and shouldn’t be criticized. The element which could/should bother a female reader of such ‘through experiments’ is that we seem to assume that the ‘other’ intelligent being is actually somewhat ‘dumber’ than us, because the story above assumes we are actually explaining the experiments of the Wu and Fitch-Cronin team to ‘her’, instead of the other way around. That’s why I inserted the possibility of ‘her’ pulling a practical joke on us by offering us her left hand: if ‘she’ is equally or even more intelligent than us, then she’d surely have figured out that there’s no need to be worried about the ‘other’ being made of anti-matter. 🙂


8 thoughts on “Time reversal and CPT symmetry (III)

  1. “Now, ‘her’ world is not going back in time. Why? Well… Because we can actually talk to her, it is obvious that her ‘arrow of time’ points in the same direction as ours, so she is not living in a world that is going back in time. Full stop.”

    Your argument that time’s arrow must point in the same direction for her seems to be based on our ability to communicate with her, and so is essentially making the assumption that the language that we share with her is asymmetric. Would this still hold if our shared language was symmetrical? While the inability to communicate with her would make it difficult to establish any other precepts of understanding, if the only way to communicate with her was a completely palindromic language would that leave open the possibility of her CP being broken in a dangerous way?

    1. I do not believe ‘symmetrical’ language exists. A message must have a starting point and an end point, right? And so you can think of reading that message from left to right, or from right to left, or both – but that is just a spatial arrangement of letters, and has nothing to do with the ‘time’ you need to write or say the message. So I do not see your point.

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