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Eslava, Edgar Absorber Theory of Radiation and the search for an arrow of time Revista Colombiana de Filosofa de la Ciencia, Vol. IX, Nm. 18 y 19, 2008, pp. 143154 Universidad El Bosque Colombia
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Revista Colombiana de Filosofa de la Ciencia ISSN (Versin impresa): 0124-4620 Universidad El Bosque Colombia

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Revista Colombiana de Filosofa de la Ciencia Vol. IX - Nos. 18 y 19 2008 Pgs 143-154

Absorber Theory of Radiation and the search for an arrow of time

Edgar Eslava1

El presente artculo discute los detalles de una reinterpretacin de la teora de radiacin de WheelerFeynman propuesta para minar la idea de la existencia de una flecha temporal fsica. La nueva reinterpretacin es evaluada y sus resultados analizados a la luz de nuestro conocimiento actual de la teora de la radiacin. temporal.
Palabras clave: radiacin, Wheeler-Feynman, teora de absorcin, asimetra

This paper discusses the details of a proposed reinterpretation of the WheelerFeynman radiation theory advanced in order to undermine the idea of the existence of a physical arrow of time. The new interpretation is then evaluated and its results analyzed under the light of our present knowledge of the radiation theory. asymmetry.
Key Words: radiation, Wheeler-Feynman, absorber theor y, temporal

1 Doctor en Filosofa de la Universidad de Southern Illinois. Miembro de la Sociedad Colombiana de Filosofa.


Absorber Theory of Radiation and the search for an arrow of time

It is well known that if we throw a stone into a pond, we observe that when the stone touches the water it creates circular wave fronts centered in the impact point that moves outwards toward the retention walls or the shoreline. Spontaneous incoming wave fronts that, departing from the shoreline, converge in a particular point ejecting a stone out of the water are never seen. However, there seems to be nothing in the physical laws that govern this sort of phenomena that prevent the latter situation from occurring. Why then are the converging wave fronts never observed? An electromagnetic parallel of the stone example is that of an excited atom that emits a photon. The emitted particle travels altering the electromagnetic field in its surroundings until its energy is fully absorbed by the environment. Here again, although the symmetry of physical laws allows the inverse process to take place, we never find spontaneous electromagnetic variations that converge at a particular location where a particle is absorbed by an exited atom. The open question is then: why only diverging fronts are observed? The question constitutes a helpful way to approach the task of finding a physical arrow of radiation, because it could lead us to understanding a basic temporal asymmetry in the laws that govern radiative systems. There are two main ways in which the question of the asymmetric behavior of radiation is addressed by current physical theories. The first account answers the question in terms of initial conditions, while the second answers it in terms of the dynamics of radiative systems. The account in terms of initial conditions assumes that the only way to understand the possible spontaneous acceleration of a particle, for example the emission of a photon by an atom, is by considering such acceleration the result of the particle's immersion in the radiation field of a source of enormous radius. Under these conditions, the radiation could be considered as coming in from infinity and heading for collapse at a particular spacetime location (Sklar, 1977, p. 374), where the target particle is located. We can picture this situation by imagining that, somewhere in the past, a large coherent radiative source emitted a collapsing radiation field, i.e., a 'radiative implosion,' generating a field that forces the targeted, present, radiation field to converge into the implosion's center, that lies in the past. The assumption of such a dramatic event, however, violates our intuition that unless there is some causal reason, or some sort of 'pre-established harmony,' that adds order to the world, what we actually expect is disorder, randomness, to rule. The entropyincreasing nature of the universe we inhabit makes it highly improbable that a combination of electromagnetic fields could produce the required spontaneous particles' acceleration that would produce, in turn, the spontaneous acceleration effect. In other words, it is because of thermodynamic considerations that we expect only organized wave fronts to be emitted, and only disorganized waves to be absorbed (cf. Davies, 1977, p. 181).

Revista Colombiana de Filosofa de la Ciencia Vol. IX - Nos. 18 y 19 2008 Pgs 143-154

Stated in the terms of the theory of radiation, we could ask why if incoming and outgoing wave fronts are equally compatible with the basic, symmetric, laws of physics, does nature seems to prefer one case rather than the other when it is a matter of consistency with the symmetric nature of physical laws to give diverging and converging solutions the same right to be expected. As a matter of fact, such an even treatment of the solutions was the goal pursued originally by Wheeler and Feynman when they advanced their Absorber Theory of Radiation, the second major approach to the problem of radiation's observed asymmetry. [Wheeler's and Feynman's] revolutionary explanation was first to imagine the accelerated point charge as radiating retarded radiation outward, eventually to be absorbed by distant matter. This distant matter, which itself consists of point charges that are accelerated by the received radiation, then radiates backwards in time, back toward the original charge that started the chain of events. This backward-in-time, or advanced, radiation arrives in the past of the original charge, and it is the cause of the observed reaction force. Indeed, Wheeler and Feynman proposed that an accelerated charge will not radiate unless there is to be absorption at some other distant place and future time. The future behavior of a distant absorber determines the past event of radiation; there is simply no such thing as just radiating into empty space. The entire universe, spatially and temporally, is a very 'connected' place! (Nahim, 1999, p. 332 [emphasis in the original]). An intuitive picture of this situation would be something like this: when a stone hits the surface of the water it produces both an incoming and an outgoing wave front, each with one half the energy of the observed outgoing wave. The energy of the outgoing waves excites the particles along the edges of the pond, which reradiate that energy with incoming and outgoing wave fronts of their own. The effect of the re-radiated wave fronts is twofold: first, the outgoing waves from the shore exactly cancel out the incoming waves from the stone so that no incoming waves centering on the stone are observed. Second, the incoming waves from the shore combine with each other and with the outgoing waves of the stone to produce the wave with the energy we observe. In terms of the Absorber Theory of Radiation (ATR henceforth), the task is to explain why the time-symmetric Maxwell equations that describe radiation processes can be represented as a fully retarded but not as fully advanced. According to Wheeler and Feynman, ATR rests only on the assumption that the medium is a complete (infinite) absorber, implying that a test charge placed anywhere outside the absorbing medium will not experience any disturbance (cf. Wheeler and Feynman, 1945, p. 169). From there, the deduction of the

Absorber Theory of Radiation and the search for an arrow of time

results follows in this way2: Given the infinite absorber hypothesis, any charge surrounded by an infinite absorber can be considered as the center of a system where all fields outside the absorber vanish. Thus, for any particle outside the absorber,

Where Fret and Fadv stand, respectively, for the retarded and advanced fields. Because of the vanishing sum, and due to the fact that complete destructive interference between an outgoing wave, those represented by the retarded field, and an incoming wave, those in the advanced field, is impossible (for, otherwise no radiation at all would exist), the two sums should both be equal to zero and And then their difference should also vanish outside the absorber at all times (outside the absorber) But, as Maxwell and Dirac have shown, if the difference between retarded and advanced field vanishes, we are in a situation of sourcefree field, and then in a completely absorbing medium the fields' sum must vanish not only outside but everywhere: (everywhere) Now, for a particular point charge surrounded by an infinite absorber, the field force over the particle is given by

that can be also written as

Where k=a means sums taken over all the absorber particles (all particles but a), making the total field force over a
2 I follow, for simplification, the reconstruction of the Wheeler and Feynman argument presented by Frisch (2000).


Revista Colombiana de Filosofa de la Ciencia Vol. IX - Nos. 18 y 19 2008 Pgs 143-154

where the first term represents the external retarded fields due to the presence of other charges, and the second one represents the radiative reaction over a. As a result, Wheeler and Feynman conclude, in the presence of a sufficiently large number of particles to absorb radiation the absorber reacts upon an accelerated charge with a half-advanced half-retarded field. The interesting part of this finding is that, when evaluated in the neighborhood of the source, the advanced part of the field has some remarkable properties. First, the field is independent of the properties of the absorbing medium and is completely determined by the motion of the accelerated charge at its source. Second, it interacts with the source with a finite force, simultaneous with the moment of acceleration, and it eliminates from the source the energy that the original radiation communicates to the surrounding particles. Third, the advanced field of the absorber compensates the half-advanced field of the source and combines with its half-retarded field to produce the full retarded disturbance that is required to account for the result of actual experiments. It is this final conclusion that answers the question about the observed asymmetry of radiation. What the argument proves is that the observed asymmetry of radiative processes can be obtained from a symmetric standpoint, from the, symmetric, laws of electromagnetism, as a result of the particles' interaction with both the rest of the universe, and the infinite absorber of the theory. Despite de fact that the results are nowadays part of the current physical explanation of radiation, some people are not quite happy with them. H. Price, for example, has stated that this situation where an asymmetric rabbit is pluck from a symmetric hat (Price, 1991, p. 67) demonstrates that, as it stands, it is not a fully symmetric account of radiation after all. According to Price, the argument of Wheeler and Feynman represents the original, retarded, wave as the sum of two equal components, the half-retarded wave front from the source and the half-advanced wave front from the absorber. The reason that justifies summing up the two components is that they are distinct from one another, and that they interfere constructively with one another. But is it there any justification for claiming that the component wave fronts are actually distinct? Price own answer to his question is that, At first sight, it might be thought that the justification lies in the fact that the waves concerned have different sources. The former component originates from i [the accelerated particle], whereas the latter originates at the absorber. This move lands the argument in further

Absorber Theory of Radiation and the search for an arrow of time

trouble, however. For in order to derive a response of the required magnitude from the absorber, the argument requires a full strength retarded wave from i. At this stage the full retarded wave needs to be treated as sourced at i. By the time the argument reaches its conclusion, one half of this fully retarded wave is being accounted for as an advanced wave from the absorber. This in itself is not inconsistent, as long as we are prepared to allow that wave's needn't have unique source- i.e., that it is simply a matter of our own temporal perspective whether we say that the given wave originates at i or originates at the absorber particles (Price, 1991a, II, pp. 17-18). The problem that undermines the ART is that the theory seems to rest on a double-standard argument. On one hand, it profits from the fact that there is only one source of radiation involved, the accelerated charge, and that it is the interference between two components of the electromagnetic field generated by this particle that supports the argument's conclusion. On the other hand, it treats both components as wave fronts coming from two different sources, and uses this to evaluate the resulting field. However, if one allows sources to be non-unique and perspective dependent there would be no reason to differentiate the one half retarded wave from the origin from the one half advanced wave from the absorber by merely appealing to the difference of their sources. This is to say that there would be no reason to deny that these two waves are actually but a single one (Price, 1991a, II, p. 18). And this is only one part of the problem. According to Price, there are no statistical grounds for preferring the retarded to the advanced solution: that statistics alone cannot explain why the process define by ATR is nor reversible. The issue here is justice. Based on mere statistical arguments, it seems that it would be equally probable to obtain an answer in terms of advanced radiation, as it is to obtain it in terms of its retarded counterpart. It has to be an appeal to past observation or to a prior criterion for selecting the answer that inclines the statistical balance towards one or the other possible outcomes. To say, then, that either the advanced or the retarded part of the solution is cancelled is to assume the priority of one answer over the other. To do so is just to beg the question (Cf. Price, 1991, p. 967). What the Wheeler-Feynman argument evidences is that a radiation field can be described as a coherent wave front diverging from the source or as the sum of coherent wave fronts that converge on the particles of the absorber. According to such interpretation, the argument demonstrates that it is possible to interpret both transmitters and receivers as centered on coherent wave fronts. Then, in the case of, say, a free charged particle that accelerates as a result of its interaction with an incoming electromagnetic radiation that re-radiates the received energy to the field, the Wheeler-Feynman argument allows us to say that both the outgoing and the incoming radiation can

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be seen as coherent wave fronts centered on the accelerated particle (Price, 1996, p. 71). A reinterpretation then would save the ATR from their problems. Price's proposed interpretation is to consider both emitters and absorbers to be the centers of coherent wave fronts, what he names the Symmetry Assumption, that makes the unwanted asymmetry disappear. Additionally, it is necessary to assume that, as Wheeler and Feynman did, the accelerated particle that acts as the radiation source is surrounded by a shell of charged particles that acts as receiver. The difference between the two approaches then rests in the inclusion of the symmetry assumption, to assume that each absorber particle is centered on what is usually considered a converging coherent wave front, rather than to appeal to the infinite absorber required by the original account. From there, and after conceding that Wheeler and Feynman's mathematical reasoning is flawless, Price declares that in the region between the source and the receiver, the field equals in value that of the original wave, the source's field. In other words, that the retarded field of the accelerating particle is identical to the total aggregate of the advanced fields of the absorber particles. It is this identity what warrants the necessary canceling of the wave's interfering components. Price's interpretation amounts to saying that by introducing his symmetry assumption one gains a way to avoid the implausible assumption of treating as different waves that happens to be just one. What the symmetry assumption shows is that once it is established that both transmitters and receivers are actually centered on coherent wave fronts, there is no inconsistency in saying that there is only one wave that interferes with itself. Where Wheeler and Feynman saw two wave fronts coming from different sources, the new interpretation shows this is a mistake that can be corrected by re-thinking the situation in terms of a self-interfering unique wave, no infinite absorber required. This, defends Price, is a really unbiased move, one that effectively uses the symmetric nature of physical laws. Summarizing, Price's case against the Absorber Radiation Theory is based then on the idea that, although Wheeler-Feynman's mathematical formalism is correct, they introduce a temporal double standard when they decide not to treat absorbers and emitters symmetrically. Price's alternative insists on the fundamental symmetry of emitters and absorbers with the result that both are equally suited for being centers of coherent wave fronts. Price's thinks his symmetric model is more natural given the symmetry of the laws that govern absorbers and emitters, and that it shows the alleged arrow of radiation to be merely a macroscopic manifestation of the entropy increase in thermodynamic systems.


Absorber Theory of Radiation and the search for an arrow of time

It is difficult to see, however, how Price's model solves the problem. It seems that it simply moves the problem form emitters to absorbers. Because the proposed interpretation does not change the formalism and simply allows symmetry to reign, it becomes a mirror image of the Wheeler/Feynman view. There is no simultaneous treatment of absorbers and emitters that would show that the result of one set of equations summed up with the other cancels and shows the observed asymmetry. It simply repeats the arguments from the opposite end, but claims a different answer. As mentioned earlier, according to Price, Wheeler and Feynman established that, for the field associated with a charge surrounded by an infinite absorber, the total advanced field of the charge is the same as the total retarded field of the absorber particles. The seemingly unproblematic conclusion though, is challenged by an inspection of the physical situation3. Notice first that although the retarded field of the charge has a source in the region surrounding the charge, the advanced field of the absorber particles does not. Besides, if the source charge is the only charge in the world, then the retarded field associated with the charge is, by definition, a solution to Maxwell equations. Based on Price's interpretation, the divergence of the absorber field at the location of the charge is zero, as is the divergence of the charge field. However, if the two fields are identical, as Price claims, then one of them cannot satisfy the Maxwell equations, because they cannot be both zero at the same time. This is to say that from Maxwell's equations it follows that Price's proposed equality between the total advanced field of the charge and the total retarded field of the absorber particles is simply false. It is difficult to think of a more damaging problem for any interpretation of electromagnetic phenomena than to find it contradicts fundamental equations of the discipline. Additionally to this problem, there are two main lines of criticism advanced against Price's reformulation of the Wheeler-Feynman absorber theory. The first line attacks Price's interpretation because of certain inconsistencies found with the mathematical results of the Wheeler-Feynman theory. The second line also appeals to an inconsistency, but now between Price's re-interpretation of the absorber theory and the fundamental equations of electromagnetism, the Maxwell equations. I will discuss each of these and conclude with a final criticism of Price's project that emerges as a result of these two problems. The inconsistency with the mathematical formalism of the original WheelerFeynman absorber theory was pointed out by Leeds, who argues that Price's difficulties with the absorber theory are based on a misreading of Wheeler and

3 A detailed analysis of the situation can be found in Frisch (2000).


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Feynman's argument. After reconstructing some of the basic elements of Wheeler-Feynman's original proof, Leeds finds what he considers the source of the problem. In the last part of their calculation of the advanced field produced by the accelerated absorber particles, Wheeler and Feynman find that the advanced field produced by each particle in the absorber has a magnitude of one-half the expected magnitude for the classical retarded field. They then write down an equation in English which I suspect is the one that misled Price: '(total disturbance diverging from source) = (proper retarded field of source itself) + (field apparently diverging from source, actually composed of parts converging on individual absorber particles)'. The last term in this equation is somewhat misleading, in that it might seem to suggest that what Wheeler and Feynman have in mind is the total advanced field of the absorber: this is the only field which is 'composed of parts converging on individual absorber particles' (Leeds, 1994, p. 290). However, according to Leeds, Price's mistake becomes evident when one realizes that the field Wheeler and Feynman are referring to is the part of the advanced field of the source that diverges from the source, and not the whole radiation field, composed of both the divergent and the convergent parts. When the authors use the expression the only field which is composed of parts converging on individual absorber particles, they refer to the advanced divergent field from the source that is indeed composed of all the 'parts converging on individual absorber particles'. And this field is different from the field determined by combination of the advanced and retarded fields of the source. The upshot is that Price uses the wrong field for grounding his reinterpretation. He uses precisely the combined retarded and advanced fields from the source and from there concludes that the retarded part of the field can be considered as a diverging wave from the source as well as a sum of waves converging on the absorber. Because he has chosen the wrong field he gets the wrong conclusion. The combined field cannot be seen as a sum of the coherent waves that converge on the absorber particles, and without this result the whole case for reinterpreting the diverging waves from the source as converging waves from the absorber collapses. A similar point is made by Ridderbos (1997), who disagrees with Price's understanding of Wheeler and Feynman's proofs of the difference between the advanced and retarded components of the electromagnetic field, and the consequent exclusion of a timereversed interpretation of the absorber theory. The first problem is very similar to the problem pointed out by Leeds, and leads to the same conclusion: had Price correctly understood which field Wheeler and Feynman were referring to, he would have found no need for a

Absorber Theory of Radiation and the search for an arrow of time

reinterpretation of the absorber theory. However, a second problem raised by Ridderbos offers an interesting objection to Price's general project of rejecting the radiative arrow of time. According to Wheeler and Feynman, what rules out the possibility of interpreting the process of radiation absorption as a time reversed process is that it requires a highly improbable gaining of coherence of the emitters and absorbers. In other words, only if the energy dispersed by the transmission process, as part of radiation's own interaction with the environment, could in some way be recovered by the absorbers, would we be able to treat absorbers and emitters symmetrically. Such an interpretation is impossible once the Wheeler-Feynman theory is properly understood. But this is precisely the kind of interpretation that Price develops after concluding that Wheeler and Feynman's absorber theory is but an example of the temporal double standard that makes absorbers and emitters asymmetric by definition. Recall Price's objection: [Wheeler and Feynman's argument] ignores the lessons of Loschmidt's famous challenge to Boltzmann's attempt to derive the second law of thermodynamics from purely statistical considerations. Viewed from a great height, Loschmidt's point is essentially that statistics is blind to the direction of time, and hence that any purely statistical conclusion is reversible (Price, 1991, p. 966). Ridderbos believes Price misrepresents the argument because the heart of Loschmidt's argument is that Boltzmann's H-theorem is incompatible with the laws of motion of microsystems and not, as Price thinks, that statistical arguments are time-symmetric, even if this is actually true. In other words, we can say that what Loschmidt pointed out was not that statistics is blind to the direction of time, but that dynamics is blind in this respect. (Ridderbos, 1997) By assuming that statistical considerations alone justify reinterpreting infinite absorbers as emitters Price is, ironically, repeating the mistake that Loschmidt tried to correct in Boltzmann's statistical derivation of the second law. Finally, Ridderbos argues that Price's system is not just a reinterpretation of the Wheeler-Feynman theory but actually a totally different physical picture of radiative processes. [Price] is stipulating that at the moment particle i is accelerated, a retarded wave is emitted which diverges from i. This wave can be described as a sum of nearly plane waves converging on the absorber particles, but these wavefronts would now have to come into existence instantaneously at the moment i is accelerated and they would originate in i. In the Wheeler-Feynman theory of radiation, on the other hand, the advanced response wave converging onto the absorber particle j comes

Revista Colombiana de Filosofa de la Ciencia Vol. IX - Nos. 18 y 19 2008 Pgs 143-154

into existence before i is accelerated and originates from the cavity wall opposite j (Ridderbos, 1997). Thus, concludes Ridderbos, the supposed reinterpretation of Wheeler and Feynman's mathematical formalism is actually a reformulation of the formalism that alters the numbers and sizes of the fields in the theory. The reinterpretation is a new, and an incorrect, theory, and this alone is sufficient for rejecting it as a genuine alternative. As a result, in his attempt to present us with an alternative interpretation of the absorber theory of radiation Price has committed two fatal mistakes. First, he misreads the original answer, rendering his criticism of it toothless. Second, he introduces an alternative that is inconsistent with the core of our present theories of radiation, the very same laws that he declares must be honored by any valid model. At the end then, Price's alternative to the absorber theory of radiation is not even as good as the original. This result, rather than undermining the confidence in the current interpretation, dismisses Price's case for its new interpretation, and with it the project of casting doubts on the current explanations of an objective physical arrow of time.

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Absorber Theory of Radiation and the search for an arrow of time

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