After last week’s speculations on time I would like to ask an even deeper question: why is there time?

My 4 year old daughter would be proud. What I mean is, why do things evolve in the first place? It seems to me that fundamental physics has to answer not only ‘what’ questions but also ‘why’ questions if it claims to provide understanding. I think I have an answer, or a glimpse of one.

The answer has to do with quantum anomalies; no not the large (not very quantum, then) things that seem to turn up in every other episode of Star Trek Voyager, but what physicists mean by this, which I am afraid is much more dry and dusty. In fact, I’m going to have to ask you to dust off you high school calculus books, just for a minute.

I explained in a previous post that even if nobody at the moment knows how to reconcile quantum theory and gravity, quantum spacetime should emerge as an effect coming out of any unknown theory. Typically, the coordinates x,y,z of space would also be quantum variables, so space alone should typically form some kind of symbolic algebra. Due to quantum effects, the order of the variables in this algebra will matter, xy will typically not coincide with yx. One says that the algebra is ‘noncommutative’.

Now, what about differential calculus on such a quantum space? If you remember any high school calculus it means things like dx, dy, dz as the ‘infinitesimal differences’. Newton and Leibniz both considered such things as numbers which are then made arbitrarily small. Hands up if your high school calculus class contained a picture like the one shown below. It defines differentiation of a function f in the x direction as a limit of the slope df/dx of the triangle as dx gets small.

So to develop quantum gravity effects in physics we also need ‘quantum differentials’ dx, dy, dz. They should enjoy the properties that differentials enjoy in Newtons theory except, since xy and yx need not coincide, similarly y dx need not coincide with dx y, etc. Now, here is the remarkable thing one finds as you dig deeper into this world of quantum geometry:

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