When I made my previous two posts about ideas of “state”, one thing I was aiming at was to say something about the relationships between states and dynamics. The point here is that, although the idea of “state” is that it is intrinsically something like a snapshot capturing how things are at one instant in “time” (whatever that is), extrinsically, there’s more to the story. The “kinematics” of a physical theory consists of its collection of possible states. The “dynamics” consists of the regularities in how states change with time. Part of the point here is that these aren’t totally separate.

Just for one thing, in classical mechanics, the “state” includes time-derivatives of the quantities you know, and the dynamical laws tell you something about the second derivatives. This is true in both the Hamiltonian and Lagrangian formalism of dynamics. The Hamiltonian function, which represents the concept of “energy” in the context of a system, is based on a function $H(q,p)$, where $q$ is a vector representing the values of some collection of variables describing the system (generalized position variables, in some configuration space $X$), and the $p = m \dot{q}$ are corresponding “momentum” variables, which are the other coordinates in a phase space which in simple cases is just the cotangent bundle $T*X$. Here, $m$ refers to mass, or some equivalent. The familiar case of a moving point particle has “energy = kinetic + potential”, or $H = p^2 / m + V(q)$ for some potential function $V$. The symplectic form on $T*X$ can then be used to define a path through any point, which describes the evolution of the system in time – notably, it conserves the energy $H$. Then there’s the Lagrangian, which defines the “action” associated to a path, which comes from integrating some function $L(q, \dot{q})$ living on the tangent bundle $TX$, over the path. The physically realized paths (classically) are critical points of the action, with respect to variations of the path.

This is all based on the view of a “state” as an element of a set (which happens to be a symplectic manifold like $T*X$ or just a manifold if it’s $TX$), and both the “energy” and the “action” are some kind of function on this set. A little extra structure (symplectic form, or measure on path space) turns these functions into a notion of dynamics. Now a function on the space of states is what an observable is: energy certainly is easy to envision this way, and action (though harder to define intuitively) counts as well.

But another view of states which I mentioned in that first post is the one that pertains to statistical mechanics, in which a state is actually a statisticial distribution on the set of “pure” states. This is rather like a function – it’s slightly more general, since a distribution can have point-masses, but any function gives a distribution if there’s a fixed measure $d\mu$ around to integrate against – then a function like $H$ becomes the measure $H d\mu$. And this is where the notion of a Gibbs state comes from, though it’s slightly trickier. The idea is that the Gibbs state (in some circumstances called the Boltzmann distribution) is the state a system will end up in if it’s allowed to “thermalize” – it’s the maximum-entropy distribution for a given amount of energy in the specified system, at a given temperature $T$. So, for instance, for a gas in a box, this describes how, at a given temperature, the kinetic energies of the particles are (probably) distributed. Up to a bunch of constants of proportionality, one expects that the weight given to a state (or region in state space) is just $exp(-H/T)$, where $H$ is the Hamiltonian (energy) for that state. That is, the likelihood of being in a state is inversely proportional to the exponential of its energy – and higher temperature makes higher energy states more likely.

Now part of the point here is that, if you know the Gibbs state at temperature $T$, you can work out the Hamiltonian
just by taking a logarithm – so specifying a Hamiltonian and specifying the corresponding Gibbs state are completely equivalent. But specifying a Hamiltonian (given some other structure) completely determines the dynamics of the system.

This is the classical version of the idea Carlo Rovelli calls “Thermal Time”, which I first encountered in his book “Quantum Gravity”, but also is summarized in Rovelli’s FQXi essay “Forget Time“, and described in more detail in this paper by Rovelli and Alain Connes. Mathematically, this involves the Tomita flow on von Neumann algebras (which Connes used to great effect in his work on the classification of same). It was reading “Forget Time” which originally got me thinking about making the series of posts about different notions of state.

Physically, remember, these are von Neumann algebras of operators on a quantum system, the self-adjoint ones being observables; states are linear functionals on such algebras. The equivalent of a Gibbs state – a thermal equilibrium state – is called a KMS (Kubo-Martin-Schwinger) state (for a particular Hamiltonian). It’s important that the KMS state depends on the Hamiltonian, which is to say the dynamics and the notion of time with respect to which the system will evolve. Given a notion of time flow, there is a notion of KMS state.

One interesting place where KMS states come up is in (general) relativistic thermodynamics. In particular, the effect called the Unruh Effect is an example (here I’m referencing Robert Wald’s book, “Quantum Field Theory in Curved Spacetime and Black Hole Thermodynamics”). Physically, the Unruh effect says the following. Suppose you’re in flat spacetime (described by Minkowski space), and an inertial (unaccelerated) observer sees it in a vacuum. Then an accelerated observer will see space as full of a bath of particles at some temperature related to the acceleration. Mathematically, a change of coordinates (acceleration) implies there’s a one-parameter family of automorphisms of the von Neumann algebra which describes the quantum field for particles. There’s also a (trivial) family for the unaccelerated observer, since the coordinate system is not changing. The Unruh effect in this language is the fact that a vacuum state relative to the time-flow for an unaccelerated observer is a KMS state relative to the time-flow for the accelerated observer (at some temperature related to the acceleration).

The KMS state for a von Neumann algebra with a given Hamiltonian operator has a density matrix $\omega$, which is again, up to some constant factors, just the exponential of the Hamiltonian operator. (For pure states, $\omega = |\Psi \rangle \langle \Psi |$, and in general a matrix becomes a state by $\omega(A) = Tr(A \omega)$ which for pure states is just the usual expectation value value for A, $\langle \Psi | A | \Psi \rangle$).

Now, things are a bit more complicated in the von Neumann algebra picture than the classical picture, but Tomita-Takesaki theory tells us that as in the classical world, the correspondence between dynamics and KMS states goes both ways: there is a flow – the Tomita flow – associated to any given state, with respect to which the state is a KMS state. By “flow” here, I mean a one-parameter family of automorphisms of the von Neumann algebra. In the Heisenberg formalism for quantum mechanics, this is just what time is (i.e. states remain the same, but the algebra of observables is deformed with time). The way you find it is as follows (and why this is right involves some operator algebra I find a bit mysterious):

First, get the algebra $\mathcal{A}$ acting on a Hilbert space $H$, with a cyclic vector $\Psi$ (i.e. such that $\mathcal{A} \Psi$ is dense in $H$ – one way to get this is by the GNS representation, so that the state $\omega$ just acts on an operator $A$ by the expectation value at $\Psi$, as above, so that the vector $\Psi$ is standing in, in the Hilbert space picture, for the state $\omega$). Then one can define an operator $S$ by the fact that, for any $A \in \mathcal{A}$, one has $(SA)\Psi = A^{\star}\Psi$

That is, $S$ acts like the conjugation operation on operators at $\Psi$, which is enough to define $S$ since $\Psi$ is cyclic. This $S$ has a polar decomposition (analogous for operators to the polar form for complex numbers) of $S = J \Delta$, where $J$ is antiunitary (this is conjugation, after all) and $\Delta$ is self-adjoint. We need the self-adjoint part, because the Tomita flow is a one-parameter family of automorphisms given by: $\alpha_t(A) = \Delta^{-it} A \Delta^{it}$

An important fact for Connes’ classification of von Neumann algebras is that the Tomita flow is basically unique – that is, it’s unique up to an inner automorphism (i.e. a conjugation by some unitary operator – so in particular, if we’re talking about a relativistic physical theory, a change of coordinates giving a different $t$ parameter would be an example). So while there are different flows, they’re all “essentially” the same. There’s a unique notion of time flow if we reduce the algebra $\mathcal{A}$ to its cosets modulo inner automorphism. Now, in some cases, the Tomita flow consists entirely of inner automorphisms, and this reduction makes it disappear entirely (this happens in the finite-dimensional case, for instance). But in the general case this doesn’t happen, and the Connes-Rovelli paper summarizes this by saying that von Neumann algebras are “intrinsically dynamic objects”. So this is one interesting thing about the quantum view of states: there is a somewhat canonical notion of dynamics present just by virtue of the way states are described. In the classical world, this isn’t the case.

Now, Rovelli’s “Thermal Time” hypothesis is, basically, that the notion of time is a state-dependent one: instead of an independent variable, with respect to which other variables change, quantum mechanics (per Rovelli) makes predictions about correlations between different observed variables. More precisely, the hypothesis is that, given that we observe the world in some state, the right notion of time should just be the Tomita flow for that state. They claim that checking this for certain cosmological models, like the Friedman model, they get the usual notion of time flow. I have to admit, I have trouble grokking this idea as fundamental physics, because it seems like it’s implying that the universe (or any system in it we look at) is always, a priori, in thermal equilibrium, which seems wrong to me since it evidently isn’t. The Friedman model does assume an expanding universe in thermal equilibrium, but clearly we’re not in exactly that world. On the other hand, the Tomita flow is definitely there in the von Neumann algebra view of quantum mechanics and states, so possibly I’m misinterpreting the nature of the claim. Also, as applied to quantum gravity, a “state” perhaps should be read as a state for the whole spacetime geometry of the universe – which is presumably static – and then the apparent “time change” would then be a result of the Tomita flow on operators describing actual physical observables. But on this view, I’m not sure how to understand “thermal equilibrium”.  So in the end, I don’t really know how to take the “Thermal Time Hypothesis” as physics.

In any case, the idea that the right notion of time should be state-dependent does make some intuitive sense. The only physically, empirically accessible referent for time is “what a clock measures”: in other words, there is some chosen system which we refer to whenever we say we’re “measuring time”. Different choices of system (that is, different clocks) will give different readings even if they happen to be moving together in an inertial frame – atomic clocks sitting side by side will still gradually drift out of sync. Even if “the system” means the whole universe, or just the gravitational field, clearly the notion of time even in General Relativity depends on the state of this system. If there is a non-state-dependent “god’s-eye view” of which variable is time, we don’t have empirical access to it. So while I can’t really assess this idea confidently, it does seem to be getting at something important.