Recent Work on the Arrow of Radiation



In many physical systems, coupling forces provide a way of carrying the energy stored in adjacent harmonic oscillators from place to place, in the form of waves. The wave equations governing such phenomena are time-symmetric: they permit the opposite processes, in which energy arrives at a point in the form of incoming concentric waves, to be lost to some external system. But these processes seem rare in nature. What explains this temporal asymmetry, and how is it related to the thermodynamic asymmetry? This paper attempts to clarify these old issues, in the light of recent contributions.

After brief introductory remarks (§1), the paper is in three main parts. §2 examines the so-called ‘Sommerfeld Radiation Condition’, arguing that its link to the observed asymmetry is much less direct than commonly supposed. §3 begins with Zeh's proposal to make the Sommerfeld condition an ingredient in an explanation of the observed asymmetry, and makes explicit a useful distinction between two ways in which the thermodynamic asymmetry might connect to the radiation asymmetry. §4 reviews a proposal I have defended in earlier work about the relation of the radiative asymmetry to that of thermodynamics, and defends it against recent objections by Zeh and Frisch. I also distinguish it from a recent proposal due to North. I agree with North that the observed asymmetry of radiation stems from the low entropy history, but argue that she mis-characterises the asymmetry, and hence misses a crucial element in a proper account of the role of the low entropy past.


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