Most people find reverse causality intriguing, but impossible. Yet, it has a strong basis in science. In my book, How to Time Travel, I discuss a number of reverse causality examples. Here are some from the book.

Twisting the Arrow of Time

The flow of time, sometimes referred to as the “arrow of time,” is a source of debate, especially among physicists. Most physicists argue that time can only move in one direction based on “causality” (i.e., the relationship between cause and effect). The causality argument goes something like this: every event in the future is the result of some cause, another event, in the past. This appears to make perfect sense, and it squares with our everyday experience. However, experiments within the last several years appear to argue reverse causality is possible. Reverse causality means the future can and does influence the past. For example, in reverse causality, the outcome of an experiment is determined by something that occurs after the experiment is done. The future is somehow able to reach into the past and affect it. Are you skeptical? Skepticism is healthy, especially in science. Let us discuss this reverse causality experiment.

In 2009, physicist John Howell of the University of Rochester and his colleagues devised an experiment that involved passing a laser beam through a prism. The experiment also involved a mirror that moved in extremely small increments via its attachment to a motor. When the laser beam was turned on, part of the beam passed through the prism, and part of the beam bounced off the mirror. After the beam was reflected by the mirror, the Howell team used “weak measurements” (i.e., measurement where the measured system is weakly affected by the measurement device) to measure the angle of deflection. With these measurements, the team was able to determine how much the mirror had moved. This part of the experiment is normal, and in no way suggests reverse causality. However, the Howell team took it to the next level, and this changed history, literally. Here is what they did. They set up two gates to make the reflected mirror measurements. After passing the beam through the first gate, the experimenters always made a measurement. After passing it through the second gate, the experimenters measured the beam only a portion of the time. If they chose not to make the measurement at the second gate, the amplitude of the deflected angle initially measured at the first gate was extremely small. If they chose to make the measurement at the second gate, the deflected angle initially measured at the first gate was amplified by a factor of 100. Somehow, the future measurement influenced the amplitude of the initial measurement. Your first instinct may be to consider this an experimental fluke, but it is not. Physicists Onur Hosten and Paul Kwiat, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, using a beam of polarized light, repeated the experiment. Their results indicated an even larger amplification factor, in the order of 10,000.

The Double-Slit Experiment

There are numerous versions of the double-slit experiment. In its classic version, a coherent light source, for example a laser, illuminates a thin plate containing two open parallel slits. The light passing through the slits causes a series of light and dark bands on a screen behind the thin plate. The brightest bands are at the center, and the bands become dimmer the farther they are from the center.

The series of light and dark bands on the screen would not occur if light were only a particle. If light consisted of only particles, we would expect to see only two slits of light on the screen, and the two slits of light would replicate the slits in the thin plate. Instead, we see a series of light and dark patterns, with the brightest band of light in the center, and tapering to the dimmest bands of light at either side of the center. This is an interference pattern and suggests that light exhibits the properties of a wave, which is well accepted in the scientific community. This is termed the dual nature of light. This portion of the double-slit experiment simply exhibits the wave nature of light.

The above double-slit experiment demonstrates only one element of the paradoxical nature of light, the wave properties. The next part of the double-slit experiment continues to puzzle scientists. There are five aspects to the next part.

1. Both individual photons of light and individual atoms have been projected at the slits one at a time. This means that one photon or one atom is projected, like a bullet from a gun, toward the slits. Surely, our judgment would suggest that we would only get two slits of light or atoms at the screen behind the slits. However, we still get an interference pattern, a series of light and dark lines, similar to the interference pattern described above. Two inferences are possible:

a. The individual photon light acted as a wave and went through both slits, interfering with itself to cause an interference pattern.
b. Atoms also exhibit a wave-particle duality, similar to light, and act similarly to the behavior of an individual photon light described (in part a) above.

2. Scientists have placed detectors in close proximity to the screen to observe what is happening, and they find something even stranger occurs. The interference pattern disappears, and only two slits of light or atoms appear on the screen. What causes this? Quantum physicists argue that as soon as we attempt to observe the wavefunction of the photon or atom, it collapses. Please note, in quantum mechanics, the wavefunction describes the propagation of the wave associated with any particle or group of particles. When the wavefunction collapses, the photon acts only as a particle.

3. If the detector (in number 2 immediately above) stays in place but is turned off (i.e., no observation or recording of data occurs), the interference pattern returns and is observed on the screen. We have no way of explaining how the photons or atoms know the detector is off, but somehow they know. This is part of the puzzling aspect of the double-slit experiment. This also appears to support the arguments of quantum physicists, namely, that observing the wavefunction will cause it to collapse.

4. The quantum eraser experiment—Quantum physicists argue the double-slit experiment demonstrates another unusual property of quantum mechanics, namely, an effect termed the quantum eraser experiment. Essentially, it has two parts:

a. Detectors record the path of a photon regarding which slit it goes through. As described above, the act of measuring “which path” destroys the interference pattern.
b. If the “which path” information is erased, the interference pattern returns. It does not matter in which order the “which path” information is erased. It can be erased before or after the detection of the photons.

This appears to support the wavefunction collapse theory, namely, observing the photon causes its wavefunction to collapse and assume a single value.

5. If the detector replaces the screen and only views the atoms or photons after they have passed through the slits, once again, the interference pattern vanishes and we get only two slits of light or atoms. How can we explain this? In 1978, American theoretical physicist John Wheeler (1911–2008) proposed that observing the photon or atom after it passes through the slit would ultimately determine if the photon or atom acts like a wave or particle. If you attempt to observe the photon or atom, or in any way collect data regarding either one’s behavior, the interference pattern vanishes, and you only get two slits of photons or atoms. In 1984, Carroll Alley, Oleg Jakubowicz, and William Wickes proved this experimentally at the University of Maryland. This is the “delayed-choice experiment.” Somehow, in measuring the future state of the photon, the results were able to influence their behavior at the slits. In effect, we are twisting the arrow of time, causing the future to influence the past. Numerous additional experiments confirm this result.

Let us pause here and be perfectly clear. Measuring the future state of the photon after it has gone through the slits causes the interference pattern to vanish. Somehow, a measurement in the future is able to reach back into the past and cause the photons to behave differently. In this case, the measurement of the photon causes its wave nature to vanish (i.e., collapse) even after it has gone through the slit. The photon now acts like a particle, not a wave. This paradox is clear evidence that a future action can reach back and change the past.

Summary

The above experimental results raise questions about the “arrow of time.” It appears that under certain circumstances, the arrow of time can point in either direction, and time can flow in either direction, forward or backward. This is a scientific result. It may be hard to believe, but the above experiments have been repeated. In the case of the double-slit experiment, it has been repeated numerous times. No one has been able to provide a widely accepted explanation. Reverse causality is a true mystery of science.