Time and World-Lines

Let γ: [s1, s2] → M be a smooth, future-directed timelike curve in M with tangent field ξa. We associate with it an elapsed proper time (relative to gab) given by

∥γ∥= ∫s1s2 (gabξaξb)1/2 ds

This elapsed proper time is invariant under reparametrization of γ and is just what we would otherwise describe as the length of (the image of) γ . The following is another basic principle of relativity theory:

Clocks record the passage of elapsed proper time along their world-lines.

Again, a number of qualifications and comments are called for. We have taken for granted that we know what “clocks” are. We have assumed that they have worldlines (rather than worldtubes). And we have overlooked the fact that ordinary clocks (e.g., the alarm clock on the nightstand) do not do well at all when subjected to extreme acceleration, tidal forces, and so forth. (Try smashing the alarm clock against the wall.) Again, these concerns are important and raise interesting questions about the role of idealization in the formulation of physical theory. (One might construe an “ideal clock” as a point-size test object that perfectly records the passage of proper time along its worldline, and then take the above principle to assert that real clocks are, under appropriate conditions and to varying degrees of accuracy, approximately ideal.) But they do not have much to do with relativity theory as such. Similar concerns arise when one attempts to formulate corresponding principles about clock behavior within the framework of Newtonian theory.

Now suppose that one has determined the conformal structure of spacetime, say, by using light rays. Then one can use clocks, rather than free particles, to determine the conformal factor.

Let g′ab be a second smooth metric on M, with g′ab = Ω2gab. Further suppose that the two metrics assign the same lengths to timelike curves – i.e., ∥γ∥g′ab = ∥γ∥gab ∀ smooth, timelike curves γ: I → M. Then Ω = 1 everywhere. (Here ∥γ∥gab is the length of γ relative to gab.)

Let ξoa be an arbitrary timelike vector at an arbitrary point p in M. We can certainly find a smooth, timelike curve γ: [s1, s2] → M through p whose tangent at p is ξoa. By our hypothesis, ∥γ∥g′ab = ∥γ∥gab. So, if ξa is the tangent field to γ,

s1s2 (g’ab ξaξb)1/2 ds = ∫s1s2 (gabξaξb)1/2 ds

∀ s in [s1, s2]. It follows that g′abξaξb = gabξaξb at every point on the image of γ. In particular, it follows that (g′ab − gab) ξoa ξob = 0 at p. But ξoa was an arbitrary timelike vector at p. So, g′ab = gab at our arbitrary point p. The principle gives the whole story of relativistic clock behavior. In particular, it implies the path dependence of clock readings. If two clocks start at an event p and travel along different trajectories to an event q, then, in general, they will record different elapsed times for the trip. This is true no matter how similar the clocks are. (We may stipulate that they came off the same assembly line.) This is the case because, as the principle asserts, the elapsed time recorded by each of the clocks is just the length of the timelike curve it traverses from p to q and, in general, those lengths will be different.

Suppose we consider all future-directed timelike curves from p to q. It is natural to ask if there are any that minimize or maximize the recorded elapsed time between the events. The answer to the first question is “no.” Indeed, one then has the following proposition:

Let p and q be events in M such that p ≪ q. Then, for all ε > 0, there exists a smooth, future directed timelike curve γ from p to q with ∥γ ∥ < ε. (But there is no such curve with length 0, since all timelike curves have non-zero length.)


If there is a smooth, timelike curve connecting p and q, there is also a jointed, zig-zag null curve connecting them. It has length 0. But we can approximate the jointed null curve arbitrarily closely with smooth timelike curves that swing back and forth. So (by the continuity of the length function), we should expect that, for all ε > 0, there is an approximating timelike curve that has length less than ε.

The answer to the second question (“Can one maximize recorded elapsed time between p and q?”) is “yes” if one restricts attention to local regions of spacetime. In the case of positive definite metrics, i.e., ones with signature of form (n, 0) – we know geodesics are locally shortest curves. The corresponding result for Lorentzian metrics is that timelike geodesics are locally longest curves.

Let γ: I → M be a smooth, future-directed, timelike curve. Then γ can be reparametrized so as to be a geodesic iff ∀ s ∈ I there exists an open set O containing γ(s) such that , ∀ s1, s2 ∈ I with s1 ≤ s ≤ s2, if the image of γ′ = γ|[s1, s2] is contained in O, then γ′ (and its reparametrizations) are longer than all other timelike curves in O from γ(s1) to γ(s2). (Here γ|[s1, s2] is the restriction of γ to the interval [s1, s2].)

Of all clocks passing locally from p to q, the one that will record the greatest elapsed time is the one that “falls freely” from p to q. To get a clock to read a smaller elapsed time than the maximal value, one will have to accelerate the clock. Now, acceleration requires fuel, and fuel is not free. So the above proposition has the consequence that (locally) “saving time costs money.” And proposition before that may be taken to imply that “with enough money one can save as much time as one wants.” The restriction here to local regions of spacetime is essential. The connection described between clock behavior and acceleration does not, in general, hold on a global scale. In some relativistic spacetimes, one can find future-directed timelike geodesics connecting two events that have different lengths, and so clocks following the curves will record different elapsed times between the events even though both are in a state of free fall. Furthermore – this follows from the preceding claim by continuity considerations alone – it can be the case that of two clocks passing between the events, the one that undergoes acceleration during the trip records a greater elapsed time than the one that remains in a state of free fall. (A rolled-up version of two-dimensional Minkowski spacetime provides a simple example)


Two-dimensional Minkowski spacetime rolledup into a cylindrical spacetime. Three timelike curves are displayed: γ1 and γ3 are geodesics; γ2 is not; γ1 is longer than γ2; and γ2 is longer than γ3.

The connection we have been considering between clock behavior and acceleration was once thought to be paradoxical. Recall the so-called “clock paradox.” Suppose two clocks, A and B, pass from one event to another in a suitably small region of spacetime. Further suppose A does so in a state of free fall but B undergoes acceleration at some point along the way. Then, we know, A will record a greater elapsed time for the trip than B. This was thought paradoxical because it was believed that relativity theory denies the possibility of distinguishing “absolutely” between free-fall motion and accelerated motion. (If we are equally well entitled to think that it is clock B that is in a state of free fall and A that undergoes acceleration, then, by parity of reasoning, it should be B that records the greater elapsed time.) The resolution of the paradox, if one can call it that, is that relativity theory makes no such denial. The situations of A and B here are not symmetric. The distinction between accelerated motion and free fall makes every bit as much sense in relativity theory as it does in Newtonian physics.

A “timelike curve” should be understood to be a smooth, future-directed, timelike curve parametrized by elapsed proper time – i.e., by arc length. In that case, the tangent field ξa of the curve has unit length (ξaξa = 1). And if a particle happens to have the image of the curve as its worldline, then, at any point, ξa is called the particle’s four-velocity there.

Is General Theory of Relativity a Gauge Theory? Trajectories of Diffeomorphism.


Historically the problem of observables in classical and quantum gravity is closely related to the so-called Einstein hole problem, i.e. to some of the consequences of general covariance in general relativity (GTR).

The central question is the physical meaning of the points of the event manifold underlying GTR. In contrast to pure mathematics this is a non-trivial point in physics. While in pure differential geometry one simply decrees the existence of, for example, a (pseudo-) Riemannian manifold with a differentiable structure (i.e., an appropriate cover with coordinate patches) plus a (pseudo-) Riemannian metric, g, the relation to physics is not simply one-one. In popular textbooks about GTR, it is frequently stated that all diffeomorphic (space-time) manifolds, M are physically indistinguishable. Put differently:

S − T = Riem/Diff —– (1)

This becomes particularly virulent in the Einstein hole problem. i.e., assuming that we have a region of space-time, free of matter, we can apply a local diffeomorphism which only acts within this hole, letting the exterior invariant. We get thus in general two different metric tensors

g(x) , g′(x) := Φ ◦ g(x) —– (2)

in the hole while certain inital conditions lying outside of the hole are unchanged, thus yielding two different solutions of the Einstein field equations.

Many physicists consider this to be a violation of determinism (which it is not!) and hence argue that the class of observable quantities have to be drastically reduced in (quantum) gravity theory. They follow the line of reasoning developed by Dirac in the context of gauge theory, thus implying that GTR is essentially also a gauge theory. This then winds up to the conclusion:

Dirac observables in quantum gravity are quantities which are diffeomorphism invariant with the diffeomorphism group, Diff acting from M to M, i.e.

Φ : M → M —– (3)

One should note that with respect to physical observations there is no violation of determinism. An observer can never really observe two different metric fields on one and the same space-time manifold. This can only happen on the mathematical paper. He will use a fixed measurement protocol, using rods and clocks in e.g. a local inertial frame where special relativity locally applies and then extend the results to general coordinate frames.

We get a certain orbit under Diff if we start from a particular manifold M with a metric tensor g and take the orbit

{M, Φ ◦g} —– (4)

In general we have additional fields and matter distributions on M which are transformd accordingly.

Note that not even scalars are invariant in general in the above sense, i.e., not even the Ricci scalar is observable in the Dirac sense:

R(x) ≠ Φ ◦ R(x) —– (5)

in the generic case. Thus, this would imply that the class of admissible observables can be pretty small (even empty!). Furthermore, it follows that points of M are not a priori distinguishable. On the other hand, many consider the Ricci scalar at a point to be an observable quantity.

This winds up to the question whether GTR is a true gauge theory or perhaps only apparently so at a first glance, while on a more fundamental level it is something different. In the words of Kuchar (What is observable..),

Quantities non-invariant under the full diffeomorphism group are observable in gravity.

The reason for these apparently diverging opinions stems from the role reference systems are assumed to play in GTR with some arguing that the gauge property of general coordinate invariance is only of a formal nature.

In the hole argument it is for example argued that it is important to add some particle trajectories which cross each other, thus generating concrete events on M. As these point events transform accordingly under a diffeomorphism, the distance between the corresponding coordinates x, y equals the distance between the transformed points Φ(x), Φ(y), thus being a Dirac observable. On the other hand, the coordinates x or y are not observable.

One should note that this observation is somewhat tautological in the realm of Riemannian geometry as the metric is an absolute quantity, put differently (and somewhat sloppily), ds2 is invariant under passive and by the same token active coordinate transformation (diffeomorphisms) because, while conceptually different, the transformation properties under the latter operations are defined as in the passive case. In the case of GTR this absolute quantity enters via the equivalence principle i.e., distances are measured for example in a local inertial frame (LIF) where special relativity holds and are then generalized to arbitrary coordinate systems.

Quantum Energy Teleportation. Drunken Risibility.


Time is one of the most difficult concepts in physics. It enters in the equations in a rather artificial way – as an external parameter. Although strictly speaking time is a quantity that we measure, it is not possible in quantum physics to define a time-observable in the same way as for the other quantities that we measure (position, momentum, etc.). The intuition that we have about time is that of a uniform flow, as suggested by the regular ticks of clocks. Time flows undisturbed by the variety of events that may occur in an irregular pattern in the world. Similarly, the quantum vacuum is the most regular state one can think of. For example, a persistent superconducting current flows at a constant speed – essentially forever. Can then one use the quantum vacuum as a clock? This is a fascinating dispute in condensed-matter physics, formulated as the problem of existence of time crystals. A time crystal, by analogy with a crystal in space, is a system that displays a time-regularity under measurement, while being in the ground (vacuum) state.

Then, if there is an energy (the zero-point energy) associated with empty space, it follows via the special theory of relativity that this energy should correspond to an inertial mass. By the principle of equivalence of the general theory of relativity, inertial mass is identical with the gravitational mass. Thus, empty space must gravitate. So, how much does empty space weigh? This question brings us to the frontiers of our knowledge of vacuum – the famous problem of the cosmological constant, a problem that Einstein was wrestling with, and which is still an open issue in modern cosmology.

Finally, although we cannot locally extract the zero-point energy of the vacuum fluctuations, the vacuum state of a field can be used to transfer energy from one place to another by using only information. This protocol has been called quantum energy teleportation and uses the fact that different spatial regions of a quantum field in the ground state are entangled. It then becomes possible to extract locally energy from the vacuum by making a measurement in one place, then communicating the result to an experimentalist in a spatially remote region, who would be able then to extract energy by making an appropriate (depending on the result communicated) measurement on her or his local vacuum. This suggests that the vacuum is the primordial essence, the ousia from which everything came into existence.



Let us introduce the concept of space using the notion of reflexive action (or reflex action) between two things. Intuitively, a thing x acts on another thing y if the presence of x disturbs the history of y. Events in the real world seem to happen in such a way that it takes some time for the action of x to propagate up to y. This fact can be used to construct a relational theory of space à la Leibniz, that is, by taking space as a set of equitemporal things. It is necessary then to define the relation of simultaneity between states of things.

Let x and y be two things with histories h(xτ) and h(yτ), respectively, and let us suppose that the action of x on y starts at τx0. The history of y will be modified starting from τy0. The proper times are still not related but we can introduce the reflex action to define the notion of simultaneity. The action of y on x, started at τy0, will modify x from τx1 on. The relation “the action of x on y is reflected to x” is the reflex action. Historically, Galileo introduced the reflection of a light pulse on a mirror to measure the speed of light. With this relation we will define the concept of simultaneity of events that happen on different basic things.


Besides we have a second important fact: observation and experiment suggest that gravitation, whose source is energy, is a universal interaction, carried by the gravitational field.

Let us now state the above hypothesis axiomatically.

Axiom 1 (Universal interaction): Any pair of basic things interact. This extremely strong axiom states not only that there exist no completely isolated things but that all things are interconnected.

This universal interconnection of things should not be confused with “universal interconnection” claimed by several mystical schools. The present interconnection is possible only through physical agents, with no mystical content. It is possible to model two noninteracting things in Minkowski space assuming they are accelerated during an infinite proper time. It is easy to see that an infinite energy is necessary to keep a constant acceleration, so the model does not represent real things, with limited energy supply.

Now consider the time interval (τx1 − τx0). Special Relativity suggests that it is nonzero, since any action propagates with a finite speed. We then state

Axiom 2 (Finite speed axiom): Given two different and separated basic things x and y, such as in the above figure, there exists a minimum positive bound for the interval (τx1 − τx0) defined by the reflex action.

Now we can define Simultaneity as τy0 is simultaneous with τx1/2 =Df (1/2)(τx1 + τx0)

The local times on x and y can be synchronized by the simultaneity relation. However, as we know from General Relativity, the simultaneity relation is transitive only in special reference frames called synchronous, thus prompting us to include the following axiom:

Axiom 3 (Synchronizability): Given a set of separated basic things {xi} there is an assignment of proper times τi such that the relation of simultaneity is transitive.

With this axiom, the simultaneity relation is an equivalence relation. Now we can define a first approximation to physical space, which is the ontic space as the equivalence class of states defined by the relation of simultaneity on the set of things is the ontic space EO.

The notion of simultaneity allows the analysis of the notion of clock. A thing y ∈ Θ is a clock for the thing x if there exists an injective function ψ : SL(y) → SL(x), such that τ < τ′ ⇒ ψ(τ) < ψ(τ′). i.e.: the proper time of the clock grows in the same way as the time of things. The name Universal time applies to the proper time of a reference thing that is also a clock. From this we see that “universal time” is frame dependent in agreement with the results of Special Relativity.



Causation is a form of event generation. To present an explicit definition of causation requires introducing some ontological concepts to formally characterize what is understood by ‘event’.

The concept of individual is the basic primitive concept of any ontological theory. Individuals associate themselves with other individuals to yield new individuals. It follows that they satisfy a calculus, and that they are rigorously characterized only through the laws of such a calculus. These laws are set with the aim of reproducing the way real things associate. Specifically, it is postulated that every individual is an element of a set s in such a way that the structure S = ⟨s, ◦, ◻⟩ is a commutative monoid of idempotents. This is a simple additive semi-group with neutral element.

In the structure S, s is the set of all individuals, the element ◻ ∈ s is a fiction called the null individual, and the binary operation ◦ is the association of individuals. Although S is a mathematical entity, the elements of s are not, with the only exception of ◻, which is a fiction introduced to form a calculus. The association of any element of s with ◻ yields the same element. The following definitions characterize the composition of individuals.

1. x ∈ s is composed ⇔ (∃ y, z) s (x = y ◦ z)
2. x ∈ s is simple ⇔ ∼ (∃ y, z) s (x = y ◦ z)
3. x ⊂ y ⇔ x ◦ y = y (x is part of y ⇔ x ◦ y = y)
4. Comp(x) ≡ {y ∈ s|y ⊂ x} is the composition of x.

Real things are distinguished from abstract individuals because they have a number of properties in addition to their capability of association. These properties can be intrinsic (Pi) or relational (Pr). The intrinsic properties are inherent and they are represented by predicates or unary applications, whereas relational properties depend upon more than a single thing and are represented by n-ary predicates, with n ≥ 1. Examples of intrinsic properties are electric charge and rest mass, whereas velocity of macroscopic bodies and volume are relational properties.

An individual with its properties make up a thing X : X =< x, P(x) >

Here P(x) is the collection of properties of the individual x. A material thing is an individual with concrete properties, i.e. properties that can change in some respect.

The state of a thing X is a set of functions S(X) from a domain of reference M (a set that can be enumerable or nondenumerable) to the set of properties PX. Every function in S(X) represents a property in PX. The set of the physically accessible states of a thing X is the lawful state space of X : SL(X). The state of a thing is represented by a point in SL(X). A change of a thing is an ordered pair of states. Only changing things can be material. Abstract things cannot change since they have only one state (their properties are fixed by definition).

A legal statement is a restriction upon the state functions of a given class of things. A natural law is a property of a class of material things represented by an empirically corroborated legal statement.

The ontological history h(X) of a thing X is a subset of SL(X) defined by h(X) = {⟨t, F(t)⟩|t ∈ M}

where t is an element of some auxiliary set M, and F are the functions that represent the properties of X.

If a thing is affected by other things we can introduce the following definition:

h(Y/X ) : “history of the thing Y in presence of the thing X”.

Let h(X) and h(Y) be the histories of the things X and Y, respectively. Then

h(Y/X) = {⟨t,H(t)⟩|t ∈ M},

where H≠ F is the total state function of Y as affected by the existence of X, and F is the total state function of X in the absence of Y. The history of Y in presence of X is different from the history of Y without X .

We can now introduce the notion of action:

X ▷ Y : “X acts on Y”

X ▷ Y =def h(Y/X) ≠ h(Y)

An event is a change of a thing X, i.e. an ordered pair of states:

(s1, s2) ∈ EL(X) = SL(X) × SL(X)

The space EL(X) is called the event space of X.

Causality is a relation between events, i.e. a relation between changes of states of concrete things. It is not a relation between things. Only the related concept of ‘action’ is a relation between things. Specifically,

C'(x): “an event in a thing x is caused by some unspecified event exxi“.

C'(x) =def (∃ exxi) [exxi ∈ EL(X) ⇔ xi ▷ x.

C(x, y): “an event in a thing x is caused by an event in a thing y”.

C(x, y) =def (∃ exy) [exy ∈ EL(x) ⇔ y ▷ x

In the above definitions, the notation exy indicates in the superscript the thing x to whose event space belongs the event e, whereas the subscript denotes the thing that acted triggering the event. The implicit arguments of both C’ and C are events, not things. Causation is a form of event generation. The crucial point is that a given event in the lawful event space EL(x) is caused by an action of a thing y iff the event happens only conditionally to the action, i.e., it would not be the case of exy without an action of y upon x. Time does not appear in this definition, allowing causal relations in space-time without a global time orientability or even instantaneous and non-local causation. If causation is non-local under some circumstances, e.g. when a quantum system is prepared in a specific state of polarization or spin, quantum entanglement poses no problem to realism and determinism. The quantum theory describes an aspect of a reality that is ontologically determined and with non-local relations. Under any circumstances the postulates of Special Relativity are violated, since no physical system ever crosses the barrier of the speed of light.

Weyl, “To understand nature, start with the group Γ of automorphisms and refrain from making the artificial logical distinction between basic and derived relations . . .”



Gauge transformations appear of primarily descriptive nature only if we consider them in their function as changes of local (in the mathematical sense) changes of trivializations. In this function they are comparable to the transformations of the coordinates in a differentiable manifold, which also seem to have a purely “descriptive” function. But the coordinate changes stand in close relation to (local) diffeomorphisms. Therefore the postulate of coordinate independence of natural laws, or of the Lagrangian density, can and is being restated in terms of diffeomorphism invariance in general relativity. Similarly, the local changes of trivializations may be read as local descriptions.

The question as to whether or not the automorphisms express crucial physical properties  has nothing to do with the specific gauge nature of the groups, but hinges on the more overarching question of physical adequateness and physical content of the theory. The question of whether or why gauge symmetries can express physical content is not much different from the Kretschmann question of whether or why coordinate invariance of the laws, respectively coordinate covariance description of a physical theory, can have physical content. In the latter case the answer to the question has been dealt with in the philosophy of physics literature in great detail. Weyl’s answer is contained in his thoughts on the distinction of physical and mathematical automorphisms.

Let us shed a side-glance at gravitational gauge theories not taken into account by Weyl. In Einstein-Cartan gravity, which later turned out to be equivalent to Kibble-Sciama gravity, the localized rotational degrees of freedom lead to a conserved spin current and a non-symmetric energy tensor. This is a structurally pleasing effect, fitting roughly into the Noether charge paradigm, although with a peculiar “crossover” of the two Noether currents and the currents feeding the dynamical equations, inherited from Einstein gravity and Cartan’s identification of translational curvature with torsion. The rotational current, spin, feeds the dynamical equation of translational curvature; the translational current, energy-momentum, feeds the rotational curvature in the (generalized) Einstein equation. It may acquire physical relevance only if energy densities surpass the order of magnitude 1038 times the density of neutron stars. By this reason the current cannot yet be considered a physically striking effect. It may turn into one, if gravitational fields corresponding to extremely high energy densities acquire empirical relevance. For the time being, the rotational current can safely be neglected, Einstein-Cartan gravity reduces effectively to Einstein gravity, and Weyl’s argument for the symmetry of the energy-momentum tensor remains the most “striking consequence” in the sense of  rotational degrees of freedom.

On the other hand, the translational degrees of freedom give a more direct expression for the Noether currents of energy-momentum than the diffeomorphisms. The physical consequences for the diffeomorphism degrees of freedom reduce to the invariance constraint for the Lagrangian density for Einstein gravity considered as a special case of the Einstein-Cartan theory (with effectively vanishing spin). Besides these minor shifts, it may be more interesting to realize that the approach of Kibble and Sciama agreed nicely with Weyl’s methodological remark that for understanding nature we better “start with the group Γ of automorphisms and refrain from making the artificial logical distinction between basic and derived relations . . . ”. This describes quite well what Sciama and Kibble did. They started to explore the consequences of localizing (in the physical sense) the translational and rotational degrees of freedom of special relativity. Their theory was built around the generalized automorphism group arising from localizing the Poincaré group.