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Eddy Keming Chen to investigate the arrow of time in ambitious, three-year interdisciplinary research project

Eddy Kemming ChenEddy Keming Chen, assistant professor in the Department of Philosophy, has long been puzzled about some of the very basic questions of physics, mathematics and the natural sciences. How can we understand the quantum realm? What are mathematical numbers, really? What is space and time?

“I realized that I could actually pursue these questions in philosophy classrooms,” he said. “I love philosophy both for its breath and its depth: I can think about any domain of human knowledge and I don’t have to shy away from the foundational questions.”

Chen is expanding his expertise by participating in one of the most ambitious, multi-institution research projects focused on metaphysics, biology and philosophy. “Life on the Edge: Quantum thermodynamics, quantum biology and the arrow of time” is a three-year research project funded by a philanthropic grant from the John Templeton Foundation and housed at the University of Surrey.

The scope of the project is truly interdisciplinary. There are five research themes, each supported by three to eight experts from across the globe. Chen, whose research is at the intersection philosophy, physics and mathematics, will help provide the philosophical implications of the entire project, focusing on the nature of being: quantum ontology and the arrow of time.

The arrow of time is, in essence, the one-way direction that gives us the impression of time passing, marked by different moments in time. Physical decay is a key component to the arrow of time, for example ice melting or cream dissolving in hot coffee. Chen’s work will apply this understanding of quantum physics to build an interdisciplinary perspective of a relatively new field: quantum biology.

“Biological systems, like human beings or birds or any kind of living organism, have a way of displaying arrows of time as well,” Chen said, including cell decay, diseases and even wrinkles on our faces. All are “symptoms” of the biological arrows of time.

“Those wrinkles in the biological, molecular structure — the deep down cellular structure — are a kind of symptom for the passage of time,” he said, “and we don't know much about biological arrows of time.”

Research is already underway, and outcomes include a series of papers and book chapters synthesizing new conceptual and theoretical understanding of the arrow of time. Conferences and workshops in the United Kingdom, San Diego and Los Angeles are also planned, and there is a significant objective to reach a wide, public audience to inspire the next generation of researchers.

But what does research of this scope actually look like for Chen, beyond reading, talking to biologists and writing?

“The idea is to think about connections among topics,” Chen said. “Philosophers ask ‘why’ questions and then how to satisfy these questions. What is the puzzle about the arrow of time? What is a good explanation of the puzzle, or a good explanation in general? And then do these answers hold up to scrutiny?

“I’m curious, and I’m interested in learning more from my collaborators on the grant.”

Learn more about The Quantum Arrow of Time research program, and Chen’s own work.

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Updated May 2022