The Time-Identity Tradeoff

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Distinguishability plays a major role in quantum and statistical physics. When particles are identical their wave function must be either symmetric or antisymmetric under permutations and the number of microscopic states, which determines entropy, is counted up to permutations. When the particles are distinguishable, wavefunctions have no symmetry and each permutation is a different microstate. This binary and discontinuous classification raises a few questions: one may wonder what happens if particles are almost identical, or when the property that distinguishes between them is irrelevant to the physical interactions in a given system. Here I sketch a general answer to these questions. For any pair of non-identical particles there is a timescale, τd, required for a measurement to resolve the differences between them. Below τd, particles seem identical, above it - different, and the uncertainty principle provides a lower bound for τd. Thermal systems admit a conjugate temperature scale, Td. Above this temperature the system appears to equilibrate before it resolves the differences between particles, below this temperature the system identifies these differences before equilibration. As the physical differences between particles decline towards zero, τd→ ∞ and Td→ 0.

Original languageEnglish
Article number38
JournalFoundations of Physics
Issue number2
StatePublished - Apr 2022

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
The author gratefully acknowledges fruitful discussions with David Kessler, Tamar Shnerb and Yitzhak Rabin.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2022, The Author(s), under exclusive licence to Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, part of Springer Nature.


  • Entropy
  • Gibbs paradox
  • Measurement time
  • Quantum measurement


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