Credit: Chris Gash

Topics: Astrophysics, Black Holes, Einstein, Quantum Mechanics, Relativity

Physicists believe that at the tiniest scales, space emerges from quanta. What might these building blocks look like?

People have always taken space for granted. It is just emptiness, after all—a backdrop to everything else. Time, likewise, simply ticks on incessantly. But if physicists have learned anything from the long slog to unify their theories, it is that space and time form a system of such staggering complexity that it may defy our most ardent efforts to understand.

Albert Einstein saw what was coming as early as November 1916. A year earlier he had formulated his general theory of relativity, which postulates that gravity is not a force that propagates through space but a feature of spacetime itself. When you throw a ball high into the air, it arcs back to the ground because Earth distorts the spacetime around it, so that the paths of the ball and the ground intersect again. In a letter to a friend, Einstein contemplated the challenge of merging general relativity with his other brainchild, the nascent theory of quantum mechanics. That would not merely distort space but dismantle it. Mathematically, he hardly knew where to begin. “How much have I already plagued myself in this way!” he wrote.

Einstein never got very far. Even today there are almost as many contending ideas for a quantum theory of gravity as scientists working on the topic. The disputes obscure an important truth: the competing approaches all say space is derived from something deeper—an idea that breaks with 2,500 years of scientific and philosophical understanding.

A kitchen magnet neatly demonstrates the problem that physicists face. It can grip a paper clip against the gravity of the entire Earth. Gravity is weaker than magnetism or than electric or nuclear forces. Whatever quantum effects it has are weaker still. The only tangible evidence that these processes occur at all is the mottled pattern of matter in the very early universe—thought to be caused, in part, by quantum fluctuations of the gravitational field.

Black holes are the best test case for quantum gravity. “It's the closest thing we have to experiments,” says Ted Jacobson of the University of Maryland, College Park. He and other theorists study black holes as theoretical fulcrums. What happens when you take equations that work perfectly well under laboratory conditions and extrapolate them to the most extreme conceivable situation? Will some subtle flaw manifest itself?

What Is Spacetime? George Musser, Scientific American

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