(ORDO NEWS) — In the last decades of his life, Albert Einstein hoped to combine his description of gravity with existing models of electromagnetism into a unified theory.
This is a search that continues to trouble theoretical physicists to this day. Two of our best models of reality – Einstein’s general theory of relativity and the laws of quantum mechanics – are as incompatible as oil and water.
Whatever their combination looks like, it will almost certainly reveal the foundations of the universe, quite unlike anything we can imagine.
A recently published mathematical discovery describes the emergence of gravity in the so-called “holographic” model of the universe; it was discovered by a team of researchers from the Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the United States.
As strange as it may sound, this is the best place to start our quest to fully understand how space, time, and matter arise from deeper laws.
“When we look for answers to questions in physics, we often come up with new discoveries in mathematics,” says Chalmers University mathematician Daniel Persson.
“The interaction is especially noticeable in the search for quantum gravity, where it is difficult to conduct experiments.”
Despite their discrete ability to predict the behavior of everything from electron jumps to black hole collisions with uncanny accuracy, quantum physics and general relativity emerge from two very different systems of thought.
The quantum universe is blocky but hazy when viewed up close, like pixels that blur into a confusing mess of colors when you press your face against the screen.
General relativity relies on a seamless continuum of space and time that curves in response to mass with clear conviction, even when viewed on the smallest scale.
There are other metaphors we can use to describe how the universe might work, each with its own mathematical structure, each a little more obscure than the last.
Some include adding invisible dimensions wrapped in mind-blowing geometric shapes. The holographic principle used here by the researchers is a strange example that involves the removal of dimensions.
You can think of it this way: all the information about how particles collide and approach is encoded on something more like a flat surface than the 3D space we think we live in, not unlike how there is a sense of depth when you look at a flat holographic sticker.
There is a good reason to think about physics this way. Quantum versions of gravity, embedded in 4D spacetime, quickly become extremely complex and unworkable.
If our spacetime were to curve far enough to create something like a cylinder, it would necessarily have a “flat” boundary.
The new article effectively mixes the various models that govern particles and their waves, and how they transform into fields in a holographic setting, to find the mathematical equivalent of gravity acting as a natural consequence of these interactions.
The new work may also point the way to explanations for other large-scale phenomena, such as the fuel that expands the universe, which we currently refer to as dark energy.
No matter how elegant mathematics may be, theorists have the luxury of filling their work with caveats and assumptions in order to find intriguing new patterns.
For example, whether our universe is curved enough to have the boundary needed for the holographic principle is itself an open question that few cosmologists are convinced of.
However, when you’re trying to solve a problem that even Einstein couldn’t solve, it’s a good idea to start with the unimaginable.
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