November 17, 2008


Using Causality to Solve the Puzzle of Quantum Spacetime: A new approach to the decades-old problem of quantum gravity goes back to basics and shows how the building blocks of space and time pull themselves together (Jerzy Jurkiewicz, Renate Loll and Jan Ambjorn, June 25, 2008, Scientific American Magazine)

How did space and time come about? How did they form the smooth four-dimensional emptiness that serves as a backdrop for our physical world? What do they look like at the very tiniest distances? Questions such as these lie at the outer boundary of modern science and are driving the search for a theory of quantum gravity—the long-sought unification of Einstein's general theory of relativity with quantum theory. Relativity theory describes how spacetime on large scales can take on countless different shapes, producing what we perceive as the force of gravity. In contrast, quantum theory describes the laws of physics at atomic and subatomic scales, ignoring gravitational effects altogether. A theory of quantum gravity aims to describe the nature of spacetime on the very smallest scales—the voids in between the smallest known elementary particles—by quantum laws and possibly explain it in terms of some fundamental constituents.

Superstring theory is often described as the leading candidate to fill this role, but it has not yet provided an answer to any of these pressing questions. Instead, following its own inner logic, it has uncovered ever more complex layers of new, exotic ingredients and relations among them, leading to a bewildering variety of possible outcomes.

Over the past few years our collaboration has developed a promising alternative to this much traveled superhighway of theoretical physics. It follows a recipe that is almost embarrassingly simple: take a few very basic ingredients, assemble them according to well-known quantum principles (nothing exotic), stir well, let settle—and you have created quantum spacetime. The process is straightforward enough to simulate on a laptop.

To put it differently, if we think of empty spacetime as some immaterial substance, consisting of a very large number of minute, structureless pieces, and if we then let these microscopic building blocks interact with one another according to simple rules dictated by gravity and quantum theory, they will spontaneously arrange themselves into a whole that in many ways looks like the observed universe. It is similar to the way that molecules assemble themselves into crystalline or amorphous solids.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at November 17, 2008 6:08 AM
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