Thought Experiments / Unification


Are Space and Time Fundamental?

Imagine describing our universe to an alien from an alternate dimension. Where would you start?

You might reasonably begin by explaining that we live in three dimensions of space and one dimension of time. Space and time are so fundamental to our understanding of the universe that they are woven into nearly every equation in physics. They are the words in which we speak the language of nature—so tried, tested, and true that we don’t even know how to talk about the cosmos without engaging space and time in the conversation.

But what if it turns out that space and time are not the fundamental infrastructure of our cosmos—what if they are themselves products of some deeper physics?

This idea is called emergence. We see it in nature, as when fish school or birds flock. If you were only to study an individual fish or bird, you would never predict how they would come together as a group. Yet each one “knows” simple rules that, when combined, create a wide range of agile and elegant behaviors. Could it be that physicists have been studying flocks all along, not realizing that it’s the birds that are truly fundamental?

“There aren’t many things in quantum gravity that everyone agrees on,” says Eleanor Knox, a philosopher at King’s College London who specializes in the philosophy of physics. “Yet the one thing many people seemed to agree on in quantum gravity was that we were going to have to cope with space and time not being fundamental.”

It sounds radical, but physics has a long and proud history of spearheading exactly this kind of coup. “Historically, whenever we thought something was fundamental, it turns out that it is not,” says Nathan Seiberg, a theoretical physicist at the Institute for Advanced Study. Kepler, for instance, believed that the Platonic solids were the fundamental constituents of the universe. Today we know better. In the 17th century, scientists thought that cold was a substance that could flow from one place to another, chilling your doorstep or tip of your nose. Now we understand that heat and cold are just another way of talking about the statistical properties of a collection of molecules. Of course, that doesn’t mean that it feels any less real when you burn your tongue on your hot cocoa.

So why are physicists picking on space? Relativity delivered the first strike. “In relativity, space and time are not rigid. They are dynamic,” says Seiberg. Building all of physics on such a malleable infrastructure is akin to constructing your house on a foundation of Jello.

More alarmingly to theorists, our ability to measure features in space is intrinsically limited. A ruler can’t measure distances smaller than the width of its painted markings; the resolution of a microscope is constrained by the wavelength of the light in which it makes images; even scanning tunneling microscopes are limited by the physical size of their probe tips.

Can’t we just build a better microscope? “It’s not because we don’t have the budget to build a powerful enough machine,” explains Seiberg. If we somehow tried to make an infinitely small measuring device, that device would become so dense that it would warp the fabric of space. The conclusion: “Space itself is ambiguous,” says Seiberg. Strike two.

Space also took a hit from an unlikely foe: the hologram. We think of holograms as the dazzling, silvery images on postcards and credit cards: two-dimensional objects that project three-dimensional pictures. More generally, though, a hologram is anything—even an equation—that encodes an extra dimension’s worth of information. It turns out that you can write equations that describe our universe perfectly well using different combinations of spatial dimensions, creating mathematical holograms that are indistinguishable from reality. Like a book that can be translated into many disparate languages without losing a syllable of meaning, our universe seems to tell a story that is independent of the words in which we have always chosen to express it.

Finally, physicists have known for some time that their descriptions of space start to break down when they’re applied to the strange-but-true environments inside black holes and close to the time of big bang. In such cases, the familiar equations start popping out infinities—nonsense answers that suggest that the equations are missing some essential machinery. “Something else should kick in,” says Seiberg.

But what is that something else? “I don’t think I have an answer to that,” says Seiberg. Knox also leaves the door open to as-yet-unknown possibilities: “Whatever it is that’s fundamental, it’s not the stuff we have a handle on right now.” Morever, Seiberg adds that though theorists have assembled a strong case that space is emergent, time presents a more difficult problem. “In order to understand emergent time, we need a complete revolution in the way we think about physics.”

Letting go of space and time without ready replacements may seem like a surefire way to plunge into the abyss of abstraction. But it may be only by loosening our grip that we can come to grasp what is truly fundamental.

Go Deeper
Editor’s picks for further reading

Discover Magazine: Newsflash: Space and Time May Not Exist
If time isn’t fundamental, what is it?

FQXi: Breaking the Universe’s Speed Limit
John Donoghue investigates the possibility that the speed of light is not a constant.

FQXi: Melting Spacetime
Joanna Karczemarek investigates how space and time could emerge from deeper physics.

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Kate Becker

    Kate Becker is the editor of The Nature of Reality, where it is her mission to blow your mind with physics. Kate studied physics at Oberlin College and astronomy at Cornell University, and spent seven years as senior researcher for NOVA and NOVA scienceNOW. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook.