Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Causality to
Solve the
Puzzle of

From Scientific American:

Quantum theory and Einstein’s general theory of relativity are famously at loggerheads. Physicists have long tried to reconcile them in a theory of quantum gravity—with only limited success.

A new approach introduces no exotic components but rather provides a novel way to apply existing laws to individual motes of spacetime. The motes fall into place of their own accord, like molecules in a crystal.

This approach shows how four-dimensional spacetime as we know it can emerge dynamically from more basic ingredients. It also suggests that spacetime shades from a smooth arena to a funky fractal on small scales.

Editor's Note: Click here for the web animations mentioned in the article

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.

Spacetime, then, might be more like a simple stir fry than an elaborate wedding cake. Moreover, unlike other approaches to quantum gravity our recipe is very robust. When we vary the details in our simulations, the result hardly changes. This robustness gives reason to believe we are on the right track.

If the outcome were sensitive to where we put down each piece of this enormous ensemble, we could generate an enormous number of baroque shapes, each a priori equally likely to occur—so we would lose all explanatory power for why the universe turned out as it did.
Similar mechanisms of self-assembly and self-organization occur across physics, biology and other fields of science.

A beautiful example is the behavior of large flocks of birds, such as European starlings. Individual birds interact only with a small number of nearby birds; no leader tells them what to do. Yet the flock still forms and moves as a whole. The flock possesses collective, or emergent, properties that are not obvious in each bird's behavior.

Read the whole thing.