One of the biggest problems with quantum physics – apart from the way it attracts new age woo – is that it doesn’t reconcile with Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity. The two don’t meet when it comes to gravity. And so one of the major thrusts of physics since the 1940s has been to find that elusive ‘theory of everything’.
The COBE satellite map of the Cosmic Microwave Background. NASA, public domain, via Wikipedia.
We shouldn’t suppose, of course, that it’s ‘Einstein vs the world’. Our friend Albert was also pivotal to the development of quantum physics – he published, for example, the first paper describing quantum entanglement in 1935.
But he didn’t like this ‘spooky action at a distance’. To Einstein, intuitively, there was something missing from what he and fellow physicists Paul Dirac, Werner Heisenberg, Niels Bohr and others were finding. The so-called Copenhagen interpretation of their observations – which remains the basis of quantum physics today – didn’t ring true. The effects were clear enough (in fact, today we’ve built computers that exploit them), but the explanation wasn’t right.
Einstein’s answer was that he and his colleagues hadn’t yet found everything. And for my money, if Einstein figured there was something yet to discover – well, the onus is on to look for it.
The problem is that, since then, we haven’t found that missing element. All kinds of efforts have been made to reconcile quantum physics – which operates on micro-scales, below a Planck length – with the deterministic macro-universe that Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity described.
None have been compelling, not least because while the math works out for some ideas – like string theory – there has been absolutely no proof that these answers really exist. And while it’s tempting to be drawn by the way the language we’re using (maths) works, we do need to know it’s describing something real.
The Horsehead nebula, Barnard 33, as seen by Hubble. Wonderful, wonderful imagery.
Of late, though, there have been proposals that Einstein was quite right. There WAS something missing. Not only that, but the Large Hadron Collider has a good chance of finding it soon, as it’s ramped up to max power.
Here’s how it works. We live in a four-dimensional universe (movement up-down, left-right, forward-back and time). It’s possible other dimensions and universes exist – this is a postulate of string theory. Another idea is that gravity ‘leaks’ between these universes. And this is where the LHC comes in. Currently, in its souped-up new form, the LHC can generate enough energy to produce a micro-sized black hole.
Exactly what this would mean, though, is up for debate. The results could point to some very different models of the universe than the one we’ve been wrestling with since the 1940s.
It could mean that string theory is correct – and provide the first proof of it.
Or, if the black hole is formed while the LHC is running at specified energies, it could mean that ‘rainbow gravity’ is correct. This is a controversial hypothesis – built from Einstein’s theory of Special Relativity – in which the curvature of space-time (caused by the presence of mass) is also affected by the act of observing it. This implies that gravity (which is a function of that curvature) affects particles of different energies, differently. Basically, the wavelength of light (red) is affected differently than a higher (blue). We can’t detect the variance in normal Earth environments, but it should be detectable around a black hole. And if it’s true then – by implication – the Big Bang never happened, because the Big Bang is a function of the way gravity behaves in General Relativity. It also makes a lot of the paradoxes and mysteries associated with bleeding-edge physics go away, because according to rainbow gravity, space-time does not exist below a certain (Planck level) scale.
Another possibility is that the ability of the LHC to make black holes could mean that a ‘parallel universe’ theory is right, and the Copenhagen intepretation isn’t the right explanation for the ‘quantum’ effects we’re seeing. This last is yet another explanation for quantum effects. By this argument what we’re seeing is not weirdness at all, but merely ‘jittering’ at very small scales where multiple universes overlap. These are not the ‘multiple universes’ that Hugh Everett theorised to follow quantum wave function collapse. They are normal Einsteinian universes, where particles are behaving in a perfectly ordinary manner. The math, again, can be made to work out – and actually was, last year, at Griffith University in Queensland, Australia.
It also suggests that our friend Albert was right …again.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015