Subj: [illusions] Time, Space,
Obsolete in New View of Universe
Date: 11/20/99 8:44:54 PM Pacific Standard Time
From: firstname.lastname@example.org (Arlene)
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Time, Space Obsolete in New View of Universe
Many physicists are embracing a revolutionary, still mysterious idea
string theory. The concept rejects several familiar notions and includes
existence of 11 dimensions.
By K.C. COLE, LA Times Science Writer
Ever since early astronomers yanked Earth from center stage in the
solar system some 500 years ago, scientists have been pulling the rug
from under people's basic beliefs.
"The history of physics," says Harvard physicist Andrew
the history of giving up cherished ideas."
No idea has been harder to give up, however--for physicists and
laypeople alike--than everyday notions of space and time, the
"where" and "when" of the universe and everything in it.
Einstein's unsettling insights more than 80 years ago showed that
static space and fixed time were flimsy facades, thinly veiling a cosmos
where seconds and meters ooze like mud and the rubbery fabric of
warps into an unseen fourth dimension. About the same time, the new
mechanical" understanding of the atom revealed that space and time are
inherently jittery and uncertain.
Now, some physicists are taking this revolutionary line of
step further: If their theories are right, in the words of Edward Witten
the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, space and time may be
Concurs physicist Nathan Seiberg, also of the institute: "I am
certain that space and time are illusions. These are primitive notions
will be replaced by something more sophisticated."
That conclusion may not affect anyone's morning commute. But it is
rocking the foundations of physics--as well as causing metaphysical
reverberations that inevitably follow major changes in our fundamental
understanding of how the universe works.
The impetus behind this tumult is an idea that has become
dominant in modern physics: string theory. According to string theory,
most basic ingredients in the universe are no longer point-like
the familiar electrons and quarks. Instead, they are unimaginably small
vibrating strings of some unknown fundamental stuff.
String theory suggests that different configurations of strings
different harmonic chords--just as a piano produces a sound different
that of a flute. The vibrating string gives rise to the particles, and
way the string vibrates determines each particle's properties. This all
place in a convoluted landscape of 11-dimensional space.
It is a concept so strange that even theoretical physicists
understand it. String theory offers a universe bizarre beyond imagining:
Under powerful enough magnification, every known particle in the
would resemble a complex origami folded out of sheets or strings of the
familiar spatial dimensions, plus one dimension of time, plus seven
dimensions of space.
While string theory is far from proven, or even well formulated,
consequences would be enormous. Among other things, it would:
* Reshape fundamental notions of space and time, energy and
expanding the number of dimensions to 11.
* Give the first comprehensive list of all the ingredients that
* Reveal that every tick of a clock, every barking dog, every
star, can be described by one master mathematical equation.
Being Involved in a 'Scientific Revolution'
Which practical fruits will flow from the new view of the universe
remain unknown. But in the past, fundamental revolutions in physics
have--against everyone's wildest expectations--flowered into everything
cell phones to brain scans.
"I've been in physics for 35 years, and this is the first time
felt I'm involved in a scientific revolution," said Stanford physicist
Leonard Susskind. "In the last five or six years, I really have the
we're doing something as crazy, as interesting, as new as the revolution
Perhaps most revolutionary of all, it appears that space and time
aren't essential ingredients of a universe ruled by strings.
To grasp the extent of the current upheaval in physics, consider
has happened to our basic understanding of space and time over the past
Until the early 20th century, scientists, like laypeople, assumed
space and time were fixed--like huge, metaphysical clocks and rulers in
firmament. Objects that moved in this unchanging background could be
down to definite positions.
"Everything was where it was when it was supposed to be, and that
all there was to it," said Strominger. "Space-time was out there. You
count on it."
Then, Einstein revealed that space and time were woven into a
fabric that deforms like so much Silly Putty; indeed, it is the warping
the fabric of space-time by massive objects that produces the force of
gravity. We perceive gravity as a "force" only because we can't directly
perceive the fourth dimension.
Because gravity affects everything, everything gets warped by its
pervasive influence--including the clocks and rulers we use to measure
Even more unsettling, Einstein's now well-proven theories showed
the fabric of space-time, with its three dimensions of space and one of
is not a passive backdrop for the events and objects in the universe.
Space-time also creates objects and events.
Imagine the universe as a performance on a stage. The stage of
space-time does not act like a static floor. It also pulls and pushes
Quantum mechanics introduced even more uncertainty. In the
realm, the entire concept of fixed particles in time and space fuzzes
into an ever-shifting haze of probabilities. Trying to pin down a
particle's location or motion is like trying to put your finger on a
snowflake; the very act of measurement destroys the thing being
"That means . . . space-time is an uncertain concept, so you've
your firm footing," said Strominger. "And that is a deep conceptual
have not yet come to grips with."
Now string theory appears to be propelling this evolution one
perhaps inevitable, step further.
Certain approaches to string theory dispense with the notion of
space-time completely. Yet, they seem to produce the same set of results
string theories with normal space and time.
To some theorists, this strongly suggests that space and time are
superfluous. Space and time as fundamental concepts may be about to
altogether--literally pulling the floor out from under physics.
"The notion of space-time is something we've cherished for
years, and it's clearly something we're going to have to give up," said
Even before string theory enjoyed its recent successes, physicists
they would have to grapple again with the inadequacy of our
space and time. The reason is a glaring mismatch between gravity, which
large-scale events in the cosmos, and quantum mechanics, which rules
Both gravity and quantum theory are well understood and have
decades of experimental tests. Quantum mechanics gave rise to lasers and
computers; Einstein's theory of gravity predicted everything from black
to the bending of light by stars, insights since proved by observations.
The problem is, the two theories are mutually exclusive. The space
time of quantum theory don't mesh with the space and time of Einstein's
theory of gravity, or General Relativity. In the language of gravity,
quantum mechanical aspects of the universe turn into gobbledygook. And
"We can describe the world that we see and experience completely,"
UC Santa Barbara physicist Sean Carroll, "but the explanations are
Some Things Don't Affect Everyday Life
Until recently, physicists found it easy to sweep this
under the rug--in part because they didn't know how to deal with it, in
because it doesn't make a difference in our everyday lives.
The inherently uncertain behavior of subatomic particles affects
things as small as atoms, not everyday objects like chairs; the warping
space and time shapes the orbits of planets, but is too diluted to make
itself felt on the scale of our own backyards.
Where the large-scale fabric of space-time gets tangled in the
lives of atoms, however, chaos erupts; space and time fail to make
increasingly, physicists find themselves face to face with situations
quantum mechanics and the extreme warping of space-time collide.
For example, physicists won't be able to understand either the
of black holes or the origins of the universe until they come to grips
how gravity behaves at extremely small scales. Indeed, the ultimate
laboratory for studying the collision of these two opposing realms is
infinitely compressed dollop of space-time that gave rise to the Big
That cataclysmic speck, physicists believe, contained everything
our universe, so it would have packed a huge gravitational wallop. At
same time, it would have been small enough to behave according to
Because physicists can't study the Big Bang directly, they wind
the clock with equations and thought experiments--imagining what might
happen, for example, if time really reversed.
The results are disturbing: As the universe gets smaller and
the warping of space-time gets stronger and quantum uncertainties get
progressively larger. Finally, the uncertainty becomes larger than any
interval that could possibly be measured. Measurement becomes
Time at the first moment dissolves into nonsense.
"If you ask questions about what happened at very early times,"
Harvard physicist Sidney Coleman, "and you compute the answer, the
answer is: Time doesn't mean anything."
Or consider what happens inside a black hole--a region where
so strong that space-time curls in on itself, in effect, shutting out
rest of the universe. Black holes are swirling pits of pure space-time.
according to Einstein's theory, their enormous gravity causes them to
collapse to an infinite point of zero size--what physicists call
Is there such a nonsensical thing as infinite density packed into zero
"I remember puzzling about that when I was a kid," said Gary
of the Institute for Theoretical Physics at UC Santa Barbara. "I thought
I went to college I would find out the answer . . . I'm still waiting."
In the pinched-off centers of black holes, space-time appears to
stop. "The singularity acts like an edge," said Horowitz. "You run into
and it's the end. There's no time after that; there's no space after
But we don't think physics should end [there]. That's why we're trying
find new laws of physics, which will describe what happens beyond that
Black holes, said Princeton physicist John Archibald Wheeler,
us that space can be crumpled like a piece of paper into an
dot, that time can be extinguished like a blown-out flame, and that the
of physics that we regard as 'sacred,' as immutable, are anything but."
Space, Time May Be Doomed as Concepts
String theory has emerged as the only viable candidate to
differences between gravity and quantum mechanics. It does so by
the notion of infinitely small particles. The loop of string is the
"You never get to the point where the disasters happen," said
of the Institute for Advanced Study. "String theory prevents it."
But rather than rescuing space and time, string theory only seems
make their doom as fundamental concepts more imminent.
When they are incorporated into string theory, "space and time get
confused," said Seiberg. "It's telling us that the traditional
of space and time will evaporate and there will be a more interesting
Some string theorists believe that space and time somehow emerged
the early universe out of the disorganized, 11-dimensional strings. The
strings are "shards" of space and time, said physicist Brian Greene of
Imagine grains of sand on the surface of a drum. If you tap the
over and over at the same place, the sand falls into patterns--like iron
filings around a magnet.
Did space and time emerge in the same way, as resonant patterns of
Trying to make sense of such an idea is a struggle even for
"String theory has been giving us a lot of clues," said
"but we haven't been able to put them together into a unified picture."
Even philosophically, the challenge of replacing space and time is
daunting. What does it mean to inhabit a spaceless, timeless universe?
and rulers not only measure hours and inches; they tell us where we've
and where we're going.
"When we talk about space and time, we think there is something
and we live in it," said David Gross, director of the Institute for
Theoretical Physics. The idea that space and time might be illusions, he
said, "is very disturbing. Where are we? When are we?"
The almost unfathomable scenario of a universe without space and
in turn calls into question the very connection between cause and
time can break down, how can one event be placed clearly "before" or
Hypothetically, if there is no clear difference between now and
instant after, how can we say whether the gunshot caused death--or death
caused the gunshot?
"We normally think of causality as a basic property," said
"Something effects something else. But when you're getting rid of space
time . . . are we sure that causality is going to be preserved?"
New views of time could lead to even more bizarre
instance, more than two dimensions of time, a theory being worked on by
physicist Itzhak Bars, among others.
Whatever the outcome of these efforts, it's clear, said Greene,
"space is undergoing a drastic rearrangement of its basic pieces; we
understand string theory until we make a major breakthrough in notions
space and time."
If Greene and his colleagues are right, expanding the universe
dimensions and looping it into strings are only the beginning. On the
looms a new kind of physics, where space and time melt down completely.
"The real change that's around the corner [is] in the way we think
about space and time," said Gross. "We haven't come to grips with what
Einstein taught us. But that's coming. And that will make the world
seem much stranger than any of us can imagine."
* * *
Next: Caltech's savior of string theory
* * *
The Fabric of Space-Time
As the eye sees them, space and time are woven into a smooth
of four-dimensional space-time. At close magnification, however, the
uncertainty of the subatomic realm (quantum mechanics) disrupts this
landscape, creating submicroscopic chaos.
* * *
Source: The Elegant Universe by Brian Greene
* * *
According to string theory, unimaginably small vibrating strings
the building blocks of everything in the cosmos. This differs from
theories of subatomic physics, in which particles meet and exchange
specific points in space and time. Under string theory, strings spread
these interactions over space and time. This "spreading out" eliminates
mathematical problems that crop up when infinitely small points collide.
Researched by NONA YATES/Los Angeles Times
* * *
In string theory, each point in everyday space-time also contains
extra seven dimensions curled up so small that we can never perceive
The exact forms of these curled-up dimensions determine all the
forces in the universe. One possibility for the geometry of the
dimensions is shown here; because only two dimensions can be shown on a
piece of paper, this only hints at its complexity.
If string theory is right, each movement of your finger travels
only through the familiar three dimensions of space and one of time, but
through seven curled-up dimensions.
* * *
Source: The Elegant Universe by Brian Greene; Researched by NONA
Copyright 1999 Los Angeles Times
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