The Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time, and the Texture of Reality - Brian Greene (2004)


Chapter 16. The Future of an Allusion


Physicists spend a large part of their lives in a state of confusion. It’s an occupational hazard. To excel in physics is to embrace doubt while walking the winding road to clarity. The tantalizing discomfort of perplexity is what inspires otherwise ordinary men and women to extraordinary feats of ingenuity and creativity; nothing quite focuses the mind like dissonant details awaiting harmonious resolution. But en route to explanation—during their search for new frameworks to address outstanding questions—theorists must tread with considered step through the jungle of bewilderment, guided mostly by hunches, inklings, clues, and calculations. And as the majority of researchers have a tendency to cover their tracks, discoveries often bear little evidence of the arduous terrain that’s been covered. But don’t lose sight of the fact that nothing comes easily. Nature does not give up her secrets lightly.

In this book we’ve looked at numerous chapters in the story of our species’ attempt to understand space and time. And although we have encountered some deep and astonishing insights, we’ve yet to reach that ultimate eureka moment when all confusion abates and total clarity prevails. We are, most definitely, still wandering in the jungle. So, where from here? What is the next chapter in spacetime’s story? Of course, no one knows for sure. But in recent years a number of clues have come to light, and although they’ve yet to be integrated into a coherent picture, many physicists believe they are hinting at the next big upheaval in our understanding of the cosmos. In due course, space and time as currently conceived may be recognized as mere allusions to more subtle, more profound, and more fundamental principles underlying physical reality. In the final chapter of this account, let’s consider some of these clues and catch a glimpse of where we may be headed in our continuing quest to grasp the fabric of the cosmos.

Are Space and Time Fundamental Concepts?

The German philosopher Immanuel Kant suggested that it would be not merely difficult to do away with space and time when thinking about and describing the universe, it would be downright impossible. Frankly, I can see where Kant was coming from. Whenever I sit, close my eyes, and try to think about things while somehow not depicting them as occupying space or experiencing the passage of time, I fall short. Way short. Space, through context, or time, through change, always manages to seep in. Ironically, the closest I come to ridding my thoughts of a direct spacetime association is when I’m immersed in a mathematical calculation (often having to do with spacetime!), because the nature of the exercise seems able to engulf my thoughts, if only momentarily, in an abstract setting that seems devoid of space and time. But the thoughts themselves and the body in which they take place are, all the same, very much part of familiar space and time. Truly eluding space and time makes escaping your shadow a cakewalk.

Nevertheless, many of today’s leading physicists suspect that space and time, although pervasive, may not be truly fundamental. Just as the hardness of a cannonball emerges from the collective properties of its atoms, and just as the smell of a rose emerges from the collective properties of its molecules, and just as the swiftness of a cheetah emerges from the collective properties of its muscles, nerves, and bones, so too, the properties of space and time—our preoccupation for much of this book— may also emerge from the collective behavior of some other, more fundamental constituents, which we’ve yet to identify.

Physicists sometimes sum up this possibility by saying that spacetime may be an illusion—a provocative depiction, but one whose meaning requires proper interpretation. After all, if you were to be hit by a speeding cannonball, or inhale the alluring fragrance of a rose, or catch sight of a blisteringly fast cheetah, you wouldn’t deny their existence simply because each is composed of finer, more basic entities. To the contrary, I think most of us would agree that these agglomerations of matter exist, and moreover, that there is much to be learned from studying how their familiar characteristics emerge from their atomic constituents. But because they are composites, what we wouldn’t try to do is build a theory of the universe based on cannonballs, roses, or cheetahs. Similarly, if space and time turn out to be composite entities, it wouldn’t mean that their familiar manifestations, from Newton’s bucket to Einstein’s gravity, are illusory; there is little doubt that space and time will retain their all-embracing positions in experiential reality, regardless of future developments in our understanding. Instead, composite spacetime would mean that an even more elemental description of the universe—one that is spaceless and timeless—has yet to be discovered. The illusion, then, would be one of our own making: the erroneous belief that the deepest understanding of the cosmos would bring space and time into the sharpest possible focus. Just as the hardness of a cannonball, the smell of the rose, and the speed of the cheetah disappear when you examine matter at the atomic and subatomic level, space and time may similarly dissolve when scrutinized with the most fundamental formulation of nature’s laws.

That spacetime may not be among the fundamental cosmic ingredients may strike you as somewhat far-fetched. And you may well be right. But rumors of spacetime’s impending departure from deep physical law are not born of zany theorizing. Instead, this idea is strongly suggested by a number of well-reasoned considerations. Let’s take a look at some of the most prominent.

Quantum Averaging

In Chapter 12 we discussed how the fabric of space, much like everything else in our quantum universe, is subject to the jitters of quantum uncertainty. It is these fluctuations, you’ll recall, that run roughshod over point-particle theories, preventing them from providing a sensible quantum theory of gravity. By replacing point particles with loops and snippets, string theory spreads out the fluctuations—substantially reducing their magnitude—and this is how it yields a successful unification of quantum mechanics and general relativity. Nevertheless, the diminished spacetime fluctuations certainly still exist (as illustrated in the next-to-last level of magnification in Figure 12.2), and within them we can find important clues regarding the fate of spacetime.

First, we learn that the familiar space and time that suffuse our thoughts and support our equations emerge from a kind of averaging process. Think of the pixelated image you see when your face is a few inches from a television screen. This image is very different from what you see at a more comfortable distance, because once you can no longer resolve individual pixels, your eyes combine them into an average that looks smooth. But notice that it’s only through the averaging process that the pixels produce a familiar, continuous image. In a similar vein, the microscopic structure of spacetime is riddled with random undulations, but we aren’t directly aware of them because we lack the ability to resolve spacetime on such minute scales. Instead, our eyes, and even our most powerful equipment, combine the undulations into an average, much like what happens with television pixels. Because the undulations are random, there are typically as many “up” undulations in a small region as there are “down,” so when averaged they tend to cancel out, yielding a placid spacetime. But, as in the television analogy, it’s only because of the averaging process that a smooth and tranquil form for spacetime emerges.

Quantum averaging provides a down-to-earth interpretation of the assertion that familiar spacetime may be illusory. Averages are useful for many purposes but, by design, they do not provide a sharp picture of underlying details. Although the average family in the U.S. has 2.2 children, you’d be in a bind were I to ask to visit such a family. And although the national average price for a gallon of milk is $2.783, you’re unlikely to find a store selling it for exactly this price. So, too, familiar spacetime, itself the result of an averaging process, may not describe the details of something we’d want to call fundamental. Space and time may only be approximate, collective conceptions, extremely useful in analyzing the universe on all but ultramicroscopic scales, yet as illusory as a family with 2.2 children.

A second and related insight is that the increasingly intense quantum jitters that arise on decreasing scales suggest that the notion of being able to divide distances or durations into ever smaller units likely comes to an end at around the Planck length (10−33 centimeters) and Planck time (10−43 seconds). We encountered this idea in Chapter 12, where we emphasized that, although the notion is thoroughly at odds with our usual experiences of space and time, it is not particularly surprising that a property relevant to the everyday fails to survive when pushed into the micro-realm. And since the arbitrary divisibility of space and time is one of their most familiar everyday properties, the inapplicability of this concept on ultrasmall scales gives another hint that there is something else lurking in the microdepths—something that might be called the bare-bones substrate of spacetime—the entity to which the familiar notion of spacetime alludes. We expect that this ur-ingredient, this most elemental spacetime stuff, does not allow dissection into ever smaller pieces because of the violent fluctuations that would ultimately be encountered, and hence is quite unlike the large-scale spacetime we directly experience. It seems likely, therefore, that the appearance of the fundamental spacetime constituents—whatever they may be—is altered significantly through the averaging process by which they yield the spacetime of common experience.

Thus, looking for familiar spacetime in the deepest laws of nature may be like trying to take in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony solely note by single note or one of Monet’s haystack paintings solely brushstroke by single brushstroke. Like these masterworks of human expression, nature’s spacetime whole may be so different from its parts that nothing resembling it exists at the most fundamental level.

Geometry in Translation

Another consideration, one physicists call geometrical duality, also suggests that spacetime may not be fundamental, but suggests it from a very different viewpoint. Its description is a little more technical than quantum averaging, so feel free to go into skim mode if at any point this section gets too heavy. But because many researchers consider this material to be among string theory’s most emblematic features, it’s worth trying to get the gist of the ideas.

In Chapter 13 we saw how the five supposedly distinct string theories are actually different translations of one and the same theory. Among other things, we emphasized that this is a powerful realization because, when translated, supremely difficult questions sometimes become far simpler to answer. But there is a feature of the translation dictionary unifying the five theories that I’ve so far neglected to mention. Just as a question’s degree of difficulty can be changed radically by the translation from one string formulation to another, so, too, can the description of the geometrical form of spacetime. Here’s what I mean.

Because string theory requires more than the three space dimensions and one time dimension of common experience, we were motivated in Chapters 12 and 13 to take up the question of where the extra dimensions might be hiding. The answer we found is that they may be curled up into a size that, so far, has eluded detection because it’s smaller than we are able to probe experimentally. We also found that physics in our familiar big dimensions is dependent on the precise size and shape of the extra dimensions because their geometrical properties affect the vibrational patterns strings can execute. Good. Now for the part I left out.

The dictionary that translates questions posed in one string theory into different questions posed in another string theory also translates the geometry of the extra dimensions in the first theory into a different extra-dimensionalgeometry in the second theory. If, for example, you are studying the physical implications of, say, the Type IIA string theory with extra dimensions curled up into a particular size and shape, then every conclusion you reach can, at least in principle, be deduced by considering appropriately translated questions in, say, the Type IIB string theory. But the dictionary for carrying out the translation demands that the extra dimensions in the Type IIB string theory be curled up into a precise geometrical form that depends on—but generally differs from—the form given by the Type IIA theory. In short, a given string theory with curled-up dimensions in one geometrical form is equivalent to—is a translation of— another string theory with curled-up dimensions in a different geometrical form.

And the differences in spacetime geometry need not be minor. For example, if one of the extra dimensions of, say, the Type IIA string theory should be curled up into a circle, as in Figure 12.7, the translation dictionary shows that this is absolutely equivalent to the Type IIB string theory with one of its extra dimensions also curled up into a circle, but one whose radius is inversely proportional to the original. If one circle is tiny, the other is big, and vice versa—and yet there is absolutely no way to distinguish between the two geometries. (Expressing lengths as multiples of the Planck length, if one circle has radius R, the mathematical dictionary shows that the other circle has radius 1/R). You might think that you could easily and immediately distinguish between a big and a small dimension, but in string theory this is not always the case. All observations derive from the interactions of strings, and these two theories, the Type IIA with a big circular dimension and the Type IIB with a small circular dimension, are merely different translations of—different ways of expressing—the same physics. Every observation you describe within one string theory has an alternative and equally viable description within the other string theory, even though the language of each theory and the interpretation it gives may differ. (This is possible because there are two qualitatively different configurations for strings moving on a circular dimension: those in which the string is wrapped around the circle like a rubber band around a tin can, and those in which the string resides on a portion of the circle but does not wrap around it. The former have energies that are proportional to the radius of the circle [the larger the radius, the longer the wrapped strings are stretched, so the more energy they embody], while the latter have energies that are inversely proportional to the radius [the smaller the radius, the more hemmed in the strings are, so the more energetically they move because of quantum uncertainty]. Notice that if we were to replace the original circle by one of invertedradius, while also exchanging “wrapped” and “not wrapped” strings, physical energies—and, it turns out, physics more generally—would remain unaffected. This is exactly what the dictionary translating from the Type IIA theory to the Type IIB theory requires, and why two seemingly different geometries—a big and a small circular dimension—can be equivalent.)

A similar idea also holds when circular dimensions are replaced with the more complicated Calabi-Yau shapes introduced in Chapter 12. A given string theory with extra dimensions curled up into a particular Calabi-Yau shape gets translated by the dictionary into a different string theory with extra dimensions curled up into a different Calabi-Yau shape (one that is called the mirror or dual of the original). In these cases, not only can the sizes of the Calabi-Yaus differ, but so can their shapes, including the number and variety of their holes. But the translation dictionary ensures that they differ in just the right way, so that even though the extra dimensions have different sizes and shapes, the physics following from each theory is absolutely identical. (There are two types of holes in a given Calabi-Yau shape, but it turns out that string vibrational patterns—and hence physical implications—are sensitive only to the difference between the number of holes of each type. So if one Calabi-Yau has, say, two holes of the first kind and five of the second, while another Calabi-Yau has five holes of the first kind and two of the second, then even though they differ as geometrical shapes, they can give rise to identical physics.44)

From another perspective, then, this bolsters the suspicion that space is not a foundational concept. Someone describing the universe using one of the five string theories would claim that space, including the extra dimensions, has a particular size and shape, while someone else using one of the other string theories would claim that space, including the extra dimensions, has a different size and shape. Because the two observers would simply be using alternative mathematical descriptions of the same physical universe, it is not that one would be right and the other wrong. They would both be right, even though their conclusions about space— its size and shape—would differ. Note too, that it’s not that they would be slicing up spacetime in different, equally valid ways, as in special relativity. These two observers would fail to agree on the overall structure of spacetime itself. And that’s the point. If spacetime were really fundamental, most physicists expect that everyone, regardless of perspective—regardless of the language or theory used—would agree on its geometrical properties. But the fact that, at least within string theory, this need not be the case, suggests that spacetime may be a secondary phenomenon.

We are thus led to ask: if the clues described in the last two sections are pointing us in the right direction, and familiar spacetime is but a large-scale manifestation of some more fundamental entity, what is that entity and what are its essential properties? As of today, no one knows. But in the search for answers, researchers have found yet further clues, and the most important have come from thinking about black holes.

Wherefore the Entropy of Black Holes?

Black holes have the universe’s most inscrutable poker faces. From the outside, they appear just about as simple as you can get. The three distinguishing features of a black hole are its mass (which determines how big it is—the distance from its center to its event horizon, the enshrouding surface of no return), its electric charge, and how fast it’s spinning. That’s it. There are no more details to be gleaned from scrutinizing the visage that a black hole presents to the cosmos. Physicists sum this up with the saying “Black holes have no hair,” meaning that they lack the kinds of detailed features that allow for individuality. When you’ve seen one black hole with a given mass, charge, and spin (though you’ve learned these indirectly, through their effect on surrounding gas and stars, since black holes are black), you’ve definitely seen them all.

Nevertheless, behind their stony countenances, black holes harbor the greatest reservoirs of mayhem the universe has ever known. Among all physical systems of a given size with any possible composition, black holes contain the highest possible entropy. Recall from Chapter 6 that one rough way to think about this comes directly from entropy’s definition as a measure of the number of rearrangements of an object’s internal constituents that have no effect on its appearance. When it comes to black holes, even though we can’t say what their constituents actually are— since we don’t know what happens when matter is crushed at the black hole’s center—we can say confidently that rearranging these constituents will no more affect a black hole’s mass, charge, or spin than rearranging the pages in War and Peace will affect the weight of the book. And since mass, charge, and spin fully determine the face that a black hole shows the external world, all such manipulations go unnoticed and we can say a black hole has maximal entropy.

Even so, you might suggest one-upping the entropy of a black hole in the following simple way. Build a hollow sphere of the same size as a given black hole and fill it with gas (hydrogen, helium, carbon dioxide, whatever) that you allow to spread through its interior. The more gas you pump in, the greater the entropy, since more constituents means more possible rearrangements. You might guess, then, that if you keep on pumping and pumping, the entropy of the gas will steadily rise and so will eventually exceed that of the given black hole. It’s a clever strategy, but general relativity shows that it fails. The more gas you pump in, the more massive the sphere’s contents become. And before you reach the entropy of an equal-sized black hole, the increasingly large mass within the sphere will reach a critical value that causes the sphere and its contents to become a black hole. There’s just no way around it. Black holes have a monopoly on maximal disorder.

What if you try to further increase the entropy in the space inside the black hole itself by continuing to pump in yet more gas? Entropy will indeed continue to rise, but you’ll have changed the rules of the game. As matter takes the plunge across a black hole’s ravenous event horizon, not only does the black hole’s entropy increase, but its size increases as well. The size of a black hole is proportional to its mass, so as you dump more matter into the hole, it gets heavier and bigger. Thus, once you max out the entropy in a region of space by creating a black hole, any attempt to further increase the entropy in that region will fail. The region just can’t support more disorder. It’s entropy-sated. Whatever you do, whether you pump in gas or toss in a Hummer, you will necessarily cause the black hole to grow and hence surround a larger spatial region. Thus, the amount of entropy contained within a black hole not only tells us a fundamental feature of the black hole, it also tells us something fundamental about space itself: the maximum entropy that can be crammed into a region of space—any region of space, anywhere, anytime—is equal to the entropy contained within a black hole whose size equals that of the region in question.

So, how much entropy does a black hole of a given size contain? Here is where things get interesting. Reasoning intuitively, start with something more easily visualized, like air in a Tupperware container. If you were to join together two such containers, doubling the total volume and number of air molecules, you might guess that you’d double the entropy. Detailed calculations confirm1 this conclusion and show that, all else being equal (unchanging temperature, density, and so on), the entropies of familiar physical systems are proportional to their volumes. A natural next guess is that the same conclusion would also apply to less familiar things, like black holes, leading us to expect that a black hole’s entropy is also proportional to its volume.

But in the 1970s, Jacob Bekenstein and Stephen Hawking discovered that this isn’t right. Their mathematical analyses showed that the entropy of a black hole is not proportional to its volume, but instead is proportional to the areaof its event horizon—roughly speaking, to its surface area. This is a very different answer. Were you to double the radius of a black hole, its volume would increase by a factor of 8 (23) while its surface area would increase by only a factor of 4 (22); were you to increase its radius by a factor of a hundred, its volume would increase by a factor of a million (1003), while its surface area would increase only by a factor of 10,000 (1002). Big black holes have much more volume than they do surface area.2 Thus, even though black holes contain the greatest entropy among all things of a given size, Bekenstein and Hawking showed that the amount of entropy they contain is less than what we’d naïvely guess.

That entropy is proportional to surface area is not merely a curious distinction between black holes and Tupperware, about which we can take note and swiftly move on. We’ve seen that black holes set a limit to the amount of entropy that, even in principle, can be crammed into a region of space: take a black hole whose size precisely equals that of the region in question, figure out how much entropy the black hole has, and that is the absolute limit on the amount of entropy the region of space can contain. Since this entropy, as the works of Bekenstein and Hawking showed, is proportional to the black hole’s surface area—which equals the surface area of the region, since we chose them to have the same size—we conclude that the maximal entropy any given region of space can contain is proportional to the region’s surface area.3

The discrepancy between this conclusion and that found from thinking about air trapped in Tupperware (where we found the amount of entropy to be proportional to the Tupperware’s volume, not its surface area) is easy to pinpoint: Since we assumed the air was uniformly spread, the Tupperware reasoning ignored gravity; remember, when gravity matters, things clump. To ignore gravity is fine when densities are low, but when you are considering large entropy, densities are high, gravity matters, and the Tupperware reasoning is no longer valid. Instead, such extreme conditions require the gravity-based calculations of Bekenstein and Hawking, with the conclusion that the maximum entropy potential for a region of space is proportional to its surface area, not its volume.

All right, but why should we care? There are two reasons.

First, the entropy bound gives yet another clue that ultramicroscopic space has an atomized structure. In detail, Bekenstein and Hawking found that if you imagine drawing a checkerboard pattern on the event horizon of a black hole, with each square being one Planck length by one Planck length (so each such “Planck square” has an area of about 10−66 square centimeters), then the black hole’s entropy equals the number of such squares that can fit on its surface.4 It’s hard to miss the conclusion to which this result strongly hints: each Planck square is a minimal, fundamental unit of space, and each carries a minimal, single unit of entropy. This suggests that there is nothing, even in principle, that can take place within a Planck square, because any such activity could support disorder and hence the Planck square could contain more than the single unit of entropy found by Bekenstein and Hawking. Once again, then, from a completely different perspective we are led to the notion of an elemental spatial entity.5

Second, for a physicist, the upper limit to the entropy that can exist in a region of space is a critical, almost sacred quantity. To understand why, imagine you’re working for a behavioral psychiatrist, and your job is to keep a detailed, moment-to-moment record of the interactions between groups of intensely hyperactive young children. Every morning you pray that the day’s group will be well behaved, because the more bedlam the children create, the more difficult your job. The reason is intuitively obvious, but it’s worth saying explicitly: the more disorderly the children are, the more things you have to keep track of. The universe presents a physicist with much the same challenge. A fundamental physical theory is meant to describe everything that goes on—or could go on, even in principle—in a given region of space. And, as with the children, the more disorder the region can contain—even in principle—the more things the theory must be capable of keeping track of. Thus, the maximum entropy a region can contain provides a simple but incisive litmus test: physicists expect that a truly fundamental theory is one that is perfectly matched to the maximum entropy in any given spatial region. The theory should be so tightly in tune with nature that its maximum capacity to keep track of disorder exactly equals the maximum disorder a region can possibly contain, not more and not less.

The thing is, if the Tupperware conclusion had had unlimited validity, a fundamental theory would have needed the capacity to account for a volume’s worth of disorder in any region. But since that reasoning fails when gravity is included—and since a fundamental theory must include gravity—we learn that a fundamental theory need only be able to account for a surface area’s worth of disorder in any region. And as we showed with a couple of numerical examples a few paragraphs ago, for large regions the latter is much smaller than the former.

Thus, the Bekenstein and Hawking result tells us that a theory that includes gravity is, in some sense, simpler than a theory that doesn’t. There are fewer “degrees of freedom”—fewer things that can change and hence contribute to disorder—that the theory must describe. This is an interesting realization in its own right, but if we follow this line of reasoning one step further, it seems to tell us something exceedingly bizarre. If the maximum entropy in any given region of space is proportional to the region’s surface area and not its volume, then perhaps the true, fundamental degrees of freedom—the attributes that have the potential to give rise to that disorder—actually reside on the region’s surface and not within its volume. Maybe, that is, the universe’s real physical processes take place on a thin, distant surface that surrounds us, and all we see and experience is merely a projection of those processes. Maybe, that is, the universe is rather like a hologram.

This is an odd idea, but as we’ll now discuss, it has recently received substantial support.

Is the Universe a Hologram?

A hologram is a two-dimensional piece of etched plastic, which, when illuminated with appropriate laser light, projects a three-dimensional image.6 In the early 1990s, the Dutch Nobel laureate Gerard ’t Hooft and Leonard Susskind, the same physicist who coinvented string theory, suggested that the universe itself might operate in a manner analogous to a hologram. They put forward the startling idea that the comings and goings we observe in the three dimensions of day-to-day life might themselves be holographic projections of physical processes taking place on a distant, two-dimensional surface. In their new and peculiar-sounding vision, we and everything we do or see would be akin to holographic images. Whereas Plato envisioned common perceptions as revealing a mere shadow of reality, the holographic principle concurs, but turns the metaphor on its head. The shadows—the things that are flattened out and hence live on a lower-dimensional surface—are real, while what seem to be the more richly structured, higher-dimensional entities (us; the world around us) are evanescent projections of the shadows.45

Again, while it is a fantastically strange idea, and one whose role in the final understanding of spacetime is far from clear, ’t Hooft and Susskind’s so-called holographic principle is well motivated. For, as we discussed in the last section, the maximum entropy that a region of space can contain scales with the area of its surface, not with the volume of its interior. It’s natural to guess, then, that the universe’s most fundamental ingredients, its most basic degrees of freedom—the entities that can carry the universe’s entropy much as the pages of War and Peace carry its entropy— would reside on a bounding surface and not in the universe’s interior. What we experience in the “volume” of the universe—in the bulk, as physicists often call it—would be determined by what takes place on the bounding surface, much as what we see in a holographic projection is determined by information encoded on a bounding piece of plastic. The laws of physics would act as the universe’s laser, illuminating the real processes of the cosmos—processes taking place on a thin, distant surface—and generating the holographic illusions of daily life.

We have not yet figured out how this holographic principle might be realized in the real world. One challenge is that in conventional descriptions the universe is imagined either to go on forever, or if not, to wrap back on itself like a sphere or a video game screen (as in Chapter 8), and hence it wouldn’t have any edges or boundaries. So, where would the supposed “bounding holographic surface” be located? Moreover, physical processes certainly seem to be under our control, right here, deep in the universe’s interior. It doesn’t seem that something on a hard-to-locate boundary is somehow calling the shots regarding what happens here in the bulk. Does the holographic principle imply that that sense of control and autonomy is illusory? Or is it better to think of holography as articulating a kind of duality in which, on the basis of taste—not of physics— one can choose a familiar description in which the fundamental laws operate here in the bulk (which aligns with intuition and perception) or an unfamiliar description in which fundamental physics takes place on some kind of boundary of the universe, with each viewpoint being equally valid? These are essential questions that remain controversial.

But in 1997, building on earlier insights of a number of string theorists, the Argentinian physicist Juan Maldacena had a breakthrough that dramatically advanced thinking on these matters. His discovery is not directly relevant to the question of holography’s role in our real universe, but in the time-honored fashion of physics, he found a hypothetical context—a hypothetical universe—in which abstract musings on holography could be made both concrete and precise using mathematics. For technical reasons, Maldacena studied a hypothetical universe with four large space dimensions and one time dimension that have uniform negative curvature—a higher dimensional version of the Pringle’s potato chip, Figure 8.6c. Standard mathematical analysis reveals that this fivedimensional spacetime has a boundary7 that, like all boundaries, has one dimension less than the shape it bounds: three space dimensions and one time dimension. (As always, higher-dimensional spaces are hard to envision, so if you want a mental picture, think of a can of tomato soup—the three-dimensional liquid soup is analogous to the five-dimensional spacetime, while the two-dimensional surface of the can is analogous to the four-dimensional spacetime boundary.) After including additional curled-up dimensions as required by string theory, Maldacena convincingly argued that the physics witnessed by an observer living within this universe (an observer in the “soup”) could be completely described in terms of physics taking place on the universe’s boundary (physics on the surface of the can).

Although it is not realistic, this work provided the first concrete and mathematically tractable example in which the holographic principle was explicitly realized.8 In doing so, it shed much light on the notion of holography as applied to an entire universe. For instance, in Maldacena’s work, the bulk description and the boundary description are on an absolutely equal footing. One is not primary and the other secondary. In much the same spirit as the relation between the five string theories, the bulk and boundary theories are translations of each other. The unusual feature of this particular translation, though, is that the bulk theory has more dimensions than the equivalent theory formulated on the boundary. Moreover, whereas the bulk theory includes gravity (since Maldacena formulated it using string theory), calculations show that the boundary theory doesn’t. Nevertheless, any question asked or calculation done in one of the theories can be translated into an equivalent question or calculation in the other. While someone unfamiliar with the dictionary would think that the corresponding questions and calculations have absolutely nothing to do with each other (for example, since the boundary theory does not include gravity, questions involving gravity in the bulk theory are translated into very-different-sounding, gravity-less questions in the boundary theory), someone well versed in both languages—an expert on both theories—would recognize their relationship and realize that the answers to corresponding questions and the results of corresponding calculations must agree. Indeed, every calculation done to date, and there have been many, supports this assertion.

The details of all this are challenging to grasp fully, but don’t let that obscure the main point. Maldacena’s result is amazing. He found a concrete, albeit hypothetical, realization of holography within string theory. He showed that a particular quantum theory without gravity is a translation of—is indistinguishable from—another quantum theory that includes gravity but is formulated with one more space dimension. Vigorous research programs are under way to determine how these insights might apply to a more realistic universe, our universe, but progress is slow as the analysis is fraught with technical hurdles. (Maldacena chose the particular hypothetical example he did because it proved relatively easy to analyze mathematically; more realistic examples are much harder to deal with.) Nevertheless, we now know that string theory, at least in certain contexts, has the capacity to support the concept of holography. And, as with the case of geometric translations described earlier, this provides yet another hint that spacetime is not fundamental. Not only can the size and shape of spacetime change in translation from one formulation of a theory to another, equivalent form, but the number of space dimensions can change, too.

More and more, these clues point toward the conclusion that the form of spacetime is an adorning detail that varies from one formulation of a physical theory to the next, rather than being a fundamental element of reality. Much as the number of letters, syllables, and vowels in the word cat differ from those in gato, its Spanish translation, the form of spacetime—its shape, its size, and even the number of its dimensions—also changes in translation. To any given observer who is using one theory to think about the universe, spacetime may seem real and indispensable. But should that observer change the formulation of the theory he or she uses to an equivalent, translated version, what once seemed real and indispensable necessarily changes, too. Thus, if these ideas are right—and I should emphasize that they have yet to be rigorously proven even though theorists have amassed a great deal of supporting evidence—they strongly challenge the primacy of space and time.

Of all the clues discussed here, I’d pick the holographic principle as the one most likely to play a dominant role in future research. It emerges from a basic feature of black holes—their entropy—the understanding of which, many physicists agree, rests on firm theoretical foundations. Even if the details of our theories should change, we expect that any sensible description of gravity will allow for black holes, and hence the entropy bounds driving this discussion will persist and holography will apply. That string theory naturally incorporates the holographic principle—at least in examples amenable to mathematical analysis—is another strong piece of evidence suggesting the principle’s validity. I expect that regardless of where the search for the foundations of space and time may take us, regardless of modifications to string/M-theory that may be waiting for us around the bend, holography will continue to be a guiding concept.

The Constituents of Spacetime

Throughout this book we have periodically alluded to the ultramicroscopic constituents of spacetime, but although we’ve given indirect arguments for their existence we’ve yet to say anything about what these constituents might actually be. And for good reason. We really have no idea what they are. Or, perhaps I should say, when it comes to identifying spacetime’s elemental ingredients, we have no ideas about which we’re really confident. This is a major gap in our understanding, but it’s worthwhile to see the problem in its historical context.

Were you to have polled scientists in the late nineteenth century about their views on matter’s elementary constituents, you wouldn’t have found universal agreement. A mere century ago, the atomic hypothesis was controversial; there were well-known scientists—Ernst Mach was one—who thought it wrong. Moreover, ever since the atomic hypothesis received widespread acceptance in the early part of the twentieth century, scientists have been continuously updating the picture it supplies with what are believed to be ever more elementary ingredients (for example, first protons and neutrons, then quarks). String theory is the latest step along this path, but because it has yet to be confirmed experimentally (and even if it were, that wouldn’t preclude the existence of a yet more refined theory awaiting development), we must forthrightly acknowledge that the search for nature’s basic material constituents continues.

The incorporation of space and time into a modern scientific context goes back to Newton in the 1600s, but serious thought regarding their microscopic makeup required the twentieth-century discoveries of general relativity and quantum mechanics. Thus, on historical time scales, we’ve really only just begun to analyze spacetime, so the lack of a definitive proposal for its “atoms”—spacetime’s most elementary constituents— is not a black mark on the subject. Far from it. That we’ve gotten as far as we have—that we’ve revealed numerous features of space and time vastly beyond common experience—attests to progress unfathomable a century ago. The search for the most fundamental of nature’s ingredients, whether of matter or of spacetime, is a formidable challenge that will likely occupy us for some time to come.

For spacetime, there are currently two promising directions in the search for elementary constituents. One proposal comes from string theory and the other from a theory known as loop quantum gravity.

String theory’s proposal, depending on how hard you think about it, is either intuitively pleasing or thoroughly baffling. Since we speak of the “fabric” of spacetime, the suggestion goes, maybe spacetime is stitched out of strings much as a shirt is stitched out of thread. That is, much as joining numerous threads together in an appropriate pattern produces a shirt’s fabric, maybe joining numerous strings together in an appropriate pattern produces what we commonly call spacetime’s fabric. Matter, like you and me, would then amount to additional agglomerations of vibrating strings—like sonorous music played over a muted din, or an elaborate pattern embroidered on a plain piece of material—moving within the context stitched together by the strings of spacetime.

I find this an attractive and compelling proposal, but as yet no one has turned these words into a precise mathematical statement. As far as I can tell, the obstacles to doing so are far from trifling. For instance, if your shirt completely unraveled you’d be left with a pile of thread—an outcome that, depending on circumstances, you might find embarrassing or irritating, although probably not deeply mysterious. But it thoroughly taxes the mind (my mind, at least) to think about the analogous situation with strings—the threads of spacetime in this proposal. What would we make of a “pile” of strings that had unraveled from the spacetime fabric or, perhaps more to the point, had not yet even joined together to produce the spacetime fabric? The temptation might be to think of them much as we do the shirt’s thread—as raw material that needs to be stitched together—but that glosses over an absolutely essential subtlety. We picture strings as vibrating in space and through time, but without the spacetime fabric that the strings are themselves imagined to yield through their orderly union, there is no space or time. In this proposal, the concepts of space and time fail to have meaning until innumerable strings weave together to produce them.

Thus, to make sense of this proposal, we would need a framework for describing strings that does not assume from the get-go that they are vibrating in a preexisting spacetime. We would need a fully spaceless and timeless formulation of string theory, in which spacetime emerges from the collective behavior of strings.

Although there has been progress toward this goal, no one has yet come up with such a spaceless and timeless formulation of string theory—something that physicists call a background-independent formulation (the term comes from the loose notion of spacetime as a backdrop against which physical phenomena take place). Instead, essentially all approaches envision strings as moving and vibrating through a spacetime that is inserted into the theory “by hand”; spacetime does not emerge from the theory, as physicists imagine it would in a background-independent framework, but is supplied to the theory by the theorist. Many researchers consider the development of a background-independent formulation to be the single greatest unsolved problem facing string theory. Not only would it give insight into the origin of spacetime, but a background-independent framework would likely be instrumental in resolving the major hang-up encountered at the end of Chapter 12—the theory’s current inability to select the geometrical form of the extra dimensions. Once its basic mathematical formalism is disentangled from any particular spacetime, the reasoning goes, string theory should have the capacity to survey all possibilities and perhaps adjudicate among them.

Another difficulty facing the strings-as-threads-of-spacetime proposal is that, as we learned in Chapter 13, string theory has other ingredients besides strings. What role do these other components play in spacetime’s fundamental makeup? This question is brought into especially sharp relief by the braneworld scenario. If the three-dimensional space we experience is a three-brane, is the brane itself indecomposable or is it made from combining the theory’s other ingredients? Are branes, for example, made from strings, or are branes and strings both elementary? Or should we consider yet another possibility, that branes and strings might be made from some yet finer ingredients? These questions are at the forefront of current research, but since this final chapter is about hints and clues, let me note one relevant insight that has garnered much attention.

Earlier, we talked about the various branes one finds in string/M-THEORY: one-branes, two-branes, three-branes, four-branes, and so on. Although I didn’t stress it earlier, the theory also contains zero-branes— ingredients that have no spatial extent, much like point particles. This might seem counter to the whole spirit of string/M-theory, which moved away from the point-particle framework in an effort to tame the wild undulations of quantum gravity. However, the zero-branes, just like their higher dimensional cousins in Figure 13.2, come with strings attached, literally, and hence their interactions are governed by strings. Not surprisingly, then, zero-branes behave very differently from conventional point particles, and, most important, they participate fully in the spreading out and lessening of ultramicroscopic spacetime jitters; zero-branes do not reintroduce the fatal flaws afflicting point-particle schemes that attempt to merge quantum mechanics and general relativity.

In fact, Tom Banks of Rutgers University and Willy Fischler of the University of Texas at Austin, together with Leonard Susskind and Stephen Shenker, both now at Stanford, have formulated a version of string/M-theory in which zero-branes are the fundamental ingredients that can be combined to generate strings and the other, higher dimensional branes. This proposal, known as Matrix theory—still another possible meaning for the “M” in “M-theory”—has generated an avalanche of follow-up research, but the difficult mathematics involved has so far prevented scientists from bringing the approach to completion. Nevertheless, the calculations that physicists have managed to carry out in this framework seem to support the proposal. If Matrix theory is true, it might mean that everything—strings, branes, and perhaps even space and time themselves—is composed of appropriate aggregates of zero-branes. It’s an exciting prospect, and researchers are cautiously optimistic that progress over the next few years will shed much light on its validity.

We have so far surveyed the path string theorists have followed in the search for spacetime’s ingredients, but as I mentioned, there is a second path coming from string theory’s main competitor, loop quantum gravity. Loop quantum gravity dates from the mid-1980s and is another promising proposal for merging general relativity and quantum mechanics. I won’t attempt a detailed description (if you’re interested, take a look at Lee Smolin’s excellent book Three Roads to Quantum Gravity), but will instead mention a few key points that are particularly illuminating for our current discussion.

String theory and loop quantum gravity both claim to have achieved the long-sought goal of providing a quantum theory of gravity, but they do so in very different ways. String theory grew out of the successful particle physics tradition that has for decades sought matter’s elementary ingredients; to most early string researchers, gravity was a distant, secondary concern, at best. By contrast, loop quantum gravity grew out of a tradition tightly grounded in the general theory of relativity; to most practitioners of this approach, gravity has always been the main focus. A one-sentence comparison would hold that string theorists start with the small (quantum theory) and move to embrace the large (gravity), while adherents of loop quantum gravity start with the large (gravity) and move to embrace the small (quantum theory).9 In fact, as we saw in Chapter 12, string theory was initially developed as a quantum theory of the strong nuclear force operating within atomic nuclei; it was realized only later, serendipitously, that the theory actually included gravity. Loop quantum gravity, on the other hand, takes Einstein’s general relativity as its point of departure and seeks to incorporate quantum mechanics.

This starting at opposite ends of the spectrum is mirrored in the ways the two theories have so far developed. To some extent, the main achievements of each prove to be the failings of the other. For example, string theory merges all forces and all matter, including gravity (a complete unification that eludes the loop approach), by describing everything in the language of vibrating strings. The particle of gravity, the graviton, is but one particular string vibrational pattern, and hence the theory naturally describes how these elemental bundles of gravity move and interact quantum mechanically. However, as just noted, the main failing of current formulations of string theory is that they presuppose a background spacetime within which strings move and vibrate. By contrast, the main achievement of loop quantum gravity—an impressive one—is that it does not assume a background spacetime. Loop quantum gravity is a background-independent framework. However, extracting ordinary space and time, as well as the familiar and successful features of general relativity when applied on large distance scales (something easily done with current formulations of string theory) from this extraordinarily unfamiliar spaceless/timeless starting point, is a far from trivial problem, which researchers are still trying to solve. Moreover, in comparison to string theory, loop quantum gravity has made far less progress in understanding the dynamics of gravitons.

One harmonious possibility is that string enthusiasts and loop quantum gravity aficionados are actually constructing the same theory, but from vastly different starting points. That each theory involves loops—in string theory, these are string loops; in loop quantum gravity, they’re harder to describe nonmathematically, but, roughly speaking, they’re elementary loops of space—suggests there might be such a connection. This possibility is further supported by the fact that on the few problems accessible to both, such as black hole entropy, the two theories agree fully.10 And, on the question of spacetime’s constituents, both theories suggest that there is some kind of atomized structure. We’ve already seen the clues pointing toward this conclusion that arise from string theory; those coming from loop quantum gravity are compelling and even more explicit. Loop researchers have shown that numerous loops in loop quantum gravity can be interwoven, somewhat like tiny wool loops crocheted into a sweater, and produce structures that seem, on larger scales, to approximate regions of spacetime. Most convincing of all, loop researchers have calculated the allowed areas of such surfaces of space. And just as you can have one electron or two electrons or 202 electrons, but you can’t have 1.6 electrons or any other fraction, the calculations show that surfaces can have areas that are one square Planck-length, or two square Planck-lengths, or 202 square Planck-lengths, but no fractions are possible. Once again, this is a strong theoretical clue that space, like electrons, comes in discrete, indivisible chunks.11

If I were to hazard a guess on future developments, I’d imagine that the background-independent techniques developed by the loop quantum gravity community will be adapted to string theory, paving the way for a string formulation that is background independent. And that’s the spark, I suspect, that will ignite a third superstring revolution in which, I’m optimistic, many of the remaining deep mysteries will be solved. Such developments would likely also bring spacetime’s long story full circle. In earlier chapters, we followed the pendulum of opinion as it swung between relationist and absolutist positions on space, time, and spacetime. We asked: Is space a something, or isn’t it? Is spacetime a something, or isn’t it? And, over the course of a few centuries’ thought, we encountered differing views. I believe that an experimentally confirmed, background-independent union between general relativity and quantum mechanics would yield a gratifying resolution to this issue. By virtue of the background independence, the theory’s ingredients might stand in some relation to one another, but with the absence of a spacetime that is inserted into the theory from the outset, there’d be no background arena in which they were themselves embedded. Only relative relationships would matter, a solution much in the spirit of relationists like Leibniz and Mach. Then, as the theory’s ingredients—be they strings, branes, loops, or something else discovered in the course of future research—coalesced to produce a familiar, large-scale spacetime (either our real spacetime or hypothetical examples useful for thought experiments), its being a “something” would be recovered, much as in our earlier discussion of general relativity: in an otherwise empty, flat, infinite spacetime (one of the useful hypothetical examples), the water in Newton’s spinning bucket would take on a concave shape. The essential point would be that the distinction between spacetime and more tangible material entities would largely evaporate, as they would both emerge from appropriate aggregates of more basic ingredients in a theory that’s fundamentally relational, spaceless, and timeless. If this is how it turns out, Leibniz, Newton, Mach, and Einstein could all claim a share of the victory.

Inner and Outer Space

Speculating about the future of science is an entertaining and constructive exercise. It places our current undertakings in a broader context, and emphasizes the overarching goals toward which we are slowly and deliberately working. But when such speculation turns to the future of spacetime itself, it takes on an almost mystical quality: we’re considering the fate of the very things that dominate our sense of reality. Again, there is no question that regardless of future discoveries, space and time will continue to frame our individual experience; space and time, as far as everyday life goes, are here to stay. What will continue to change, and likely change drastically, is our understanding of the framework they provide— the arena, that is, of experiential reality. After centuries of thought, we still can only portray space and time as the most familiar of strangers. They unabashedly wend their way through our lives, but adroitly conceal their fundamental makeup from the very perceptions they so fully inform and influence.

Over the last century, we’ve become intimately acquainted with some previously hidden features of space and time through Einstein’s two theories of relativity and through quantum mechanics. The slowing of time, the relativity of simultaneity, alternative slicings of spacetime, gravity as the warping and curving of space and time, the probabilistic nature of reality, and long-range quantum entanglement were not on the list of things that even the best of the world’s nineteenth-century physicists would have expected to find just around the corner. And yet there they were, as attested to by both experimental results and theoretical explanations.

In our age, we’ve come upon our own panoply of unexpected ideas: Dark matter and dark energy that appear to be, far and away, the dominant constituents of the universe. Gravitational waves—ripples in the fabric of spacetime—which were predicted by Einstein’s general relativity and may one day allow us to peek farther back in time than ever before. A Higgs ocean, which permeates all of space and which, if confirmed, will help us to understand how particles acquire mass. Inflationary expansion, which may explain the shape of the cosmos, resolve the puzzle of why it’s so uniform on large scales, and set the direction to time’s arrow. String theory, which posits loops and snippets of energy in place of point particles and promises a bold version of Einstein’s dream in which all particles and all forces are combined into a single theory. Extra space dimensions, emerging from the mathematics of string theory, and possibly detectable in accelerator experiments during the next decade. A braneworld, in which our three space dimensions may be but one universe among many, floating in a higher-dimensional spacetime. And perhaps even emergent spacetime, in which the very fabric of space and time is composed of more fundamental spaceless and timeless entities.

During the next decade, ever more powerful accelerators will provide much-needed experimental input, and many physicists are confident that data gathered from the highly energetic collisions that are planned will confirm a number of these pivotal theoretical constructs. I share this enthusiasm and eagerly await the results. Until our theories make contact with observable, testable phenomena, they remain in limbo—they remain promising collections of ideas that may or may not have relevance for the real world. The new accelerators will advance the overlap between theory and experiment substantially, and, we physicists hope, will usher many of these ideas into the realm of established science.

But there is another approach that, while more of a long shot, fills me with incomparable wonderment. In Chapter 11 we discussed how the effects of tiny quantum jitters can be seen in any clear night sky since they’re stretched enormously by cosmic expansion, resulting in clumps that seed the formation of stars and galaxies. (Recall the analogy of tiny scribbles, drawn on a balloon, that are stretched across its surface when the balloon is inflated.) This realization demonstrably gives access to quantum physics through astronomical observations. Perhaps it can be pushed even further. Perhaps cosmic expansion can stretch the imprints of even shorter-scale processes or features—the physics of strings, or quantum gravity more generally, or the atomized structure of ultramicroscopic spacetime itself—and spread their influence, in some subtle but observable manner, across the heavens. Maybe, that is, the universe has already drawn out the microscopic fibers of the fabric of the cosmos and unfurled them clear across the sky, and all we need do is learn how to recognize the pattern.

Assessing cutting-edge proposals for deep physical laws may well require the ferocious might of particle accelerators able to re-create violent conditions unseen since moments after the big bang. But for me, there would be nothing more poetic, no outcome more graceful, no unification more complete, than for us to confirm our theories of the ultrasmall—our theories about the ultramicroscopic makeup of space, time, and matter—by turning our most powerful telescopes skyward and gazing silently at the stars.