Will Quantum Mechanics Swallow Relativity?


Corey Powell in Nautilus:

Basically you can think of the division between the relativity and quantum systems as “smooth” versus “chunky.” In general relativity, events are continuous and deterministic, meaning that every cause matches up to a specific, local effect. In quantum mechanics, events produced by the interaction of subatomic particles happen in jumps (yes, quantum leaps), with probabilistic rather than definite outcomes. Quantum rules allow connections forbidden by classical physics. This was demonstrated in a much-discussed recent experiment, in which Dutch researchers defied the local effect. They showed two particles—in this case, electrons—could influence each other instantly, even though they were a mile apart. When you try to interpret smooth relativistic laws in a chunky quantum style, or vice versa, things go dreadfully wrong.

Relativity gives nonsensical answers when you try to scale it down to quantum size, eventually descending to infinite values in its description of gravity. Likewise, quantum mechanics runs into serious trouble when you blow it up to cosmic dimensions. Quantum fields carry a certain amount of energy, even in seemingly empty space, and the amount of energy gets bigger as the fields get bigger. According to Einstein, energy and mass are equivalent (that’s the message of e=mc2), so piling up energy is exactly like piling up mass. Go big enough, and the amount of energy in the quantum fields becomes so great that it creates a black hole that causes the universe to fold in on itself. Oops.

Craig Hogan, a theoretical astrophysicist at the University of Chicago and the director of the Center for Particle Astrophysics at Fermilab, is reinterpreting the quantum side with a novel theory in which the quantum units of space itself might be large enough to be studied directly. Meanwhile, Lee Smolin, a founding member of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Canada, is seeking to push physics forward by returning back to Einstein’s philosophical roots and extending them in an exciting direction.

To understand what is at stake, look back at the precedents. When Einstein unveiled general relativity, he not only superseded Isaac Newton’s theory of gravity; he also unleashed a new way of looking at physics that led to the modern conception of the Big Bang and black holes, not to mention atomic bombs and the time adjustments essential to your phone’s GPS.

More here.