Do Other Dimensions REALLY Exist?

Those of you who have been following physics for the last few decades have no doubt heard about string theory and how it requires that spacetime have 11-dimensions and not the four we are most familiar with (3 for space and 1 for time) . This has been a popular topic of discussion since the 1970s, and has spawned thousands of popularizations and lectures. I have actually written a few of these!

The difficulty is that we never experience even ordinary space directly, and as Einstein noted, space itself is more of a human mental construct than it is a physical feature of our world. When physicists need some additional dimensions to space to model our world, we find ourselves confused as our brains try to fabricate an inner model of what that might mean. The idea of ‘dimension’ is not what you might think. It is just another way of saying that some system you are modeling mathematically needs N numbers to define it uniquely in space and time. For example, economists work in ‘spaces’ where their models use N=4 unique numbers, so their universes are 4-dimensional too!

Space, as a physical idea is just our experience that we only need three numbers to locate a geometric point on Earth. We need its latitude, its longitude and its elevation above the surface of Earth. Two of these numbers are angles, but we can easily convert these angles into meters because the surface of Earth has a fixed radius and forms a sphere. The angles just represents the lengths of arcs on the surface.

Extending this into the solar system and beyond, we only need three numbers to define the location of a planet or a star. If we try to provide four numbers to locate any point in space, that fourth measurement can be replaced in terms of the previous three numbers. Because this minimum number is three, we say that our space is 3-dimensional. Similarly, all of Euclid’s geometry takes place on a flat surface where points are defined by two numbers, so it is a 2-dimensional surface. The figure above shows an example of ordinary 3-d space and its coordinate axis in the Cartesian ‘X, Y, Z’ system. But there are other possible coordinate systems we can use such as spherical (R, theta, phi) or cylindrical (R, theta, h), but they all define points in 3-d space by a unique three-number address. But wait…there’s more!

Three is not enough. Our physical world actually requires a time coordinate to define where objects are because, of course, all objects are in motion or are internally changing. Time is a fourth coordinate that helps us keep track of the complete history of an object as it moves through 3-d space. This path is called a worldline. This is why Einstein’s relativity refers to ‘spacetime’ as the fundamental arena in which all events take place. Spacetime is a 4-dimensional object with three coordinates expressed in terms of meters, and a time coordinate expressed in units of time such as nanoseconds, seconds, years etc. Spacetime is also called a manifold because every point in it can be uniquely defined by four numbers. There are mathematically an infinite number of these points. Because we have yet to find any evidence to the contrary, the manifold of all points in our physical universe, call it M, is just the same as the 4-d spacetime manifold proposed by Einstein’s relativity, call it M4, so in short-hand we can write a symbolic sentence: M = M4.

M4 is not big enough: What you need to keep in mind is that in our 4-dimensional world, we can obviously see that ‘space’ is very different than ‘time’. When physicists talk about our world or our universe having more than 4-dimensions, they also mean that additional coordinates are needed beyond (3-d) space and (1-d) time to keep track of the properties of matter and energy in their new theories. There is nothing about any of these additional coordinates that needs to have the same character as either space or time. All they need to be is numbers defining a 10-dimensional coordinate system. Some physicists, however, do think of these added dimensions as having some kind of space-like attributes.

Structure of extra dimensions in String theory in physics. 3D rendered illustration.

The way that these extra dimensions are added to our world to create the M of our physical universe is that they represent coordinates in a separate kind of space, call it M6, that adjoins our M4. In string theory, this M6 space is vanishingly small. You will not find traces of it in M4, so don’t worry about somehow taking a wrong turn in M4 and suddenly ending up in M6. String theory requires that M6 be a closed, finite manifold present at every point in M4. The size of each of these new dimensions is only 10-33 centimeters, which is why these M6s are called ‘compact’ manifolds. Only quantum particles and fields have access to M6, and this access causes particles to have different characteristics.

So what is M? The complete specification of our manifold can be written as M = M4 x M6. The address of each point in M is now given by, for example, the 4 coordinates (x,y,z,t) to define their location in M4, but to define the location of this point inside one of these compact M6 manifolds you need six additional numbers, which we can write as (a,b,c,d,e,f). The complete specification for points in the M manifold is then (x,y,z,t,a,b,c,d,e,f) or more neatly (x,y,z,t)(a,b,c,d,e,f) where we keep the two manifolds symbolically separate by placing parenthesis to group their respective coordinates.

So the question is, are the coordinates (a,b,c,d,e,f) dimensions of space like (x,y,z), are they more like the dimension of time in M4, or are they something else? As I said earlier, we already know that the time coordinate, t, is not at all like the other three space coordinates in M4, so there is no reason to believe that (a,b,c,d,e,f) should resemble either (x,y,z) or t. In fact, in string theory we already know something about the character of the coordinates in M6.

Very small: String theory proposes that they have a size of about the Planck Length, which is 10-33 centimeters. You can’t get lost in M6 because you always wind up back at your starting point after you have walked 10-33 centimeters!

Periodic: Some or all of these extra dimensions allow for the properties of physical quantities such as fields to have some periodic feature to them. An important quantity is the spin of a particle, which can be either multiples of 1 (called bosons) or 1/2 (called fermions). All elementary particles (electrons, quarks) are fermions, and all force-carrying particles (photons, gluons) are bosons.

Provides a complex topology: The number of times a quantity ‘wraps’ around a periodic extra-dimension, the more mass it has. When M6 is defined by these coordinates, the shapes of the M6 manifolds, called their topology, can have holes in them. String theory requires that these shapes be in a class called Calabi-Yau manifolds in order that the particles and fields resemble our world.

Metric signature: In special relativity, the distance between points in 4-dimensions, dS, is defined by dS2 = dx2 + dy2 + dz2 – c2dt2 where, for instance the symbol dx is the difference in the x coordinates between two points dx = x2 – x1. Notice that the space coordinates enter with a positive sign and the sole time coordinate enters with a negative sign. Physicists write this as the metric signature (+,+,+,-). In string theory, the extra dimensions are added with positive signs to make the string theory models work correctly to get something like dS2 = dx2 + dy2 + dz2 +da2 + db2 + dc2 +dd2 + de2 +df2 – c2dt2. So, the extra dimensions are taken to be space-like even though the maximum distance along any one of these 6 dimensions is only about 10-33 centimeters!

That is the mathematics of it, but do the extra dimensions really, really, reaally exist?

The truth of the matter is that we don’t know! If string theory is found to be incorrect, then there is no obvious reason to have a M6 at all, and so we are left with the M4 universe that we know and love. We cannot investigate the universe at the Planck scale, so the only way to test this idea of extra dimensions is to find that a theory like string theory is correct and accurate. We can then say that, because experiments confirm the predictions of string theory very accurately, there must be something like these M6 manifolds with their additional dimensions beyond the four we can directly measure in M4. On the other hand, it may also be that M6 is just mental ‘scratch paper’ that humans need in order to mathematically describe the particles and fields in our M4 universe, but our universe is actually doing something else entirely!

One important prediction from string theory is that gravity is a force modeled by closed strings in this 10-dimensional manifold. It also has the ability to range far and wide across these additional dimensions while the other three forces are confined to M4. This means that any gravitational interaction takes place in the 10-d arena and we only experience the part of this gravitational field that is in our ‘small’ 4-d universe. In fact, the theory says that this is why gravity is such as weak force because we are only seeing a small part of its full 10-d effects. This allows us to test at least this prediction by string theory.

Supernova 1987A: This supernova produced a pulse of neutrinos measured back on earth through the detection of about 12 neutrinos in the Super Kamiokande Neutrino Detector. These pulses arrived within seconds of the optical burst. Neutrinos are like the Miner’s Canaries and their numbers depend very sentitively on the energy of the collapsing supernova core into a neutron star. These 12 neutrinos matched the energy calculations, but only if the core of the star achieved its temperature by gravitational collapse, and with the energy determined by the action of gravity with little or no leakage into other dimensions. The tests were only able to say that the supernova data are consistent with these extra dimensions being smaller than about 1 angstrom (10-8 cm). So this result is a bit inconclusive.

Gravity waves: In 2017, the LIGO gravity wave detector rang out with the passing gravity wave called GW170817 from the collision between two neutron stars. The added twist was that the collision was also observed by its intense optical outburst. When detailed calculations of the energy in gravity waves and visible light were performed, the energy matched the theory exactly. The theory, based on standard general relativity, does not inlude the diminution of the gravity pulse by leakage of energy outside our M4 spacetime. The conclusion was that on this basis, gravity does not act as though there are extra dimensions! In fact, the gravity wave measurements give an observational estimate for the dimensionality of M4 of D = 4.02 +/-0.07. There is not much uncertainty to hide 6 more dimensions.

So there you have it. Those extra dimensions are probably space-like but their compact character makes them very different than either the huge space-like character of our familiar 3-dimensions to space.

Stay tuned for my next Blog in two weeks where I will be discussing the laatest Webb Space Telescope data!!!

An Old Era Ends-A New One is Born

As the international rush to get to the moon ramps up in the next few years, it is worth noting that, just as we are losing the World War II generation, we are also losing NASA’s early astronaut corps who made the 1960s and 1970’s space exploration possible.

Often called the most significant photo from space in human history, the famous “Earthrise” photo taken by Apollo 8 astronauts on Dec. 24, 1968 never fails to cause an emotional response. 

The Mercury, Gemini and Apollo astronauts are legends who made our current travel to the moon far less of a challenge 50 years later than it would otherwise have been. Since these missions completed their historic work, we have been able to mull over many scenarios for how to do it ‘right’ the next time, and so here we are. We have learned from our successes in science and engineering, but we have also learned from our failure of political nerve to go beyond the gauntlet thrown down by Apollo 17. Now we are in the midst of what appears to be a new Space Race, this time between the open societies of the ‘west’ and the closed and secretive society of China. Meanwhile, amidst this political hubris, the ranks of the Old Guard astronauts continue to thin out each year.

Project Mercury

The first group of astronauts to pass, were the original Project Mercury astronauts at the pionering, and very risky, dawn of NASA (1958-1963): Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper, John Glenn, Virgil Grisson, Walter Schirra, Alan Shepard and Donald Slayton. With the passing of John Glen in 2016 at the age of 95, we lost irretrivably our connection to the trials and tribulations of sitting in a ‘tin can’ as big as a telephone booth and eating food out of toothpaste tubes. These were the incredably brave men who sat on top of rockets that had only been tested a handful of times without blowing up!

John Glenn entering the Friendship 7 Mercury capsule on top of the Redstone rocket,

But more than that, these were the faces of NASA that we saw in the news media who made space travel a household word in the early-1960s. This was a HUGE transition in social consciousness because prior to Project Mercury, space travel was pure science fiction. We were a Nation obsessed by the prospects of nuclear war and Soviet spies lurking around every street corner. The adventures of the Mercury astronauts let hundreds of millions of people take a mental vacation and think about more hopeful ties to come. That plus the advent of the Jetsons TV series!

The 14 ‘Group 3’ astronauts selected in 1963 for the Gemini and Apollo manned programs

The second cohort of astronauts were those that flew with Project Gemini between 1963 and 1966. There were ten crewed missions and 16 astronauts, who conducted space walks, dockings and tested out technology and protocols for the Apollo program. Many of them went on to fly in Project Apollo having earned their ‘creds’ with Gemini.

The photo above shows, seated left to right, Edwin Aldrin (33), William Anders (30), Charles Bassett (32), Alan Bean (31), Eugene Cernan (29), and Roger Chaffee (28). Standing left to right are Michael Collins (33), Walter Cunningham (31), Donn Eisele (33), Theodore Freeman (33), Richard Gordon (34), Russell Schweickart (28), David Scott (31) and Clifton Williams (31). Additional astronauts were selected for Gemini: Frank Borman (35), Jim Lovell (35), Thomas Stafford (33), John Young (34), Neil Armstrong (33), and Pete Conrad (33). The ages of this group in 1963 spanned 29 to 35.

Whenever I look at this photo, I see these astronauts as being 10 years older than their actual age. I was a teenager during this time and anyone older than 25 or 30 looked pretty old to me. I guess for these astronauts, a military life, and the dress styles of the narrow-tie, conservative, early-60s does that to you.

NASA Astronaut Edward White floats in zero gravity of space northeast of Hawaii, on June 3, 1965, during the flight of Gemini IV.

At the present time, January 2023, the only survivors of the Mercury and Gemini groups are Edwin Aldrin (92), William Anders (89), Russell Schweickart (88) and David Scott (91). We just lost Walter Cunningham (90).

Finally, we have the Program Apollo astronauts. They were actually drawn from the Project Gemini group, but because of the premature deaths of Roger Chaffee, Ed White, Charles Bassett, and Theodore Freeman, additional astronauts were added to this project: Charles Duke, Harrison Schmitt, Ken Mattingly, Fred Haise, Wally Schirra, Edgar Mitchell, Jack Swigert, James Irwin, Alfred Wordon, James McDivitt, Ronald Evans, and Stuart Roosa.

50th Anniversary, 2019: From left to right: Charlie Duke (Apollo 16), Buzz Aldrin (Apollo 11), Walter Cunningham (Apollo 7), Al Worden (Apollo 15), Rusty Schweickart (Apollo 9), Harrison Schmitt (Apollo 17), Michael Collins (Apollo 11) and Fred Haise (Apollo 13). 
Felix Kunze/The Explorers Club

Each Apollo mission had three astronauts. Two would take the LEM to the surface for a walk-about, while the third astronaut remained behind in the Command Module. A total of 12 Apollo astronauts actually walked on the moon between Apollo 11 and 17: Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, Pete Conrad, Alan Bean, Alan Shepard, Edgar Mitchell, David Scott, James Irwin, John Young, Charles Duke, Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt. Of these, the survivors by January, 2023 are Buzz Aldrin (92), David Scott (90), Charles Duke (87) and Harrison Schmitt (87).

An excellent view of the Lunar Excursion Module (LEM) “Orion” and Lunar Roving Vehicle (LRV), as photographed by astronaut Charles M. Duke Jr., lunar module pilot, during the first Apollo 16 extravehicular activity (EVA) at the Descartes landing site.

So, the surveying astronauts in January 2023 from the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs are, in order of age:

Buzz Aldrin (92: Gemini 12, Apollo 11),

David Scott (90: Gemini 8, Apollo 9, Apollo 15),

William Anders (89: Apollo 8),

Fred Haise (89: Apollo 13),

Russell Schweickart (88: Apollo 9),

Charles Duke (87: Apollo 16)

Harrison Schmitt (87: Apollo 17).

Ken Mattingly (86: Apollo 16, STS-4, STS-51C),

Apollo 17 astronaut Harrison Schmitt on the moon.

We are entering something of a race against time for these survivors to be present for the launch of Artemus III. Artemis III is planned as the first crewed Moon landing mission of the Artemis program. Scheduled for launch in 2025, Artemis III is planned to be the second crewed Artemis mission and the first crewed lunar landing since Apollo 17 in 1972. Buzz Aldrin (92: Gemini 12, Apollo 11) was one of the first astronauts to set foot on the lunar surface, while Harrison Schmitt of Apollo 17 was one of the last. With Buzz Aldrin and David Scott, we even have survivors from the Gemini Program who laid the groundwork for EVAs (Gemini 12) and docking maneuvers (Gemini 8).

The odds are pretty good that many of these Old Guard astronauts will still be with us to see the Artimus III lunar lander called Starship HLS reach the lunar surface, and oh what a celebration it will be at NASA!

This is Not Your Father’s Universe!

When I was learning astronomy in the 60s and 70s, we were still debating whether Big Bang or Stady State were the most accurate models for our universe. We also wondered about how galaxies like our Milky Way formed, and whether black holes existed. The idea that planets beyond our solar system existed was pure science fiction and no astronomers spent any time trying to predict what they might look like. As someone who has reached the ripe old age of 70, I am amazed how much progress we have made, from the discovery of supermassive black holes and exoplanets, to dark matter and gravitational radiation. The pace of discovery continues to increase, and our theoretical ideas are now getting confirmed or thrown out at record pace. There are still some issues that remain deliciously mysterious. Here are my favorite Seven Mysteries of the Universe!

1-How to Build a Galaxy: In astronomy, we used to think that it would take the universe a long time to build galaxies like our Milky Way, Thanks to the new discoveries by the Webb Space Telescope, we now have a ring-side seat to how this happens, and boy is it a fast process!

The oldest galaxies discovered with the Hubble Space Telescope date back to between 400 and 500 million years after the Big Bang. A few weeks ago, Webb spotted a galaxy that seems to have formed only 300 million years after the Big Bang. Rather than the massive galaxies like the Milky Way, these young galaxies resemble the dwarf galaxies like the Large Magellanic Cloud, perhaps only 1/10 the mass of our galaxy and filled with enormus numbers of massive, luminous stars. The above image from Hubble is a nearby galaxy called M-33 that has a mass of about 50 billion suns. There were lots of these smaller galaxies being formed during the first 300 million years after the Big Bang.

It looks like the universe emerged from the Dark Ages and immediately started building galaxies. In time, these fragments collided and merged to become the more massive galaxies we see around us, so we are only just starting to see how galaxy-building happens. Our Milky Way was formed some 1 billion years after the Big Bang, so the galaxy fragments being spotted by Webb have another 700 million years to go to make bigger things. Back in 2012, Hubble had already discovered the earliest spiral galaxy seen by then; a galaxy called Q2343-BX442, camping out at 3 billion years after the Big Bang. In 2021, an even younger spiral galaxy was spotted, called BRI 1335-0417, seen as it was about 1.4 billon years after the Big Bang.

So we are now watching how galaxies are being formed almost right before our eyes! Previous ideas that I learned about as an undergraduate, in which galaxies are formed ‘top-down’ from large collections of matter that fragment into stars, now seem wrong or incomplete. The better idea is that smaller collections of matter form stars and then merge together to build larger systems – called the ‘bottom-up’ model. This process is very, very fast! Among the smallest of these ‘galaxies’ are things destined to become the globular clusters we see today.

2-Supermassive Black Holes: The most distant and youngest supermassive black hole was discovered in 2021. Called J0313-1806, its light left it to reach us when the universe was only 670 million years old. Its mass, however, is a gargantuan 1.6 BILLION times the mass of our sun. Even if the formation of this black hole started at the end of the Dark Ages ca 100 million years after the Big Bang, it would have to absorb matter at the rate of three suns every year on average. That explains its quasar energy, but still…it is unimaginable how these things can grow so fast! The only working idea is that they started from seed masses about 10,000 the mass of our sun and grew from there. But how were the seed masses formed? This remains a mystery today.

3-The Theory of everything: The next Big Thing that I have been following since the 1960s is the search for what some call the Theory of Everything. Exciting theoretical advancements were made in the 1940s and 1960s to create accurate mathematical models for the three nongravity forces, called the electromagnetic, weak and strong forces. Physicists call this the Standard Model, and every physicist learns its details as students in graduate school. By the early 1980s, string theory was able to add gravity to the mix and go beyond the Standard Model. It appeared that the pursuit of a unified theory had reached its apex. Fifty years later, this expectation has all but collapsed.

Experiments at the Large Hadron Collider continue to show how the universe does not like something called supersymmetry in our low-energy universe. Supersymmetry is a key ingredient to string theory because it lets you change one kind of particle (field) into another, which is a key ingredient to any unified theory. So the simplest versions of string theory rise or fall based on whether supersymmetry exists or not. For over a decade, physicists have tried to find places in the so-called Standard Model where supersymmetry should make its appearance, but it has been a complete no-show. Its not just that this failure is a problem for creating a more elegant theory of how forces works, but it also affects astronomy as well.

https://penntoday.upenn.edu/news/making-sense-string-theory

Personally, when string theory hit the stage in the 1980’s I, like many other astronomers and physicists, thought that we were on the verge of solving this challenge of unifying gravity with the other forces, but this has not been the reality. Even today, I see no promissing solutions to this vexing problem since apparently the data shows that simple string theory is apparently on a wrong theoretical track.

One cheerful note: For neutrinos, the path from theoretical prediction to experimental observation took 25 years. For the Higgs boson, it took 50 years. And for gravitational waves, it took a full 100 years. We may just have to be patient…for another 100 years!

4-Dark Matter: The biggest missing ingredient to the cosmos today is called dark matter. When astronomers ‘weigh’ the universe, they discover that 4.6% of its gravitating ‘stuff’ is in ordinary matter (atoms,. stars, gas, neutron stars etc), but a whopping 24% is in some other ‘stuff’ that only appears by its gravity. It is otherwise completely invisible. Putting this another way, it’s as though four out of every five stars that make up our Milky Way were completely invisible.

Dark matter in Abell 1679.

Because we deeply believe that dark matter must be tracable to a new kind of particle, and because the Standard Model gives us an accounting of all the kinds of elementary particles from which our universe is built, the dark matter particle has to be a part of the Standard Model…but it isn’t!!!! Only by extending the Standard Model to a bigger theory (like string theory) can we logically and mathematically add new kinds of particles to a New Standard Model- one of which would be the dark matter particle. String theory even gives us a perfect candidate called the neutralino! But the LHC experiments have told us for over a decade that there is nothing wrong with the Standard Model and no missing particles. Astronomers say that dark matter is real, but physicists can’t find it….anywhere. Well…maybe not ALL astronomers think it’s real. So the debate continues.

Personally, I had heard about ‘missing mass’ in the 1960s but we were all convinced we would find it in hot gas, dim red dwarf stars or even black holes. I NEVER thought that it would turn out to be something other than ordinary matter in an unusual form. Dark matter is so deeply confounding to me that I worry we will not discover its nature before I, myself, leave this world! Then again, there isnt a single generation of scientists that has had all its known puzzles neatly solved ‘just in time’. I’m just greedy!!!

5- Matter and Antimatter: During the Big Bang, there were equal amounts of matter and anti matter, but then for some reason all the antimatter dissappeared leaving us with only matter to form atoms, stars and galaxies. We don’t know why this happened, and the Standard Model is completely unhelpful in giving us any clues to explain this. But next to dark matter, this is one of the most outstanding mysteries of modern, 21st century cosmology. We have no clue how to account for this fact within the Standard Model, so again like Dark Matter, we see that at cosmological scales, the Standard Model is incomplete.

6- Origin of Time and Space: Understanding the nature of time and space, and trying to make peace with why they exist at all, is the bane of any physicists existence. I have written many blogs on this subject, and have tried to tackle it from many different angles, but in the end they are like jigsaw puzzels with too many missing pieces. Still, it is very exciting to explore where modern physics has taken us, and the many questions such thinking has opened up in surprising corners. My previous blog about ‘What is ‘Now’ is one such line of thinking. Many of the new ideas were not even imagined as little as 30 years ago, so that is a positive thing. We are still learning more about these two subjects and getting better at asking the right questions!

https://iopscience.iop.org/journal/0264-9381/page/Focus-issue-loop-quantum-gravity

7-Consciousness: OK…You know I would get to this eventually, and here it is! Neuroscientists know of lots of medical conditions that can rob us of consciousness including medical anesthesia, but why we have this sense about ourselves that we are a ‘person’ and have volition is a massively hard problem. In fact, consciousness is called the ‘Hard Problem’ in neuroscience..heck…in any science!

https://www.technologynetworks.com/neuroscience/articles/what-if-consciousness-is-not-what-drives-the-human-mind-307159

The ‘Soft Problem’ is how our senses give us a coherant internal model of the world that we can use to navigate the outside world. We know how to solve the Soft Problem, just follow the neurons. We are well on our way to understanding it thanks to high-tech brain imaging scanners and cleverly-designed experiments. The Hard Problem is ‘hard’ because our point-of-view is within the thing we are trying to undertand. Some think that our own ‘wet ware’ is not up to the task of even giving us the intelligence to answer this qustion. It will not be the first time someone has told us about limitations, but usually these are technological ones, and not ones related to limits to what our own brains can provide as a tool.

So there you have it.

My impression is that only Mysteries #1 and #2 will make huge progress. The Theory of Everything is in experimental disarray. For antimatter, there has been no progress, but many ideas. They all involve going outside the Standard Model. Dark matter might be replaced by a modification of gravity at galactic and cosmological scales.

Beyond these ‘superficial’ mysteries, we are left with three deep mysteries. The origin of space, time and consciousness remain our 21st century gift to children of the 22nd century!

Check back here in a few weeks for the next blog!

Silent Earth

Noise pollution is a serious matter that can affect not only how well you sleep at night, but also your health and even psychological state. None of this should surprise you, but as our planet becomes more urbanized, the expanding cloud of man-made noise from jets, traffic and even leaf-blowers can penetrate even remote forests and habitats.

Just out of curiosity, I have created a citizen science project that you can download to your phone from your app store and help me map, not the noisiest places on this planet, but the quietest places. The project can be found by downloading from your store the app called ‘Anecdata’. It will ask you to register by entering an email address, a username and your own private password. Once registered, scroll down the project page and join the one called ‘Silent Earth’. You should also join the Facebook group called ‘The Silent Earth Project’ because I post updates there and tips for taking data, as well as interesting results along the way. https://www.facebook.com/SilentEarthProject

This is what the project banner looks like on your phone

In time, I will be using this blog space to include article of interest on noise pollution and some of our results as we get more areas covered. Here is what you need to do to get going.

Check out the national map by the National Park Service to see how your area ranks https://earthsky.org/earth/map-shows-loudest-quietest-places-in-u-s

Step 1: Tap the bar that says ‘+Observe’ on the project window

Step 2: Tap the bar that says ‘Measure’ and click ‘OK’. Remain quiet for a few seconds.

Step 3: Tap the check boxes that apply to you and your location

Step 4: Tap the ‘save’ tab at the upper right of the screen to record your data.

Don’t be shy!! Make as many measurements as you like but certainly more than one!!! Also, if it seems noisy where you are, say above 50 decibels (dB) walk around your neighborhood or town (or use a bike or car) to find a place that is quieter than what you just measured. Numbers in the 40s are very typical of suburban locations but numbers in the 30s are exceptionally quiet and what you would find in rural locations where there is little traffic, jet, plane or other man-made noises. One of the quietest places I have encountered is deep inside Skyline Caverns in Virginia where readings in the high-20s were encountered!

What is ‘Now’?

What is the duration of the present moment? How is it that this present moment is replaced by ‘the next moment’?

Within every organism, sentient or not, there are thousands of chemical processes that occur with their own characteristic time periods, but these time periods start and stop at different times so that there is no synchronized ‘moment’. Elementary atomic collisions that build up molecules take nanoseconds while cell division takes minutes to hours, and tissue cell lifespans vary from 2 days in the stomach lining to 8 years for fat cells (see Cell Biology). None of these jangled timescales collectively or in isolation create the uniform experience we have of now and its future moments. To find the timescale that corresponds to the Now experience we have to look elsewhere.

It’s all in the mind!

A variety of articles over the  years have identified 2 to 3 seconds as the maximum duration of what most people experience as ‘now’, and what researchers call the ‘specious present’. This is the time required by our brain’s neurological mechanisms to combine the information arriving at our senses with our internal, current model of the ‘outside world’. During this time an enormous amount of neural activity has to happen. Not only does the sensory information have to be integrated together for every object in your visual field and cross connected to the other senses, but dozens of specialized brain regions have to be activated or de-activated to update your world model in a consistent way.

In a previous blog I discussed how important this world model is in creating within you a sense of living in a consistent world with a coherent story. But this process is not fixed in stone. Recent studies by Sebastian Sauer and his colleagues at the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität in Munich show that mindfulness meditators can significantly increase their sense of ‘now’ so that it is prolonged for up to 20 seconds.

In detail, a neuron discharge lasts about 1 millisecond, but it has to be separated from the next one by about 30 milliseconds before a sequence is perceived, and this seems to be true for all senses. When you see a ‘movie’ it is a succession of still images flashed into your visual cortex at intervals less than 30 milliseconds, giving the illusion of a continuous unbroken scene.  (Dainton: Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2017).

The knitting together of these ‘nows’ into a smooth flow-of-time is done by our internal model-building system. It works lightning-fast to connect one static collection of sensory inputs to another set and hold these both in our conscious ‘view’ of the world. This gives us a feeling of the passing of one set of conditions smoothly into another set of conditions that now make up the next ‘Now’. To get from one moment to the next, our brain can play fast-and-loose with the data and interpolate what it needs. For example, it our visual world, the fovea in our retina produces a Blind Spot but you never notice it because there are circuits that interpolate across this spot to fill-in the scenery. The same thing happens in the time dimension with the help of our internal model to make our jagged perceptions in time into a smooth movie experience.

Neurological conditions such as strokes, or psychotropic chemicals can disrupt this process and cause dramatic problems. Many schizophrenic patients stop perceiving time as a flow of  linked events.  These defects in time perception may play a part in the hallucinations and delusions experienced by schizophrenic patients according to some studies. There are other milder aberrations that can affect our sense of the flow-of-time.

Research has also suggested the feeling of awe has the ability to expand one’s perceptions of time availability. Fear also produces time-sense distortion. Time seems to slow down when a person skydives or bungee jumps, or when a person suddenly and unexpectedly senses the presence of a potential predator or mate. Research also indicates that the internal clock, used to time durations in the seconds-to-minutes range, is linked to dopamine function in the basal ganglia. Studies in which children with ADHD are given time estimation tasks shows that time passes very slowly for them.

Because the volume of data is enormous, we cannot hold many of these consecutive Now moments in our consciousness with the same clarity, and so earlier Nows either pass into short-term memory if they have been tagged with some emotional or survival attributes, or fade quickly into complete forgetfulness. You will not remember the complete sensory experience of diving into a swimming pool, but if you were pushed, or were injured, you will remember that specific sequence of moments with remarkable clarity years later!

The model-building aspect of our brain is just another tool it has that is equivalent to its pattern-recognition ability in space. It looks for patterns in time to find correlations which it then uses to build up expectations for ‘what comes next’. Amazingly, when this feature yields more certainty than the evidence of our senses, psychologists like Albert Powers at Yale University say that we experience hallucinations (Fan, 2017). In fact, 5-15% of the population experience auditory hallucinations (songs, voices, sounds) at some time in their lives when the brain literally hears a sound that is not there because it was strongly expected on the basis of other clues. One frequent example is that  people claim to hear the Northern Lights as a crackling fire or a swishing sound, because their visual system creates this expectation and the brain obliges.

This, then, presents us with the neurological experience of Now. It is between 30 milliseconds and several minutes in duration. It includes a recollection of the past which fades away for longer intervals in the past, and includes a sense of the immediate future as our model-making facility extrapolates from our immediate past and fabricates an expectation of what comes next.

Living in a perpetual Now is no fun. The famed psychologist Oliver Sacks describes  a patient, Clive Wearing, with a severe form of amnesia, who was unable to form any new memories that lasted longer than 30 seconds, and became convinced every few minutes that he was fully conscious for the first time. “In some ways, he is not anywhere at all; he has dropped out of space and time altogether. He no longer has any inner narrative; he is not leading a life in the sense that the rest of us do….It is not the remembrance of things past, the “once” that Clive yearns for, or can ever achieve. It is the claiming, the filling, of the present, the now, and this is only possible when he is totally immersed in the successive moments of an act. It is the “now” that bridges the abyss.”

Physical ‘Now’.

This monkeying around with brain states, internal model-making and sensory data creates Now as a phenomenon we experience, but the physical world outside our collective brain population does not operate through its own neural systems to create a Cosmic Now. That would only be the case if, for example, we were literally living inside The Matrix….which I believe we are not. So in terms of physics, the idea of Now does not exist. We even know from relativity that there can be no uniform and simultaneous Now spanning large portions of space or the cosmos. This is a problem that has bedeviled many people across the millennia.

Augustine (in the fourth century) wrote, “What is time? If no one asks me, I know; if I wish to explain, I do not know. … My soul yearns to know this most entangled enigma.” Even Einstein himself noted ‘…that there is something essential about the Now which is just outside the realm of science.’

Both of these statements were made before quantum theory became fully developed. Einstein developed relativity, but this was a theory in which spacetime took the place of space and time individually. If you wanted to define ‘now’ by a set of simultaneous conditions, relativity put the kibosh on that idea because due to the relative motions and accelerations of all Observers, there can be no simultaneous ‘now’ that all Observers can experience. Also, there was no ‘flow of time’ because relativity was a theory of worldlines and complete histories of particles from start to finish (called the boundary conditions of worldlines). Quantum theory, however, showed some new possibilities.

In physics, time is a variable, often represented by the letter t, that is a convenient parameter with which to describe how a system of matter and energy change. The first very puzzling feature of time as a physical variable is that all mathematical representations of physical laws or theories show that time is continuous, smooth and infinitely divisible into smaller intervals. These equations are also ‘timeless’ in that they can be written down on a piece of paper and accurately describe how a system changes from start to finish (based on boundary conditions defined at ‘t=0’) , but the equations show this process as ‘all at once’.

In fact, this perspective is so built into physics that it forms the core of Einstein’s relativity theory in the form of the 4-d spacetime ‘block’. It also appears in quantum mechanics because fundamental equations like Schroedinger’s Equation also offer a timeless view of quantum states.

In all these situations, one endearing feature of our world is actually suppressed and mathematically hidden from view, and that is precisely the feature we call ‘now’.

To describe what things look like Now, you have to dial in to the equations the number t =  t(now). How does nature do that? As discussed by physicist Lee Smolin in his book ‘Time Reborn’, this is the most fundamental experience we have about the physical world as sentient beings, yet it is not represented by any feature in the physical theories we have developed thus far. There is no theory that selects t = t(now) over all the infinite other moments in time.

Perhaps we are looking in the wrong place!

Just as we have seen that what we call ‘space’ is built up like a tapestry from a vast number of quantum events described (we hope!) by quantum gravity, time also seems to be created from a synthesis of elementary events occurring at the quantum scale.   For example, what we call temperature is the result of innumerable collisions among elementary objects such as atoms. Temperature is a measure of the average collision energy of a large collection of particles, but cannot be identified as such at the scale of individual particles. Temperature is a phenomenon that has emerged from the collective properties of thousands or trillions of individual particles.

A system can be described completely by its quantum state – which is a much easier thing to do when you have a dozen atoms than when you have trillions, but the principle is the same. This quantum state describes how the elements of the system are arrayed in 3-d space, but because of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, the location of a particle at a given speed is spread out rather than localized to a definite position.  But quantum states can also become entangled. For these systems, if you measure one of the particles and detect property P1 then the second particle must have property P2. The crazy thing is that until you measured that property in the first particle, it could have had either property P1 or P2, but after the measurement the distant particle ‘knew’ that it had to have the corresponding property even though this information had to travel faster than light to insure consistency.

An intriguing set of papers by physicist Seth Lloyd at Harvard University in 1984 showed that over time, the quantum states of the member particles become correlated and shared by the larger ensemble. This direction of increasing correlation goes only one way and establishes the ‘Arrow of Time’ on the quantum scale.

One interesting feature of this entanglement idea is that ‘a few minutes ago’, our brain’s quantum state was less correlated with its surroundings and our sensory information than at a later time. This means that the further you go into the past moments, the less correlated they are with the current moment because, for one, the sensory information has to arrive and be processed before it can change our brain’s state. Our sense of Now is the product of how past brain states are correlated with the current state. A big part of this correlating is accomplished, not by sterile quantum entanglement, but by information transmitted through our neural networks and most importantly our internal model of our world – which is a dynamic thing.

If we did not have such an internal model that correlates our sensory information and fabricates an internal story of perception, our sense of Now would be very different because so much of the business of correlating quantum information would not occur very quickly. Instead of a Now measured in seconds, our Now’s would be measured in hours, days or even lifetimes, and be a far more chaotic experience because it would lack a coherent, internal description of our experiences.

This seems to suggest that no two people live in exactly the same Now, but these separate Now experiences can become correlated together as the population of individuals interact with each other and share experiences through the process of correlation. As for the rest of the universe, it exists in an undefined Now state that varies from location to location and is controlled by the speed of light, which is the fastest mode of exchanging information.

Read more:

In my previous blogs, I briefly described how the human brain perceives and models space (Blog 14: Oops one more thing), how Einstein and other physicists dismiss space as an illusion (Blog 10: Relativity and space ), how relativity deals with the concept of space (Blog 12: So what IS space?), what a theory of quantum gravity would have to look like (Blog 13: Quantum Gravity Oh my! ), and along the way why the idea of infinity is not physically real (Blog 11: Is infinity real?) and why space is not nothing (Blog 33: Thinking about Nothing). I even discussed how it is important to ‘think visually’ when trying to model the universe such as the ‘strings’ and ‘loops’ used by physicists as an analog to space ( Blog 34: Thinking Visually)

I also summarized the nature of space in a wrap-up of why something like a quantum theory for gravity is badly needed because the current theories of quantum mechanics and general relativity are incomplete, but also point the way towards a theory that is truly background-independent and relativistic (Blog 36: Quantum Gravity-Again! ). These considerations describe the emergence of the phenomenon we call ‘space’ but also down play its importance because it is an irrelevant and misleading concept.

Things to do with your Smartphone!

We all have smartphones, but did you know that they are chock-full of sensors that you can access and use to make some amazing measurements?

Here is an example of a few kinds of data provided by an app called Physics Toolbox, which you can get at the Apple or GOOGLE stores.

Sensor data accessed by Physics Toolbox app

Each of these functions leads to a separate screen where the data values are displayed in graphical form. You can even download the data as a .csv file and analyze it yourself. This provides lots of opportunities for teachers to ask their students to collect data and analyze it themselves, rather than using textbook tables with largely made-up numbers!

There are also many different separate apps that specialize in specific kinds of data such as magnetic field strength, sound volume, temperature, acceleration to name just a few.

I have written a guide to smartphone sensors and how to use them, along with dozens of experiments, and a whole section on how to mathematically analyze the data. The guide was written for a program at the Goddard Space Flight Center called the NASA Space Science Education Consortium, so if you know any teachers, students or science-curious tinkerer’s that might be interested in smartphone sensors, send them to this blog page so that I can count the traffic flow to the Guide.

Here is an interview with the folks at ISTE where I talk about smartphone sensors in a bit more detail:

https://www.iste.org/explore/classroom/students-can-do-citizen-science-their-smartphones

OK…here’s the URL for the actual Guide!

http://spacemath.gsfc.nasa.gov/Sensor/SensorsBook.pdf

If you really want to look into using smartphone sensors in a serious way, here are some articles I have written about them that you might also enjoy:

Odenwald, S., 2019. Smartphone Sensors for Citizen Science Applications: Radioactivity and Magnetism. Citizen Science: Theory and Practice, 4(1), p.18. DOI: http://doi.org/10.5334/cstp.158

Odenwald, S., 2018, The Feasibility of Detecting Magnetic Storms With Smartphone Technology, IEEE Access, https://ieeexplore.ieee.org/document/8425973

Black Holes for Fun and Profit!

Well, astronomers finally did it. Nearly 100 years ago, Albert Einstein’s theory of General Relativity predicted that black holes should exist. Although it took until the 1960’s for someone like physicist John Wheeler to coin the name ‘black hole’ the study of these enigmatic objects became a cottage industry in theoretical physics and astrophysics. In fact, for certain kinds of astronomical phenomena such as quasars and x-ray sources, there was simply no other explanation for how such phenomena could generate so much energy in such an impossibly small volume of space. The existence of black holes was elevated to a certainty during the 1990s as studies of distant galaxies by the Hubble Space Telescope turned in tons of data that clinched the idea that the cores of most if not all galaxies had them. In fact, these black holes contained millions or even billions of times the mass of our sun and were awarded a moniker all their own: supermassive black holes. But there was still one outstanding problem for these versatile engines of gravitational destruction: Not a single one had ever been seen. To understand why, we have to delve rather deeply into what these beasties really are. Hang on to your seats!

               General relativity is the preeminent theory of gravity, but it is completely couched in the language of geometry – in this case the geometry of what is called our 4-dimensional spacetime continuum. You see, in general relativity, what we call space is just a particular feature of the gravitational field of the cosmos within which we are embedded rather seamlessly. This is all well and good, and this perspective has led to the amazing development of the cosmological model called Big Bang theory. Despite this amazing success, it is a theory not without its problems. The problems stem from what happens when you collect enough mass together in a small volume of space so that the geometry of spacetime (e.g. the strength of gravity) becomes enormously curved.

               The very first thing that happens according to the theory is that a condition in spacetime called a Singularity forms. Here, general relativity itself falls apart because density and gravity tend towards infinite conditions. Amazingly according to general relativity, and proved by the late Stephen Hawkins, spacetime immediately develops a zone surrounding the Singularity called an event horizon. For black holes more massive than our sun, the distance in kilometers of this spherical horizon from the Singularity is just 2.9 times the mass of the black hole in multiples of the sun’s mass. For example, if the mass of a supermassive black hole is 6.5 billion times the mass of our sun, its event horizon is at 6.5 billionx2.9 or 19 billion kilometers. Our solar system has a radius of only 8 billion km to Pluto, so this supermassive black hole is over twice the size of our solar system!

               Now the problem with event horizons is that they are one-way. Objects and even light can travel through them from outside the black hole, but once inside they can never return to the outside universe to give a description of what happened. However, it is a misunderstanding to say that black holes ‘suck’ as the modern colloquialism goes. They are simply points of intense gravitational force, and if our sun were replaced by one very gently, our Earth would not even register the event and continue its merry way in its orbit. The astrophysicist’s frustration is that it has never been possible to take a look at what is going on around the event horizon…until April 10, 2019.

               Researchers using the radio telescope interferometer system called the Event Horizon Telescope were able to synthesize an image of the surroundings of the supermassive black hole in the quasar-like galaxy Messier-87 – also known as Virgo A by early radio astronomers after World War II, and located about 55 million light years from Earth. They combined the data from eight radio telescopes scattered from Antarctica to the UK to create one telescope with the effective diameter of the entire Earth. With this, they were able to detect and resolve details at the center of M-87 near the location of a presumed supermassive black hole. This black hole is surrounded by a swirling disk of magnetized matter, which ejects a powerful beam of plasma into intergalactic space. It has been intensively studied for decades and the details of this process always point to a supermassive black hole as the cause.

Beginning in 2016, several petabytes of data were gathered from the Event Horizon Telescope and a massive press conference was convened to announce the first images of the vicinity of the event horizon. Surrounding the black shadow zone containing the event horizon was a clockwise-rotating ring of billion-degree plasma traveling at nearly the speed of light. When the details of this image were compared with supercomputer simulations, the mass of the supermassive black hole could be accurately determined as well as the dynamics of the ring plasma. The round shape of the event horizon was not perfect, which means that it is a rotating Kerr-type black hole. The darkness of the zone indicated that the event horizon did not have a photosphere of hot matter like the surface of our sun, so many competing ideas about this mass could be eliminated. Only the blackness of a black hole and its compact size now remain as the most consistent explanation for what we are ‘seeing’. Over time, astronomers will watch as this ring plasma moves from week to week. The next target for the Event Horizon Telescope is the four million solar mass black hole at the center of the Milky Way called Sgr-A*. Watch this space for more details to come!!

We have truly entered a new world in exploring our universe. Now if someone could only do something about dark matter!!!

A Life in Remission

In the midst of an active research career in astrophysics, in 2008 I was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins Lymphoma, and my world ended.

For the next eight years I learned to live with the cancer growing slowly within me like some creature out of the infamous ‘Alien’ movie series. Annual tests showed the dozens of affected lymph nodes were very slowly growing in size by the millimeter, but with luck none of them would  turn dangerous for a decade or more. But no one could predict when my cancer would ‘transform’ and become dangerously aggressive, requiring immediate chemotherapy. Actuarial forecasts said that the probability of transformation increased by 5% per year, so that after 10 years I would have a 50/50 chance of my NHL becoming aggressive, but it could happen sooner. …or much later. As a scientist, this uncertain diagnosis was devastating.

A scientist conducts research based on the a priori assumption that they will live to see the end of their work and to publish the results.  I just know you are going to say ‘Well, no one knows when they are going to die’, but among those of us who deal with cancer, these kinds of sentiments seem insensitive and a bit flippant no matter how well-intended.

How does one function when one does not know when the monster will spring out of hiding and put the kibosh on your current work? Many of my projects required several years of work, followed by months of writing-up the results and interacting with referees and journal editors to publish the results. You simply cannot muster the stamina to carry-on your research and deal with referees when you are on a short, emotional leash.

Coping with an uncertain future in research

I immediately began to wean myself away from the rigors of research and instead moved into the area of education where NASA had a huge footprint. I won two grants to develop my SpaceMath@NASA resource, which grew every year to become a significant mathematics resource for educators. I even became known in some circles as Dr. Space Math! This was an intensely therapeutic undertaking for me because could write new math problems and design new math books whenever I chose to on my timetable, and if I literally died tomorrow, I would have left behind a complete archive of fun math resources. It was an open-ended commitment that suited my new frame-of-mind, and still made me feel as though I was contributing, intellectually, to a Greater Good: The education of our children.

As the years began to add up, 5…6..7…8  I started to realize that I might be in this cancer frame-of-mind for the long haul. But by this time my hiatus from research, and my ‘advanced age’ of 64, precluded any re-entry into the level of research I had enjoyed in my earlier years. It was very sad to see this part of my career waste away, but considering I was in my peri-retirement years, perhaps as it is for so many other scientists, this transition was inevitable.

In 2016 my NHL became aggressive after eight years of near-dormancy. I was quickly rushed into a course of immunotherapy with a monthly infusion of Rituximab and Bendemustine for six months. At the end, a PET scan showed in November, 2017 that there wasn’t a sign of  the NHL anywhere, and my oncologist, Dr. Bruce Cheson at MedStar/Georgetown University Hospital in Washington DC pronounced me in remission. For the next two years, if there was no further sign of the NHL, he would consider me cured!

All of a sudden my attitude seemed to change almost literally over-night. I was anxious to start new research projects that, at least for now, could be completed in six months or less including writing up the results and submitting to the Journals. I had been out of my own research area for too long, and besides no astronomer at the age of 65 worries about new research unless they are still employed at a stable faculty or government job…which I was not. But I did have a part-time position at NASA working on citizen science activities. I was also involved in some very fun research trying to determine how well smartphones performed as scientific data-gathering sensors. That was starting to generate a pipeline of short-term projects culminating in several papers every year. But now that I was in remission, I could start to think about more complicated projects to tackle once again.

So I, basically, have come full circle in research having wandered for eight years in the dreary and uncertain desert of non-research work.

It’s good to be back!!

 

Quantum Gravity – Again!

In my previous blogs, I briefly described how the human brain perceives and models space (Oops one more thing), how Einstein and other physicists dismiss space as an illusion (Relativity and space ), how relativity deals with the concept of space (So what IS space?), what a theory of quantum gravity would have to look like (Quantum Gravity Oh my! ), and along the way why the idea of infinity is not physically real (Is infinity real?) and why space is not nothing (Thinking about Nothing).  I even discussed how it is important to ‘think visually’ when trying to model the universe such as the ‘strings’ and ‘loops’ used by physicists as an analog to space (Thinking Visually)

And still these blogs do not exhaust the scope of either the idea of space itself or the research in progress to get to the bottom of our experience of it.

This essay, based on a talk I gave at the Belmont Astronomical Society on October 5, 2017 will try to cover some of these other ideas and approaches that are loosely believed to be a part of a future theory of quantum gravity.

What is quantum gravity?

It is the basic idea that the two great theories of physics, Quantum Mechanics and General Relativity are incompatible with each other and do not actually deal with the same ingredients to the world: space(time) and matter. Quantum gravity is a hypothetical theory that unifies these two great ideas into a single language, revealing answers to some of the deepest questions we know how to ask about the physical world. It truly is the Holy Grail of physics.

Why do we need quantum gravity at all?

Quantum mechanics is a theory that describes matter and fields embedded in a pre-existing spacetime that has no physical effect on these fields other than to provide coordinates for describing where they are in time and space. It is said to be a background-dependent theory. General relativity is only a theory of space(time) and does not describe matter’s essence at all. It describes how matter affects the geometry of spacetime and how spacetime affects the motion of matter, but does so in purely ‘classical’ terms. Most importantly, general relativity says there is no pre-existing spacetime at all. It is called a background-independent theory. Quantum gravity is an overarching background-independent theory that accounts for the quantum nature of matter and also the quantum nature of spacetime at scales where these effects are important, called the Planck scale where the smallest unit of space is 10^-33 cm and the smallest unit of time is 10^-43 seconds.

We need quantum gravity because calculations in quantum mechanics are plagued by ‘infinities’ that come about because QM assumes space(time) is infinitely divisible into smaller units of length. When physical processes and field intensities are summed over smaller and smaller lengths to build up a prediction, the infinitesimally small units lead to infinitely large contributions which ‘blow up’ the calculations unless some mathematical method called ‘renormalization’ is used. But the gravitational field escribed by general relativity cannot be renormalized to eliminate its infinities. Only by placing a lower limit ‘cutoff’ to space(time) as quantum gravity does is this problem eliminated and all calculations become finite.

We need quantum gravity because black holes do not possess infinite entropy. The surface area of a black hole, called its event horizon, is related to its entropy, which is a measure of the amount of information that is contained inside the horizon. A single bit of information is encoded on the horizon as an area 2-Planck lengths squared. According to the holographic principle, the surface of a black hole, its 2-d surface area, encodes all the information found in the encompassed 3-d volume, so that means that the spacetime interior of a black hole has to be quantized and cannot be infinitely divisible otherwise the holographic principle would be invalid and the horizon of the black hole would have to encode an infinite amount of information and have an infinite entropy.

We also need quantum gravity because it is believed that any fundamental theory of our physical world has to be background-independent as general relativity shows that spacetime is. That means that quantum mechanics is currently an incomplete theory because it still requires the scaffolding of a pre-existing spacetime and does not ‘create’ this scaffolding from within itself the way that general relativity does.

So what is the big picture?

Historically, Newton gave us space and time as eternally absolute and fixed prerequisites to our world that were defined once and for all before we even started to describe forces and motion. The second great school of thought at that time was developed by Gottfrid Leibnitz. He said that time and space have no meaning in themselves but only as properties defined by the relationships between bodies. Einstein’s relativity and its experimental vindication has proven that Newton’s Absolute Space and Time are completely false, and replaced them by Leibnitz’s relativity principle. Einstein even said on numerous occasions that space is an imaginary construct that we take for granted in an almost mythical way. Space has no independent existence apart from its emergence out of the relationships between physical bodies. This relationship is so intimate that in general relativity, material bodies define the spacetime geometry itself as a dynamical solution to his famous relativistic equation for gravity.

How does the experience of space emerge?

In general relativity, the only thing that matters are the events along a particle’s worldline, also called its history. These events encode the relationships between bodies, and are created by the intersections of other worldlines from other particles. This network of fundamental worldlines contains all the information you need to describe the global geometry of this network of events and worldlines. It is only the geometry of these worldlines that matters to physical phenomena in the universe.

The wireframe head in this illustration is an analog to worldliness linking together to create a geometry. The black ‘void’ contains no geometric or dimensional information and any points in it do not interact with any worldline that makes up the network. That is why ‘space’ is a myth and the only thing that determine the structure of our 4-d spacetime are the worldliness.

General relativity describes how the geometry of these worldlines creates a 4-dimensional spacetime. These worldlines represent matter particles and general relativity describes how these matter particles create the curvature in the worldlines among the entire system of particles, and thereby creates space and time. The ‘empty’ mathematical points between the worldlines have no physical meaning because they are not connected to events among any of the physical worldlines, which is why Einstein said that the background space in which the worldlines seem to be embedded does not actually exist! When we look out into ‘space’ we are looking along the worldlines of light rays. We are not looking through a pre-existing space. This means we are not seeing ‘things in space’ we are seeing processes in time along a particle’s history!

There are two major quantum gravity theories being worked on today.

String theory says that particles are 1-dimensional loops of ‘something’ that are defined in a 10-dimensional spacetime of which 4 dimensions are the Big Ones we see around us. The others are compact and through their geometric symmetries define the properties of the particles themselves. It is an approach to quantum gravity that has several problems.

 

This figure is an imaginative rendering of a ‘string’.

First it assumes that spacetime already exists for the strings to move within. It is a background-dependent theory in the same spirit as Newton’s Absolute Space and Time. Secondly, string theory is only a theory of matter and its quantum properties at the Planck scales, but in fact the scale of a string depends on a single parameter called the string tension. If the tension is small, then these string ‘loops’ are thousands of times bigger than the Planck scale, and there is no constraint on what the actual value of the tension should be. It is an adjustable parameter.

This figure is an imaginative rendering of a ‘loop’

Loop Quantum Gravity is purely a theory of spacetime and does not treat the matter covered by quantum mechanics. It is a background-independent theory that is able to exactly calculate the answers to many problems in gravitation theory, unlike string theory which has to sneak up on the answers by summing an infinite number of alternate possibilities. LQG arrives at the answer ‘2.0’ in one step as an exact answer while for example string theory has to sum the sequence 1+1/2+1/4+1/8+1/16 +…. To get to 2.000.

LQG works with elementary spacetime ingredients called nodes and edges to create spin networks and spin foam. Like a magnetic field line that carries magnetic flux, these edges act like the field lines to space and carry quantized areas 1 Planck length squared. By summing over the number of nodes in a spin network region, each node carries a quantum unit of space volume. These nodes are related to each other in a network of intersecting lines called a spin network, which for very large networks begins to look like a snapshot of space seen at a specific instant. The change of one network into another is called a spin foam and it is the antecedent to 4-d spacetime. There is no physical meaning to the nodes and edges themselves just as there is no physical meaning to the 1-d loops than make up strings in string theory. . They are pure mathematical constructs.

So far, the best idea is that LQG forms the bedrock for string theory. String theory looks at spacetime and matter far above the Planck scale, and this is where the properties of matter particles make their appearance. LQG creates the background of spacetime that strings move through. However there is a major problem. LQG predicts that the cosmological constant must be negative and small, which is what is astronomically observed, while string theory says that the cosmological constant is large and positive. Also, although LQG can reconstruct the large 4-d spacetime that we live in, it does not seem to have have any room for the additional 6 dimensions required by string theory to create the properties of the particles we observe. One possibility is that these extra dimensions are not space-like at all but merely ‘bookkeeping’ tools that physicists have to use which will eventually be replaced in the future by a fully 4-d theory of strings.

Another approach still in its infancy is Causal Set Theory. Like LQG it is a background-independent theory of spacetime. It starts with a collection of points that are linked together by only one guiding principle, that pairs of points are ordered by cause-and-effect. This defines how these points are ordered in time, but this is the only organizing principle for points in the set. What investigators have found is that such sets create from within themselves the physical concepts of distance and time and lead to relativistic spacetimes. Causal Sets and the nodes in LQG spin networks may be related to each other.

Another exciting discovery that relates to how the elements of quantum spacetime create spacetime involves the Holographic Principle connected with quantum entanglement.

The Holographic Principle states that all the information and relationships found in a 3-d volume are ‘encoded’ on a 2-d surface screen that surrounds this volume. This means that relationships among the surface elements are reflected in the behavior of the interior physics. Recently it was discovered that if you use quantum entanglement to connect two points on the surface, the corresponding points in the interior become linked together as a physical unit. If you turn off the entanglement on the surface the interior points become unconnected and the interior space dissolves into unrelated points. The amount of entanglement can be directly related to how physically close the points are, and so this is how a unified geometry for spacetime inside the 3-d ‘bulk’ can arise from unconnected points linked together by quantum entanglement.

 

Additional Reading:

Exploring Quantum Space  [My book at Amazon.com]

Quantum Entanglement and quantum spacetime [Mark Raamsdonk]

Background-independence  [Lee Smolin]

Holographic Principle [ Jack Ng]

Causal Sets: The self-organizing universe [Scientific American]

 

Eclipse Postscript

In a previous blog in June , I described the August 21, 2017 eclipse and what to expect from it, along with the many resources available at the NASA website that fill-in the details of this event as we were expecting it to unfold.  This website, by the way,  went crazy for the eclipse and got over 2 billion hits from tens of millions of daily visitors. For myself, I was not prepared for the surge of emotions I would feel even after glimpsing only 15 seconds of this event between gaps in the clouds over Carbondale, Illinois. Why Carbondale? I described in a 2014 Huffington Post article how this would be the place where the eclipse lasted the longest, 2 minutes and 40 seconds, and so this is where NASA Edge decided to park us for our major public outreach activities and NASA TV interviews.

I had been interviewed by a number of TV and radio reporters as well as a memorable Facebook interview with Curiosity. My article at NASA on the airline flights that would see the eclipse got quite a bit of traction. It was fun to see my articles on smartphone eclipse photography get so much press like this one at BuzzFeed, or this one at WIRED.  I even presented my smartphone tips to 1000 students at a local high school, which was carried by the local TV station WSIL-TV. Amazingly, despite my public ‘expertise’ on the matter, I did not bother using my smartphone at all in the brief time that the eclipse showed itself!

I mentioned in an interview with Carolyn Cerda also on WSIL-TV how I had brought along my cameras and hoped to grab just one image of this event. This was after many weeks of debating with myself whether I should even bother with photography at all. I knew how easy it was to get lost among the f/stops and exposure speeds in pursuit of a trophy to commemorate this event. I certainly didn’t want to waste precious time wrestling with the very finicky smartphone telephoto lens set up. But I also wanted to spend as much time as possible letting the emotions wash over me, just as they had done for millions of other people down through the thousands of years of human history. Could I, too, experience the fear that had so commonly been the popular experience? Or would my science protect me from these irrational feelings like some coat-of-armor? I had no idea, and in many of my TV interviews I said as much.

So I compromised.

I would run my digital, Sony camcorder during totality, and on the same tripod bracket, I would set my Nikon D3000 to a fixed f/stop and exposure speed selected to highlight the dazzling bright inner corona and any prominences or blood-red chromospheric light that may be present. I would hold the shutter release down so that the camera took bursts of a dozen photos, and periodically snap photos at mid-eclipse, and on each side of the 2.5-minute window to catch Baily’s Beads and anything else going on. It sounded like a good plan, and one in which I could still spend all of my eyeball time looking at totality and not at my camera!

This turned out to be a very good choice!

The clouds did roll in and cover the entire eclipse except for the last 15 seconds of totality. I snapped a few pictures like the one above using the clouds themselves to filter the intense sunlight, revealing a diminishing crescent sun. Had my NASA activities allowed us to be located a mile east rather than by Saluki Stadium at the Southern Illinois University, Carbondale campus, I would have been treated to a full 2.5 minutes of eclipse. But 15 seconds was just enough time to send chills down my spine and have the experience of a lifetime.

My photos turned out not to be too bad. The montage below was posted on my Facebook page within an hour or so, and although a bit fuzzy for the clouds, it was clear I had seen the entire circumferential inner corona, several red spots along the solar limb as the chromosphere peaked through, and the delightful Diamond Ring of sunlight streaking through a deep lunar canyon! My camcorder also showed the emergence of the sun from totality, capturing the dense clouds and the screams from the thousands of people looking on. This also went up on my Facebook page to the delight of dozens of my friends and family!

But how did I feel?

It was frustrating to see the crescent sun dip in to the dense clouds at the start of totality, and to watch the clock tick out the next few minutes, but as we reached mid-eclipse the scenery around me turned to twilight so quickly that I actually gasped in amazement! Hopefully, and with cameras at the ready I waited and then suddenly the brightening of a small portion of the cloud heralded that the eclipsed sun was about to make its appearance. When it did, everyone shouted and I watched with amazement, not really understanding what it was I was seeing. I immediately placed my finger on the shutter button, let the camera’s machinery take a series of 100 images, and hoped for the best. Again I was not dissappointed.

A dark object appeared surrounded by an intense ring of light. I thought this was just the reflection of sunlight on the cloud, but in an instant I realized this was no sun glint for there was no brilliant solar disk to illuminate it. Instead, it was the corona itself, brighter to the naked eye than I ever could have imagined! Within a few seconds the moon began to move off the western edge of the solar disk and slowly but steadily a single bright point of light appeared and grew in brightness until I could no longer stare at it with my eye through the digital display of my camcorder.

There was so much noise and ruckus from everyone else cheering that it was hard for me to collect and reflect on my thoughts – a process that took several days and repeated sharing of my experiences with family and friends. I had only experienced the ‘tip of an iceberg’ in the emotions that had hit me, and some were no doubt muted by the confusion of what I was seeing so briefly. I could only imagine what the full two minutes would have brought to mind.

I was not prepared for the days to follow. My sense of loss was something ineffable that I could not quite shake. I drifted from day to day, occasionally gawking at the many gorgeous online photos taken by more savvy photographers and old-hands at totalities. But you have to start somewhere, and at least for the first time in my life as an astronomer I can describe to my students,not only why we have eclipses and how our ancestors regarded them, but as with the Northern Lights, I can now add my own tiny voice to describing them in purely human terms!