Even In A Quantum Universe, Space And Time Might Be Continuous, Not Discrete
“In General Relativity, matter and energy tell space how to curve, while curved space tells matter and energy how to move. But in General Relativity, space and time are continuous and non-quantized. All the other forces are known to be quantum in nature, and require a quantum description to match reality. We assume and suspect that gravitation is fundamentally quantum, too, but we aren’t sure. Furthermore, if gravity is ultimately quantum, we don’t know whether space and time remain continuous, or whether they become fundamentally discrete.
Quantum doesn’t necessarily mean that every property breaks down into an indivisible chunk. In conventional quantum field theory, spacetime is the stage upon which the various quanta act out the play of the Universe. At the core of it all should be a quantum theory of gravity. Until we can determine whether space and time are discrete, continuous, or unavoidably blurred, we cannot know our Universe’s nature at a fundamental level.”
If you could look at the Universe down to the smallest possible scales, fundamentally, what would you find? Would you discover that space and time really could be broken up into tiny, indivisible entities where the was a length scale and a timescale that could be divided no further? Would you discover that space and time were quantum in nature, but were instead a continuous fabric? Or would you discover something else, like that space and time weren’t quantum or that there was a fundamental “blurring” that prevented you from seeing below a specific scale?
Quantum, surprisingly to many, doesn’t necessarily mean it can be broken up into indivisible chunks. Space and time might not be discrete even if they’re quantum. Time to learn the difference.
Are Space And Time Quantized? Maybe Not, Says Science
“Incredibly, there may actually be a way to test whether there is a smallest length scale or not. Three years before he died, physicist Jacob Bekenstein put forth a brilliant idea for an experiment where a single photon would pass through a crystal, causing it to move by a slight amount. Because photons can be tuned in energy (continuously) and crystals can be very massive compared to a photon’s momentum, it ought to be possible to detect whether the “steps” that the crystal moves in are discrete or continuous. With a low-enough energy photon, if space is quantized, the crystal would either move a single quantum step or not at all.”
When it comes to the Universe, everything that’s in it appears to be quantum. All the particles, radiation, and interactions we know of are quantized, and can be expressed in terms of discrete packets of energy. Not everything, however, goes in steps. Photons can take on any energy at all, not just a set of discrete values. Put an electron in a conducting band, and its position can take on a set of continuous (not discrete) values. And so then there’s the big question: what about space and time? Are they quantized? Are they discrete? Or might they be continuous, even if there’s a fundamental quantum theory of gravity.
Surprisingly, space and time don’t need to be discrete, but they might be! Here’s what the science has to say so far.