Ask Ethan: Is Spacetime Really A Fabric?
“I’d like somebody to finally acknowledge and admit that showing balls on a bed sheet doesn’t cut it as a picture of reality.”
Okay, I admit it: visualizing General Relativity as balls on a bedsheet doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. For one, if this is what gravity is supposed to be, what pulls the balls “down” onto the bedsheet? For another, if space is three dimensional, why are we talking about a 2D “fabric” of space? And for another, why do these lines curve away from the mass, rather than towards it?
It’s true: this visualization of General Relativity is highly flawed. But, believe it or not, all visualizations of General Relativity inherently have similar flaws. The reason is that space itself is not an observable thing! In Einstein’s theory, General Relativity provides the link between the matter and energy in the Universe, which determines the geometric curvature of spacetime, and how the rest of the matter and energy in the Universe moves in response to that. In this Universe, we can only measure matter and energy, not space itself. We can visualize it how we like, but all visualizations are inherently flawed.
Come get the story of how to make as much sense as possible out of the Universe we actually have.
There Was No Big Bang Singularity
“Every time you see a diagram, an article, or a story talking about the “big bang singularity” or any sort of big bang/singularity existing before inflation, know that you’re dealing with an outdated method of thinking. The idea of a Big Bang singularity went out the window as soon as we realized we had a different state — that of cosmic inflation — preceding and setting up the early, hot-and-dense state of the Big Bang. There may have been a singularity at the very beginning of space and time, with inflation arising after that, but there’s no guarantee. In science, there are the things we can test, measure, predict, and confirm or refute, like an inflationary state giving rise to a hot Big Bang. Everything else? It’s nothing more than speculation.”
The Universe, as we observe it today, is expanding and cooling, with the overall density dropping as the volume of space increases. If we ran the clock backwards, however, instead of forwards, things would appear to contract, become denser, and grow hotter. If you go back farther and farther in time, you’d come to an epoch before there were stars and galaxies; before neutral atoms could stably form; before atomic nuclei could remain; etc. You’d go all the way back to hotter and denser states, eventually compressing all the matter and energy in the Universe into a single point: a singularity. This was the ultimate beginning of everything according to the original Big Bang: the birth of time and space.
But this picture is almost 40 years out of date, and known to be wrong. Why’s that? Come learn how we know that there was no Big Bang singularity.
This Simple Thought Experiment Shows Why We Need Quantum Gravity
“The description that General Relativity puts forth — that of matter telling space how to curve, and curved space telling matter how to move — needs to be augmented to include an uncertain position that has a probability distribution to it. Whether gravity is quantized or not is still an unknown, and has everything to do with the outcome of such a hypothetical experiment. How an uncertain position translates into a gravitational field, exactly, remains an unsolved problem on the road to a full quantum theory of gravity. The principles that underlie quantum mechanics must be universal, but how those principles apply to gravity, and in particular to a particle passing through a double slit, is a great unknown of our time.”
Perhaps the greatest holy grail in theoretical physics is the quest for a quantum theory of gravity. For all the gravitational phenomena we’ve ever measured, observed, or subjected to a test, General Relativity has come through with predictions that match what we’ve seen exactly. For all the other physical phenomena in the Universe, the rules of quantum field theory and the Standard Model of particle physics match up perfectly. But what would happen if we tried to apply General Relativity to an inherently quantum phenomenon? In particular, what happens if we fire a single particle, like an electron, through a double slit? What happens to that particle’s gravitational field?
Believe it or not, measuring that (or something analogous to it) would tell us whether gravity is a fundamentally quantum force or not! Come learn why this is arguably the most important, first stop on the road to quantum gravity.
Einstein Wins Again! General Relativity Passes Its First Extragalactic Test
“For the first time, we’ve been able to perform a direct test of General Relativity outside of our Solar System and get solid, informative results. The ratio of the Newtonian potential to the curvature potential, which relativity demands be equal to one but where alternatives differ, confirms what General Relativity predicts. Large deviations from Einstein’s gravity, therefore, cannot happen on scales smaller than a few thousand light years, or for masses the scale of an individual galaxy. If you want to explain the accelerated expansion of the Universe, you can’t simply say you don’t like dark energy and throw Einstein’s gravity away. For the first time, if we want to modify Einstein’s gravity on galactic-or-larger scales, we have an important constraint to reckon with.”
For many of the greatest cosmic puzzles today, you can either add two new ingredients, dark matter and dark energy, or you can seek to modify Einstein’s theory of gravity. While Einstein’s General Relativity has been confirmed spectacularly under a wide variety of circumstances, the only robust tests that are independent of dark matter or dark energy assumptions occur on scales of the Solar System or smaller. That’s only for distances that are a tiny fraction of a light year, and for masses no bigger than the Sun, which should trouble you when you’re making inferences about galaxies, clusters, or the entire Universe! But thanks to a very fortunate galactic system
a strong gravitational lens that is only 500 million light years distant
we’ve been able to put Einstein’s theory of gravity to the test for galactic masses and distance scales in the thousands of light years.
Was there ever any doubt that Einstein would win again? Here’s what happened, and here’s what it means for alternative theories of gravity!
Ask Ethan: If Mass Curves Spacetime, How Does It Un-Curve Again?
“We are taught that mass warps spacetime, and the curvature of spacetime around mass explains gravity – so that an object in orbit around Earth, for example, is actually going in a straight line through curved spacetime. Ok, that makes sense, but when mass (like the Earth) moves through spacetime and bends it, why does spacetime not stay bent? What mechanism un-warps that area of spacetime as the mass moves on?”
You’ve very likely heard that according to Einstein, matter tells spacetime how to curve, and that curved spacetime tells matter how to move. This is true, but then why doesn’t spacetime remain curved when a mass that was once there is no longer present? Does something cause space to snap back to its prior, un-bent position? As it turns out, we need to think pretty hard about General Relativity to get this right in the first place at all. It isn’t just the locations and magnitudes of masses that determine how objects move through space, but a series of subtle effects that must all be added together to get it right. When we do, we find out that uncurving this space actually results in gravitational radiation: ripples in space that have been observed and confirmed.
The deciding results are actually decades old, and were indirect evidence for gravitational waves long before LIGO. Come get the answer today!
This Is Why Physicists Think String Theory Might Be Our ‘Theory Of Everything’
“String theory offers a path to quantum gravity, which few alternatives can truly match. If we make the judicious choices of “the math works out this way,” we can get both General Relativity and the Standard Model out of it. It’s the only idea, to date, that gives us this, and that’s why it’s so hotly pursued. No matter whether you tout string theory’s successes or failure, or how you feel about its lack of verifiable predictions, it will no doubt remain one of the most active areas of theoretical physics research. At its core, string theory stands out as the leading idea of a great many physicists’ dreams of an ultimate theory.”
You don’t have to be a fan of string theory to understand why it’s such a promising area of scientific research. One of the holy grails of physics is for a quantum theory of gravitation: that describes gravity on the same footing as the other three forces, in very strong fields and at very tiny distances. Surprisingly, by looking at analogies between gravity and field theories, replacing particles with strings might be the answer.
It’s an incredibly difficult concept to understand why this would be the case without a slew of advanced mathematics, but in 2015, the world’s leading string theorist, Ed Witten, tried. That is to say, he wrote a piece for other physicists entitled, “What every physicist should know about string theory.”
But what if you want to understand it and you’re not a physicist? Then you should read this.
The 5 Most Important Rules For Scientists Who Write About Science
“Remember that your number one goal, if you’re a scientist writing about your science, is to increase the excitement and knowledge of your audience about what it is that you do. What we’re learning about all aspects of the Universe is expanding and increasing every day, and that joy and wonder should carry over to all of us in our daily lives. We cannot be experts in each and every field, but that underscores exactly why we need experts, and to respect true expertise when we encounter it.
If we take care to communicate responsibly, we can all gain a greater awareness of what it is that we do understand, as well as an appreciation for what that knowledge means. We may never run out of questions to ponder about the Universe itself, but with a little care and effort, we can all come a little bit closer to comprehending the answers.”
For most of us, we recognize that our expertise is extremely limited in all but a few areas. In order to learn what’s going on at the cutting edge of human knowledge, we have to go to the experts. In fields like physics, astronomy, biology, and chemistry, that means going to the scientists who study those fields. Yet scientists who communicate their own science often are some of the worst communicators out there, either getting mired in the details and losing the big picture or oversimplifying things to the point where they misinform their audience. Yet, if they just followed these five rules, they could avoid the most common mistakes and do what they set out to: inform the world about what they do and why it matters.
Come get the five most important rules for scientists who write about science. I bet you find value here even if you’re not a scientist yourself!
This Is Why The Event Horizon Telescope Still Doesn’t Have An Image Of A Black Hole
“Of all the black holes visible from Earth, the largest is at the galactic center: 37 μas.
With a theoretical resolution of 15 μas, the EHT should resolve it.
Despite the incredible news that they’ve detected the black hole’s structure at the galactic center, however, there’s still no direct image.”
Last year, data from the South Pole Telescope, a 10-meter radio telescope located at the South Pole, was added to the Event Horizon Telescope team’s overall set of information. Here we are, though, half a year later, and we still don’t have a direct image of the event horizon for the galactic center’s black hole. There aren’t any problems; the issue is that we have to successfully calibrate and error-correct the data, and that takes time and care to get it right. Science isn’t about getting the answer in the time you have to get it; it’s about getting the right answer in the time it takes to get things right. From that point of view, there’s every reason this is worth waiting for.
The Event Horizon Telescope team is on the right track; here’s where we are right now in our quest to create the first image of a black hole’s event horizon!
Did Han Solo Use A Trick Of Einstein’s Relativity To Make The Kessel Run?
“To move quickly between two points in space, then, even a straight line might be a disastrous plan. If what you need to do is avoid a large number of potentially hazardous objects, going around might be the only option. This could mean adding a very large distance to your expected path length, perhaps adding many light years to your journey. A straight-line path might be much shorter, but much more dangerous. But the shortest path of all won’t be a straight line, but an intricately curved path through the densest, most dangerous environment of all: a field of stars, planets, black holes, gas, dust, and more. To make the Kessel Run, the Millennium Falcon may have had to go through the center of that legendary galaxy far, far away.”
Was the Kessel Run a legend concocted by Han Solo to try and trick Luke and Obi-Wan? Or was it really a long run, that somehow the Millennium Falcon made in a shorter distance than was ever thought possible? That last possibility is intriguing, because physics allows it to be so. You normally think that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, but this isn’t so in General Relativity. In truth, a curved path may be shorter, owing to the simple fact that masses are present, and they curve the fabric of spacetime. It’s possible that understanding _the force_ in Star Wars may not be as important, even for a pilot, as understanding the gravitational force in a galaxy far, far away.
Come see how a trick of Einstein’s Relativity might have made the Kessel Run possible!
The Most Important Equation In The Universe
“The first Friedmann equation describes how, based on what is in the universe, its expansion rate will change over time. If you want to know where the Universe came from and where it’s headed, all you need to measure is how it is expanding today and what is in it. This equation allows you to predict the rest!”
In 1915, Einstein put forth General Relativity as a new theory of gravity. It reproduced all of Newton’s earlier successes, solved the problem that Newton couldn’t of Mercury’s orbit, and made a new prediction of bent starlight by large masses, verified during the 1919 solar eclipse. Despite the fact that it included a cosmological constant to keep the Universe static, that didn’t deter Soviet physicist Alexander Friedmann from solving Einstein’s equations for a Universe that was filled with matter and energy, all the way back in 1922. The two generic equations he found, known as the Friedmann equations, immediately related measurable quantities like the amount of matter in the Universe to the expansion or contraction rate, which just years later became validated by Hubble’s observations. But the young Friedmann never lived to see it; he died of typhoid fever contracted when he was returning from his honeymoon in 1925.
Nearly 100 years later, it still stands as the equation that determines the history and fate of the Universe. Come see why I call it the most important equation in the Universe!