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Cosmic Fabric in the Realm of the Small

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  • Cosmic Fabric in the Realm of the Small

    THE FABRIC of the COSMOS, Brian Greene, 2004
    ```(annotated and with added bold highlights by Epsilon=One)
    Chapter 12 - The World on a String
    Cosmic Fabric in the Realm of the Small
    What does this mean for the ultramicroscopic nature of space and space-time more generally? For one thing, it forcefully challenges the conventional notion that the fabric of space and time is continuous — that you can always divide the distance between here and there or the duration between now and then in half and in half again, endlessly partitioning space and time into ever smaller units. Instead, when you get down to the Planck length (the length of a string) and Planck time (the time it would take light to travel the length of a string) and try to partition space and time more finely, you find you can't. The concept of "going smaller" ceases to have meaning once you reach the size of the smallest constituent of the cosmos. For zero-sized point particles this introduces no constraint, but since strings have size, it does. If string theory is correct, the usual concepts of space and time, the framework within which all of our daily experiences take place, simply don't apply on scales finer than the Planck scale — the scale of strings themselves.

    As for what concepts take over, there is as yet no consensus. One possibility that jibes with the explanation above for how string theory meshes quantum mechanics and general relativity is that the fabric of space on the Planck scale resembles a lattice or a grid, with the "space" between the grid lines being outside the bounds of physical reality. Just as a microscopic ant walking on an ordinary piece of fabric would have to leap from thread to thread, perhaps motion through space on ultramicroscopic scales similarly requires discrete leaps from one "strand" of space to another. Time, too, could have a grainy structure, with individual moments being packed closely together but not melding into a seamless continuum. In this way of thinking, the concepts of ever smaller space and time intervals would sharply come to an end at the Planck scale. Just as there is no such thing as an American coin value smaller than a penny, if ultramicroscopic spacetime has a grid structure, there would be no such thing as a distance shorter than the Planck length or a duration shorter than the Planck time.

    Another possibility is that space and time do not abruptly cease to have meaning on extremely small scales, but instead gradually morph into other, more fundamental concepts. Shrinking smaller than the Planck scale would be off limits not because you run into a fundamental grid, but because the concepts of space and time segue into notions for which "shrinking smaller" is as meaningless as asking whether the number nine is happy. That is, we can envision that as familiar, macroscopic space and time gradually transform into their unfamiliar ultramicroscopic
    counterparts, many of their usual properties — such as length and duration — become irrelevant or meaningless. Just as you can sensibly study the temperature and viscosity of liquid water — concepts that apply to the macroscopic properties of a fluid — but when you get down to the scale of individual H2O molecules, these concepts cease to be meaningful, so, perhaps, although you can divide regions of space and durations of time in half and in half again on everyday scales, as you pass the Planck scale they undergo a transformation that renders such division meaningless.

    Many string theorists, including me, strongly suspect that something along these lines actually happens, but to go further we need to figure out the more fundamental concepts into which space and time transform.* To date, this is an unanswered question, but cutting-edge research (described in the final chapter) has suggested some possibilities with far reaching implications.
    *I might note that the proponents of another approach for merging general relativity and quantum mechanics, loop quantum gravity, to be briefly discussed in Chapter 16, take a viewpoint that is closer to the former conjecture — that spacetime has a discrete structure on the smallest of scales.
    Last edited by Reviewer; 10-02-2012, 01:24 AM.