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Does It Matter?

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  • Does It Matter?

    THE FABRIC of the COSMOS, Brian Greene, 2004
    ```(annotated and with added bold highlights by Epsilon=One)
    Chapter 12 - The World on a String
    Does It Matter?
    In practice, the incompatibility between general relativity and quantum mechanics rears its head in a very specific way. If you use the combined equations of general relativity, and quantum mechanics, they almost always yield one answer: infinity. And that's a problem. It's nonsense. Experimenters never measure an infinite amount of anything. Dials never spin around to infinity. Meters never reach infinity. Calculators never register infinity. Almost, always, an infinite answer is meaningless. All it tells us is that the equations of general relativity and quantum mechanics, when merged, go haywire.

    Notice that this is quite unlike the tension between special relativity and quantum mechanics that came up in our discussion of quantum non-locality in Chapter 4. There we found that reconciling the tenets of special relativity (in particular, the symmetry among all constant velocity observers) with the behavior of entangled particles requires a more complete understanding of the quantum measurement problem than has so far been attained (see pages 117-120). But this incompletely resolved issue does not result in mathematical inconsistencies or in equations that yield nonsensical answers. To the contrary, the combined equations of special relativity and quantum mechanics have been used to make the most precisely confirmed predictions in the history of science. The quiet tension between special relativity and quantum mechanics points to an area in need of further theoretical development, but it has hardly any impact on their combined predictive power. Not so with the explosive union between general relativity and quantum mechanics, in which all predictive power is lost.

    Nevertheless, you can still ask whether the incompatibility between general relativity and quantum mechanics really matters. Sure, the combined equations may result in nonsense, but when do you ever really need to use them together? Years of astronomical observations have shown that general relativity describes the macro world of stars, galaxies, and even the entire expanse of the cosmos with impressive accuracy; decades of experiments have confirmed that quantum mechanics does the same for the micro world of molecules, atoms, and subatomic particles. Since each theory works wonders in its own domain, why worry about combining them? Why not keep them separate? Why not use general relativity for things that are large and massive, quantum mechanics for things that are tiny and light, and celebrate humankind's impressive achievement of successfully understanding such a wide range of physical phenomena?

    As a matter of fact, this is what most physicists have done since the early decades of the twentieth century, and there's no denying that it's been a distinctly fruitful approach. The progress science has made by working in this disjointed framework is impressive. All the same, there are a number of reasons why the antagonism between general relativity and quantum mechanics must be reconciled. Here are two.

    First, at a gut level, it is hard to believe that the deepest understanding of the universe consists of an uneasy union between two powerful theoretical frameworks that are mutually incompatible. It's not as though the universe comes equipped with a line in the sand separating things that are properly described by quantum mechanics from things properly described by general relativity. Dividing the universe into two separate realms seems both artificial and clumsy. To many, this is evidence that there must be a deeper, unified truth that overcomes the rift between general relativity and quantum mechanics and that can be applied to everything. We have one universe and therefore, many strongly believe, we should have one theory.

    Second, although most things are either big and heavy or small and light, and therefore, as a practical matter, can be described using general relativity or quantum mechanics, this is not true of all things. Black holes provide a good example. According to general relativity, all the matter that makes up a black hole is crushed together at a single minuscule point at the black hole's center. 7 This makes the center of a black hole both enormously massive and incredibly tiny, and hence it falls on both sides of the purported divide: we need to use general relativity because the large mass creates a substantial gravitational field, and we also need to use quantum mechanics because all the mass is squeezed to a tiny size. But in combination, the equations break down, so no one has been able to determine what happens right at the center of a black hole.

    That's a good example, but if you're a real skeptic, you might still wonder whether this is something that should keep anyone up at night. Since we can't see inside a black hole unless we jump in, and, moreover, were we to jump in we wouldn't be able to report our observations back to the outside world, our incomplete understanding of the black hole's interior may not strike you as particularly worrisome. For physicists, though, the existence of a realm in which the known laws of physics break down — no matter how esoteric the realm might seem — throws up red flags. If the known laws of physics break down under any circumstances, it is a clear signal that we have not reached the deepest possible understanding. After all, the universe works; as far as we can tell, the universe does not break down. The correct theory of the universe should, at the very least, meet the same standard.

    Well, that surely seems reasonable. But for my money, the full urgency of the conflict between general relativity and quantum mechanics is revealed only through another example. Look back at Figure 10.6. As you can see, we have made great strides in piecing together a consistent and predictive story of cosmic evolution, but the picture remains incomplete because of the fuzzy patch near the inception of the universe. And within the foggy haze of those earliest moments lies insight into the most tantalizing of mysteries: the origin and fundamental nature of space and time. So what has prevented us from penetrating the haze? The blame rests squarely on the conflict between general relativity and quantum mechanics. The antagonism between the laws of the large and those of the small is the reason the fuzzy patch remains obscure and we still have no insight into what happened at the very beginning of the universe.

    To understand why, imagine, as in Chapter 10, running a film of the expanding cosmos in reverse, heading back toward the big bang. In reverse, everything that is now rushing apart comes together, and so as we run the film farther back, the universe gets ever smaller, hotter, and denser. As we close in on time zero itself, the entire observable universe is compressed to the size of the sun, then further squeezed to the size of the earth, then crushed to the size of a bowling ball, a pea, a grain of sand — smaller and smaller the universe shrinks as the film rewinds toward its initial frames. There comes a moment in this reverse-run film when the entire known universe has a size close to the Planck length — the millionth of a billionth of a billionth of a billionth of a centimeter at which general relativity and quantum mechanics find themselves at loggerheads. At this moment, all the mass and energy responsible for spawning the observable universe is contained in a speck that's less than a hundredth of a billionth of a billionth of the size of a single atom. 8

    Thus, just as in the case of a black hole's center, the early universe falls on both sides of the divide: The enormous density of the early universe requires the use of general relativity. The tiny size of the early universe requires the use of quantum mechanics. But once again, in combination the laws break down. The projector jams, the cosmic film burns up, and we are unable to access the universe's earliest moments. Because of the conflict between general relativity and quantum mechanics, we remain ignorant about what happened at the beginning and are reduced to drawing a fuzzy patch in Figure 10.6.

    If we ever hope to understand the origin of the universe — one of the deepest questions in all of science — the conflict between general relativity and quantum mechanics must be resolved. We must settle the differences between the laws of the large and the laws of the small and merge them into a single harmonious theory.
    Last edited by Reviewer; 09-28-2012, 07:14 PM.