In the Guardian of the 4th of November 2015 Corey S. Powell had a piece entitled ‘Is the world smooth or chunky?’ Here’s a summary with some notes at the end.
The piece is centred round the long-acknowledged incompatibility between relativity and quantum mechanics. A scientist called Craig Hogan is proposing that space might be seen in terms of quanta – hence the ‘chunky’ epithet. He suggests that the quantum units of space might be large enough to be studied directly. Experiments are under way with a device called a ‘holometer’. Using mirrors, this splits and then re-combines a laser beam. The prediction is that if space is chunky there should be ‘wobbles’ in the reconstituted beam. A result is expected ‘by the end of the year’.
Defending the alternative ‘smooth’ interpretation strongly favoured by Einstein, is Lee Smolin. He holds, in the time-honoured Aristotelian tradition, that space is continuous and ‘infinitely divisible’.
It is suggested that Hogan’s experiment could go a long way towards resolving the smooth/chunky conflict.
The piece notes that for a long time ‘string theory’ has supported the discontinuous approach. It is asserted by some still to be the default theory ‘even if it has failed to deliver on much of its early promise’. However, Hogan is not relying on string theory. It is claimed that, ‘Chunky space does not neatly align with the ideas in string theory’. Hogan claims that chunkiness is a new idea. He says; ‘It is not a prediction of any standard theory....but there isn’t any standard theory’. Hogan goes much further by asserting that if chunkiness is correct ‘much of string theory goes’.
The article notes that there are ‘fierce sceptics’ but it is claimed by many that quantum mechanics will rule. Smolin disagrees. He says ‘string theory has been going for 40 or 50 years without definitive progress’. He notes that quantum mechanics is ‘a theory of sub-systems of the universe whereas what we need is to build a theory which can apply to the whole universe’. He says that general relativity is still a possible base, claiming that, unlike the quantum framework, general relativity does not have to contend with the tricky notions of outside observers or external clocks ‘because there is no “outside”....’
Smolin suggests that black holes are ‘cosmic eggs’ which ‘hatch new universes’. The notion is that quantum systems copy the behaviour of similar systems in the past. He claims that the lack of quantum answers to questions such as the direction of time and ‘why this universe and not another?’ suggests that there is ‘something wrong with quantum field theory’. The need is to engage with the universe as a whole.
Article writer Powell recruited a ‘referee’, Sean Carroll, to pick a winner from the two protagonists. Carroll awarded ‘most of the points’ to the quantum side. Einstein was confident that a classical underlying deterministic reality would be found to underpin the relativity approach but such has not yet been discovered. Carroll is ‘broadly optimistic’ about string theory but concedes that ‘our inability to figure out the correct version of quantum mechanics is embarrassing’. Carroll accepts that ‘our current way of thinking about quantum mechanics is simply a complete failure when you try to think of cosmology or the whole universe. We don’t even know what time is.’
Alphomism argues that science has its limitations. Space, energy and time are not made of anything; they are abstractions and just are.
The quantum approach suggests that between the supposed space particles there must be...another space? or...nothing? But ‘another space’ is absurd – it merely shifts the problem, about which Occam would have much to say.
But a claim that there is ‘nothing’ between the quanta is insupportable because’ nothing’ is not a thing.
With commendable frankness, Carroll says that we don’t even know what time is. Alphomism holds that ‘Time is the most general expression of the operation of discontinuous energy in space’.
It is inconceivable that space could be a quantum phenomenon. If ‘wobbles’ are found by Hogan’s experiment they will surely be a phenomenon of energy, not space.
It seems odd that discussions about the fundamentals of the universe contain no reference to dark energy.
Even more strange is the attempt to create an ‘entire universe’ theory without at least a mention of consciousness.