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In early 2009, determined to make the most of his first sabbatical from teaching, Mark Van Raamsdonk decided to tackle one of the deepest mysteries in physics: the relationship between quantum mechanics and gravity. After a year of work and consultation with colleagues, he submitted a paper on the topic to the Journal of High Energy Physics.

In April 2010, the journal sent him a rejection — with a referee’s report implying that Van Raamsdonk, a physicist at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, was a crackpot.

His next submission, to General Relativity and Gravitation, fared little better: the referee’s report was scathing, and the journal’s editor asked for a complete rewrite.

But by then, Van Raamsdonk had entered a shorter version of the paper into a prestigious annual essay contest run by the Gravity Research Foundation in Wellesley, Massachusetts. Not only did he win first prize, but he also got to savour a particularly satisfying irony: the honour included guaranteed publication in General Relativity and Gravitation. The journal published the shorter essay1 in June 2010.

Still, the editors had good reason to be cautious. A successful unification of quantum mechanics and gravity has eluded physicists for nearly a century. Quantum mechanics governs the world of the small — the weird realm in which an atom or particle can be in many places at the same time, and can simultaneously spin both clockwise and anticlockwise. Gravity governs the Universe at large — from the fall of an apple to the motion of planets, stars and galaxies — and is described by Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity, announced 100 years ago this month. The theory holds that gravity is geometry: particles are deflected when they pass near a massive object not because they feel a force, said Einstein, but because space and time around the object are curved.

Both theories have been abundantly verified through experiment, yet the realities they describe seem utterly incompatible. And from the editors’ standpoint, Van Raamsdonk’s approach to resolving this incompatibility was  strange. All that’s needed, he asserted, is ‘entanglement’: the phenomenon that many physicists believe to be the ultimate in quantum weirdness. Entanglement lets the measurement of one particle instantaneously determine the state of a partner particle, no matter how far away it may be — even on the other side of the Milky Way.

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