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How do you reconcile the two pillars of modern physics: quantum theory and gravity? One or both will have to give way. A new approach says gravity could emerge from random fluctuations at the quantum level, making quantum mechanics the more fundamental of the two theories.

Of our two main explanations of reality, quantum theory governs the interactions between the smallest bits of matter. And general relativity deals with gravity and the largest structures in the universe. Ever since Einstein, physicists have been trying to bridge the gap between the two, with little success.

Part of the problem is knowing which strands of each theory are fundamental to our understanding of reality.

One approach towards reconciling gravity with quantum mechanics has been to show that gravity at its most fundamental comes in indivisible parcels called quanta, much like the electromagnetic force comes in quanta called photons. But this road to a theory of quantum gravity has so far proved impassable.

Now Antoine Tilloy at the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics in Garching, Germany, has attempted to get at gravity by tweaking standard quantum mechanics.

In quantum theory, the state of a particle is described by its wave function. The wave function lets you calculate, for example, the probability of finding the particle in one place or another on measurement. Before the measurement, it is unclear whether the particle exists and if so, where. Reality, it seems, is created by the act of measurement, which “collapses” the wave function.

But quantum mechanics doesn’t really define what a measurement is. For instance, does it need a conscious human? The measurement problem leads to paradoxes like Schrödinger’s cat, in which a cat can be simultaneously dead and alive inside a box, until someone opens the box to look.

One solution to such paradoxes is a so-called GRW model that was developed in the late 1980s. It incorporates “flashes”, which are spontaneous random collapses of the wave function of quantum systems. The outcome is exactly as if there were measurements being made, but without explicit observers.

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