Physicists rewrite a quantum rule that clashes with our universe

By | September 27, 2022

Charlie Wood writes:

A jarring divide cleaves modern physics. On one side lies quantum theory, which portrays subatomic particles as probabilistic waves. On the other lies general relativity, Einstein’s theory that space and time can bend, causing gravity. For 90 years, physicists have sought a reconciliation, a more fundamental description of reality that encompasses both quantum mechanics and gravity. But the quest has run up against thorny paradoxes.

Hints are mounting that at least part of the problem lies with a principle at the center of quantum mechanics, an assumption about how the world works that seems so obvious it’s barely worth stating, much less questioning.

Unitarity, as the principle is called, says that something always happens. When particles interact, the probability of all possible outcomes must sum to 100%. Unitarity severely limits how atoms and subatomic particles might evolve from moment to moment. It also ensures that change is a two-way street: Any imaginable event at the quantum scale can be undone, at least on paper. These requirements have long guided physicists as they derive valid quantum formulas. “It’s a very restrictive condition, even though it might seem a little bit trivial at first glance,” said Yonatan Kahn, an assistant professor at the University of Illinois.

But what once seemed an essential scaffold may have become a stifling straitjacket preventing physicists from reconciling quantum mechanics and gravity. “Unitarity in quantum gravity is a very open question,” said Bianca Dittrich, a theorist at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Canada.

The main problem is that the universe is expanding. This expansion is well described by general relativity. But it means that the future of the cosmos looks totally different from its past, while unitarity demands a tidy symmetry between past and future on the quantum level. “There is a tension there, and it’s something quite puzzling if you think about it,” said Steve Giddings, a quantum gravity theorist at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Concern over this conflict has been in the air for years. But recently, two quantum gravity theorists may have found a way to loosen unitarity’s buckles to better fit our growing cosmos. Andrew Strominger and Jordan Cotler of Harvard University argue that a more relaxed principle called isometry can accommodate an expanding universe while still satisfying the stringent requirements that first made unitary a guiding light. [Continue reading…]

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