- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 16, 2003

DENVER, Feb. 16 (UPI) — The most powerful explosions in the universe finally might provide the clues scientists need to uncover the structure of the very fabric of the universe — the very stuff of space-time — a Canadian researcher said late Saturday.

If the new theory can be supported, it could help solve some of the greatest mysteries of the cosmos that have stumped the best particle physicists and cosmologists — who study the nature of the universe — for years.

"We could describe the entire universe, find out what is the nature of time, what happened at the Big Bang, whether the life of the universe is infinite or finite," said Fotini Markopoulou Kalamara, a physicist with the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Ont.

The most persistent and vexing dilemma underlying practically all unsolved problems in physics is how to establish a so-called "theory of everything." At present, two great but seemingly contradictory theories are the bases for understanding the universe.

Einstein's theory of relativity describes the passage of time as variable, the speed of light as constant and gravity the result of space being warped by matter, such as stars and planetary bodies. Its components have been validated repeatedly by observations at both planetary and galactic scales.

Meanwhile, quantum theory describes the interaction of subatomic particles with exotic names such as quarks and leptons. Among its strange principles is the notion that objects can spin in two opposite directions simultaneously.

For more than half a century, however, these twin towers of science have had to remain separate because no one has been able to reconcile them. In fact, most attempts to unite relativity and quantum physics have resulted in gobbledygook.

For instance, based on experimental observations, quantum theory asserts that particles can exist in two or more places at once. When this combines with general relativity, which describes the very shape of space and time, "what is past and future becomes fuzzy," Markopoulou Kalamara said. "It doesn't make any sense."

Speaking at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Markopoulou Kalamara explained how she and colleagues hope an entirely different approach — made possible by exquisitely sensitive instruments aboard a new satellite — will result in finding the Holy Grail of physics: the Grand Unified Theory.

To do so, researchers must study phenomena at Planck scales, where current theoretical understandings of space and time break down. Planck scales — named for German physicist Max Planck — enter the realm of the unimaginable. Planck temperatures are about 100 million trillion trillion degrees Celsius. "The geometry of space-time at that temperature melts," Markopoulou Kalamara said. "The center of a star compared to that is cold."

Markopoulou Kalamara suggested that, like the conventional matter that comprises the Earth, the sun and the stars, space and time likewise are made of irreducible "atoms." If shown to be true, the finding would be compatible with both relativity and quantum theory, she said.

Detecting such particles has long thought to be impossible because they exist at Planck sizes. The Planck scale of distance is some 100 trillion trillion times smaller than an atomic nucleus, which is roughly 100 trillion trillion times smaller than the Earth.

The observations are scheduled to begin in 2006, Markopoulou Kalamara explained, with the launch of a new NASA probe called the Gamma-ray Large Area Space Telescope. GLAST is going to attempt to detect space-time atoms — though indirectly. The satellite will scan the heavens for gamma ray bursts, the largest explosions known.

"In 10 seconds, they can release as much energy as the sun does in its whole 10 billion year lifetime," Markopoulou Kalamara said. "They come from the furthest away galaxies. The reason we can see them is because they have such insanely high energies."

Like light, gamma rays emitted by these bursts travel at a constant speed and should reach an observer simultaneously. However, if space-time atoms exist, she said, "the photons would appear to not all travel at the same speed."

The reason is surprisingly simple. Markopoulou Kalamara said because some gamma rays have less energy than others, they would have to travel different routes to reach an observer — because a space-time continuum that is atomic would be lumpy in places.

"Imagine if a (billiard) table is lumpy," she explained, and more energetic gamma rays, with their shorter wavelengths, are the equivalent of smaller billiard balls. "You can imagine that the shorter wavelength rays would actually get knocked around by the (space-time) lumps more easily than the bigger guys that roll right over them."

Such Planck scale deflections normally would be far too small to detect. However, over enormous distances, such as the billions of light-years between Earth and the sources of gamma ray bursts, the deflections would accumulate. Gamma rays that traveled longer routes due to space-time atom deflection would appear to have moved at a speed slower than light.

"I'm often worried about theories invented because of their elegance," said physicist Robert Robertson of Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., explaining that such ideas do not necessarily relate to real-world phenomena.

"What I admire a great deal about what (Markopoulou Kalamara and colleagues) are doing is they're looking at phenomena and trying to get a theory that can go with them," he said.


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