Present-day physics cannot describe what happened in the Big Bang. Quantum theory and the theory of relativity fail in this almost infinitely dense and hot primal state of the universe. Only an all-encompassing theory of quantum gravity which unifies these two fundamental pillars of physics could provide an insight into how the universe began. Scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics (Albert Einstein Institute) in Golm/Potsdam and the Perimeter Institute in Canada have made an important discovery along this route. According to their theory, space consists of tiny “building blocks”. Taking this as their starting point, the scientists arrive at one of the most fundamental equations of cosmology, the Friedmann equation, which describes the universe. This shows that quantum mechanics and the theory of relativity really can be unified.
For almost a century, the two major theories of physics have coexisted but have been irreconcilable: while Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity describes gravity and thus the world at large, quantum physics describes the world of atoms and elementary particles. Both theories work extremely well within their own boundaries; however, they break down, as currently formulated, in certain extreme regions, at extremely tiny distances, the so-called Planck scale, for example. Space and time thus have no meaning in black holes or, most notably, during the Big Bang.
“We can describe the behaviour of flowing water with the long-known classical theory of hydrodynamics, says Daniele Oriti from the Albert Einstein Institute. “But if we advance to smaller and smaller scales and eventually come across individual atoms, it no longer applies. Then we need quantum physics.” Just as a liquid consists of atoms, Oriti imagines space to be made up of tiny cells or “atoms of space”, and a new theory is required to describe them: quantum gravity.
“We will only be able to really understand the evolution of the universe when we have a theory of quantum gravity,” says Oriti’s colleague Lorenzo Sindoni. “The AEI researchers are in good company here: Einstein and his successors, who have been searching for this for almost one hundred years.