Nautilus

A Universe Made of Tiny, Random Chunks

One of science’s most crucial yet underappreciated achievements is the description of the physical universe using mathematics—in particular, using continuous, smooth mathematical functions, like how a sine wave describes both light and sound. This is sometimes known as Newton’s zeroth law of motion in recognition of the fact that his famed three laws embody such functions.

In the early 20th century, Albert Einstein gave a profound jolt to the Newtonian universe, showing that space was both curved by mass and inherently linked to time. He called the new concept space-time. While this idea was shocking, its equations were smooth and continuous, like Newton’s.

But some recent findings from a small number of researchers suggest that randomness is actually inherent in space-time itself, and that Newton’s zeroth law also breaks down, on small scales.

Let’s explore what this means.

First, what is space-time? You probably recall from plane geometry that if you take two points on a plane and draw x and y axes through the first of those points (meaning that it is the origin), then the distance between the

You're reading a preview, sign up to read more.

More from Nautilus

Nautilus10 min read
Raising the American Weakling: There are two very different interpretations of our dwindling grip strength.
When she was a practicing occupational therapist, Elizabeth Fain started noticing something odd in her clinic: Her patients were weak. More specifically, their grip strengths, recorded via a hand-held dynamometer, were “not anywhere close to the norm
Nautilus8 min read
Why Our Postwar “Long Peace” Is Fragile
You could be forgiven for balking at the idea that our post-World War II reality represents a “Long Peace.” The phrase, given the prevalence of violent conflict worldwide, sounds more like how Obi-wan Kenobi might describe the period “before the dark
Nautilus5 min read
Why We Need Court Jesters in Space: Behavioral scientists explain why Mars missions need humor.
The great polar explorer Roald Amundsen credited expedition cook Adolf Henrik Lindstrøm as having “rendered greater and more valuable services to the Norwegian polar expedition than any other man.” He was citing not only Lindstrøm’s vaunted prowess a