In 1935, when both quantum mechanics and Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity were young, a little-known Soviet physicist named Matvei Bronstein, just 28 himself, made the first detailed study of the problem of reconciling the two in a quantum theory of gravity. This “possible theory of the world as a whole,” as Bronstein called it, would supplant Einstein’s classical description of gravity, which casts it as curves in the space-time continuum, and rewrite it in the same quantum language as the rest of physics.
Bronstein figured out how to describe gravity in terms of quantized particles, now called gravitons, but only when the force of gravity is weak — that is (in general relativity), when the space-time fabric is so weakly curved that it can be approximated as flat. When gravity is strong, “the situation is quite different,” he wrote. “Without a deep revision of classical notions, it seems hardly possible to extend the quantum theory of gravity also to this domain.”
His words were prophetic. Eighty-three years later, physicists are still trying to understand how space-time curvature emerges on macroscopic scales from a more fundamental, presumably quantum picture of gravity; it’s arguably the deepest question in physics. Perhaps, given the chance, the whip-smart Bronstein might have helped to speed things along. Aside from quantum gravity, he contributed to astrophysics and cosmology, semiconductor theory, and quantum electrodynamics, and he also wrote several science books for children, before being caught up in Stalin’s Great Purge and executed in 1938, at the age of 31.
The Soviet theoretical physicist Matvei Petrovich Bronstein (1906-1938), a pioneer of quantum gravity research whose work remains largely unknown in the west. Photo from the Public Domain.
The search for the full theory of quantum gravity has been stymied by the fact that gravity’s quantum properties never seem to manifest in actual experience. Physicists never get to see how Einstein’s description of the smooth space-time continuum, or Bronstein’s quantum approximation of it when it’s weakly curved, goes wrong.
The problem is gravity’s extreme weakness. Whereas the quantized particles that convey the strong, weak and electromagnetic forces are so powerful that they tightly bind matter into atoms, and can be studied in tabletop experiments, gravitons are individually so weak that laboratories have no hope of detecting them. To detect a graviton with high probability, a particle detector would have to be so huge and massive that it would collapse into a black hole. This weakness is why it takes an astronomical accumulation of mass to gravitationally influence other massive bodies, and why we only see gravity writ large.
Not only that, but the universe appears to be governed by a kind of cosmic censorship: Regions of extreme gravity — where space-time curves so sharply that Einstein’s equations malfunction and the true, quantum nature of gravity and space-time must be revealed — always hide behind the horizons of black holes.
“Even a few years ago it was a generic consensus that, most likely, it’s not even conceivably possible to measure quantization of the gravitational field in any way,” said Igor Pikovski, a theoretical physicist at Harvard University.
Now, a pair of papers published in 2017 in Physical Review Letters has changed the calculus. The papers contend that it’s possible to access quantum gravity after all — while learning nothing about it. The papers, written by Sougato Bose at University College London and nine collaborators and by Chiara Marletto and Vlatko Vedral at the University of Oxford, propose a technically challenging, but feasible, tabletop experiment that could confirm that gravity is a quantum force like all the rest, without ever detecting a graviton. Miles Blencowe, a quantum physicist at Dartmouth College who was not involved in the work, said the experiment would detect a sure sign of otherwise invisible quantum gravity — the “grin of the Cheshire cat.”
The proposed experiment will determine whether two objects — Bose’s group plans to use a pair of microdiamonds — can become quantum-mechanically entangled with each other through their mutual gravitational attraction. Entanglement is a quantum phenomenon in which particles become inseparably entwined, sharing a single physical description that specifies their possible combined states. (The coexistence of different possible states, called a “superposition,” is the hallmark of quantum systems.) For example, an entangled pair of particles might exist in a superposition in which there’s a 50 percent chance that the “spin” of particle A points upward and B’s points downward, and a 50 percent chance of the reverse. There’s no telling in advance which outcome you’ll get when you measure the particles’ spin directions, but you can be sure they’ll point opposite ways.
The authors argue that the two objects in their proposed experiment can become entangled with each other in this way only if the force that acts between them — in this case, gravity — is a quantum interaction, mediated by gravitons that can maintain quantum superpositions. “If you can do the experiment and you get entanglement, then according to those papers, you have to conclude that gravity is quantized,” Blencowe explained.
To Entangle a Diamond
Quantum gravity is so imperceptible that some researchers have questioned whether it even exists. The venerable mathematical physicist Freeman Dyson, 94, has argued since 2001 that the universe might sustain a kind of “dualistic” description, where “the gravitational field described by Einstein’s theory of general relativity is a purely classical field without any quantum behavior,” as he wrote that year in The New York Review of Books, even though all the matter within this smooth space-time continuum is quantized into particles that obey probabilistic rules.
Dyson, who helped develop quantum electrodynamics (the theory of interactions between matter and light) and is professor emeritus at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, where he overlapped with Einstein, disagrees with the argument that quantum gravity is needed to describe the unreachable interiors of black holes. And he wonders whether detecting the hypothetical graviton might be impossible, even in principle. In that case, he argues, quantum gravity is metaphysical, rather than physics. READ REST OF STORY HERE……
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