Wednesday, April 07, 2010

One of these things is not like the other: Gravity

In this popular account from 1860 [1]) the observation that "electricity" traveled through a medium implied that "other" fundamental forces such as light and gravity must also travel through a medium (emphases mine) ...
April 1860 -Scientific American - Electrical Theory
... The results of the experiments instituted by Sir William Grove are exceedingly curious, and must be regarded as all but proving the truth of the modern theory, which assumes that electricity is not, in any sense, a material substance but only an affection (state) or motion of the particles of ordinary matter.
If electricity is unable to pass over or through a vacuum, it is probable that all the other so-called imponderable forces—light, heat, magnetism, and possibly attraction—obey the same law, and as these agencies freely travel the interplanetary spaces, the supposition of Newton that such spaces may be filled with an ethereal form of matter receives an indirect but powerful support....
There is no ethereal form of matter in the 19th century sense however. Electricity has a relationship to fundamental electromagnetic forces, but it is not the same sort of thing. Once electricity was divided from "light" it was possible to find common models for light and magnetism.

In 2010 some people are trying to deal with the unquantifiability of gravity through a similar approach ...
arXiv blog: Gravity Emerges from Quantum Information, Say Physicists..
One of the hottest new ideas in physics is that gravity is an emergent phenomena; that it somehow arises from the complex interaction of simpler things.

A few month's ago, Erik Verlinde at the the University of Amsterdam put forward one such idea which has taken the world of physics by storm. Verlinde suggested that gravity is merely a manifestation of entropy in the Universe. His idea is based on the second law of thermodynamics, that entropy always increases over time. It suggests that differences in entropy between parts of the Universe generates a force that redistributes matter in a way that maximises entropy. This is the force we call gravity.

What's exciting about the approach is that it dramatically simplifies the theoretical scaffolding that supports modern physics. And while it has its limitations--for example, it generates Newton's laws of gravity rather than Einstein's--it has some advantages too, such as the ability to account for the magnitude of dark energy which conventional theories of gravity struggle with.

But perhaps the most powerful idea to emerge from Verlinde's approach is that gravity is essentially a phenomenon of information.

Today, this idea gets a useful boost from Jae-Weon Lee at Jungwon University in South Korea and a couple of buddies. They use the idea of quantum information to derive a theory of gravity and they do it taking a slightly different tack to Verlinde.

At the heart of their idea is the tricky question of what happens to information when it enters a black hole. Physicists have puzzled over this for decades with little consensus. But one thing they agree on is Landauer's principle: that erasing a bit of quantum information always increases the entropy of the Universe by a certain small amount and requires a specific amount of energy.

Jae-Weon and co assume that this erasure process must occur at the black hole horizon. And if so, spacetime must organise itself in a way that maximises entropy at these horizons. In other words, it generates a gravity-like force.

That's intriguing for several reasons. First, Jae-Weon and co assume the existence of spacetime and its geometry and simply ask what form it must take if information is being erased at horizons in this way.

It also relates gravity to quantum information for the first time. Over recent years many results in quantum mechanics have pointed to the increasingly important role that information appears to play in the Universe.

Some physicists are convinced that the properties of information do not come from the behaviour of information carriers such as photons and electrons but the other way round. They think that information itself is the ghostly bedrock on which our universe is built.

Gravity has always been a fly in this ointment. But the growing realisation that information plays a fundamental role here too, could open the way to the kind of unification between the quantum mechanics and relativity that physicists have dreamed of..
In short, one way to deal with the gravity problem is to make gravity go away. It's merely a confusing epiphenomena.

Hey, it worked for electricity ...

[1] Just prior to the American civil war. In a few years the SciAm "150 year back" article excerpts will be all about military science relevant to the most bloody battles of the 19th century. That should be interesting.

No comments: