A theory of reality beyond Einstein's universe is taking shape – and a mysterious cosmic signal could soon fill in the blanks
It wasn't so long ago we thought space and time were the absolute and unchanging scaffolding of the universe. Then along came Albert Einstein, who showed that different observers can disagree about the length of objects and the timing of events. His theory of relativity unified space and time into a single entity - space-time. It meant the way we thought about the fabric of reality would never be the same again. "Henceforth space by itself, and time by itself, are doomed to fade into mere shadows," declared mathematician Hermann Minkowski. "Only a kind of union of the two will preserve an independent reality."
But did Einstein's revolution go far enough? Physicist Lee Smolin at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada, doesn't think so. He and a trio of colleagues are aiming to take relativity to a whole new level, and they have space-time in their sights. They say we need to forget about the home Einstein invented for us: we live instead in a place called phase space.
If this radical claim is true, it could solve a troubling paradox about black holes that has stumped physicists for decades. What's more, it could set them on the path towards their heart's desire: a "theory of everything" that will finally unite general relativity and quantum mechanics.
So what is phase space? It is a curious eight-dimensional world that merges our familiar four dimensions of space and time and a four-dimensional world called momentum space.
Momentum space isn't as alien as it first sounds. When you look at the world around you, says Smolin, you don't ever observe space or time - instead you see energy and momentum. When you look at your watch, for example, photons bounce off a surface and land on your retina. By detecting the energy and momentum of the photons, your brain reconstructs events in space and time.