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Spooky Connection: Wormholes and the Quantum World

One of the biggest and most vexing problems in physics is how quantum dynamics and general relativity relate to one another -- but could both theories find middle-ground in a wormhole? Continue reading →

One of the biggest and most vexing problems in physics is how quantum dynamics and gravity relate to one another. But now, physicists may have uncovered an interesting crossover between general relativity and the quantum world, potentially providing a hint as to how general relativity can be reconciled with quantum dynamics, a pairing that, in the mathematical sense, is like trying to mix water and oil.

Wormholes are hypothetical "gateways" between two points in space and time. A consequence of the equations arising from Albert Einstein's bedrock theory of General Relativity, wormholes have spawned countless science fiction dreams of time travel and zooming between two distant locations faster than the speed of light.

Although the physics of actually using a wormhole to traverse spacetime is highly debatable - at best, huge quantities of an as-yet unfathomable "exotic energy" would be needed to keep a "traversable wormhole" open - there are few physicists who would doubt their existence, regardless of whether or not we may ever actually observe their effects.

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In the quantum world, an apparently disparate place when compared with general relativity (which governs gravitational interactions and, by extension, wormholes), "entanglement" between subatomic particles is possible. If one can "entangle" two particles, no matter how far apart they are separated, should any quantum changes occur to one entangled pair, that change will be experienced instantaneously by its entangled partner. Quantum changes can be communicated between entangled particles no matter how far they are separated - whether the distance be the width of a laboratory desk or if one entangled particle were magically transported to another galaxy - the quantum change is communicated instantaneously.

This strange quality of entangled particles could be used for, say, faster than light communications between two points or super-fast quantum computers where calculations are theoretically instantaneous.

Entanglement was abhorred by Einstein, who referred to the mechanism as "spooky action at a distance." But in new calculations, researchers have found some potential common ground between wormholes and this spooky action between particles.

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In a paper published last month in the journal Physical Review Letters, physicists from the University of Washington and Stony Brook University in New York point out that if one could entangle two black holes that were then pulled apart, a wormhole connecting the two black holes would be created and governed by an identical set of entanglement rules.

Black holes are known to exist at masses close to that of our sun to many billions of solar masses in the centers of galaxies. But microscopic black holes are also possible, in theory, so you wouldn't need to worry too much about being sucked into a massive black hole to create an entangled pair of them - just pop out two black holes the size of atoms, entangle them and separate. The wormhole will form between the two. (At this point, if you're scratching your head wondering how in the heck you'd accomplish such a feat, fear not, this is all theory. And in physics, it's OK to imagine futuristic sci-fi technologies to make your theory jive.)

Sadly, the connecting wormhole could not be used for communication, at least not in the traditional sense. The only way to communicate with a buddy at the other end of the wormhole is "if you jump into your black hole, then the other person must jump into his black hole, and the interior world would be the same," said physicist Andreas Karch, of the University of Washington.

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But using two black holes and a wormhole as a superluminal telegraph system isn't the point of this exercise.

The key thing to come out of these calculations is that the black holes, regardless of their size, will remain entangled, just like the entangled particles of the quantum world. In this case, any change to one black hole will be communicated instantaneously to the other black hole through the wormhole. Therefore, the wormhole, a construct born from general relativity, is acting in a very quantum manner.

The upshot is that "two different mathematical machineries" have been used "to go after the same physical process," said Karch.

These calculations, though not practical, could help further research into quantum entanglement to see how it can relate to other, seemingly disparate systems.

Source: University of Washington

Image credit: iStock

Top 5 Sci-Fi Time Travel Methods

There is no shortage of time machines in the world of science fiction. You could probably name a bunch of them off the top of your head, from H.G. Wells' iconic creation to such mainstays as Dr. Who's Tardis and Dr. Brown's flux-capacitated DeLorean. But just how many fictional time machines can you explain? In many works of fantasy and science fiction, the time machine is just a magical plot device. No actual science is thrown at the audience. Most of the time, no one asks for any. After all, you're probably not watching Life on Mars or Terminator Salvation for a lesson in theoretical physics. Plus, if you're writing time-traveling fiction, then skipping the science spares you the embarrassment of getting something wrong. Isn't it enough that you described 1997 as being a world full of flying cars and busty android life partners? Let's take a look at five examples of the plausible and ridiculous ways fictional TV and film characters have traveled through time.

5. Superman Spin Control

If we learned anything about the physics of time and space from Richard Donner's 1978 film Superman, it's that if you fly around the Earth really fast, you can reverse its rotation and roll back time. Although physicists agree that space and time are interconnected, you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone who would back the "science" behind reversing planetary rotation to turn back time. Far from saving Lois Lane's life, the feat likely would have caused global chaos. Slam on the brakes in a moving car and everything inside it continues moving forward. Now imagine this scenario on a global scale, only with oceans, mountains and weather systems continuing to surge forward at up to 1,000 miles per hour, depending on your latitude. Way to go, Superman.

4. The Voyage Home to 1986

The Star Trek universe is full of fantastic ideas: aliens with rippled foreheads, holodecks and more time travel than you can shake a stick at. According to the Star Trek Wiki, 50 episodes of the six TV series featured time travel, as did four of the 11 films. You'd think the space-time continuum would just be circling the drain after all that tinkering. Time paradoxes aside, Star Trek always flirted with real science. Take 1986's Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, for example. In this film, the crew of the Starship Enterprise send a Klingon Bird-of-Prey vehicle back to the 1980s by sling shotting it around the sun. The Star Trek slingshot method involves using the sun's gravitational pull as an accelerator to reach speeds necessary to travel through time. The premise falls in line with some theories about time travel and Einstein's theory of special relativity. The theory says if time slows the closer you get to the speed of light, then travel into the future -- or the past -- may be possible. One slight problem: faster-than-light travel is physically impossible. Plus, as Lawrence M. Krauss points out in The Physics of Star Trek, the gravitational field near the surface of the sun doesn't produce anywhere near the boost you'd need to go talk to whales in the past.

3. Trekking into a Black Hole

Paradoxical time travel isn't a thing of the past for the Star Trek legacy. The plot of the new film concerns two starships that are sucked into an artificial black hole, sending them 154 years into the past. While the time-travel method employed in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home depended on a far too weak gravitational slingshot, many physicists believe that a black hole might indeed provide the necessary portal to the past. Anything that crosses a black hole's event horizon heads toward an incredibly tiny point of infinitely compressed matter called a singularity. That's also one of the huge problems with the new Star Trek film's plot: What's to keep the two starships from winding up as one with the singularity? Physicists point to Kerr black holes as a less destructive alternative. These theoretical cosmic phenomena first described by Roy Kerr in the 1960s lack the matter-smashing singularity at the center, potentially making it possible to pass the event horizon and come out the other side -- in another time.

2. Donnie Darko, Creepy Rabbits and Wormholes

The 2001 cult favorite Donnie Darko spends most of its time exploring the possible effects of time-travel paradoxes and tangent universes on its characters, but it also features a portal through time: a wormhole. Also called Einstein-Rosen bridges, these hypothetical cosmic structures might offer a traveler the necessary means of not just taking a shortcut through space, but also through time itself. Einstein's theory of relativity states that mass curves in spacetime. The most common visual example of this concept is that of space depicted as a curved, two-dimensional plane. Think of a racetrack: If you're speeding around a curve, you're bound to that curve, but what if you could forge a new line of track between its two parallel sides? That's the idea behind a wormhole. If a mass on one side of the spacetime curve applies enough force and a mass on the other side of the spacetime curve applies enough force, then the two could meet, creating a tunnel.

1. Lost on a Time-Traveling Island

If you've watched ABC's "Lost," then you're probably used to things not making a lot of sense. A big reason for this is that the show's mysterious island bounces the characters around through time seamlessly. Seriously, by the end of the series, everyone will be lucky to make it off the island without becoming their own grandparent. Yet "Lost" at least makes an effort to prop up the fiction with a little science. According to blog analysis at Popular Mechanics, the science behind the show's time travel seems to depend on quantum mechanics, a mysterious substance in the ground called "exotic material" and possibly a wormhole. Might this buried, volatile substance produce the necessary energy to manipulate a breach in spacetime? To varying degrees, you could argue that this is all any writer can achieve when crafting a piece of time-travel fiction -- not counting writers who are actually from the future, of course.