Galaxy slime. [Img Src] |

*Physicists have gathered evidence that space-time can behave like a fluid. Mathematical evidence, that is, but still evidence. If this relation isn’t a coincidence, then space-time – like a fluid – may have substructure.*

We shouldn’t speak of space and time as if the two were distant cousins. We have known at least since Einstein that space and time are inseparable, two hemispheres of the same cosmic brain, joined to a single entity: space-time. Einstein also taught us that space-time isn’t flat, like a paper, but bent and wiggly, like a rubber sheet. Space-time curves around mass and energy, and this gives rise to the effect we call gravity.

That’s what Einstein said. But turns out if you write down the equations for small wiggles in a medium – such as soundwaves in a fluid – then the equations look exactly like those of waves in a curved background.

Yes, that’s right. Sometimes, waves in fluids behave like waves in a curved space-time; they behave like waves in a gravitational field. Fluids, therefore, can be used to simulate gravity. And that’s some awesome news because this correspondence between fluids and gravity allows physicists to study situations that are otherwise experimentally inaccessible, for example what happens near a black hole horizon, or during the rapid expansion in the early universe.

This mathematical relation between fluids and gravity is known as “analog gravity.” That’s “analog” as in “analogy” not as opposed to digital. But it’s not just math. The first gravitational analogies have meanwhile been created in a laboratory.

Most amazing is the work by Jeff Steinhauer at Technion, Israel. Steinhauer used a condensate of supercooled atoms that “flows” in a potential of laser beams which simulate the black hole horizon. In his experiment, Steinhauer wanted to test whether black holes emit radiation as Stephen Hawking predicted. The temperature of real, astrophysical, black holes is too small to be measurable. But if Hawking’s calculation is right, then the fluid-analogy of black holes should radiate too.

Black holes trap light behind the “event horizon.” A fluid that simulates a black hole doesn’t trap light, it traps instead the fluid’s soundwaves behind what is called the “acoustic horizon.” Since the fluid analogies of black holes aren’t actually black, Bill Unruh suggested to call them “dumb holes.” The name stuck.

But whether the horizon catches light or sound, Hawking-radiation should be produced regardless, and it should appear in form of fluctuations (in the fluid or quantum matter fields, respectively) that are paired across the horizon.

Steinhauer claims he has measured Hawking-radiation produced by an acoustic black hole. His results are presently somewhat controversial – not everyone is convinced he has really measured what he claims he did – but I am sure sooner or later this will be settled. More interesting is that Steinhauer’s experiment showcases the potential of the method.

Of course fluid-analogies are still different from real gravity. Mathematically the most important difference is that the curved space-time which the fluid mimics has to be designed. It is not, as for real gravity, an automatic reaction to energy and matter; instead, it is part of the experimental setup. However, this is a problem which at least in principle can be overcome with a suitable feedback loop.

The conceptually more revealing difference is that the fluid’s correspondence to a curved space-time breaks down once the experiment starts to resolve the fluid’s atomic structure. Fluids, we know, are made of smaller things. Curved space-time, for all we presently know, isn’t. But how certain are we of this? What if the fluid analogy is more than an analogy? Maybe space-time really behaves like a fluid; maybe it is a fluid. And if so, the experiments with fluid-analogies may reveal how we can find evidence for a substructure of space-time.

Some have pushed the gravity-fluid analogy even further. Gia Dvali from LMU Munich, for example, has proposed that real black holes are condensates of gravitons, the hypothetical quanta of the gravitational field. This simple idea, he claims, explains several features of black holes which have so-far puzzled physicists, notably the question how black holes manage to keep the information that falls into them.

We used to think black holes are almost featureless round spheres. But if they are instead, as Dvali says, condensates of many gravitons, then black holes can take on many slightly different configuration in which information can be stored. Even more interesting, Dvali proposes the analogy could be used to design fluids which are as efficient at storing and distributing information as black holes are. The link between condensed matter and astrophysics, hence, works both ways.

Physicists have looked for evidence of space-time being a medium for some while. For example by studying light from distant sources, such as gamma-ray bursts, they tried to find out whether space has viscosity or whether it causes dispersion (a running apart of frequencies like in a prism). A new line of research is to search for impurities – “space-time defects” – like crystals have them. So far the results have been negative. But the experiments with fluid analogies might point the way forward.

If space-time is made of smaller things, this could solve a major problem: How to describe the quantum behavior of space time. Unlike all the other interactions we know of, gravity is a non-quantum theory. This means it doesn’t fit together with the quantum theories that physicists use for elementary particles. All attempts to quantize gravity so-far have either failed or remained unconfirmed speculations. That space itself isn’t fundamental but made of other things is one way to approach the problem.

Not everyone likes the idea. What irks physicists most about giving substance to space-time is that this breaks Einstein’s bond between space and time which has worked dramatically well – so far. Only further experiment will reveal whether Einstein’s theory holds up.

Time flows, they say. Maybe space does too.

*This article previously appeared on iai.news.*