Are Space, Time, And Gravity Just Illusions?

“Something is happening here and this is going to have an impact.” -Robert Dijkgraaf, on Verlinde's work

There are many attempts out there to reconcile the quantum field theories that describe the electromagnetic and nuclear forces with general relativity, which describes the gravitational force. Certain questions, about gravitational properties in strong fields and on small scales, will never be answered otherwise. In order to make that happen, we'd need a quantum theory of gravity. While string theory is the most popular idea, there are others, such as asymptotic safety, loop quantum gravity, and causal dynamical triangulations.

Outside the event horizon of a black hole, General Relativity and quantum field theory are completely sufficient for understanding the physics of what occurs. But near the singularity, a quantum theory of gravity is needed. Image credit: NASA.


But perhaps the most radical idea came from Erik Verlinde in 2009: the idea that gravity itself is not fundamental, but rather arises from a truly fundamental entity: the entropy of quantum bits of information. Verlinde's work has been intriguing and especially controversial, and I myself have spotted a number of problem areas with his results so far, but it's certainly an idea worth exploring further. At 7 PM ET / 4 PM PT tonight, he delivers the Perimeter Institute's inaugural public lecture of their 2017-2018 series.

If gravitation isn't fundamental, but is rather an emergent force that comes about from the properties of fundamental qbits of information, perhaps this new way of looking at the Universe will answer some of our greatest fundamental puzzles. Image credit: flickr gallery of J. Gabas Esteban.


What will he say? And what will I have to say when I weigh in on it? Find out then on our live-blog of Verlinde's talk tonight!


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When you replace physics with mathematics, and then complain about the fact your abstract point particle HEP math can't carry physical forces, the solution is not to double down (dig an even deeper hole), and turn the physical forces into abstract mathematics as well.
Strange that after such a highly successful and important LHC discoveries like the Higgs particle and it's field (They even got a Nobel prize!!) which was supposed to resolve the issues of particle mass, it would appear HEP is still floundering around with ... the exact same thing they were before.
In the standing tradition and spirit of HEP and invoking made up things as actual things:
Leonard Hofstadter was exactly right.

You didn't explain anything... Bait title is bait.

But it is a good bait for making an important announcement and invitation :-)

This blog sounds more and more like an advertisement for whatever Ethan is selling each day as an untested hypothetical, even fictional product. When the title is a question, the blog should present possible answers to the question.
That should at least include an explanation of how the word "fundamental" is being used, as in, "... the idea that gravity itself is not fundamental, but rather arises from a truly fundamental entity: the entropy of quantum bits of information"
We know that mass attracts mass, and that the FORCE of attraction is direct in proportion to amount of mass and inverse with the square of distances between masses. (Once known as the universal LAW of gravitation.) How that works is still the missing link in the Great Quest for an integrating Theory of Everything (all four forces.)

The abstract concept, "the entropy of quantum bits of information" is no substitute for a physical explanation of the FORCE OF GRAVITY in a world of massive physical objects, not just "bits of information."
In spite of the technical difficulties and statistical uncertainty with the LHC at CERN, I still have hope that understanding the Higgs field will eventually explain (in "real world" terms) what might fill space as quanta interconnecting EVERYTHING. That would include gravity and many other unexplained phenomena not yet considered scientifically valid.

By Michael Mooney (not verified) on 04 Oct 2017 #permalink

@Michael Mooney #4,
If the LHC actually did what it claimed by locating a Higgs particle, and if the Higgs field were actual, the discussion Ethan is proposing would not even be happening.
Leonard Hofstadter was so right.

It's impossible for an old life-long an amateur scientist to sort out the honest (unbiased) scientists (are there any left?) from the self-serving paper writers and famous multimedia self promoters. (If the shoe fits...)
Maybe the CERN project is just a scam perpetrated by Big Money to support statisticians and liars (not two categories) in a symbiosis among pseudo-scientists and various big promotional dealers. (Like this Star Trek promotional at SWAB.) Maybe not.
I Still have a shred of hope for honest science based on solid empirical evidence, building on the the body of confirmed epistemology... what we know and how we know it.

By Michael Mooney (not verified) on 04 Oct 2017 #permalink

@Michael Mooney #6,
What you are hoping for will definitely be from outside the box of government funded academia. This has pretty much always been the case. Creativity is not a collectivist process done well by committee. Look outside the establishment for the scientists who are really trying something new without government money and groupthink calling the shots. The beauty of private funding: you aren't being paid to think alike.


"What you are hoping for will definitely be from outside the box of government funded academia. This has pretty much always been the case."

Not sure about this, most people who realise something 'fundamental' have an academic background. Perhaps funding wise they got money from venture fonds.

Galileo, Newton, Maxwell and Einstein were all academics, I can't really think of anyone that changed the world that didn't went to the university.

BTW I also don't see how a non-academic can get funding, be it by the government or privately. Usually those who invest also have an academic background.

By Elle H.C. (not verified) on 05 Oct 2017 #permalink

@Michael Mooney,

Go see a doctor you paranoid freak.

By Elle H.C. (not verified) on 05 Oct 2017 #permalink


Did you even read the article past the title? I think it's pretty ironic that you chose THIS POST to complain about the lack of new and creative ideas in science. The idea that Verlinde had is PRECISELY the kind of thing you are complaining does not exist. Far from being in the scientific mainstream (groupthink as you'd call it), Verlinde's idea pushes well past the accepted ideas about space and gravity into very speculative territory. It may or may not turn out that his idea is viable, but you certainly should NOT be complaining about a lack of creativity and new ideas on this particular post.


Just a further thought: has it ever occurred to you that the so-called "groupthink" is simply a result of looking at the evidence at hand and coming to an agreement that the current scientific consensus is what best fits that evidence? Creative is not necessarily correct. The main factor that suppresses new ideas is that pesky thing called observational evidence. If the new idea doesn't explain the observations better than the old idea, then it will be rejected. The burden is on the creator of the new idea to show that it is better than the consensus one, not on the scientific community to demonstrate that the consensus idea is superior.

QBITS studies should get more govt funding than LBTQ....IMHO.


By Ragtag Media (not verified) on 05 Oct 2017 #permalink

Housekeeping note: I appreciate that Ethan tried to clean up the nastiest personal abuse here (WOW for example) but why is Elle H.C. (see #9) still here spewing venomous insults?

Content question as per post title: So... Are space, time, and gravity all just illusions?

My answer is that space is the volume in which everything exists and moves; time is the concept of duration as everything moves ("it takes time"), and gravity is the attractive FORCE between masses, mechanism still unknown.

By Michael Mooney (not verified) on 05 Oct 2017 #permalink

@Sean T #8, #10,
I never said Galileo didn't go to school and university. He obviously did, as did Newton, etc., and they eventually went their own way intellectually when they found the 'consensus' was not to their liking, Academia changed their tune, not the other way around. This is much the same for the others as well. Otherwise you would be implying that Einstein's, Newton's and Maxwell's ideas were academically commonplace when they came up with them? This makes no sense. Academia is an institutional body, used mostly as a dispersion/indoctrination tool for someone else's great idea that has become popular.
As to Verlinde's work, It moves in the direction that screwed physics up in the first place, the false premise that Math informs reality. It doesn't, try the other way around. Math also can NOT carry physical forces without resorting to the mental sleight of hand of hypostatization, any more than an imaginary horse that has no physical existence can give you an actual pony ride.
My problem with groupthink, is that it isn't actually thinking at all, it's herd instinct. It isn't based on the strength of an argument, or debating an argument, it's just convincing others in the group that agreement is more important than what they are there to do. Consensus is a political process, not a scientific one.
If you want a sci-fi approximation, think Jor El. He certainly wasn't correct according to the consensus of the Kryptonian science council. Did the fact he didn't agree with the consensus have anything to do with whether or not he was right in predicting their world was about to end? No. Political consensus often has little to do with reality, the successful use of propaganda on large numbers of people clearly demonstrates this. Large numbers of people are often wrong, especially when agreement is valued more highly than truth and understanding.


While I can understand the sentiment of grounding science in hard experimental data, that experimental data often does not exist when you are dealing with the boundaries of scientific knowledge. Sure, all of these ideas are certainly speculative until confirmed by experiment, but does that really mean that physicists should not speculate about them in the meantime? If the data never comes, then the theories will always remain speculative.

I am not sure why you have something against the use of math in physics. Math is just a good way to ask "what if" questions. All math is basically the exercise of assuming that certain statements are true and then deducing the consequences of those statements. Math is very useful in science because we can almost NEVER directly test the truth of our fundamental ideas directly. Consider the fundamental idea that "all matter is made of atoms". That idea cannot be put to a direct test. We must assume it's true, and then deduce the consequences of that truth. We make some more assumptions about the structure of that atom and the behavior of its parts. We can then build upon our other scientific knowledge, such as the behavior of the electromagnetic force, and use that knowledge combined with our mathematical model of atomic structure to make calculations, ie. predictions, about what we will observe in some situations. For instance, we can calculate the energies that the electron in a hydrogen atom can take on. We can then predict that hydrogen will emit light corresponding to the differences of these energies and no other light. We can then energize some hydrogen atoms, look at the light they emit and see if it matches our predictions. If it does, we can conclude that our model (which if you haven't guessed is now called quantum mechanics) is likely correct. We can use that model to predict further observations that we could make and continue to test it. That's how science advances. Without the math, I cannot see how we could test any of our ideas.

Now, obviously, if the math makes a prediction and that prediction doesn't come through, then we must modify the axioms upon which that math was based.

The reluctance of the physics community to do so depends highly on the past success of the model. We didn't throw out Newtonian gravity because the orbit of the planet Uranus didn't match up with prediction. We looked for and found another planet, Neptune, that was causing the deviations. We DID throw out Newtonian gravity when Mercury didn't move as predicted, as general relativity could account better for that (and other) observations. It's often a tricky thing to determine which is most appropriate in a given situation. Sometimes bucking the consensus is right, but the consensus got to be that for a reason, and it's not the conspiratorial, political reasons you seem to think. It's generally because the consensus idea is generally the one that best fits the data. If another idea is presented that fits the data better, it will be adapted. Perhaps it won't happen right away, or as quickly as one would hope (scientists are human and think that they are right after all), but it will happen.

@Michael Mooney,

You are right, it's still a mystery to me why Ethan hasn't blocked my 'new' phone and IP address. I'm spending too much time here being a jackass.

By Elle H.C. (not verified) on 05 Oct 2017 #permalink

"My answer is that space is the volume in which everything exists and moves; time is the concept of duration as everything moves (“it takes time”), and gravity is the attractive FORCE between masses, mechanism still unknown."

Physics described by a child? :-)

Thank you. Children are honest before they lose their innocence. Then they grow up to pursue "self interest." ("It's only human.") Scientists are no exceptions.
Do you have any criticism, scientifically speaking, of my statement which you quoted?
Or is this just another personal attack?

By Michael Mooney (not verified) on 05 Oct 2017 #permalink

Just a tip-o-the-hat to CFT on # 14.
May favorite quote: "As to Verlinde’s work, It moves in the direction that screwed physics up in the first place, the false premise that Math informs reality. It doesn’t, try the other way around."
Kelley Ross agrees too. (Read his paper, folks. I've linked it a few times.)

Everyone should read up on Ethan's philosophy of science, instrumentalism. It will inform you of his bias here.

"It all depends on how you look at it" (generic quote)... the consensus among relativity theorists.

Then you have your time travel and "warp speed" ten times faster than light... and "wormholes" and "white holes"... and "singularities" with no volume but containing everything now observable as a universe. ... and infinite co-existing "universes"...
And 'they' call it science.

Imagine that. But don't call it science.

By Michael Mooney (not verified) on 05 Oct 2017 #permalink

I am not sure CFT really likes your continuing support. :-)

Sean T (on CFT):

I am not sure why you have something against the use of math in physics.

It may be bleed over from creationism's influence on conservative thought. They tend to insist science would be better if it stuck much more strictly to experimentation, with a great de-emphasis on theory building. Little or no extrapolation: if the phenomena isn't right in front of you and testable, you don't try and explain it. For creationists, this demand for a more direct empiricism lets them pretend the ToE is not good science; for CFT, it lets him pretend any spending on basic science not directly linked to some pragmatic benefit he agrees with is not good science.


This blog sounds more and more like an advertisement...

...says the guy who brings up his pet peeve in every single thread.

MM, if you don't think advertising has a place on this blog, why do engage in it?

@eric #21,

You are talking out of your data hole again. You know nothing about what I do or do not believe outside of the realm of science from this blog, so please stop pretending you do know.
I am not a creationist, but I'm not sure you even understand the irony that if you subscribe to theories like "Thhe big Bang "it popped out of nothing", with some 'quantum' fluctuation nonsense tacked on, you are even more 'creationist' than the creationists themselves, as at least their version has a pre-dating cause, some entity from beyond this universe. The big bang doesn't even have a cause, it requires a whopper of a miracle without even an agent to initiate it. Railing against creationism when it accomplishes nothing, and your own 'best guess' ALSO relies on a miracle itself is pretty stupid. It's a bunch of linguistic nonsense pretending to be science. Zero information informing a theory of spontaneous existence...that kind thing is what a scientist is supposed to avoid like the plague. If you don't know, so be it, you don't know, that is all you can say with honesty in a scientific fashion. If you wish to speculate anyway, fine, but you are doing meta-physics, not science or physics.
You have an terrible habit of stating things people never said. I never said I had anything against math being used in physics, I said I had a problem with people who conflate mathematical processes with physics or physical forces and causes.
As far as math goes, it's a human abstract construct. It does not exist without people, as it is an idea, and ideas don't float around without brains (last I checked) that contain minds that can contain the idea. However the universe works, it isn't math. How do I know this? Because math is admittedly used to crudely describe and MODEL the universe, it's a contrived place holder, not the thing itself. This isn't complicated to understand. If you believe differently, that math somehow independently of people 'does or causes things' you are subscribing to a philosophy or idea called mathematical Platonism, which is a form of supernatural mysticism. Sorry, but that's what it is:
"Mathematical platonism is any metaphysical account of mathematics that implies mathematical entities exist, that they are abstract, and that they are independent of all our rational activities."

I am NOT saying math is not useful, of course it is, it can be very useful in creating models when we have adequate measurements and good data. I am saying math isn't reality itself any more than any other man made abstract idea.
Math is used in physics. Math is NOT physics. There's a difference. The universe informs our senses which informs our minds which we use to construct simplified models which mimic aspects of what we observe. Math is used in these models, but math is a second hand abstraction to the abstraction of the model itself which is in turn trying mimic something real. The model determines how the math is used, not the other way around. To simplify the argument somewhat, reality informs your abstract ideas, your abstract ideas do not inform reality.
Science is supposed to have limitations, it's a discipline. that's what makes it so useful, it's not supposed to be able to do anything. It can't resort to illogical processes or uncaused events, or causes that are outside the realm of measurement. This means you have to carefully restrict what kinds of answers you have or use. This also means you have to be very skeptical when answers stray outside of these restrictions.
As far a science goes, causality rules. Scientifically, I do not believe in causeless events, as they are logically impossible. I may not know the cause, but to subscribe to the tenants of science, you have to look for a cause, period, not a spontaneous miracle workaround to make your theory work. If you can't find a cause, scientifically, that's literally all you can say, "I can't find a cause". The beauty of this simple honesty is, now the way is clear for someone else to come along someday and have another look without them having to wade through a bullshit answer.


Why does everything have to have a cause? That's an assertion on your part that may or may not be true, but one that needs further investigation. As it turns out, it seems that it very likely is not true, in fact. It doesn't mean that there are miracles or anything like that, but rather that some events, especially in the domain of very small scales such as subatomic particles, don't have causes. They are simply random. All the evidence points to the idea that the universe is either inherently random or (and this may be even less palatable) nonlocal. Either way, what most commonly would refer to as causality can be violated. Causality is one of those notions that our brains evolved to help us deal with the world, but is simply not true when we dig deeper into the working of the universe.

@ eric #22
I am here arguing that science ultimately requires empirical evidence. That includes the "cosmology" of a universe which popped out of nothingness, the philosophy of shrinking objects and distances (depending on observational differences), the presentation of concepts and models as if they were entities actually existing in the world ( space, time, spacetime, etc.)... or "are they illusions?... an unanswered post title.
I am not "selling" anything. As an unknown amateur I have nothing to gain (as money or fame) and nothing to lose, like a job as a scientist. Science includes dialogue among different points of view. I am here for that, in the interest of scientific honesty.

Ethan is here promoting (selling) his various "enterprizes" and proudly presenting his speculations, opinions and math models as facts in many cases. Much is pure fiction presented as science.
That is not honest science. It requires criticism. Glad to provide it.

By Michael Mooney (not verified) on 06 Oct 2017 #permalink

@Sean T #24,
Why did you wait to write your entry #24 until I wrote my entry #23? Luck? Chance? Probability? The Easter Bunny? No, it was because my entry #23 came before and provoked (caused) you to make your entry (effect) #24. Random is a word invoked when people don't literally really know where the number is coming from, in fact in computer science the word 'random' is considered almost a dangerous misnomer, as there is no random, there is merely 'I don't know how (what algorithm)that number was generated', which is how it works in cyber security, even if you could have random, you wouldn't want it as that would just create lots of problems, as you want a system that does not repeat the same sequence of numbers (called a hash collision sometimes) when creating keys.
The whole 'random' concept is more about the limits of your information about the subject than the subject itself. Mathematicians who should know better often invoke 'random' when they are being sloppy, while at the same time hiding behind their own mathematical systems which are completely dependent upon a rigid logical hierarchy which serves as an order of operations (cause-effect) in EVERY one of their calculations. This is the deception that all causality defying physics (like time travel) hides behind, by foolishly pretending that math can be outside of time, or that their own internal mathematical hierarchies aren't equally dependent upon sequentially ordered causality to function as everything else in time is (this is where the mathematical Platonism comes into play, they claim it's outside of time, which is complete and utter rubbish) That 'order of operation' is critical if you want your arithmetic to be valid, or the calculation to mean anything, mathematics has rules all over the place determining how calculations are handled in various situations, which rely upon one particular operation after another to be performed. Computers are proof of this as they are cause and effect personified, they can't do anything they are supposed to if one condition isn't met in order for another to happen, no cause and effect, then there is no order or operation, and no logical operation is possible.
What you are talking about at the level of the very small is simply this, uncertainty. The smaller you go, the harder it is to know what is influencing what you are observing, eventually even the observing (depending on what that is) will influence what is observed, as even tiny things can have a dramatic effect on tiny things, and you can't really keep track of them all at such a small scale. This does not mean things pop into and out of existence (Any more than stars you can't see through your telescope pop into or out of existence as the come into view) , this means that the model you are using does this because of its inherent flaws and limitations. The map is not the territory, never forget that. Sometimes you sum over a range of countless behaviors (average) and call it a day, but that is dependent on what scale of accuracy suits your needs, the smaller you go the more precarious such abstract operations of averaging become, uncertainty grows, as things that seemed stable at one scale seem far more turbulent at a smaller scale (from far above, the earth also looks peaceful. The closer you get...meh). Probability is also a dodge, as it is, and always has been, and always shall be A CALCULATION utterly dependent upon the data fed into it used to determine uncertainty. Probability has nothing to do with determining reality, it is a second hand calculation which may or may not mimic the process it was designed for accurately. It can be used to describe the statistical outcomes of certain behaviors, but it certainly isn't the cause of those behaviors...which goes back to my earlier statement, Math is not reality, it is used to MODEL reality. Every time you invoke probability, you are actually invoking the accuracy of the model the calculation is being performed inside of, which is a simplification of the subject it mimics in reality. This means a lot of things which influence the reality are not present in the model, and so are not even considered in the calculation at all. Being that many models are highly reiterative (calculation output become calculation input, rinse repeat) eventually the left out bits begin began to become painfully apparent as the model output diverges further and further from the activity of the actual system.
To use your own words:
"Causality is one of those notions that our brains evolved to help us deal with the world, but is simply not true when we dig deeper into the working of the universe."
You are proposing an end to reasoned inquiry.
...There is no digging into anything whatsoever if you subscribe to this idea, much less science, as the act of digging itself is a sequential process, as is digging a ditch, mathematics, chemistry, biology, astronomy, physics, history, geology, medicine...pretty much put an 'ology' on the end of it, anything involved with observing change, change itself, it all goes caput without causality. Sorry to burst your bubble. You may want to rethink that.


Scientifically, I do not believe in causeless events, as they are logically impossible

So, you reject quantum mechanics? The heisenberg uncertainty principle? I think in earlier conversations you've said yes you reject the HUP, so we'll use that as an example.

That long monolog about science vs. math doesn't tell me anything about why you accept F=ma, E=mc^2, but not delx*delrho>=hbar/2. Many physicists will tell you QM is the most tested theory in physics. Predictions have been measured to something like 15 significant digits, and it holds. So how do you justify rejecting such a well-tested 'mathematical model' while accepting 'mathematical models' less rigorously tested?

@eric #27,
I reject some of the interpretations of quantum mechanics, yes. It has uses, but so do epicycles. It doesn't make them good models. I treat a mathematical model as at best an abstract approximation of reality. I don't conflate the two.
As to the claim about QM predictions being accurate to 15 significant digits, may I ask, how do you claim this when it requires you are only off by an infinity?
"The shell game that we play to find n and j is technically called "renormalization." But no matter how clever the word, it is what I would call a dippy process! Having to resort to such hocus-pocus has prevented us from proving that the theory of quantum electrodynamics is mathematically self-consistent. It's surprising that the theory still hasn't been proved self-consistent one way or the other by now; I suspect that renormalization is not mathematically legitimate. What is certain is that we do not have a good mathematical way to describe the theory of quantum electrodynamics: such a bunch of words to describe the connection between n and j and m and e is not good mathematics."
-- Richard Feynman, QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter
Dirac (a good friend of Feynman) was also dubious.
"Hence most physicists are very satisfied with the situation. They say: "Quantum electrodynamics is a good theory, and we do not have to worry about it any more." I must say that I am very dissatisfied with the situation, because this so-called "good theory" does involve neglecting infinities which appear in its equations, neglecting them in an arbitrary way. This is just not sensible mathematics. Sensible mathematics involves neglecting a quantity when it turns out to be small—not neglecting it just because it is infinitely great and you do not want it!"
--P. A. M. Dirac, Directions in Physics
Of course the problem was ignored by the consensus, and convention became all the proof they needed. Modern physics students don't even bat an eyelash or raise a question anymore because when everyone else does it, who cares if it isn't even mathematically valid?.
What you appear to be asking next is:
"How can so many experts possibly be wrong?"
Strangely enough, Saint Augustine of Hippo figured out a pretty workable answer:
“Right is right even if no one is doing it; wrong is wrong even if everyone is doing it.”
Of course this is being applied to a moral context, not a scientific one, but it has some utility in that it clearly identifies being correct is not a factor of numbers or popularity. If you know science history you also know the consensus of experts has been shown to be wrong at the hands of an individual numerous times. Ethan pays lip service to this, but makes the mistake with his convictions that this doesn't really happen much anymore, which is hogwash. The larger the number of people who are lock step with an idea, the greater the stumble if something doesn't pan out with that idea. Lee Smolin talks about this in "The trouble with Physics", not enough intellectual diversity, too many people are betting on the same horse. This will always happen as long as people are people, and trying to figure things out and are challenging an established view. Each time the consensus is finally overthrown, a new consensus starts to take root almost immediately and the process repeats.
It all basically comes down to assumptions. If you have very similar assumptions, you can get a lot of agreement about predictions of what might happen. Many idolize this potential consensus as being the desired state of affairs leading to harmony. However, if you don't allow healthy disagreement, and surround yourself with a bunch of people who echo your own assumptions, you get caught flat footed when you discover this makes your entire group equally susceptible to all making the same mistake. You have put all your eggs in one basket.


If you have not, I suggest you read “The structure of Scientific Revolutions”, by Thomas Kuhn. Kuhn focuses on and illuminates several of the issues you mention above. Besides qualifying some presumptions about Science, he examines in some detail the consensus to which you refer.

At just over two hundred pages, Structure is a relatively quick read, and the fourth edition (2012) is also available in electronic format.

@John #29,
I'll take a look. Sounds interesting.


What you appear to be asking next is:
“How can so many experts possibly be wrong?”

No, what I asked is pretty clear. Why do you accept F=ma and E=mc^2 but not delx*delrho>=hbar/2.

You keep writing long posts about skepticism of mathematical models, but you clearly accept some that accurately predict phenomena, while rejecting others...that also accurately predict phenomena. So what do you see as the difference?

What makes you think "hey, E=mc^2 is a good predictor of how things behave...I'll accept that it's physics. The HUP is also a good predictor of how things behave...but I'll reject it as mere math"?