2012 : WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE DEEP, ELEGANT, OR BEAUTIFUL EXPLANATION?

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theoretical physicist; Professor, Department of Physics, University of California, Santa Barbara

Gravity Is Curvature Of Spacetime … Or Is It?

My favorite elegant explanation is probably wrong—but is deeply powerful nonetheless. It is: gravity is curvature of spacetime.

This central idea has shaped our ideas of modern cosmology, given us the image of the expanding universe, and has led to remarkable understandings—such as the apparent presence of a black hole four million times the mass of the sun at the center of our galaxy. It even offers a possible explanation of the origin of our Universe—as quantum tunneling from "nothing."

This idea lies at the heart of Einstein's General Theory of Relativity, which is still our best understanding of gravity, after nearly 100 years. Its essence is embodied in Wheeler's famous words: "matter tells spacetime how to curve, and curved spacetime tells matter how to move" The equations expressing this are even simpler, once one has understood the background math. The theory exudes simple, essential beauty.

But when brought together with quantum mechanics, an epic conflict between the two theories results. Apparently, they both cannot be right. And, the lessons of black holes—and Hawking's discovery that they ultimately explode—seem to teach us that quantum mechanics must win, and classical spacetime is doomed.

We do not yet know the full shape of the quantum theory providing a complete accounting for gravity. We do have many clues, from studying the early quantum phase of cosmology, and ultrahigh energy collisions that produce black holes and their subsequent disintegrations into more elementary particles. We have hints that the theory draws on powerful principles of quantum information theory. And, we expect that in the end it has a simple beauty, mirroring the explanation of gravity-as-curvature, from an even more profound depth.