Send Your Dog Through a Wormhole?

A wormhole! What an amazing concept — a secret tunnel that connects two different regions of space! Could real ones exist? Could we — or our dogs — travel through them, and visit other galaxies billions of light years away, and come back to tell everyone all about it?

I bring up dogs because of a comment, quoted in the Guardian and elsewhere, by my friend and colleague, experimentalist Maria Spiropulu. Spiropulu is a senior author on the wormhole-related paper that has gotten so much attention in the past week, and she was explaining what it was all about.

  • “People come to me and they ask me, ‘Can you put your dog in the wormhole?’ So, no,” Spiropulu told reporters during a video briefing. “… That’s a huge leap.”

For this, I can’t resist teasing Spiropulu a little. She’s done many years of important work at the Large Hadron Collider and previously at the Tevatron, before taking on quantum computing and the simulation of wormholes. But, oh my! The idea that this kind of research could ever lead to a wormhole that a dog could traverse… that’s more than a huge leap of imagination. It’s a huge leap straight out of reality!

I’ve been trying to train our dog, Phoebe, to fetch a ball through a wormhole. She seems eager but nervous.

What’s the problem?

Decades ago there was a famous comedian by the name of Henny Youngman. He told the following joke — which, being no comedian myself, I will paraphrase.

  • I know a guy who wanted to set a mousetrap but had no cheese in his fridge. So he cut a picture of a piece of cheese from a magazine, and used that instead. Just before bed, he heard the trap snap shut, so he went to look. In the trap was a picture of a mouse.

Well, with that in mind, consider this:

  • Imaginary cheese can’t catch a real mouse, and an imaginary wormhole can’t transport a real dog!

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How Do You Make a Baby Cartoon Wormhole In a Lab?

This post is a continuation of the previous one, which you should read first…

Now, what exactly are these wormholes that certain physicists claim to be trying to make or, at least, simulate? In this post I’ll explain what the scientists did to bring the problem within reach of our still-crude quantum computers. [I am indebted to Juan Maldacena, Daniel Jafferis and Brian Swingle for conversations that improved my understanding.]

An important point from last post: a field theory with quarks and gluons, such as we find in the real world or such as we might find in all sorts of imaginary worlds, is related by the Maldacena conjecture to strings (including quantum gravity) moving around in more dimensions than the three we’re used to. One of these dimensions, the “radial dimension”, is particularly important. As in the previous post, it will play a central role here.

Einstein-Rosen Bridge (ER) vs. Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen Entanglement (EPR)

It’s too bad that Einstein didn’t live long enough to learn that two of his famous but apparently unrelated papers actually describe the same thing, at least in the context of Maldacena’s conjecture. As Maldacena and Lenny Susskind explored in this paper, the Maldacena conjecture suggests that ER is the same as EPR, at least in some situations.

We begin with two identical black holes in the context of a string theory on the same curved space that appears in the Maldacena conjecture. These two black holes can be joined at the hip — well, at the horizon, really — in such a way as to form a bridge. It is not really a bridge in spacetime in the way you might imagine a wormhole to be, in the sense that you can’t cross the bridge; even if you move at the speed of light, the bridge will collapse before you get to the other side. Such is the simplest Einstein-Rosen bridge — a non-traversable wormhole.

What, according to the Maldacena conjecture, is this bridge from the point of view of an equivalent field theory setting? The answer is almost fixed by the symmetries of the problem. Take two identical field theories that would each, separately, be identical to one of the two black holes in the corresponding string theory. These two theories do not affect each other in any way; their particles move around in separate universes, never interacting. Despite this, we can link them together, forming a metaphorical bridge, in the most quantum sense you can imagine — we entangle them as much as we can. What does this mean?

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[Not] A Wormhole in a Laboratory

Well, now…

  • Did physicists create a wormhole in a lab? No.
  • Did physicists create a baby wormhole in a lab? No.
  • Did physicists manage to study quantum gravity in a lab? No.
  • Did physicists simulate a wormhole in a lab? No.
  • Did physicists make a baby step toward simulating a wormhole in a lab? No.
  • Did physicists make a itty-bitty baby step toward simulating an analogue of a wormhole — a “toy model” of a wormhole — in a lab? Maybe.

Don’t get me wrong. What they did is pretty cool! I’d be pretty proud of it, too, had I been involved. Congratulations to the authors of this paper; the methods and the results are novel and thought-provoking.

But the hype in the press? Wildly, spectacularly overblown!

I’ll try, if I have time next week, to explain what they actually did; it’s really quite intricate and complicated to explain all the steps, so it may take a while. But at best, what they did is analogous to trying to learn about the origin of life through some nifty computer simulations of simple biochemistry, or to learning about the fundamental origin of consciousness by running a new type of neural network. It’s not the real thing; it’s not even close to the real thing; it’s barely even a simulation of something-not-close-to-the-real-thing.

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Could CERN open a portal to… somewhere? (anywhere?)

For general readers:

Is it possible that the particle physicists hard at work near Geneva, Switzerland, at the laboratory known as CERN that hosts the Large Hadron Collider, have opened a doorway or a tunnel, to, say, another dimension? Could they be accessing a far-off planet orbiting two stars in a distant galaxy populated by Jedi knights?  Perhaps they have opened the doors of Europe to a fiery domain full of demons, or worse still, to central Texas in summer?

Mortals and Portals

Well, now.  If we’re talking about a kind of tunnel that human beings and the like could move through, then there’s a big obstacle in the way.  That obstacle is the rigidity of space itself.

The notion of a “wormhole”, a sort of tunnel in space and time that might allow you to travel from one part of the universe to another without taking the most obvious route to get there, or perhaps to places for which there is no other route at all, isn’t itself entirely crazy. It’s allowed by the math of Einstein’s theory of space and time and gravity.  However, the concept comes with immensely daunting conceptual and practical challenges.  At the heart of all of them, there’s a basic and fundamental problem: bending and manipulating space isn’t easy.  

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In Memory of Joe Polchinski, the Brane Master

This week, the community of high-energy physicists — of those of us fascinated by particles, fields, strings, black holes, and the universe at large — is mourning the loss of one of the great theoretical physicists of our time, Joe Polchinski. It pains me deeply to write these words. Everyone who knew him personally will … Read more

How Evidence for Cosmic Inflation Was Reduced to Dust

Many of you will have read in the last week that unfortunately (though to no one’s surprise after seeing the data from the Planck satellite in the last few months) the BICEP2 experiment’s claim of a discovery of gravitational waves from cosmic inflation has blown away in the interstellar wind. [For my previous posts on BICEP2, … Read more

BICEP2’s Cosmic Polarization: Published, Reduced in Strength

I’m busy dealing with the challenges of being in a quantum superposition, but you’ve probably heard: BICEP2’s paper is now published, with some of its implicit and explicit claims watered down after external and internal review. The bottom line is as I discussed a few weeks ago when I described the criticism of the interpretation … Read more

A Week in Canada

It’s been a quiet couple of weeks on the blog, something which often indicates that it’s been anything but quiet off the blog. Such was indeed the case recently. For one thing, I was in Canada last week. I had been kindly invited to give two talks at the University of Western Ontario, one of … Read more

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