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Space Itself Remains a Mystery

No, not outer space. The very space in which everything exists is still poorly understood by physicists. Since Einstein, we have known space has a structure but not how it functions.

What’s the Latest Development?

S. James Gates, a theoretical physicist at the University of Maryland at College Park, has been discussing what his field does and does not grasp about spacebut not outer space. Rather, the space in which everything exists. While we’re accustomed to thinking of space as essentially empty, Gates says it has a “seething quantum structure to it.” He likens it to a boiling pot of water that bubbles up matter and energy in a totally random and spontaneous way. This behavior has been experimentally observed in the Casimir effect, he says.

What’s the Big Idea?

Since Einstein, we have understood space as something more than a void. We have understood it as a structure, one that is intimately bound with time. Today, one of the great mysteries of space is the presence of dark energy, the inexplicable force that is causing the universe to expand at an accelerating rate. The real mystery, for Gates, is why our theories about dark energy and our observations of it are so far apart: “They’re off by a factor of multiplying 10 by itself 122 times. I call this the all-time worst error in physics.”

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