By: SPACE.com Staff
Published: 01/10/2013 12:38 PM EST on SPACE.com
Space-time is smooth rather than foamy, a new study suggests, scoring a possible victory for Einstein over some quantum theorists who came after him.
In his general theory of relativity, Einstein described space-time as fundamentally smooth, warping only under the strain of energy and matter. Some quantum-theory interpretations disagree, however, viewing space-time as being composed of a froth of minute particles that constantly pop into and out of existence.
It appears Albert Einstein may have been right yet again.
A team of researchers came to this conclusion after tracing the long journey three photons took through intergalactic space. The photons were blasted out by an intense explosion known as a gamma-ray burst about 7 billion light-years from Earth. They finally barreled into the detectors of NASA's Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope in May 2009, arriving just a millisecond apart.
Their dead-heat finish strongly supports the Einsteinian view of space-time, researchers said. The wavelengths of gamma-ray burst photons are so small that they should be able to interact with the even tinier "bubbles" in the quantum theorists' proposed space-time foam.
If this foam indeed exists, the three protons should have been knocked around a bit during their epic voyage. In such a scenario, the chances of all three reaching the Fermi telescope at virtually the same time are very low, researchers said.
So the new study is a strike against the foam's existence as currently imagined, though not a death blow.
"If foaminess exists at all, we think it must be at a scale far smaller than the Planck length, indicating that other physics might be involved," study leader Robert Nemiroff, of Michigan Technological University, said in a statement. (The Planck length is an almost inconceivably short distance, about one trillionth of a trillionth the diameter of a hydrogen atom.)
"There is a possibility of a statistical fluke, or that space-time foam interacts with light differently than we imagined," added Nemiroff, who presented the results Wednesday (Jan. 9) at the 221st meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Long Beach, Calif.
If the study holds up, the implications are big, researchers said.
"If future gamma-ray bursts confirm this, we will have learned something very fundamental about our universe," Bradley Schaefer of Louisiana State University said in statement.
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Also on HuffPost:
'Dr. Einstein Is Dead'
Albert Einstein died of internal bleeding in a Princeton, N.J. hospital on April 18, 1955. He was 76 years old.
Here, Einstein's body is loaded onto a hearse outside a funeral home in Princeton, on the day of his death. His body was moved from the hospital to the funeral home before being cremated in Trenton. His brain was not cremated with the rest of his body--it went missing for years.
Finding Einstein's Brain
In 1978, journalist Steven Levy traced the brain (which had been pickled and placed in a jar) to Dr. Thomas Harvey, pathologist who had worked at the Princeton hospital where Einstein died.
Where's The Brain?
Dr. Harvey (shown here) had removed the physicist's brain with an intent to study it. But whether he had permission to do so remains a matter of controversy.
'The Mind As Matter'
Dr. Harvey photographed the brain and cut it into about 240 sections for microscopic analysis. Here are two slices of the brain on display at the Wellcome Collection museum in London on March, 27, 2012. (AP Photo/Alastair Grant)
Where Is The Brain Now?
Bits of Einstein's brain reportedly now are scattered around the world. Most remain at the University Medical Center in Princeton, and in 2011, about 46 slivers of Einstein's brain went on display at the Mütter Museum and Historical Medical Library in Philadelphia. Slices of Einstein's brain were also recently shown at London's Wellcome Collection museum from March to June 2012 (pictured here).
Where Are The Brain Photos?
Photos of Einstein's intact brain had reportedly been taken by Dr. Harvey, but for years these were considered lost. But recently, 14 photos were found as part of a donation from the Harvey estate to the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Silver Spring, Md. In this photo. taken on Sept. 24, 2012, Dr. Phillip Epstein, left, and Steve Landers of the museum's Chicago team look at an image presented as part of an iPad app.
Einstein's Brain Gets An App
The app, created by the National Museum of Health and Medicine's Chicago branch, features microscopic views of Einstein's brain.
A Strange Find
Recent studies have shown that certain regions of Einstein's brain are unusually convoluted. In addition, the parietal lobes are "extraordinarily asymmetrical" and the somatosensory and motor cortices are "greatly expanded in the left hemisphere," Florida State University evolutionary anthropologist Dean Falk told The Huffington Post.
More Brain Cells?
Studies also show that Einstein's brain has more of a type of brain cell known as glial cells than the typical brain. Here, glial cells are seen in a rat brain stained with an antibody.
How Much Did His Brain Weigh?
But despite the differences in brain convolution and glial cells, Einstein's brain was actually average in volume. At about 2.7 pounds, It was slightly below average in weight.
Einstein Is In Good Company
Einstein wasn't the only great thinker whose brain was removed for study--the same is true for Vladimir Lenin and mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss. This April 16, 1997 file photo shows Lenin embalmed in his tomb on Moscow's Red Square. (AP Photo/Sergei Karpukhin)