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"OH WATERS, TEEM WITH MEDICINE TO KEEP MY BODY SAFE FROM HARM, SO THAT I MAY LONG SEE THE SUN." - Rig Veda
It’s hard to imagine a more fundamental and ubiquitous aspect of life on the Earth than gravity, from the moment you first took a step and fell on your diapered bottom to the slow terminal sagging of flesh and dreams.
But what if it’s all an illusion, a sort of cosmic frill, or a side effect of something else going on at deeper levels of reality?
So says Erik Verlinde, 48, a respected string theorist and professor of physics at the University of Amsterdam, whose contention that gravity is indeed an illusion has caused a continuing ruckus among physicists, or at least among those who profess to understand it. Reversing the logic of 300 years of science, he argued in a recent paper, titled “On the Origin of Gravity and the Laws of Newton,” that gravity is a consequence of the venerable laws of thermodynamics, which describe the behavior of heat and gases.
Over the last 30 years gravity has been “undressed,” in Dr. Verlinde’s words, as a fundamental force.
This disrobing began in the 1970s with the discovery by Jacob Bekenstein of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Stephen Hawking of Cambridge University, among others, of a mysterious connection between black holes and thermodynamics, culminating in Dr. Hawking’s discovery in 1974 that when quantum effects are taken into account black holes would glow and eventually explode.
In a provocative calculation in 1995, Ted Jacobson, a theorist from the University of Maryland, showed that given a few of these holographic ideas, Einstein’s equations of general relativity are just a another way of stating the laws of thermodynamics.
Those exploding black holes (at least in theory — none has ever been observed) lit up a new strangeness of nature. Black holes, in effect, are holograms — like the 3-D images you see on bank cards. All the information about what has been lost inside them is encoded on their surfaces. Physicists have been wondering ever since how this “holographic principle” — that we are all maybe just shadows on a distant wall — applies to the universe and where it came from.
In one striking example of a holographic universe, Juan Maldacena of the Institute for Advanced Study constructed a mathematical model of a “soup can” universe, where what happened inside the can, including gravity, is encoded in the label on the outside of the can, where there was no gravity, as well as one less spatial dimension. If dimensions don’t matter and gravity doesn’t matter, how real can they be?