Little more than 100 years ago most people--and most scientists--thought of matter as continuous. Although since ancient times some philosophers and scientists had speculated that if matter were broken up into small enough bits, it might turn out to be made up of very tiny atoms, few thought the existence of atoms could ever be proved. Today we have imaged individual atoms and have studied the particles that compose them. The granularity of matter is old news.
In recent decades, physicists and mathematicians have asked if space is also made of discrete pieces. Is it continuous, as we learn in school, or is it more like a piece of cloth, woven out of individual fibers? If we could probe to size scales that were small enough, would we see "atoms" of space, irreducible pieces of volume that cannot be broken into anything smaller? And what about time: Does nature change continuously, or does the world evolve in series of very tiny steps, acting more like a digital computer?
This article was originally published with the title Atoms of Space and Time.