When Albert Einstein proposed his special theory of relativity in 1905, he rejected the 19th-century idea that light arises from vibrations of a hypothetical medium, the ether. Instead, he argued, light waves can travel in vacuo without being supported by any material--unlike sound waves, which are vibrations of the medium in which they propagate. This feature of special relativity is untouched in the two other pillars of modern physics, general relativity and quantum mechanics. Right up to the present day, all experimental data, on scales ranging from subnuclear to galactic, are successfully explained by these three theories.
Nevertheless, physicists face a deep conceptual problem. As currently understood, general relativity and quantum mechanics are incompatible. Gravity, which general relativity attributes to the curvature of the spacetime continuum, stubbornly resists being incorporated into a quantum framework. Theorists have made only incremental progress toward understanding the highly curved structure of spacetime that quantum mechanics leads them to expect at extremely short distances. Frustrated, some have turned to an unexpected source for guidance: condensed-matter physics, the study of common substances such as crystals and fluids.
Like spacetime, condensed matter looks like a continuum when viewed at large scales, but unlike spacetime it has a well-understood microscopic structure governed by quantum mechanics. Moreover, the propagation of sound in an uneven fluid flow is closely analogous to the propagation of light in a curved spacetime. By studying a model of a black hole using sound waves, we and our colleagues are attempting to exploit this analogy to gain insight into the possible microscopic workings of spacetime. The work suggests that spacetime may, like a material fluid, be granular and possess a preferred frame of reference that manifests itself on fine scales--contrary to Einstein's assumptions.
From Black Hole to Hot Coal
BLACK HOLES are a favorite testing ground for quantum gravity because they are among the few places where quantum mechanics and general relativity are both critically important. A major step toward a merger of the two theories came in 1974, when Stephen Hawking of the University of Cambridge applied quantum mechanics to the horizon of black holes.
According to general relativity, the horizon is the surface that separates the inside of a black hole (where gravity is so strong that nothing can escape) from the outside. It is not a material limit; unfortunate travelers falling into the hole would not sense anything special on crossing the horizon. But once having done so, they would no longer be able to send light signals to people outside, let alone return there. An outside observer would receive only the signals transmitted by the travelers before they crossed over. As light waves climb out of the gravitational well around a black hole, they get stretched out, shifting down in frequency and lengthening in duration. Consequently, to the observer, the travelers would appear to move in slow motion and to be redder than usual.
This effect, known as gravitational redshift, is not specific to black holes. It also alters the frequency and timing of signals between, say, orbiting satellites and ground stations. GPS navigation systems must take it into account to work accurately. What is specific to black holes, however, is that the redshift becomes infinite as the travelers approach the horizon. From the outside observer's point of view, the descent appears to take an infinite amount of time, even though only a finite time passes for the travelers themselves.
So far this description of black holes has treated light as a classical electromagnetic wave. What Hawking did was to reconsider the implications of the infinite redshift when the quantum nature of light is taken into account. According to quantum theory, even a perfect vacuum is not truly empty; it is filled with fluctuations as a result of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle. The fluctuations take the form of pairs of virtual photons. These photons are called virtual because, in an uncurved spacetime, far from any gravitational influence, they appear and disappear restlessly, remaining unobservable in the absence of any disturbance.