ADVERTISEMENT
See Inside December 2005

An ECHO of Black Holes

Sound waves in a fluid behave uncannily like light waves in space. Black holes even have acoustic counterparts. Could spacetime literally be a kind of fluid, like the ether of pre-Einsteinian physics?

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.

This is only a preview. Get the rest of this article now!

Select an option below:

Customer Sign In

*You must have purchased this issue or have a qualifying subscription to access this content


It has been identified that the institution you are trying to access this article from has institutional site license access to Scientific American on nature.com.
Click here to access this article in its entirety through site license access.

Rights & Permissions
Share this Article:

Comments

You must sign in or register as a ScientificAmerican.com member to submit a comment.
Scientific American MIND iPad

Give a Gift & Get a Gift - Free!

Give a 1 year subscription as low as $14.99

Subscribe Now >>

X

Email this Article

X