Where did the universe come from? Where is it headed? Answering these questions requires that we understand physics on two vastly different scales: the cosmological, referring to the realm of galaxy superclusters and the cosmos as a whole, and the quantum—the counterintuitive world of atoms and nuclei.

For much of what we would like to know about the universe, classical cosmology is enough. This field is governed by gravity as dictated by Einstein's general theory of relativity, which doesn't concern itself with atoms and nuclei. But there are special moments in the lifetime of our universe—such as its infancy, when the whole cosmos was the size of an atom—for which this disregard for small-scale physics fails us. To understand these eras, we need a quantum theory of gravity that can describe both the electron circling an atom and Earth moving around the sun. The goal of quantum cosmology is to devise and apply a quantum theory of gravity to the entire universe.

Quantum cosmology is not for the faint of heart. It is the Wild West of theoretical physics, with little more than a handful of observational facts and clues to guide us. Its scope and difficulty have called out to young and ambitious physicists like mythological sirens, only to leave them foundering. But there is a palpable feeling that this time is different and that recent breakthroughs from black hole physics—which also required understanding a regime where quantum mechanics and gravity are equally important—could help us extract some answers in quantum cosmology. The fresh optimism was clear at a recent virtual physics conference I attended, which had a dedicated discussion session about the crossover between the two fields. I expected this event to be sparsely attended, but instead many of the luminaries in physics were there, bursting with ideas and ready to get to work.

Event Horizons

The first indication that there is any relation between black holes and our universe as a whole is that both manifest “event horizons”—points of no return beyond which two people seemingly fall out of contact forever. A black hole attracts so strongly that at some point even light—the fastest thing in the universe—cannot escape its pull. The boundary where light becomes trapped is thus a spherical event horizon around the center of the black hole.

A person in space stands on a tiny globe looking toward a black empty sphere. The sphere’s edge is labeled “event horizon.”
Credit: Jen Christiansen

Our universe, too, has an event horizon—a fact confirmed by the stunning and unexpected discovery in 1998 that not only is space expanding, but its expansion is accelerating. Whatever is causing this speedup has been called dark energy. The acceleration traps light just as black holes do: as the cosmos expands, regions of space repel one another so strongly that at some point not even light can overcome the separation. This inside-out situation leads to a spherical cosmological event horizon that surrounds us, leaving everything beyond a certain distance in darkness. There is a crucial difference between cosmological and black hole event horizons, however. In a black hole, spacetime is collapsing toward a single point—the singularity. In the universe at large, all of space is uniformly growing, like the surface of a balloon that is being inflated. This means that creatures in faraway galaxies will have their own distinct spherical event horizons, which surround them instead of us. Our current cosmological event horizon is about 16 billion light-years away. As long as this acceleration continues, any light emitted today that is beyond that distance will never reach us. (Cosmologists also speak of a particle horizon, which confusingly is often called a cosmological horizon as well. This refers to the distance beyond which light emitted in the early universe has not yet had time to reach us here on Earth. In our tale, we will be concerned only with the cosmological event horizon, which we will often just call the cosmological horizon. These are unique to universes that accelerate, like ours.)

A person is in the center of a sphere filled with galaxies. Beyond the “cosmic event horizon” sphere boundary is emptiness.
Credit: Jen Christiansen

The similarities between black holes and our universe don't end there. In 1974 Stephen Hawking showed that black holes are not completely black: because of quantum mechanics, they have a temperature and therefore emit matter and radiation, just as all thermal bodies do. This emission, called Hawking radiation, is what causes black holes to eventually evaporate away. It turns out that cosmological horizons also have a temperature and emit matter and radiation because of a very similar effect. But because cosmological horizons surround us and the radiation falls inward, they reabsorb their own emissions and therefore do not evaporate away like black holes.

Hawking's revelation posed a serious problem: if black holes can disappear, so can the information contained within them—which is against the rules of quantum mechanics. This is known as the black hole information paradox, and it is a deep puzzle complicating the quest to combine quantum mechanics and gravity. But in 2019 scientists made dramatic progress. Through a confluence of conceptual and technical advances, physicists argued that the information inside a black hole can actually be accessed from the Hawking radiation that leaves the black hole. (For more on how scientists figured this out, see the article by my colleague Ahmed Almheiri.)

This discovery has reinvigorated those of us studying quantum cosmology. Because of the mathematical similarities between black holes and cosmological horizons, many of us have long believed that we couldn't understand the latter without understanding the former. Figuring out black holes became a warm-up problem—one of the hardest of all time. We haven't fully solved our warm-up problem yet, but now we have a new set of technical tools that provide beautiful insight into the interplay of gravity and quantum mechanics in the presence of black hole event horizons.

Entropy and the Holographic Principle

Part of the recent progress on the black hole information paradox grew out of an idea called the holographic principle, put forward in the 1990s by Gerard 't Hooft of Utrecht University in the Netherlands and Leonard Susskind of Stanford University. The holographic principle states that a theory of quantum gravity that can describe black holes should be formulated not in the ordinary three spatial dimensions that all other physical theories use but instead in two dimensions of space, like a flat piece of paper. The primary argument for this approach is quite simple: a black hole has an entropy—a measure of how much stuff you can stick inside it—that is proportional to the two-dimensional area of its event horizon.

Holographic black hole primer demonstrates that a 3-D sphere can be mapped as a faceted surface and then flattened to 2-D.
Credit: Jen Christiansen

Contrast this with the entropy of a more traditional system—say, a gas in a box. In this case, the entropy is proportional to the three-dimensional volume of the box, not the area. This is natural: you can stick something at every point in space inside the box, so if the volume grows, the entropy grows. But because of the curvature of space within black holes, you can actually increase the volume without affecting the area of the horizon, and this will not affect the entropy! Even though it naively seems you have three dimensions of space to stick stuff in, the black hole entropy formula tells you that you have only two dimensions of space, an area's worth. So the holographic principle says that because of the presence of black holes, quantum gravity should be formulated as a more prosaic nongravitational quantum system in fewer dimensions. At least then the entropies will match.

The idea that space might not be truly three-dimensional is rather compelling, philosophically. At least one dimension of it might be an emergent phenomenon that arises from its deeper nature rather than being explicitly hardwired into the fundamental laws. Physicists who study space now understand that it can emerge from a large collection of simple constituents, similar to other emergent phenomena such as consciousness, which seems to arise from basic neurons and other biological systems.

One of the most exciting aspects of the progress in the black hole information paradox is that it points toward a more general understanding of the holographic principle, which previously had been made precise only in situations very different from our real universe. In the calculations from 2019, however, the way the information inside the black hole is encoded in the Hawking radiation is mathematically analogous to how a gravitational system is encoded in a lower-dimensional nongravitational system according to the holographic principle. And these techniques can be used in situations more like our universe, giving a potential avenue for understanding the holographic principle in the real world. A remarkable fact about cosmological horizons is that they also have an entropy, given by the exact same formula as the one we use for black holes. The physical interpretation of this entropy is much less clear, and many of us hope that applying the new techniques to our universe will shed light on this mystery. If the entropy is measuring how much stuff you can stick beyond the horizon, as with black holes, then we will have a sharp bound on how much stuff there can be in our universe.

Outside Observers

The recent progress on the black hole information paradox suggests that if we collect all the radiation from a black hole as it evaporates, we can access the information that fell inside the black hole. One of the most important conceptual questions in cosmology is whether the same is possible with cosmological event horizons. We think they radiate like black holes, so can we access what is beyond our cosmological event horizon by collecting its radiation? Or is there some other way to reach across the horizon? If not, then most of our vast, rich universe will eventually be lost forever. This is a grim image of our future—we will be left in the dark.

Almost all attempts to get a handle on this question have required physicists to artificially extricate themselves from the accelerating universe and imagine viewing it from the outside. This is a crucial simplifying assumption, and it more closely mimics a black hole, where we can cleanly separate the observer from the system simply by placing the observer far away. But there seems to be no escaping our cosmological horizon; it surrounds us, and it moves if we move, making this problem much more difficult. Yet if we want to apply our new tools from the study of black holes to the problems of cosmology, we must find a way to look at the cosmic horizon from the outside.

There are different ways to construct an outsider view. One of the simplest is to consider a hypothetical auxiliary universe that is quantum-mechanically entangled with our own and investigate whether an observer in the auxiliary universe can access the information in our cosmos, which is beyond the observer's horizon. In work I did with Thomas Hartman and Yikun Jiang, both at Cornell University, we constructed examples of auxiliary universes and other scenarios and showed that the observer can access information beyond the cosmological horizon in the same way that we can access information beyond the black hole horizon. (A complementary paper by Yiming Chen of Princeton University, Victor Gorbenko of EPFL in Switzerland and Juan Maldacena of the Institute for Advanced Study [IAS] in Princeton, N.J., showed similar results.)

But these analyses all have one serious deficiency: when we investigated “our” universe, we used a model universe that is contracting instead of expanding. Such universes are much simpler to describe in the context of quantum cosmology. We don't completely understand why, but it's related to the fact that we can think of the interior of a black hole as a contracting universe where everything is getting squished together. In this way, our newfound understanding of black holes could easily help us study this type of universe.

Even in these simplified situations, we are puzzling our way through some confusing issues. One problem is that it's easy to construct multiple simultaneous outsider views so that each outsider can access the information in the contracting universe. But this means multiple people can reach the same piece of information and manipulate it independently. Quantum mechanics, however, is exacting: not only does it forbid information from being destroyed, it also forbids information from being replicated. This idea is known as the no-cloning theorem, and the multiple outsiders seem to violate it. In a black hole, this isn't a problem, because although there can still be many outsiders, it turns out that no two of them can independently access the same piece of information in the interior. This limit is related to the fact that there is only one black hole and therefore just one event horizon. But in an expanding spacetime, different observers have different horizons. Recent work that Adam Levine of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and I did together, however, suggests that the same technical tools from the black hole context work to avoid this inconsistency as well.

Toward a Truer Theory

Although there has been exciting progress, so far we have not been able to directly apply what we learned about black hole horizons to the cosmological horizon in our universe because of the differences between these two types of horizons.

The ultimate goal? No outsider view, no contracting universe, no work-arounds: we want a complete quantum theory of our expanding universe, described from our vantage point within the belly of the beast. Many physicists believe our best bet is to come up with a holographic description, meaning one using fewer than the usual three dimensions of space. There are two ways we can do this. The first is to use tools from string theory, which treats the elementary particles of nature as vibrating strings. When we configure this theory in exactly the right way, we can provide a holographic description of certain black hole horizons. We hope to do the same for the cosmological horizon. Many physicists have put a lot of work into this approach, but it has not yet yielded a complete model for an expanding universe like ours.

The other way to divine a holographic description is by looking for clues from the properties that such a description should have. This approach is part of the standard practice of science—use data to construct a theory that reproduces the data and hope it makes novel predictions as well. In this case, however, the data themselves are also theoretical. They are things we can reliably calculate even without a complete understanding of the full theory, just as we can calculate the trajectory of a baseball without using quantum mechanics. The idea works as follows: we calculate various things in classical cosmology, maybe with a little bit of quantum mechanics sprinkled in, but we try to avoid situations where quantum mechanics and gravity are equally important. This forms our theoretical data. For example, Hawking radiation is a piece of theoretical data. And what must be true is that the full, exact theory of quantum cosmology should be able to reproduce this theoretical datum in an appropriate regime, just as quantum mechanics can reproduce the trajectory of a baseball (albeit in a much more complicated way than classical mechanics).

Leading the charge in extracting these theoretical data is a powerful physicist with a preternatural focus on the problems of quantum cosmology: Dionysios Anninos of King's College London has been working on the subject for more than a decade and has provided many clues toward a holographic description. Others around the world have also joined the effort, including Edward Witten of IAS, a figure who has towered over quantum gravity and string theory for decades but who tends to avoid the Wild West of quantum cosmology. With his collaborators Venkatesa Chandrasekaran of IAS, Roberto Longo of the University of Rome Tor Vergata and Geoffrey Penington of the University of California, Berkeley, he is investigating how the inextricable link between an observer and the cosmological horizon affects the mathematical description of quantum cosmology.

Sometimes we are ambitious and try to calculate theoretical data when quantum mechanics and gravity are equally important. Inevitably we have to impose some rule or guess about the behavior of the full, exact theory in such instances. Many of us believe that one of the most important pieces of theoretical data is the amount and pattern of entanglement between constituents of the theory of quantum cosmology. Susskind and I formulated distinct proposals for how to compute these data, and in hundreds of e-mails exchanged during the pandemic, we argued incessantly over which was more reasonable. Earlier work by Eva Silverstein of Stanford, another brilliant physicist with a long track record in quantum cosmology, and her collaborators provides yet another proposal for computing these theoretical data.

The nature of entanglement in quantum cosmology is a work in progress, but it seems clear that nailing it will be an important step toward a holographic description. Such a concrete, calculable theory is what the subject desperately needs, so that we can compare its outputs with the wealth of theoretical data that are accumulating from scientists. Without this theory, we will be stuck at a stage akin to filling out the periodic table of elements without the aid of quantum mechanics to explain its patterns.

There is a rich history of physicists quickly turning to cosmology after learning something novel about black holes. The story has often been the same: we've been defeated and humbled, but after licking our wounds, we've returned to learn more from what black holes have to teach us. In this instance, the depth of what we've realized about black holes and the breadth of interest in quantum cosmology from scientists around the world may tell a different tale.