Nautilus

A Universe Made of Tiny, Random Chunks

One of science’s most crucial yet underappreciated achievements is the description of the physical universe using mathematics—in particular, using continuous, smooth mathematical functions, like how a sine wave describes both light and sound. This is sometimes known as Newton’s zeroth law of motion in recognition of the fact that his famed three laws embody such functions.

In the early 20th century, Albert Einstein gave a profound jolt to the Newtonian universe, showing that space was both curved by mass and inherently linked to time. He called the new concept space-time. While this idea was shocking, its equations were smooth and continuous, like Newton’s.

But some recent findings from a small number of researchers suggest that randomness is actually inherent in space-time itself, and that Newton’s zeroth law also breaks down, on small scales.

Let’s explore what this means.

First, what is space-time? You probably recall from plane geometry that if you take two points on a plane and draw x and y axes through the first of those points (meaning that it is the origin), then the distance between the

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