Chapter 4

Section 1: The Quantized Nature of Spacetime

 

“God created the integers, all else is the work of man.”

Leopold Kronecker


“The unification of general relativity and quantum mechanics may lead us to abandon the idealization of continuous space and time and to discover the ‘atoms’ of space-time.”

Theodore A. Jacobson


“Every phenomenon in quantum mechanics has a quantum aspect which makes it discontinuous.”

Gary Zukav [1]

 

Kaiparowits Plateau, Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument.

Every rock tells a story. Some speak of violent eruptions, cataclysmic impacts, ancient rivers, orogenic earthquakes, or slowly cooling crystalline batholiths, while others whisper about ancient ecosystems. Sometimes the powerful force of erosion protects those ancient secrets under a mountain of rock, simultaneously hiding them from the curious two-legged creatures above. Other times it works to uncover past burials. The problem is that when erosion uncovers a rich tableau of the past it does not pause out of respect for the resurfacing secrets. Unless the record is rescued, it will quickly be destroyed and lost forever.

Hoping to be time-travelling detectives we followed our geologic maps to the most promising deposite of treasures. Our prospective territory stretched from Lake Powell to Escalante. Paved roads had unsuccessfully penetrated this region because it was heavily riddled with canyons and gullies. Climbing any ridge would reveal scenery of jagged rocks stretching to the horizon in all directions. Highly eroded barren rock defined the entire area. It was a paleontologist’s Mecca because it was riddled with treasures that were just waiting to be discovered.

Reaching our destination required some somewhat skilled navigation of unimproved dirt roads, washes and dry riverbeds. Our transportation was an old pinter-hitch army truck with bad shocks that we called ‘the beast.’ It was rough, squeaky and unforgiving, but it was capable of getting us to this remote location.

In my mind the treasures we were after were more valuable than little nuggets of gold. These rock-encased secrets were capable of offering little glimpses into a time when ferocious battles ensued between history’s largest dinosaurs. They enabled us to peer through the hourglass of change that separated the distant past from the present and come to understand the world that the ‘terrible lizards’ lived in. Participating in the search for these treasures was mysteriously all-consuming and thrilling.

We were in a race against time. Scorpions and temperature-obsessed crickets [2] had been the only creatures to witnesses the secrets that had already been lost to the wind and water and sun. We wanted to change that. Our team of twenty was made up of dinosaur paleontology graduate students, undergraduate students, cooks, drivers, geologists, professional prospectors and volunteers. We were all here at the request of lead paleontologist, Scott Sampson. For the next few weeks, we would be sleeping in tents with no showers or bathrooms. At first we would spend our days wandering the desert with pockets full of snacks, water bottles, rock hammers, Talkabouts and GPS units. Then we would laboriously begin removing tons of rock (using everything from rock picks to gas-powered jack hammers) from the best sites found among us. During the prospect phase each of us would discover a plethora of dinosaur bones, turtle fossils and fossilized forest remains. During the excavation phase the group had the chance to unearth a previously undiscovered species. Under these circumstances rough conditions just add detail to the adventure.

The first three days were spent walking around scanning the ground for dinosaur bone fragments that had either eroded down a wash or remained in situ. Under the blinding sun and whipping wind we compiled a large list of GPS locations of interesting fossils. Most of those fossils were collected in Ziploc bags, tagged and catalogued. One site was a mass deposit from an ancient meandering river. We could tell this from the assortment of fossils and the size and shape of the granules making up the sandstone matrix.

We set up camp just over the hill from the most promising site, making sure to face the doors of our tents (including the one that served as our kitchen) downwind to protect our things from the occasional sandblasting gusts of wind. Then we busily began introducing our jack hammers, rock picks, five pound sledge hammers, rock hammers, chisels, large screw drivers, wide paint brushes and assorted dental picks to the encasement of these tangible secrets. During excavation we found several femurs, vertebrae, ribs, ungles (raptor claws), skin impressions and hollow bones that belonged to the non-avian dinosaurs of the therapod clade. We also found a few paleontology gems – rarely preserved fossilized fragments of bones that once made up the skulls of dinosaurs.

When we uncovered an interesting fossil we painted it with Vinac, which acts as an adhesive and stabilizer that strengthens the fossil from the inside out. When the Vinac dried we covered its smooth surfaces with crumpled paper towels or tissue paper. Then, after mixing plaster and water in five gallon buckets, we soaked paper towels in the mix and then delicately covered the fossils with them. Twenty minutes later, we wrapped the entire block in plaster soaked burlap protecting the fossil in a big cast, which paleontologists call a ‘jacket.’ When the jackets were dry, they had to be carried back to our vehicle for eventual transport to our museum.

At the end of the day we all returned to camp exhausted. Sitting around a fire, we ate hamburgers and nacho flavored Doritos while we watched yet another magical transition. Martha, a long-time volunteer with an eight-year-old boy in tow, pulled out her oversized saltshaker and dashed some of its contents “Crazy Uncle Billy’s Magic Fire Dust” over the fire. [3] Immediately, the flames turned brilliant green. Then they slowly and hypnotically returned to their familiar color, prompting Martha to pour some more dust onto the crackling logs.

This process carried us through the phases of civil, nautical, and astronomical twilight until the night reached full bloom. Shaula, the stinger of the constellation Scorpious, had climbed to its highest point in the southern sky. Trailing behind it was Sagittarius, who to modern eyes reveals itself as a teapot. Protruding from the spout of this teapot, the Milky Way stretched like a brilliant ribbon all the way through Cygnus the Swan (the Northern Cross) and Cassiopeia, the Queen. [4]

There was a primeval aire all about us. It felt like we were lost in time – as if the green flames drawing our gaze had the power to flicker us between the present and the deep past. The scenery around us reinforced this sensation. There were no signs of modern civilization – no distant glow polluting the night sky, no structures, buildings, street lamps or even roads within the observable horizon. The stars responded to this by becoming so numerous and brilliant that they were almost tactile. The Milky Way was so bright that it cast shadows beneath us as we walked away from the fire.

This serene setting had the potential to connect me to something far more divine than a detailed glimpse of the Cretaceous. It had the power to bring to focus the faint whispers that usually remain completely overwhelmed by a nexus of amplified runaway thoughts. As the heat of the day finished fading and the crickets settled into just the right rhythm, my trance began to focus – guiding me to one thought: that the key to unlocking Nature’s most clandestine secrets was hidden in the process that was used to help humanity discover the answers to the questions we had already pieced together. Having the feeling that I was on to something, I began to recount some of those questions.

How did all of those dinosaur bones become fossils? How does Crazy Uncle Billy’s Magic Fire Dust turn the fire green? How do we explain the sky transforming from daylight blue to sunset orange and then midnight black? How does the sun produce its energy?

I had learned the answers to all of these questions, but no one had ever pointed out to me that all of those answers were linked together by a shared foundation. Perhaps it was too basic to point out, but I had never really paid attention to the fact that all of our modern answers rely on the quantization of matter.

As I waited to witness yet another meteor, I thought about the progress modern science has made since it came up with the conjecture that the world is made of atoms. (The word “atom” comes from the Greek word atomos, meaning indivisible or uncuttable.) Then I wondered about the outstanding mysteries — the questions our scientific endeavor had not yet been able to answer. Perhaps, I thought, the next great step in understanding is not all that different from the previous ones. Maybe all we have to do to understand Nature’s remaining mysteries is assume that matter isn’t the only thing that comes in ‘atoms.’ Maybe the vacuum, isn’t really Nature’s most fundamental fabric. Maybe it too is composed of atoms.



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