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.

Pages: 1 2 3