Are Space and Time Continuous or Discrete? The Big Mystery You Need To Know

Throughout the history of science, one of the prime goals of making sense of the Universe has been to discover what’s fundamental. Many of the things we observe and interact with in the modern, macroscopic world are composed of, and can be derived from, smaller particles and the underlying laws that govern them. The idea that everything is made of elements dates back thousands of years, and has taken us from alchemy to chemistry to atoms to subatomic particles to the Standard Model, including the radical concept of a quantum Universe.

But even though there’s very good evidence that all of the fundamental entities in the Universe are quantum at some level, that doesn’t mean that everything is both discrete and quantized. So long as we still don’t fully understand gravity at a quantum level, space and time might still be continuous at a fundamental level. Here’s what we know so far.

All massless particles travel at the speed of light, including the photon, gluon and gravitational waves, which carry the electromagnetic, strong nuclear and gravitational interactions, respectively. We can treat every quantum of energy as discrete, but whether we can do the same for space and/or time itself is unknown.(NASA/Sonoma State University/Aurore Simonnet)

Quantum mechanics is the idea that, if you go down to a small enough scale, everything that contains energy, whether it’s massive (like an electron) or massless (like a photon), can be broken down into individual quanta. You can think of these quanta as energy packets, which sometimes behave as particles and other times behave as waves, depending on what they interact with.

Everything in nature obeys the laws of quantum physics, and our “classical” laws that apply to larger, more macroscopic systems can always (at least in theory) be derived, or emerge, from the more fundamental quantum rules. But not everything is necessarily discrete, or capable of being divided into a localized region space.

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