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Does the Universe Have Higher Dimensions? Part 1

Hacker News - Mon Apr 12 01:56

[This is a transcript of the video embedded below.]

Space, the way we experience it, has three dimensions. Left-right, forward backward, and up-down. But why three? Why not 7? Or 26? The answer is: No one knows. But if no one knows why space has three dimensions, could it be that it actually has more? Just that we haven’t noticed for some reason? That’s what we will talk about today.

The idea that space has more than three dimensions may sound entirely nuts, but it’s a question that physicists have seriously studied for more than a century. And since there’s quite a bit to say about it, this video will have two parts. In this part we will talk about the origins of the idea of extra dimensions, Kaluza-Klein theory and all that. And in the next part, we will talk about more recent work on it, string theory and black holes at the Large Hadron Collider and so on.

Let us start with recalling how we describe space and objects in it. In two dimensions, we can put a grid on a plane, and then each point is a pair of numbers that says how far away from zero you have to go in the horizontal and vertical direction to reach that point. The arrow pointing to that point is called a “vector”.

This construction is not specific to two dimensions. You can add a third direction, and do exactly the same thing. And why stop there? You can no longer *draw a grid for four dimensions of space, but you can certainly write down the vectors. They’re just a row of four numbers. Indeed, you can construct vector spaces in any number of dimensions, even in infinitely many dimensions.

And once you have vectors in these higher dimensions, you can do geometry with them, like constructing higher dimensional planes, or cubes, and calculating volumes, or the shapes of curves, and so on. And while we cannot directly draw these higher dimensional objects, we can draw their projections into lower dimensions. This for example is the projection of a four-dimensional cube into two dimensions.

Now, it might seem entirely obvious today that you can do geometry in any number of dimensions, but it’s actually a fairly recent development. It wasn’t until eighteen forty-three, that the British mathematician Arthur Cayley wrote about the “Analytical Geometry of (n) Dimensions” where n could be any positive integer. Higher Dimensional Geometry sounds innocent, but it was a big step towards abstract mathematical thinking. It marked the beginning of what is now called “pure mathematics”, that is mathematics pursued for its own sake, and not necessarily because it has an application.

However, abstract mathematical concepts often turn out to be useful for physics. And these higher dimensional geometries came in really handy for physicists because in physics, we usually do not only deal with things that sit in particular places, but with things that also move in particular directions. If you have a particle, for example, then to describe what it does you need both a position and a momentum, where the momentum tells you the direction into which the particle moves. So, actually each particle is described by a vector in a six dimensional space, with three entries for the position and three entries for the momentum. This six-dimensional space is called phase-space.

By dealing with phase-spaces, physicists became quite used to dealing with higher dimensional geometries. And, naturally, they began to wonder if not the *actual space that we live in could have more dimensions. This idea was first pursued by the Finnish physicist Gunnar Nordström, who, in 1914, tried to use a 4th dimension of space to describe gravity. It didn’t work though. The person to figure out how gravity works was Albert Einstein.

Yes, that guy again. Einstein taught us that gravity does not need an additional dimension of space. Three dimensions of space will do, it’s just that you have to add one dimension of time, and allow all these dimensions to be curved.

But then, if you don’t need extra dimensions for gravity, maybe you can use them for something else.

Theodor Kaluza certainly thought so. In 1921, Kaluza wrote a paper in which he tried to use a fourth dimension of space to describe the electromagnetic force in a very similar way to how Einstein described gravity. But Kaluza used an infinitely large additional dimension and did not really explain why we don’t normally get lost in it.

This problem was solved few years later by Oskar Klein, who assumed that the 4th dimension of space has to be rolled up to a small radius, so you can’t get lost in it. You just wouldn’t notice if you stepped into it, it’s too small. This idea that electromagnetism is caused by a curled-up 4th dimension of space is now called Kaluza-Klein theory.

I have always found it amazing that this works. You take an additional dimension of space, roll it up, and out comes gravity together with electromagnetism. You can explain both forces entirely geometrically. It is probably because of this that Einstein in his later years became convinced that geometry is the key to a unified theory for the foundations of physics. But at least so far, that idea has not worked out.

Does Kaluza-Klein theory make predictions? Yes, it does. All the electromagnetic fields which go into this 4th dimension have to be periodic so they fit onto the curled-up dimension. In the simplest case, the fields just don’t change when you go into the extra dimension. And that reproduces the normal electromagnetism. But you can also have fields which oscillate once as you go around, then twice, and so on. These are called higher harmonics, like you have in music. So, Kaluza Klein theory makes a prediction which is that all these higher harmonics should also exist.

Why haven’t we seen them? Because you need energy to make this extra dimension wiggle. And the more it wiggles, that is, the higher the harmonics, the more energy you need. Just how much energy? Well, that depends on the radius of the extra dimension. The smaller the radius, the smaller the wavelength, and the higher the frequency. So a smaller radius means you need higher energy to find out if the extra dimension is there. Just how small the radius is, the theory does not tell you, so we don’t know what energy is necessary to probe it. But the short summary is that we have never seen one of these higher harmonics, so the radius must be very small.

Oskar Klein himself, btw was really modest about his theory. He wrote in 1926:

"Ob hinter diesen Andeutungen von Möglichkeiten etwas Wirkliches besteht, muss natürlich die Zukunft entscheiden."

("Whether these indications of possibilities are built on reality has of course to be decided by the future.")

But we don’t actually use Kaluza-Klein theory instead of electromagnetism, and why is that? It’s because Kaluza-Klein theory has some serious problems.

The first problem is that while the geometry of the additional dimension correctly gives you electric and magnetic fields, it does not give you charged particles, like electrons. You still have to put those in. The second problem is that the radius of the extra dimension is not stable. If you perturb it, it can begin to increase, and that can have observable consequences which we have not seen. The third problem is that the theory is not quantized, and no one has figured out how to quantize geometry without running into problems. You can however quantize plain old electromagnetism without problems.

We also know today of course that the electromagnetic force actually combines with the weak nuclear force to what is called the electroweak force. That, interestingly enough, turns out to not be a problem for Kaluza-Klein theory. Indeed, it was shown in the 1960s by Ryszard Kerner, that one can do Kaluza-Klein theory not only for electromagnetism, but for any similar force, including the strong and weak nuclear force. You just need to add a few more dimensions.

How many? For the weak nuclear force, you need two more, and for the strong nuclear force another four. So in total, we now have one dimension of time, 3 for gravity, one for electromagnetism, 2 for the weak nuclear force and 4 for the strong nuclear force, which adds up to a total of 11.

In 1981, Edward Witten noticed that 11 happened to be the same number of dimensions which is the maximum for supergravity. What happened after this is what we’ll talk about next week.