Her solution is to study phenomena at Planck scales, where current theoretical understandings of space and time break down. Planck scales — named for German physicist Max Planck — enter the realm of the unimaginable. Planck temperatures are about 100 million trillion trillion degrees Celsius. “The geometry of space-time at that temperature melts,” Markopoulou Kalamara said. “The center of a star compared to that is cold.” She suggested that space and time likewise are made of irreducible “atoms” just as normal matter is. If shown to be true, this finding would be compatible with both relativity and quantum theory, she said. Confirming observations for this hypothesis could begin in 2006 with the launch of the Gamma-ray Large Area Space Telescope (GLAST), which might detect space-time atoms indirectly. The satellite will scan the heavens for gamma ray bursts, the largest explosions known.
“In 10 seconds, they can release as much energy as the sun does in its whole 10 billion year lifetime,” Markopoulou Kalamara said. “They come from the furthest away galaxies. The reason we can see them is because they have such insanely high energies.” Like light, gamma rays emitted by these bursts travel at a constant speed and should reach an observer simultaneously. However, if space-time atoms exist, she said, “the photons would appear to not all travel at the same speed” because some gamma rays have less energy than others and would have to travel different routes to reach an observer in a space-time continuum that is atomic and so lumpy in places. Such Planck scale deflections normally would be far too small to detect. However, over enormous distances, such as the billions of light-years between Earth and the sources of gamma ray bursts, the deflections would accumulate. Gamma rays that traveled longer routes due to space-time atom deflection would appear to have moved at a speed slower than light. Stay tuned.