Beyond the Myth of Universal Space and Impenetrable Matter: The Overlapping Worlds of General Relativity and Quantum Theory
Other involved scholars: Donald Salisbury (Austin College)
This research activity concerns the transformation of the Newtonian concept of space in the relativity and quantum revolutions of the early 20th century. A first survey of the current epistemological situation in physics has revealed the crucial role of the concept of space in the ongoing attempts to unify relativity theory and quantum mechanics. Many decades following Einstein’s representation of gravity as geometry, and then the introduction of the counterintuitive notion of quantum superposition by Heisenberg and Schrödinger, we still do not possess a fully coherent notion either of space, or of the matter that we traditionally hold to occupy it. The concepts of space and of matter have co-evolved through the relativity and quantum revolutions. A dynamical spacetime is conventionally considered the centerpiece of general relativity, while matter is commonly understood to be the principal actor in quantum mechanics. Each area has developed its own highly successful experimental procedures and analytical tools, building on ostensibly contradictory understandings of the nature of space and matter. But a closer look within each theory reveals that the pretensions of both are not fully justified. The ongoing work on the modern concept of space aims at outlining the fundamental changes in the concepts of space and matter that the two fundamental theories of 20th-century physics brought about, and at determining the overlapping realms of their applicability that hint at future developments.