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Time to test time

November 13, 2008
Yet if Hogan’s ideas are right, noise associated with this fundamental fuzziness should be prominent at GEO600, a joint British and German machine operating near Hannover, Germany, that is searching for gravitational waves. These waves are thought to arise during events such as the massive cosmic collisions of black holes and neutron stars. Confirmation of the idea — which could come as experimental upgrades to GEO600 are put in place over the coming year — would be a big step towards a verifiable quantum theory of gravity, a long-sought unification of quantum mechanics (the physics of the very small) with general relativity (the physics of the very big). Hogan outlines his predictions in a paper published on 30 October in Physical Review D1.
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Vacuum tubes inside the GEO600 gravitional wave detector
Poets have long believed the passage of time to be unavoidable, inexorable and generally melancholic.
Quantum mechanics says it is fuzzy, ticking along at minimum intervals within which the notion of time is meaningless.
And Craig Hogan claims he can ‘see’ it — in the thus far unexplained noise of a gravitational-wave detector. “It’s potentially the most transformative thing I’ve ever worked on,” says Hogan, director of the Center for Particle Astrophysics at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Illinois.
“It’s actually a possibility that we can access experimentally the minimum interval of time, which we thought was out of reach.”
In a classical view of the world, space and time are smooth.
The minimum scales at which, according to quantum mechanics, the smoothness breaks down — the Planck length and time — can be derived from other quantities, but they have not been tested experimentally, nor would they be, given their impossibly small size.
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