Spacetime is doomed! At least, so say some physicists. They don’t mean this as a warning, like some comic-book universe-destroying disaster, but rather as a research plan. These physicists believe that what we think of as space and time aren’t the full story, but that they emerge from something more fundamental, so that an ultimate theory of nature might not use space or time at all. Other, grumpier physicists are skeptical. Joined by a few philosophers, they think the “spacetime is doomed” crowd are over-excited and exaggerating the implications of their discoveries. At the heart of the argument is the distinction between two related concepts: duality and emergence.
In physics, sometimes we find that two theories are actually dual: despite seeming different, the patterns of observations they predict are the same. Some of the more popular examples are what we call holographic theories. In these situations, a theory of quantum gravity in some space-time is dual to a theory without gravity describing the edges of that space-time, sort of like how a hologram is a 2D image that looks 3D when you move it. For any question you can ask about the gravitational “bulk” space, there is a matching question on the “boundary”. No matter what you observe, neither description will fail.
If theories with gravity can be described by theories without gravity, does that mean gravity doesn’t really exist? If you’re asking that question, you’re asking whether gravity is emergent. An emergent theory is one that isn’t really fundamental, but instead a result of the interaction of more fundamental parts. For example, hydrodynamics, the theory of fluids like water, emerges from more fundamental theories that describe the motion of atoms and molecules.
(For the experts: I, like most physicists, am talking about “weak emergence” here, not “strong emergence”.)
The “spacetime is doomed” crowd think that not just gravity, but space-time itself is emergent. They expect that distances and times aren’t really fundamental, but a result of relationships that will turn out to be more fundamental, like entanglement between different parts of quantum fields. As evidence, they like to bring up dualities where the dual theories have different concepts of gravity, number of dimensions, or space-time. Using those theories, they argue that space and time might “break down”, and not be really fundamental.
The skeptics, though, bring up an important point. If two theories are really dual, then no observation can distinguish them: they make exactly the same predictions. In that case, say the skeptics, what right do you have to call one theory more fundamental than the other? You can say that gravity emerges from a boundary theory without gravity, but you could just as easily say that the boundary theory emerges from the gravity theory. The whole point of duality is that no theory is “more true” than the other: one might be more or less convenient, but both describe the same world. If you want to really argue for emergence, then your “more fundamental” theory needs to do something extra: to predict something that your emergent theory doesn’t predict.
Sometimes this is a fair objection. There are members of the “spacetime is doomed” crowd who are genuinely reckless about this, who’ll tell a journalist about emergence when they really mean duality. But many of these people are more careful, and have thought more deeply about the question. They tend to have some mix of these two perspectives:
First, if two descriptions give the same results, then do the descriptions matter? As physicists, we have a history of treating theories as the same if they make the same predictions. Space-time itself is a result of this policy: in the theory of relativity, two people might disagree on which one of two events happened first or second, but they will agree on the overall distance in space-time between the two. From this perspective, a duality between a bulk theory and a boundary theory isn’t evidence that the bulk theory emerges from the boundary, but it is evidence that both the bulk and boundary theories should be replaced by an “overall theory”, one that treats bulk and boundary as irrelevant descriptions of the same physical reality. This perspective is similar to an old philosophical theory called positivism: that statements are meaningless if they cannot be derived from something measurable. That theory wasn’t very useful for philosophers, which is probably part of why some philosophers are skeptics of “space-time is doomed”. The perspective has been quite useful to physicists, though, so we’re likely to stick with it.
Second, some will say that it’s true that a dual theory is not an emergent theory…but it can be the first step to discover one. In this perspective, dualities are suggestive evidence that a deeper theory is waiting in the wings. The idea would be that one would first discover a duality, then discover situations that break that duality: examples on one side that don’t correspond to anything sensible on the other. Maybe some patterns of quantum entanglement are dual to a picture of space-time, but some are not. (Closer to my sub-field, maybe there’s an object like the amplituhedron that doesn’t respect locality or unitarity.) If you’re lucky, maybe there are situations, or even experiments, that go from one to the other: where the space-time description works until a certain point, then stops working, and only the dual description survives. Some of the models of emergent space-time people study are genuinely of this type, where a dimension emerges in a theory that previously didn’t have one. (For those of you having a hard time imagining this, read my old post about “bubbles of nothing”, then think of one happening in reverse.)
It’s premature to say space-time is doomed, at least as a definite statement. But it is looking like, one way or another, space-time won’t be the right picture for fundamental physics. Maybe that’s because it’s equivalent to another description, redundant embellishment on an essential theoretical core. Maybe instead it breaks down, and a more fundamental theory could describe more situations. We don’t know yet. But physicists are trying to figure it out.