When it comes to the dimensions of spacetime, what you see may be what you get.
Using observations from the collision of two neutron stars that made headlines in 2017 (SN: 11/11/17, p. 6), scientists found no evidence of gravity leaking into hidden dimensions. The number of observed large spatial dimensions — kilometer-scale or bigger — is still limited to the three we know and love, the researchers report January 24 at arXiv.org.
Just as insects floating on a pond may be unaware of what’s above or below the water’s surface, our 3-D world might be part of a higher-dimensional universe that we can’t directly observe. However, says astrophysicist David Spergel of Princeton University, a coauthor of the new study, “gravity might be able to explore those other dimensions.”
Such extra dimensions might explain some conundrums in physics, such as the existence of dark matter (an as-yet-unidentified source of mass in the universe) and dark energy (which causes the universe’s expansion rate to accelerate), says coauthor Daniel Holz, an astrophysicist at the University of Chicago. “That’s why people get excited about these modifications.”
To look for any hint of leaking gravity, scientists turned to the light and gravitational waves emitted in the neutron star smashup detected on August 17, 2017. The light allowed scientists to find the galaxy where the neutron stars merged. Spergel, Holz and colleagues showed that, given the galaxy’s distance from Earth, the strength of the gravitational waves was as expected. Extra dimensions weren’t stealing, and thus weakening, the observed ripples.
A variety of theories predict extra dimensions of spacetime into which gravity could leak, but the new result applies only to large extra dimensions, Spergel says. That’s because the gravitational waves detected from the neutron star collision have wavelengths of thousands of kilometers. Tiny extra dimensions, smaller than a fraction of a millimeter across, have also been proposed, but they wouldn’t affect such extended ripples.
One theory, proposed in 2000 by a group of theoretical physicists including Georgi Dvali, predicts a type of large extra dimension. The effects of gravity leaking into such dimensions would be visible only over long distances — explaining why gravity on smaller scales, such as the size of the solar system, behaves as if there are three spatial dimensions.
Because the gravitational waves don’t seem to weaken on their trek to Earth, they must travel more than about 65 million light-years before leaking into any potential additional dimension, the researchers concluded in the new study.
But other theories of extra dimensions are unaffected by the result. String theory, which posits that particles are made up of infinitesimal vibrating strings, predicts tiny extra dimensions that are curled up on themselves. “We’re not in any way ruling out string theory,” Spergel says. Another variety of extra spacetime dimension, of potentially infinite size, was proposed by physicists Lisa Randall and Raman Sundrum in 1999 (SN: 9/26/09, p. 22). But such theories also would not be ruled out, because gravity can’t penetrate very far into that type of extra dimension.
Neutron star mergers are “a completely new laboratory of testing gravity,” says Dvali, of Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität in Munich, who was not involved with the research. “This is absolutely fascinating and fantastic.” But, Dvali notes, the type of extra dimension he proposed back in 2000 already seems unlikely on these scales. “I would say there is already an extremely strong constraint on leakage coming from cosmology.” No matter how far we peer out into space, the universe seems to follow the normal laws of gravity in three dimensions.
For now, the dimensions of space remain as simple as 1, 2, 3.