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IT WAS a speech that changed the way we think of space and time. The year was 1908, and the German mathematician Hermann Minkowski had been trying to make sense of Albert Einstein’s hot new idea – what we now know as special relativity – describing how things shrink as they move faster and time becomes distorted. “Henceforth space by itself and time by itself are doomed to fade into the mere shadows,” Minkowski proclaimed, “and only a union of the two will preserve an independent reality.”
And so space-time – the malleable fabric whose geometry can be changed by the gravity of stars, planets and matter – was born. It is a concept that has served us well, but if physicist Petr Horava is right, it may be no more than a mirage. Horava, who is at the University of California, Berkeley, wants to rip this fabric apart and set time and space free from one another in order to come up with a unified theory that reconciles the disparate worlds of quantum mechanics and gravity – one the most pressing challenges to modern physics.
Since Horava published his work in January 2009, it has received an astonishing amount of attention. Already, more than 250 papers have been written about it. Some researchers have started using it to explain away the twin cosmological mysteries of dark matter and dark energy. Others are finding that black holes might not behave as we thought. If Horava’s idea is right, it …