Extra dimensions hiding here
HIDDEN dimensions could cause ripples through reality by modifying gravitational waves – and spotting such signatures of extra dimensions could help solve some of the biggest mysteries of the universe.
Physicists have long wondered why gravity is so weak compared with the other fundamental forces. This may be because some of it is leaking away into extra dimensions beyond the three spatial dimensions we experience.
Some theories that seek to explain how gravity and quantum effects mesh together, including string theory, require extra dimensions, often with gravity propagating through them. Finding evidence of such exotic dimensions could therefore help to characterise gravity, or find a way to unite gravity and quantum mechanics – it could also hint at an explanation for why the universe’s expansion is accelerating.
“It would stretch or shrink space-time in a way that standard gravitational waves would never do”
But detecting extra dimensions is a challenge. Any that exist would have to be very small in order to avoid obvious effects on our everyday lives. Hopes were high (and still are) that they would show up at the Large Hadron Collider, but it has yet to see any sign of physics beyond our four dimensions.
In the last two years, though, a new hope has emerged. Gravitational waves, ripples in space-time caused by the motion of massive objects, were detected for the first time in 2015. Since gravity is likely to occupy all the dimensions that exist, its waves are an especially promising way to detect any dimensions beyond the ones we know.
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“If there are extra dimensions in the universe, then gravitational waves can walk along any dimension, even the extra dimensions,” says Gustavo Lucena Gómez at the Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics in Potsdam, Germany.
Lucena Gómez and his colleague David Andriot set out to calculate how potential extra dimensions would affect the gravitational waves that we are able to observe. They found two peculiar effects: extra waves at high frequencies, and a modification of how gravitational waves stretch space.
As gravitational waves propagate through a tiny extra dimension, the team found, they should generate a “tower” of extra gravitational waves with high frequencies following a regular distribution.
But current observatories cannot detect frequencies that high, and most of the planned observatories also focus on lower frequencies. So while these extra waves may be everywhere, they will be hard to spot.
The second effect of extra dimensions might be more detectable, since it modifies the “normal” gravitational waves that we observe rather than adding an extra signal.
“If extra dimensions are in our universe, this would stretch or shrink space-time in a different way that standard gravitational waves would never do,” says Lucena Gómez.
As gravitational waves ripple through the universe, they stretch and squish space in a very specific way. It’s like pulling on a rubber band: the ellipse formed by the band gets longer in one direction and shorter in the other, and then goes back to its original shape when you release it.
But extra dimensions add another way for gravitational waves to make space shape-shift, called a breathing mode. Like your lungs as you breathe, space expands and contracts as gravitational waves pass through, in addition to stretching and squishing.
“With more detectors we will be able to see whether this breathing mode is happening,” says Lucena Gómez.
“Extra dimensions have been discussed for a long time from different points of view,” says Emilian Dudas at the École Polytechnique in France. “Gravitational waves could be a new twist on looking for extra dimensions.”
But there is a trade-off: while detecting a tower of high-frequency gravitational waves would point fairly conclusively to extra dimensions, a breathing mode could be explained by a number of other non-standard theories of gravity.
“It’s probably not a unique signature,” says Dudas. “But it would be a very exciting thing.”
This article appeared in print under the headline “Echoes of extra dimensions”