Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity profoundly changed our thinking about basic concepts in physics, such as space and time. But it also left us some deep mysteries. One was the black holes that had been unequivocally discovered in the last few years. Another was the “wormholes” – bridges connecting different points in space-time, in theory providing shortcuts for space travelers.
Wormholes are still in the realm of the imagination. But some scientists believe that we will soon be able to find them. In the last few months, several new studies have offered intriguing ways forward.
Black holes and wormholes are special types of solutions to Einstein̵
Since the theory allows the fabric of space-time to stretch and bend, we can imagine all sorts of possible configurations. In 1935, Einstein and physicist Nathan Rosen described how two space-time sheets could be combined to create a bridge between two universes. It’s a kind of wormhole – and many others have been imagining it ever since.
Some wormholes can be “passable”, which means that people can travel through them. For this, however, they will have to be large enough and open against the force of gravity that tries to close them. In order to push space-time out in this way, huge amounts of “negative energy” will be needed.
Sounds like science fiction? We know that there is negative energy, small amounts have already been produced in the laboratory. We also know that negative energy is behind the accelerated expansion of the universe. So nature may have found a way to make wormholes.
Spotting wormholes in the sky
How can we prove that wormholes exist? In a new article published in the Royal Society’s Monthly Bulletin, Russian astronomers speculate that they may exist at the center of some very bright galaxies, and offer some observations to find them. This is based on what would happen if matter coming out of one side of the wormhole collided with matter falling inside. Calculations show that the crash will result in a spectacular display of gamma rays that we can try to observe with telescopes.
This radiation may be the key to distinguishing between a wormhole and a black hole that was previously thought to be indistinguishable from the outside. But black holes need to produce less gamma rays and eject them with a jet, while radiation produced by a worm hole will be limited to a giant sphere. Although the type of wormhole considered in this study is passable, it would not make a pleasant journey. Because it would be so close to the center of an active galaxy, the high temperatures would burn everything to crunchiness. But this would not be the case for all wormholes, such as those farther from the galactic center.
The idea that galaxies can house wormholes in their centers is not new. Take the case of the supermassive black hole in the heart of the Milky Way. This was discovered by carefully tracking the orbits of stars near the black hole, a major achievement that was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2020. But a recent article suggests that this gravitational pull may be caused by a wormhole.
Unlike a black hole, a wormhole can “leak” some gravity from objects on the other side. This ghostly gravitational action would add a small blow to the motions of the stars near the galactic center. According to this study, the specific effect should be measurable in observations in the near future as the sensitivity of our instruments becomes slightly more advanced.
Coincidentally, another recent study reported the discovery of some “strange radio circles” in the sky. These circles are strange because they are huge and yet they are not connected to any visible object. For now, they oppose any conventional explanation, so wormholes are advanced as a possible cause.
Wormholes hold fast to our collective imagination. In a sense, they are a delightful form of escapism. Unlike black holes, which are a little intimidating because they capture everything they enter, worm holes can allow us to travel to distant places faster than the speed of light. In fact, they may even be time machines, providing a way to travel backwards – as the late Stephen Hawking suggests in his latest book.
Wormholes also appear in quantum physics, which governs the world of atoms and particles. According to quantum mechanics, particles can jump out of empty space only to disappear a moment later. This is seen in countless experiments. And if particles can be created, why not wormholes? Physicists believe that wormholes may have formed in the early universe from foam of quantum particles that appear and disappear. Some of these “primary wormholes” may still exist today.
Recent experiments on “quantum teleportation” – the “disembodied” transfer of quantum information from one place to another – have turned out to be terribly similar to two black holes connected through a wormhole. These experiments seem to solve the “paradox of quantum information,” which suggests that physical information can disappear forever into a black hole. But they also reveal a deep connection between the notoriously incompatible theories of quantum physics and gravity – as wormholes are relevant to both – which can be crucial in building a “theory of everything.”
The fact that wormholes play a role in these fascinating events is unlikely to go unnoticed. We may not have seen them, but they can certainly be there. They can even help us understand some of the deepest cosmic mysteries, such as whether our universe is the only one.
How to see what’s on the other side of a wormhole without actually traveling through it
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