Do other dimensions exist?

We know that we need at least 4 to keep track of things: The three dimensions of space that give us freedom to move Up-Down, Left-right, and forward-backward, plus the dimension of time. These dimensions of spacetime form the yellow gridwork in the image above. At each intersections you have a new location in space and time, and mathematically there are a infinite number of these coordinate points. But the real world may be different then the mathematical ideal. There may not be an infinite number of points between 0 and 1, but only a finite number.

We know that you can sub-divide space all the way down to the quantum realm and to distances and times of 10^-20 cm and 10^-30 seconds and spacetime still looks perfectly smooth to the physics we observe there, but what if we go down even further? Since the 1940s, a simple calculation using the three fundamental constants h, c and G has turned up a smallest quantum distance of 10^-33 cm and 10^-43 seconds called the Planck Scale. In our figure above, the spacings in the yellow grid are at this scale of intervals, and that is the smallest possible separation for physical processes in space and is believed.

Since the 1970s, work on the unification of forces has uncovered a number of ideas that could work, but nearly all require that we add some additional dimensions to the four we know. All of these extra dimensions are believed to appear at the Planck scale, so they are accessible to elementary particles but not to humans.In string theory, these added dimensions are rolled up into identical but complex mini-geometries like the ones shown above.

No one has the faintest idea how to go about proving that other dimensions really exist in the microcosm. The energies are so big that we cannot figure out how to build the necessary accelerators and instruments. We know that Mother Nature is rather frugal, so I would be very surprised if more than 4 dimensions existed.

Return to Dr. Odenwald's Gravity page at the Astronomy Cafe Blog.