from the world's big
Gravity Doesn't Exist
Erik Verlinde is a theoretical physicist and string theorist and the Institute of Theoretical Physics at the University of Amsterdam. The "Verlinde formula," which relates to conformal field theory and topological field theory, is named after him. In a paper called "On the Origin of Gravity and the Laws of Newton," published in January, 2010, Verlinde introduced a new approach to the idea of gravity, positing that it is not a fundamental force but an "emergent phenomenon."
Verlinde's idea that gravity doesn't exist was featured in Big Think's "Month of Thinking Dangerously.
Question: Why is gravity an illusion?
Erik Verlinde: Gravity, of course, is something that have, well, many people have already thought about. It’s something that we see every day and it’s not like it’s not existent in our ordinary life. But what I mean by that it’s an illusion is that one would eventually like to know where it comes from, an explanation. Up to now we have, well, descriptions, I mean, Newton, of course, is the one famous for first writing down a theory of gravity and he described why apples fall and why the moon goes around the earth using the same basic equation for gravity, but he described it. He had to assume that gravity was there and then had to write down a law that described that when two masses are a certain distance, how they attract each other.
But he was also not very happy with the fact that we should just, well, assume that these things, these objects, attract each other and without even anything in between. So if there are two masses and empty space, there’s no, nothing that really happens between them, but still, they’re attracting each other. And he thought that was kind of mysterious and that it was something he would have liked to explain in a better way.
So later came Einstein and Einstein, with his theory of relativity, eventually realized that also gravity has to be described in a different way. And it took him quite some years, but eventually he wrote down a theory where he thought about space and time together and then his explanation of what gravity would be is that there’s masses which curve space, and time. And then motion of planets and of the earth around the moon, or the moon around the earth is then described by thinking about moving in this curved space-time and how then objects are, well, making their orbits. And the reason they go around then in circles is that space and time itself is curved, in the sense that things don’t move in straight lines anymore, they go around. So that was his explanation, but he had to write an equation for it, which again, assumed that gravity was there because he basically wrote down matter curves space-time.
So in a certain way that’s still a description or what, I should say is, well, one would like to understand again why this description sort of, well, how you can understand it from a more basic point of view. So what I’ve done in my paper is try to start from a, well, from a point of view where you don't assume gravity to be there, they would like to explain it by seeing how you can derive it from a more microscopic set of equations where gravity itself is not assumed, but then just follows from a certain logical reasoning.
Question: How should we think about the forces that exist to create the illusion of gravity?
Erik Verlinde: If you think about particles, very tiny particles, and it turns out that things like positions and velocities are not very precisely defined, you have to take into account the fact that there’s an uncertainty in when we look at something, we may influence the measurement, but I mean, also just, there’s a fundamental limit on how precise you can understand the position or the velocity of a particle. They cannot be all, not both described infinitely precise.
So taking gravity into account then gives us a bit of a problem because then we have to talk about space-time and then these quantum certainties gives us another way of looking at space-time at the short distances. So this led to problems... and string theory is another way of also looking at gravity and quantum mechanics, which I’ve been working on quite a bit. So people have studied the problem of quantum mechanics in gravity from various perspectives—from string theory, but also was thinking, for instance, about black holes, what happens with black holes. And I’ve taken some of the things we’ve learned about it and seen that there is some explanation of maybe where gravity then comes from, from those... new way of thinking about quantum mechanics and gravity together.
So if you then start trying to explain where it comes from, it has to do with the fact that this at the microscopic scale, a certain information about how you describe this, which we don’t see ourselves, we forget about that. And it turns out that if you take that into account, in some appropriate way that you can understand where gravity comes from.
Question: When other people talk about gravity, what are they describing?
Erik Verlinde: The theory that Einstein wrote down, when you apply it, for instance, to these black holes, you see that it starts resembling things that we call thermodynamics. That’s a theory that describes how gases move when you give them a temperature or when there is pressure and you... well, you can apply it in very many situations, but it’s some way in which we describe how things happen at very large, fairly large scales, in terms of not looking at the individual notion of the atoms and molecules, but by just thinking about these objects like temperature, pressure, and so on, which, are, what I call microscopic quantities. I mean, a temperature that is just an average of all of the motions or little collisions of atoms, say, for instance on my skin, if I think about what temperature I feel, it’s something about the average energy that each of the molecules in the air is carrying.
So temperature is not really a microscopic thing I can define. And so gravity is somewhat like that in the sense that the thing, the equations that we currently use to describe gravity are basically obtained from averaging, or at least describing things at a much tinier scale and then forgetting about certain details. So temperature, for instance, also forgets about how all of the individual molecules are moving, we don’t have to keep track of that, but still, we can describe quite well how gases move when we just talk about pressure and temperature and even differences in pressure. For instance, then if you have one room with one pressure and another room with lower pressure, you simply know that the gas will flow from one to the other. And these kind of differences, they’re necessary to get things moving.
Question: Does your research have any implications for our daily lives?
Erik Verlinde: It’s fun to think about things like gravity and even, well, what I had in my paper, things like even the laws of Newton, because they do play a role in one’s every day life. But it’s surprising that when I go and walk out the door or something like that, it’s not like I immediately sort of think about these things in a different way. For me, I think it’s more importantly eventually, what will be the implications for understanding, not just gravity, but also what’s happening in the universe. I mean, the gravity equations of Einstein are also used in describing the expansion of the universe, the Big Bang Theory are all based on these same equations.
What I hope is that the ideas that we are now starting to develop for gravity can eventually sort of lead to possibly somewhat better or even more refined way of thinking about the early Universe. And I think that will influence a little bit more my thinking than... I think as human beings we like to know where we come from and how the universe all sort of developed into what it’s now and there I think eventually this will have some impact.
Recorded on August 6, 2010
Interviewed by David Hirschman
The theoretical physicist believes that gravity is an emergent phenomenon, not the elemental "force" that Newton and Einstein theorized it to be. He thinks it is the result of patterns of complex, microscopic phenomena.
Higher education faces challenges that are unlike any other industry. What path will ASU, and universities like ASU, take in a post-COVID world?
- Everywhere you turn, the idea that coronavirus has brought on a "new normal" is present and true. But for higher education, COVID-19 exposes a long list of pernicious old problems more than it presents new problems.
- It was widely known, yet ignored, that digital instruction must be embraced. When combined with traditional, in-person teaching, it can enhance student learning outcomes at scale.
- COVID-19 has forced institutions to understand that far too many higher education outcomes are determined by a student's family income, and in the context of COVID-19 this means that lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color will be disproportionately afflicted.
What conditions of the new normal were already appreciated widely?<p>First, we understand that higher education is unique among industries. Some industries are governed by markets. Others are run by governments. Most operate under the influence of both markets and governments. And then there's higher education. Higher education as an "industry" involves public, private, and for-profit universities operating at small, medium, large, and now massive scales. Some higher education industry actors are intense specialists; others are adept generalists. Some are fantastically wealthy; others are tragically poor. Some are embedded in large cities; others are carefully situated near farms and frontiers.</p> <p>These differences demonstrate just some of the complexities that shape higher education. Still, we understand that change in the industry is underway, and we must be active in directing it. Yet because of higher education's unique (and sometimes vexing) operational and structural conditions, many of the lessons from change management and the science of industrial transformation are only applicable in limited or highly modified ways. For evidence of this, one can look at various perspectives, including those that we have offered, on such topics as <a href="https://www.insidehighered.com/digital-learning/blogs/rethinking-higher-education/lessons-disruption" target="_blank">disruption</a>, <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/20/education/learning/education-technology.html" target="_blank">technology management</a>, and so-called "<a href="https://www.insidehighered.com/sites/default/server_files/media/Excerpt_IHESpecialReport_Growing-Role-of-Mergers-in-Higher-Ed.pdf" target="_blank">mergers and acquisitions</a>" in higher education. In each of these spaces, the "market forces" and "market rules" for higher education are different than they are in business, or even in government. This has always been the case and it is made more obvious by COVID-19.</p> <p>Second, with so much excitement about innovation in higher education, we sometimes lose sight of the fact that students are—and should remain—the core cause for innovation. Higher education's capacity to absorb new ideas is strong. But the ideas that endure are those designed to benefit students, and therefore society. This is important to remember because not all innovations are designed with students in mind. The recent history of innovation in higher education includes several cautionary tales of what can happen when institutional interests—or worse, <a href="https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2016/02/09/apollos-new-owners-seek-fresh-start-beleaguered-company" target="_blank">shareholder</a> interests—are placed above student well-being.</p>
Photo: Getty Images<p>Third, it is abundantly apparent that universities must leverage technology to increase educational quality and access. The rapid shift to delivering an education that complies with social distancing guidelines speaks volumes about the adaptability of higher education institutions, but this transition has also posed unique difficulties for colleges and universities that had been slow to adopt digital education. The last decade has shown that online education, implemented effectively, can meet or even surpass the quality of in-person <a href="https://link-springer-com.ezproxy1.lib.asu.edu/article/10.1007/s10639-019-10027-z" target="_blank">instruction</a>.</p><p>Digital instruction, broadly defined, leverages online capabilities and integrates adaptive learning methodologies, predictive analytics, and innovations in instructional design to enable increased student engagement, personalized learning experiences, and improved learning outcomes. The ability of these technologies to transcend geographic barriers and to shrink the marginal cost of educating additional students makes them essential for delivering education at scale.</p><p>As a bonus, and it is no small thing given that they are the core cause for innovation, students embrace and enjoy digital instruction. It is their preference to learn in a format that leverages technology. This should not be a surprise; it is now how we live in all facets of life.</p><p>Still, we have only barely begun to conceive of the impact digital education will have. For example, emerging virtual and augmented reality technologies that facilitate interactive, hands-on learning will transform the way that learners acquire and apply new knowledge. Technology-enabled learning cannot replace the traditional college experience or ensure the survival of any specific college, but it can enhance student learning outcomes at scale. This has always been the case, and it is made more obvious by COVID-19.</p>
What conditions of the new normal were emerging suspicions?<p>Our collective thinking about the role of institutional or university-to-university collaboration and networking has benefitted from a new clarity in light of COVID-19. We now recognize more than ever that colleges and universities must work together to ensure that the American higher education system is resilient and sufficiently robust to meet the needs of students and their families.</p> <p>In recent weeks, various commentators have suggested that higher education will face a wave of institutional <a href="https://www.businessinsider.com/scott-galloway-predicts-colleges-will-close-due-to-pandemic-2020-5" target="_blank">closures</a> and consolidations and that large institutions with significant online instruction capacity will become dominant.</p> <p>While ASU is the largest public university in the United States by enrollment and among the most well-equipped in online education, we strongly oppose "let them fail" mindsets. The strength of American higher education relies on its institutional diversity, and on the ability of colleges and universities to meet the needs of their local communities and educate local students. The needs of learners are highly individualized, demanding a wide range of options to accommodate the aspirations and learning styles of every kind of student. Education will become less relevant and meaningful to students, and less responsive to local needs, if institutions of higher learning are allowed to fail. </p> <p>Preventing this outcome demands that colleges and universities work together to establish greater capacity for remote, distributed education. This will help institutions with fewer resources adapt to our new normal and continue to fulfill their mission of serving students, their families, and their communities. Many had suspected that collaboration and networking were preferable over letting vulnerable colleges fail. COVID-19's new normal seems to be confirming this.</p>
President Barack Obama delivers the commencement address during the Arizona State University graduation ceremony at Sun Devil Stadium May 13, 2009 in Tempe, Arizona. Over 65,000 people attended the graduation.
Photo by Joshua Lott/Getty Images<p>A second condition of the new normal that many had suspected to be true in recent years is the limited role that any one university or type of university can play as an exemplar to universities more broadly. For decades, the evolution of higher education has been shaped by the widespread imitation of a small number of elite universities. Most public research universities could benefit from replicating Berkeley or Michigan. Most small private colleges did well by replicating Williams or Swarthmore. And all universities paid close attention to Harvard, Princeton, MIT, Stanford, and Yale. It is not an exaggeration to say that the logic of replication has guided the evolution of higher education for centuries, both in the US and abroad.</p><p>Only recently have we been able to move beyond replication to new strategies of change, and COVID-19 has confirmed the legitimacy of doing so. For example, cases such as <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/education/2020/03/10/harvard-moves-classes-online-advises-students-stay-home-after-spring-break-response-covid-19/" target="_blank">Harvard's</a> eviction of students over the course of less than one week or <a href="https://www.nhregister.com/news/coronavirus/article/Mayor-New-Haven-asks-for-coronavirus-help-Yale-15162606.php" target="_blank">Yale's apparent reluctance</a> to work with the city of New Haven, highlight that even higher education's legacy gold standards have limits and weaknesses. We are hopeful that the new normal will include a more active and earnest recognition that we need many types of universities. We think the new normal invites us to rethink the very nature of "gold standards" for higher education.</p>
A graduate student protests MIT's rejection of some evacuation exemption requests.
Photo: Maddie Meyer/Getty Images<p>Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we had started to suspect and now understand that America's colleges and universities are among the many institutions of democracy and civil society that are, by their very design, incapable of being sufficiently responsive to the full spectrum of modern challenges and opportunities they face. Far too many higher education outcomes are determined by a student's family income, and in the context of COVID-19 this means that lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color will be disproportionately afflicted. And without new designs, we can expect postsecondary success for these same students to be as elusive in the new normal, as it was in the <a href="http://pellinstitute.org/indicators/reports_2019.shtml" target="_blank">old normal</a>. This is not just because some universities fail to sufficiently recognize and engage the promise of diversity, this is because few universities have been designed from the outset to effectively serve the unique needs of lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color.</p>
Where can the new normal take us?<p>As colleges and universities face the difficult realities of adapting to COVID-19, they also face an opportunity to rethink their operations and designs in order to respond to social needs with greater agility, adopt technology that enables education to be delivered at scale, and collaborate with each other in order to maintain the dynamism and resilience of the American higher education system.</p> <p>COVID-19 raises questions about the relevance, the quality, and the accessibility of higher education—and these are the same challenges higher education has been grappling with for years. </p> <p>ASU has been able to rapidly adapt to the present circumstances because we have spent nearly two decades not just anticipating but <em>driving</em> innovation in higher education. We have adopted a <a href="https://www.asu.edu/about/charter-mission-and-values" target="_blank">charter</a> that formalizes our definition of success in terms of "who we include and how they succeed" rather than "<a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2019/10/17/forget-varsity-blues-madness-lets-talk-about-students-who-cant-afford-college/" target="_blank">who we exclude</a>." We adopted an entrepreneurial <a href="https://president.asu.edu/read/higher-logic" target="_blank">operating model</a> that moves at the speed of technological and social change. We have launched initiatives such as <a href="https://www.instride.com/how-it-works/" target="_blank">InStride</a>, a platform for delivering continuing education to learners already in the workforce. We developed our own robust technological capabilities in ASU <a href="https://edplus.asu.edu/" target="_blank">EdPlus</a>, a hub for research and development in digital learning that, even before the current crisis, allowed us to serve more than 45,000 fully online students. We have also created partnerships with other forward-thinking institutions in order to mutually strengthen our capabilities for educational accessibility and quality; this includes our role in co-founding the <a href="https://theuia.org/" target="_blank">University Innovation Alliance</a>, a consortium of 11 public research universities that share data and resources to serve students at scale. </p> <p>For ASU, and universities like ASU, the "new normal" of a post-COVID world looks surprisingly like the world we already knew was necessary. Our record breaking summer 2020 <a href="https://asunow.asu.edu/20200519-sun-devil-life-summer-enrollment-sets-asu-record" target="_blank">enrollment</a> speaks to this. What COVID demonstrates is that we were already headed in the right direction and necessitates that we continue forward with new intensity and, we hope, with more partners. In fact, rather than "new normal" we might just say, it's "go time." </p>
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