What are Wormholes?

In science fiction, wormholes are a method often used to travel great distances across space. Are these magic bridges really possible?

With all my enthusiasm for humanity’s future in space, there’s one glaring problem. We’re soft meat bags of mostly water, and those other stars are really really far away. Even with the most optimistic spaceflight technologies we can imagine, we’re never going to reach another star in a human lifetime.

Reality tells us that even the most nearby stars are incomprehensibly far away, and would require vast amounts of energy or time to make the journey. Reality says that we’d need a ship that can somehow last for hundreds or thousands of years, while generation after generation of astronauts are born, live their lives and die in transit to another star.

Science fiction, on the other hand, woos us with its beguiling methods of advanced propulsion. Crank up the warp drive and watch the stars streak past us, making a journey to Alpha Centauri as quick as a pleasure cruise.

You know what’s even easier? A wormhole; a magical gateway that connects two points in space and time with one another. Just align the chevrons to dial in your destination, wait for the stargate to stabilize and then just walk… walk! to your destination half a galaxy away.

Yeah, that would be really nice. Someone should really get around to inventing these wormholes, ushering in a bold new future of intergalactic speedwalking. What are wormholes, exactly, and how soon until I get to use one?.

A wormhole, also known as an Einstein-Rosen bridge is a theoretical method of folding space and time so that you could connect two places in space together. You could then travel instantaneously from one place to another.

We’ll use that classic demonstration from the movie Interstellar, where you draw a line from two points, on a piece of paper and then fold the paper over and jab your pencil through to shorten the journey. That works great on paper, but is this actual physics?

As Einstein taught us, gravity isn’t a force that pulls matter like magnetism, it’s actually a warping of spacetime. The Moon thinks it’s just following a straight line through space, but it’s actually following the warped path created by the Earth’s gravity.

And so, according to Einstein and physicist Nathan Rosen, you could tangle up spacetime so tightly that two points share the same physical location. If you could then keep the whole thing stable, you could carefully separate the two regions of spacetime so they’re still the same location, but separated by whatever distance you like.

Climb down the gravitational well of one side of the wormhole, and then instantaneously appear at the other location. Millions or billions of light-years away. While wormholes are theoretically possible to create, they’re practically impossible from what we currently understand.

Albert Einstein, pictured in 1953. Photograph: Ruth Orkin/Hulton Archive/Getty Images Ruth Orkin/Getty
Albert Einstein, pictured in 1953. Photograph: Ruth Orkin/Hulton Archive/Getty Images Ruth Orkin/Getty

The first big problem is that wormholes aren’t traversable according to General Relativity. So keep this in mind; the physics that predicts these things, prohibits them from being used as a method of transportation. That’s a pretty serious strike against them.

Second, even if wormholes can be created, they’d be completely unstable, collapsing instantly after their formation. If you tried to walk into one end, you might as well be walking into a black hole.

Third, even if they are traversable, and can be kept stable, the moment any material tried to pass through – even photons of light – that would make them collapse.

There’s a glimmer of hope, though, because physicists still haven’t figured out how to unify gravity and quantum mechanics.

This means that the Universe itself might know things about wormholes that we don’t understand yet. It’s possible that they were created naturally as part of the Big Bang, when the spacetime of the entire Universe was tangled up in a singularity.

Astronomers have actually proposed searching for wormholes in space by looking for how their gravity distorts the light from stars behind them. None have turned up yet.

One possibility is that wormholes appear naturally like the virtual particles that we know exist. Except these would be incomprehensibly small, on the Planck scale. You’re going to need a smaller spacecraft.

Artist illustration of a spacecraft passing through a wormhole to a distant galaxy. Image credit: NASA.
Artist illustration of a spacecraft passing through a wormhole to a distant galaxy. Image credit: NASA.

One of the most fascinating implications of wormholes is that they could allow you to actually travel in time.

Here’s how it works. First, create a wormhole in the lab. Then take one end of the wormhole, put it on a spacecraft and fly away at a significant percentage of the speed of light, so that time dilation takes effect.

For the people on the spacecraft, just a few years will have occurred, while it could have been hundreds or even thousands for the folks back on Earth. Assuming you could keep the wormhole stable, open and traversable, then traveling through it would be interesting.

If you passed in one direction, you’d not only move the distance between the wormholes, but you’d also be transported to the time that the wormhole is experiencing. Go one direction and you move forward in time, go the other way: backwards in time.

Some physicists, like Leonard Susskind think this wouldn’t work because this would violate two of physics most fundamental principles: local energy conservation and the energy-time uncertainty principle.

Unfortunately, it really seems like wormholes will need to remain in the realm of science fiction for the foreseeable future, and maybe forever. Even if it’s possible to create wormholes, then you’ve got the keep them stable and open, and then you’ve got to figure out how to allow matter into them without collapsing. Still, if we could figure it out, that’d make space travel very convenient indeed.

If you could set up two ends of a wormhole to anywhere in the Universe, where would they be? Tell us your ideas in the comments below.

Astronomy Without A Telescope – Knots In Space

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So finally you possess that most valuable of commodities, a traversable wormhole – and somehow or other you grab one end of it and accelerate it to a very rapid velocity.

This might only take you a couple of weeks since you accelerate to the same velocity as your end of the wormhole. But for a friend who has sat waiting at the first entrance to the wormhole, time dilation means that ten years might have passed while you have mucked about at close-to-light-speed-velocities with the other end of the wormhole.

So when you decide to travel back through the wormhole to see your friend, you naturally maintain your own frame of reference and hence your own proper time, as is indicated by observing the watch on your wrist. So when you emerge at the other end of the wormhole, you can surprise your ageing partner with a newspaper you grabbed from 2011 – since he now lives in 2021.

You encourage your friend to come back with you through the wormhole – and traveling ten years back in time to 2011, he spends an enjoyable few days following his ten year younger self around, sending cryptic text messages that encourages his younger self to invent transparent aluminum. However, your friend is disappointed to find that when you both travel back through the wormhole to 2021, his bank account remains depressing low, because the wormhole is connected to what has become an alternate universe – where the time travel event that you just experienced, never happened.

You also realize that your wormhole time machine has other limits. You can further accelerate your end of the wormhole to 100 or even 1000 years of time dilation, but it still remains the case that you can only travel back in time as far as 2011, when you first decided to accelerate your end of the wormhole.

But anyway, wouldn’t it be great if any of this was actually possible? If you looked out into the universe to try and observe a traversable wormhole – you might start by looking for an Einstein ring. A light source from another universe (or a light source from a different time in an analogue of this universe) should be ‘lensed’ by the warped space-time of the wormhole – if the wormhole and the light source are in your direct line of sight. If all of that is plausible, then the light source should appear as a bright ring of light.

The theoretical light signatures of a donut-shaped 'ringhole' type wormhole and a Klein bottle 'time machine'. The ringhole signature is a double Einstein ring - and the Klein bottle signature is two concentric truncated spirals. A Klein bottle time machine is a wormhole of warped space-time where the exit has the identical spatial position as the entrance - so going through it means you should only travel in time. Credit: González-Díaz and Alonso-Serrano.

In fact there’s lots of these Einstein rings out there , but a more mundane cause for their existence is generally attributed to gravitational lensing by a massive object (like a galactic cluster) situated between you and a bright light source – all of which are still in our universe.

A recent theoretical letter has proposed that a ringhole rather than a wormhole structure might arise from an unlikely set of circumstances (i.e. this is pure theory – best just to go with it). So rather than a straight tube you could have a toroidal ‘donut’ connection with an alternate universe – which should then create a double Einstein ring – being two concentric circles of light.

This is a much rarer phenomenon and the authors suggest that the one well known instance (SDSSJ0946+1006) needs to be explained by the fortuitous alignment of three massive galactic clusters – which is starting to stretch belief a little… maybe?

Whether or not you find that a convincing argument, the authors then propose that if a Klein bottle wormhole existed – it would create such an unlikely visual phenomenon (two concentric truncated spirals of light) that surely then we might concede that such exotic structures exist?

And OK, if we ever do observe two concentric truncated spirals in the sky that could be pause for thought. Watch this space.

Further reading: González-Díaz and Alonso-Serrano Observing other universes through ringholes and Klein-bottle holes.

Astronomy Without A Telescope – The Universe Is Not In A Black Hole

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It has been reported that a recent scientific paper delivers the conclusion that our universe resides inside a black hole in another universe. In fact, this isn’t really what the paper concluded – although what the paper did conclude is still a little out of left field.

The Einstein-Cartan-Kibble-Sciama (ECKS) theory of gravity – claimed as an alternative to general relativity theory, although still based on Einstein field equations – seeks to take greater account of the effect of the spin of massive particles. Essentially, while general relativity has it that matter determines how spacetime curves, ECKS also tries to capture the torsion of spacetime, which is a more dynamic idea of curvature – where you have to think in terms of twisting and contortion, rather than just curvature.

Mind you, general relativity is also able to deal with dynamic curvature. ECKS proponents claim that where ECKS departs from general relativity is in situations with very high matter density – such as inside black holes. General relativity suggests that a singularity (with infinite density and zero volume) forms beyond a black hole’s event horizon. This is not a very satisfying result since the contents of black holes do seem to occupy volume – more massive ones have larger diameters than less massive ones – so general relativity may just not be up to the task of dealing with black hole physics.

ECKS theory attempts to step around the singularity problem by proposing that an extreme torsion of spacetime, resulting from the spin of massive particles compressed within a black hole, prevents a singularity from forming. Instead the intense compression increases the intrinsic angular momentum of the matter within (i.e. the spinning skater draws arms in analogy) until a point is reached where spacetime becomes as twisted, or as wound up, as it can get. From that point the tension must be released through an expansion (i.e. an unwinding) of spacetime in a whole new tangential direction – and voila you get a new baby universe.

But the new baby universe can’t be born and expand in the black hole. Remember this is general relativity. From any frame of reference outside the black hole, the events just described cannot sequentially happen. Clocks seem to slow to a standstill as they approach a black hole’s event horizon. It makes no sense for an external observer to imagine that a sequence of events is taking place over time inside a black hole.

Instead, it is proposed that the birth and expansion of new baby universe proceeds along a separate branch of spacetime with the black hole acting as an Einstein-Rosen bridge (i.e. a wormhole).

(Caption) The horizon problem in Big Bang cosmology. How is it that distant parts of the universe possess such similar physical properties? Well (putting your Occam brand razor aside), perhaps the whole contents of this universe was originally homogenized within a black hole from a parallel universe. Credit: Addison Wesley.

If correct, it’s a turtles on turtles solution and we are left to ponder the mystery of the first primeval universe which first formed the black holes from which all subsequent universes originate.

Something the ECKS hypothesis does manage to do is to provide an explanation for cosmic inflation. Matter and energy crunched within a black hole should achieve a state of isotropy and homogeneity (i.e. no wrinkles) – and when it expands into a new universe through a hypothetical wormhole, this is driven by the unwinding of the spacetime torsion that was built up within the black hole. So you have an explanation for why a universe expands – and why it is so isotropic and homogenous.

Despite there not being the slightest bit of evidence to support it, this does rank as an interesting idea.

Further reading: Poplawski, N.J. (2010) Cosmology with torsion – an alternative to cosmic inflation.

Is Our Universe Inside Another Larger Universe?

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A wormhole is a hypothetical “tunnel” connecting two different points in spacetime, and in theory, at each end of the wormhole there could be two universes. Theoretical physicist Nikodem Poplawski from Indiana University has taken things a step further by proposing that perhaps our universe could be located within the interior of a wormhole which itself is part of a black hole that lies within a much larger universe.

Whoa. I may have just lost my bearings.

As crazy as the concept of wormholes sounds, it does offer solutions to the equations of Einstein’s general theory of relativity. In fact, wormholes – also called an Einstein-Rosen Bridge — offer such a great solution that some theorists think that real wormholes may eventually be found or even created, and perhaps they could even be used for high-speed travel between two areas in space, or maybe even time travel.

However, a known property of wormholes is that they are highly unstable and would probably collapse instantly if even the tiniest amount of matter, such as a single photon, tried to travel though them.

But would it work – and could matter exist — if we were inside a wormhole inside a black hole inside another universe? Poplawski thinks so. He takes advantage of the Euclidean-based coordinate system called isotropic coordinates to describe the gravitational field of a black hole and to model the radial geodesic motion of a massive particle into a black hole.

“This condition would be satisfied if our universe were the interior of a black hole existing in a bigger universe,” Poplawski said. “Because Einstein’s general theory of relativity does not choose a time orientation, if a black hole can form from the gravitational collapse of matter through an event horizon in the future then the reverse process is also possible. Such a process would describe an exploding white hole: matter emerging from an event horizon in the past, like the expanding universe.”

So, a white hole would be connected to a black hole a wormhole, and is hypothetically the time reversal of a black hole. (Oh my, I’m now dizzy…)

Poplawski’s paper suggests that all astrophysical black holes, not just Schwarzschild and Einstein-Rosen black holes, may have Einstein-Rosen bridges, each with a new universe inside that formed simultaneously with the black hole.

“From that it follows that our universe could have itself formed from inside a black hole existing inside another universe,” he said.

IU theoretical physicist Nikodem Poplawski. Credit: Indiana University

By continuing to study the gravitational collapse of a sphere of dust in isotropic coordinates, and by applying the current research to other types of black holes, views where the universe is born from the interior of an Einstein-Rosen black hole could avoid problems seen by scientists with the Big Bang theory and the black hole information loss problem which claims all information about matter is lost as it goes over the event horizon (in turn defying the laws of quantum physics).

Poplawski theorizes that this model in isotropic coordinates of the universe as a black hole could explain the origin of cosmic inflation.

Could this be tested? Well, there is the issue that to see if an object could travel through a wormhole, the observer would have to be inside the wormhole as well, since the interior cannot be observed unless an observer enters or resides within.

A possible solution is that exotic matter wouldn’t collapse the wormhole, so we’d have to create – and be made of – exotic matter to keep the it open. But perhaps, as Poplawski proposes, if the wormhole is inside a black hole inside another universe it would work.

Anyone ready to give it a try?

Radial motion into an Einstein-Rosen bridge,” Physics Letters B, by Nikodem J. Poplawski. (Volume 687, Issues 2-3, 12 April 2010, Pages 110-113.

Sources: Indiana University
, Internet Encyclopedia of Science