BOSTON, Feb. 17 (UPI) -- Scientists said Sunday they expect to discover so-called space warps -- hidden extra dimensions of existence other than space and time -- within the next three years by making energy apparently vanish into thin air.
These new dimensions, warped up into extraordinarily small balls, may have the potential to help scientists develop a theory that unites all the forces of the universe -- from gravity to electromagnetism -- under one master explanation.
"The way we think about things is about to change completely," said lead researcher Maria Spiropulu, an experimental physicist at the Enrico Fermi Institute at the University of Chicago. "This is truly a revolution in the way we understand our world."
This "grand unified theory" may in turn help scientists detect new extra-dimensional forms of matter and finally unlock the secrets of cosmic phenomena, such as the microwave afterglow of the Big Bang, black holes and dark matter.
"We would understand the physics of black holes. We would understand the physics of the cosmic microwave background," Spiropulu told UPI. "It would be big."
Science is able to explain how electromagnetism and nuclear forces control the microscopic particle world and how gravity works on large scales. When scientists try to explain how gravity acts on particles, however, the result is mathematical gobbledygook, Spiropulu explained Sunday at an annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
For a century, tantalizing theories have suggested gravity and electromagnetism may work together in realms we cannot yet mathematically define -- in extra dimensions. These dimensions are hypothetically not infinite, like the three spatial dimensions of length, width and height, but instead are finite and tightly bundled into spheres, poles or other geometric shapes billions of times smaller than the wavelengths of light.
"It sounds outrageous," Spiropulu said. "To be honest, we don't know what the heck is going on at these length scales."
This notion of extra dimensions is gaining favor in the science world under "superstring theory," the idea that the fundamental building blocks of the universe are not points in space but tiny, tightly bundled vibrating loops or "strings." These loops are warped into extra dimensions and therefore do not look like strings, much as how a strand of yarn seen end on end would only resemble a point.
There is no undeniable proof of this theory -- yet. While scientists around the world are searching for trace evidence that implies extra dimensions, Spiropulu suggests an innovative strategy to directly observe the hidden realms -- by making energy disappear into the dimensions, thus revealing their existence.
In her experiments, protons going at almost light speed are smashed against their antimatter opposites, antiprotons. If measurably less energy is produced than went into the experiment -- an apparent violation of the law of conservation of energy -- this imbalance "is a viable signal that there is an extra dimension," Spiropulu said. "We hope by 2005 to have great results on this topic."
Such findings could be extraordinary, suggesting that quarks -- the fundamental building blocks of the universe -- may have mirror cousins in other realms. In addition, Spiropulu said the invisible "dark matter" physicists say must exist to explain the shape of the universe might be found in these extra dimensions.
"Only a couple of years ago, extra dimensions were thought to be completely unobservable," said Nobel laureate Leon Lederman of the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy outside Chicago. "The extra dimensions may now be observable. This is news that has many possibilities."