Wormholes are getting closer to being real: what this means

Sci-fi or reality? Scientists think they’re edging closer to proving their existence.
Alice Cooke
Wormholes 568px.jpg
  • A team of Bulgarian scientists think they have a method for detecting wormholes

  • This is the latest in a string of findings that support the plausibility of their existence

  • Scientists think we could measure light spilling out of black holes to confirm whether they are, in fact, wormholes

Wormholes are getting closer to being real: what this means

This story first appeared in our subscriber-only weekly Blueprint newsletter. Receive exclusive interviews and analyses like this, direct to your inbox every Sunday, by subscribing to IE+.

In science fiction, wormholes are shortcuts through space and time.

Imagine how handy that would be – it took us 9.5 years to get to Pluto, and our nearest star (not including the Sun) is more than 25 trillion miles away… so a wormhole could really speed things up. 

Anyway, the current update on the real-as-opposed-to-fictional status of wormholes, is that a team of scientists from the University of Sofia in Bulgaria think they have found a new way of detecting them… in theory. 

Yes, sadly, still in theory. 

A hole lot of theorizing

The thing is (well, one of the things) is that wormholes look just like black holes. And we’re not exactly well versed on all things black hole yet, let alone wormhole. 

But this team of scientists says its new mathematical model can help us to distinguish between the two, which is a giant leap (for mankind) in the right direction, surely?

Black holes suck in all the matter and light that surrounds them. One theory is (yes, theory again), that all that matter and light then gets ejected through a white hole, somewhere else in the universe, in the form of particles and radiation. 

The idea is (a lot of ideas and theories here, you will note) that a black hole, linked to a white hole, makes a wormhole (also known as an Einstein-Rosen bridge). 

The thinking is that these could stretch endless amounts of spacetime, so they could link distant regions of the universe that would otherwise take eons to traverse. 

The (not-so) hard evidence

The reason respectable scientists are still putting effort into wormholes is that, in theory, they are possible, according to Einstein’s general theory of relativity. But that also would mean that the mouths of wormholes close almost immediately after they open. 

Having said that though, in 1988, American physicists Kip Thorne and Michael Morris discovered the mouths could (in theory) be propped open with ‘exotic matter,’ meaning you could go through them.

The issue there though is that nobody knows whether exotic matter, (which is said to have  a gravitational repulsion rather than attraction), even exists. So that’s a stumbling block. 

But this isn’t over yet. Because, if exotic matter does exist, John Cramer (an American physicist) led a team in 1995 that discovered that with the presence of exotic matter, a wormhole might be detectable.

They hypothesized that if the mouth of a wormhole containing exotic matter passes between a distant star and the Earth, its repulsive gravity should cause the star’s light to dim. Which is… tangible.

However, immediately before and after the objects are aligned, the light would be focused. So it’s very fleetingly tangible. But tangible nonetheless.

The theory is that the passing wormhole’s mouth would cause a star’s light to brighten, fade and brighten again.

To further complicate this, in 2006, the physicist Kamal Kanti Nandi led a team in China that pointed out that if the supermassive black hole at the centre of our galaxy was a wormhole, it could actually create two images of a distant star.

However, these images would be just 17 millionths of an arcsecond apart, which means that detecting something like this is currently way more than our knowledge or technology can handle… but you never know what might happen in the future. 

(N.B. An arcsecond is an angular measurement equal to 1/3600 of a degree or 1/60 of an arcminute.)

The argument to the contrary

One of the primary (and, let’s be honest, most convincing) arguments against the existence of wormholes, is that the neck of the wormhole would probably collapse under the weight of its own gravity. 

Which leads us back to the exotic matter… if indeed that is a real thing. 

So what’s new?

The researchers from the University of Sofia think that the “throat” of a wormhole (to use their terrifying terminology) could look very similar to previously discovered black holes, including Sagittarius A*, which is at the center of our galaxy. 

Their new computer model shows that the radiation emanating from black holes might be almost impossible to differentiate from the radiation circling the outside of a wormhole.

Furthermore, they say the difference in the amount of light polarization emitted by a black hole and a wormhole would be less than four percent.

So what?

Well, not much, for the moment, because the technology to differentiate between the two doesn't exist. But… this same team of scientists believes we could one day use an incredibly precise instrument to measure light spilling out of black holes to confirm that they are, in fact, wormholes emitting electromagnetic radiation from a distant region of space.

See, it is quite exciting, really. 


Could we travel to a black hole?

The closest known black hole to Earth, Gaia BH1, is around 1,600 light-years away, in the constellation Ophiuchus. So… traveling the four light-years to our nearest star system, Alpha Centauri, may not even be possible within our lifetimes. But never say never!

Also… if we did reach a black hole, there would only be one way of finding out whether it was a wormhole or not… and that process might not necessarily involve them being able to come back and tell us all about it, if you catch my drift. 


This story first appeared in our subscriber-only weekly Blueprint newsletter. Receive exclusive interviews and analyses like this, direct to your inbox every Sunday, by subscribing to IE+.

Add Interesting Engineering to your Google News feed.
Add Interesting Engineering to your Google News feed.
message circleSHOW COMMENT (1)chevron
Job Board