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In particle physics and physical cosmology, the Planck scale (named after Max Planck) is an energy scale around 1.22 × 1019 GeV (which corresponds by the mass–energy equivalence to the Planck mass 2.17645 × 10−8 kg) at which quantum effects of gravity become strong. At this scale, present descriptions and theories of sub-atomic particle interactions in terms of quantum field theory break down and become inadequate, due to the impact of the apparent non-renormalizability of gravity within current theories.
At the Planck scale, the strength of gravity is expected to become comparable with the other forces, and it is theorized that all the fundamental forces are unified at that scale, but the exact mechanism of this unification remains unknown. The Planck scale is therefore the point where the effects of quantum gravity can no longer be ignored in other fundamental interactions, and where current calculations and approaches begin to break down, and a means to take account of its impact is required.
While physicists have a fairly good understanding of the other fundamental interactions of forces on the quantum level, gravity is problematic, and cannot be integrated with quantum mechanics at very high energies using the usual framework of quantum field theory. At lesser energy levels it is usually ignored, while for energies approaching or exceeding the Planck scale, a new theory of quantum gravity is required. The current leading approaches are string theory and M-theory. Other approaches to this problem include loop quantum gravity, noncommutative geometry, and Causal set theory.
The term Planck scale can also refer to a length scale or time scale.
|Planck time||5.39121 × 10−44 s|
|Planck mass||2.17645 × 10−8 kg|
|Planck length (ℓP)||1.616252×10−35 m|
The Planck length is related to Planck energy by the uncertainty principle. At this scale, the concepts of size and distance break down, as quantum indeterminacy becomes virtually absolute. Because the Schwarzschild radius of a black hole is roughly equal to the Compton wavelength at the Planck scale, a photon with sufficient energy to probe this realm would yield no information whatsoever. Any photon energetic enough to precisely measure a Planck-sized object could actually create a particle of that dimension, but it would be massive enough to immediately become a black hole (a.k.a. Planck particle), thus completely distorting that region of space, and swallowing the photon. This is the most extreme example possible of the uncertainty principle, and explains why only a quantum gravity theory reconciling general relativity with quantum mechanics will allow us to understand the dynamics of space-time at this scale. Planck scale dynamics are important for cosmology because if we trace the evolution of the cosmos back to the very beginning, at some very early stage the universe should have been so hot that processes involving energies as high as the Planck energy (corresponding to distances as short as the Planck length) may have occurred. This period is therefore called the Planck era or Planck epoch.
The nature of reality at the Planck scale is the subject of much debate in the world of physics, as it relates to a surprisingly broad range of topics. It may, in fact, be a fundamental aspect of the universe. In terms of size, the Planck scale is extremely small (many orders of magnitude smaller than a proton). In terms of energy, it is extremely 'hot' and energetic. The wavelength of a photon (and therefore its size) decreases as its frequency or energy increases. The fundamental limit for a photon's energy is the Planck energy, for the reasons cited above. This makes the Planck scale a fascinating realm for speculation by theoretical physicists from various schools of thought. Is the Planck scale domain a seething mass of virtual black holes? Is it a fabric of unimaginably fine loops or a spin foam network? Maybe at this fundamental level all that remains of space-time is the causal order? Is it interpenetrated by innumerable Calabi–Yau manifolds, which connect our 3-dimensional universe with a higher-dimensional space? Perhaps our 3-D universe is 'sitting' on a 'brane' which separates it from a 2, 5, or 10-dimensional universe and this accounts for the apparent 'weakness' of gravity in ours. These approaches, among several others, are being considered to gain insight into Planck scale dynamics. This would allow physicists to create a unified description of all the fundamental forces.
Experiments probing the Planck scale
Experimental evidence of Planck scale dynamics is difficult to obtain, and until quite recently was scant to non-existent. Although it remains impossible to probe this realm directly, as those energies are well beyond the capability of any current or planned particle accelerator, there possibly was a time when the universe itself achieved Planck scale energies, and we have measured the afterglow of that era with instruments such as the WMAP probe, which recently accumulated sufficient data to allow scientists to probe back to the first trillionth of a second after the Big Bang, near the electroweak phase transition. This is still several orders of magnitude away from the Planck epoch, when the universe was at the Planck scale, but planned probes such as Planck Surveyor and related experiments such as IceCube  expect to greatly improve on current astrophysical measurements.
Results from the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider have pushed back the particle physics frontier to discover the fluid nature of the quark–gluon plasma, and this process will be augmented by the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, pushing back the 'cosmic clock' for particle physics still further. This is likely to add to the understanding of Planck scale dynamics, and sharpen the knowledge of what evolves from that state. No experiment current or planned will allow the precise probing or complete understanding of the Planck scale. Nonetheless, enough data has already been accumulated to narrow the field of workable inflationary universe theories, and to eliminate some theorized extensions to the Standard Model.
- Greene, Brian. The Elegant Universe. pp. 207–208. ISBN 0-375-70811-1.
- Arkani-Hamed, Nima; Savas Dimopoulos, Gia Dvali, Nemanja Kaloper (1999-11-17). "Manyfold Universe". Journal of High Energy Physics 2000 (12): 010. arXiv:hep-ph/9911386. Bibcode:2000JHEP...12..010A. doi:10.1088/1126-6708/2000/12/010.
- "IceCube home page". University of Wisconsin-Madison. Retrieved 8 April 2014.
- The Planck scale: relativity meets quantum mechanics meets gravity from 'Einstein Light' at UNSW
- The Planck Era from U of Tennessee Astrophysics pages
- Higher-Dimensional Algebra and Planck-Scale Physics by John C. Baez
- Six easy roads to the Planck scale