The origins of loop quantum gravity can be traced back to the 1980s, when Abhay Ashtekar, now at Pennsylvania State University in University Park, rewrote Einstein's equations of general relativity in a quantum framework. Smolin and Carlo Rovelli of the University of the Mediterranean in Marseille, France, later developed Ashtekar's ideas and discovered that in the new framework, space is not smooth and continuous but instead comprises indivisible chunks just 10-35 (Rajeev: 10 to the power of -35) metres in diameter. Loop quantum gravity then defines space-time as a network of abstract links that connect these volumes of space, rather like nodes linked on an airline route map.
From the start, physicists noticed that these links could wrap around one another to form braid-like structures. Curious as these braids were, however, no one understood their meaning. "We knew about braiding in 1987," says Smolin, "but we didn't know if it corresponded to anything physical."
Instead of thinking of preons as particles that join together like Lego bricks, he concentrated on how they interact. After all, what we call a particle's properties are really nothing more than shorthand for the way it interacts with everything around it. Perhaps, he thought, he could work out how preons interact, and from that work out what they are.
To do this, Bilson-Thompson abandoned the idea that preons are point-like particles and theorised that they in fact possess length and width, like ribbons that could somehow interact by wrapping around each other. He supposed that these ribbons could cross over and under each other to form a braid when three preons come together to make a particle. Individual ribbons can also twist clockwise or anticlockwise along their length. Each twist, he imagined, would endow the preon with a charge equivalent to one-third of the charge on an electron, and the sign of the charge depends on the direction of the twist.
The simplest braid possible in Bilson-Thompson's model looks like a deformed pretzel and corresponds to an electron neutrino (see Graphic). Flip it over in a mirror and you have its antimatter counterpart, the electron anti-neutrino. Add three clockwise twists and you have something that behaves just like an electron; three
anticlockwise twists and you have a positron. Bilson-Thompson's model also produces photons and the W and Z bosons, the particles that carry the electromagnetic and weak forces. In fact, these braided ribbons seem to map out the
entire zoo of particles in the standard model.
In Markopoulou and Kribs's version of loop quantum gravity, they considered the universe as a giant quantum computer, where each quantum of space is replaced by a bit of quantum information. Their calculations showed that the qubits' resilience would preserve the quantum braids in space-time, explaining how particles could be so long-lived amid the quantum turbulence.
Smolin, Markopoulou and Bilson-Thompson have now confirmed that the braiding of this quantum space-time can produce the lightest particles in the standard model - the electron, the "up" and "down" quarks, the electron neutrino and their antimatter partners
Meanwhile, Markopoulou's vision of the universe as a giant quantum computer might be more than a useful analogy: it might be true, according to some theorists. If so, there is one startling consequence: space itself might not exist. By replacing loop quantum gravity's chunks of space with qubits, what used to be a frame of reference - space itself - becomes just a web of information. If the notion of space ceases to have meaning at the smallest scale, Markopoulou says, some of the consequences of that could have been magnified by the expansion that followed the big bang. "My guess is that the non-existence of space has effects that are measurable, if you can only see it right." Because it's pretty hard to wrap your mind around what it means for there to be no space, she adds.