But, like Sorkin, Loll and her colleagues found that adding causality changed everything. After all, says Loll, the dimension of time is not quite like the three dimensions of space. “We cannot travel back and forth in time,” she says. So the team changed its simulations to ensure that effects could not come before their cause — and found that the space-time chunks started consistently assembling themselves into smooth four-dimensional universes with properties similar to our own10.
Intriguingly, the simulations also hint that soon after the Big Bang, the Universe went through an infant phase with only two dimensions — one of space and one of time. This prediction has also been made independently by others attempting to derive equations of quantum gravity, and even some who suggest that the appearance of dark energy is a sign that our Universe is now growing a fourth spatial dimension. Others have shown that a two-dimensional phase in the early Universe would create patterns similar to those already seen in the cosmic microwave background.


Meanwhile, Van Raamsdonk has proposed a very different idea about the emergence of space-time, based on the holographic principle. Inspired by the hologram-like way that black holes store all their entropy at the surface, this principle was first given an explicit mathematical form by Juan Maldacena, a string theorist at the Institute of Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, who published11 his influential model of a holographic universe in 1998. In that model, the three-dimensional interior of the universe contains strings and black holes governed only by gravity, whereas its two-dimensional boundary contains elementary particles and fields that obey ordinary quantum laws without gravity.
Hypothetical residents of the three-dimensional space would never see this boundary, because it would be infinitely far away. But that does not affect the mathematics: anything happening in the three-dimensional universe can be described equally well by equations in the two-dimensional boundary, and vice versa.
In 2010, Van Raamsdonk studied what that means when quantum particles on the boundary are 'entangled' — meaning that measurements made on one inevitably affect the other12. He discovered that if every particle entanglement between two separate regions of the boundary is steadily reduced to zero, so that the quantum links between the two disappear, the three-dimensional space responds by gradually dividing itself like a splitting cell, until the last, thin connection between the two halves snaps. Repeating that process will subdivide the three-dimensional space again and again, while the two-dimensional boundary stays connected. So, in effect, Van Raamsdonk concluded, the three-dimensional universe is being held together by quantum entanglement on the boundary — which means that in some sense, quantum entanglement and space-time are the same thing.
Or, as Maldacena puts it: “This suggests that quantum is the most fundamental, and space-time emerges from it.”