Could space as we know it be just one possible phase of the universe, able to undergo a transition to or from an entirely alien structure? This video animation shows how that might happen, according to a model known as quantum graphity, developed by theoretical physicists Tomasz Konopka, Fotini Markopoulou, Lee Smolin, and others. (The name is a pun: quantum graphity is an attempt to create a theory of quantum gravity. None of the creators of the theory I’ve talked to has been willing to take credit for the comedic effort.)
Quantum graphity conceives of the universe as a network—a graph—of elementary grains. It begins in a highly energized, fully interconnected state, with every grain linked to every other grain. You could go from any grain to any other grain in one hop, without passing through any intermediate points, and you couldn’t subdivide the universe into separate chunks. Such a universe couldn’t be described as spatial.
Then the network loses energy, prunes its links, and transforms into a regular grid, as if condensing from a chaotic gas into a orderly crystalline structure. Some grains are close together, the rest far apart, so the universe has a notion of distance: it acquires the properties of a system existing in space. The theory is very bare-bones, but offers a plausible scenario for how the space we experience might emerge from a deeper reality.