A Penn State scientist studying crystal structures has developed a new mathematical formula that may solve a decades-old problem in understanding spacetime, the fabric of the universe proposed in Einstein’s theories of relativity.

“Relativity tells us space and time can mix to form a single entity called spacetime, which is four-dimensional: three space-axes and one time-axis,” said Venkatraman Gopalan, professor of materials science and engineering and physics at Penn State. “However, something about the time-axis sticks out like sore thumb.”

For calculations to work within relativity, scientists must insert a negative sign on time values that they do not have to place on space values. Physicists have learned to work with the negative values, but it means that spacetime cannot be dealt with using traditional Euclidean geometry and instead must be viewed with the more complex hyperbolic geometry.