Twenty-five particles and four forces. That description—the Standard Model of particle physics—constitutes physicists’ best current explanation for everything. It’s neat and it’s simple, but no one is entirely happy with it. What irritates physicists most is that one of the forces—gravity—sticks out like a sore thumb on a four-fingered hand. Gravity is different.

Unlike the electromagnetic force and the strong and weak nuclear forces, gravity is not a quantum theory. This isn’t only aesthetically unpleasing, it’s also a mathematical headache. We know that particles have both quantum properties and gravitational fields, so the gravitational field should have quantum properties like the particles that cause it. But a theory of quantum gravity has been hard to come by.

In the 1960s, Richard Feynman and Bryce DeWitt set out to quantize gravity using the same techniques that had successfully transformed electromagnetism into the quantum theory called quantum electrodynamics. Unfortunately, when applied to gravity, the known techniques resulted in a theory that, when extrapolated to high energies, was plagued by an infinite number of infinities. This quantization of gravity was thought incurably sick, an approximation useful only when gravity is weak.

Since then, physicists have made several other attempts at quantizing gravity in the hope of finding a theory that would also work when gravity is strong. String theory, loop quantum gravity, causal dynamical triangulation and a few others have been aimed toward that goal. So far, none of these theories has experimental evidence speaking for it. Each has mathematical pros and cons, and no convergence seems in sight. But while these approaches were competing for attention, an old rival has caught up.

The theory called asymptotically (as-em-TOT-ick-lee) safe gravity was proposed in 1978 by Steven Weinberg. Weinberg, who would only a year later share the Nobel Prize with Sheldon Lee Glashow and Abdus Salam for unifying the electromagnetic and weak nuclear force, realized that the troubles with the naive quantization of gravity are not a death knell for the theory. Even though it looks like the theory breaks down when extrapolated to high energies, this breakdown might never come to pass. But to be able to tell just what happens, researchers had to wait for new mathematical methods that have only recently become available.

In quantum theories, all interactions depend on the energy at which they take place, which means the theory changes as some interactions become more relevant, others less so. This change can be quantified by calculating how the numbers that enter the theory—collectively called “parameters”—depend on energy. The strong nuclear force, for example, becomes weak at high energies as a parameter known as the coupling constant approaches zero. This property is known as “asymptotic freedom,” and it was worth another Nobel Prize, in 2004, to Frank Wilczek, David Gross, and David Politzer.

A theory that is asymptotically free is well behaved at high energies; it makes no trouble. The quantization of gravity is not of this type, but, as Weinberg observed, a weaker criterion would do: For quantum gravity to work, researchers must be able to describe the theory at high energies using only a finite number of parameters. This is opposed to the situation they face in the naive extrapolation, which requires an infinite number of unspecifiable parameters. Furthermore, none of the parameters should themselves become infinite. These two requirements—that the number of parameters be finite and the parameters themselves be finite—make a theory “asymptotically safe.”