Physicists are searching for a theory of quantum gravity because the current laws governing gravity don’t work in all situations. Specifically, the theory of gravity seems to “break down” (that is, the equations become physically meaningless) in certain circumstances. To understand what this means, you must first understand a bit about what physicists know about gravity.

Gravity is an attractive force that binds objects together, seemingly across any amount of distance. The formulation of the classical theory of gravity by Sir Isaac Newton was one of the greatest achievements of physics. Two centuries later, the reinvention of gravity by Albert Einstein placed him in the pantheon of indisputably great scientific thinkers of all time.

Unless you’re a physicist, you probably take gravity for granted. It’s an amazing force, able to hold the heavens together while being overcome by a 3-year-old when he’s on a swing — but not for long. At the scale of an atom, gravity is irrelevant compared to the electromagnetic force. In fact, a simple magnet can overcome the entire force of the planet Earth to pick up metallic objects, from paper clips to automobiles.