People seem to be harbouring the impression that there is no good theory of Gravity yet. I asked a few friends – most thought Newton had explained it, but couldn’t explain it themselves. This is rather sad, 80-odd years after a darn good theory was proposed.
Of course there is still some controvery and the odd contradiction with other beloved theories, but the heart of the General Theory of Relativity really does a great job of explaining gravity and it is really wonderfully beautiful, and can be roughly explained without recourse to jargon and equations.
This is a theory that’s just so darn elegant, it looks, smells and tastes right – once you get it. Of course, the ‘taste’ of a theory doesn’t hold much water; for a theory to survive it needs to make testable predictions (this one does) and needs to survive all manner of logical challenges (so-far-so-good for this one too).
This is not a theory that needs to remain the exclusive domain of physicists, so for my own personal development as a scientist and writer, I thought I might try an exercise in explaining what gravity is – according to the general theory of relativity.
For some reason, my wife thinks this is strange behaviour!
The story really got started when Einstien realised that someone in an accelerating spaceship would experience forces indistinguishable from the gravity felt back on Earth.
He or she could drop things and they would fall to the floor (assuming the spaceship is accellerating upwards) just as they would fall on earth.
So perhaps that’s all gravity is… some sort of accelleration? Let’s see.
In the spaceship, it’s clear to us that the objects would appear to fall to the floor, but in reality, it is the floor of the spaceship that is rushing up towards the objects – this explains why things fall at the same speed whether heavy or light, matching Galileo’s own test results when he dropped various things, supposedly from the leaning tower of Pisa. It further implies that things will ‘fall’ even if they have no mass at all… such as light beams.
The thought experiment goes thus: Consider if you had a laser-beam shining across the spaceship control room; it would curve slightly downwards, because the light hitting the opposite wall would have been emitted a little time ago, when the spaceship was a little way back, and going a bit slower (remember, its accellerating).
We know the light is not bending, it is just that the source is accellerating, resulting in a curved beam. Imagine a machine-gun spraying bullets across a field – as you swing the gun back and forth the bullets may form curved streams of bullets, but each individual bullet still goes straight.
So Einstein suggested that perhaps light beams will bend in this same way here on earth under a gravitational field. Now Newton’s theory of gravity says light beams may also bend if they have ‘mass’, but the mass of light is a dodgy concept at best (it has inertia but no rest mass, but that’s a whole different blog posting). Anyway, even it it does have mass, it would bend differently from what Einstien predicted. So the race was on to see how much gravity could bend light…
This bending of light prediction was proven by a fellow called Eddington who showed that during a solar eclipse, light from distant stars was indeed bent as it passed near the sun, and by exactly the predicted angle.
Einstein went further though, suggested that light beams on Earth are, just like on the spaceship, really travelling straight, and only appear to bend, and that this can be so if space-time itself is curved. They are going straight, but in curved space.
We know that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, but if that line is on a curved surface, supposedly straight lines can do strange things – like looping back on themselves. Think of the equator. This model therefore allows things like planets to travel in straight lines around the sun (yes, you read right).
The model has been tested and shown to work, and gives good predictions for planetary motion.
So what can we take home from all this?
Well mainly, if this model is right, we need to let it sink in that gravity may not be a force at all, but an illusion, like the centrifugal ‘force’ you experience when you drive around a corner.