Einstein's Relativity Food for thought

At Big Think: Without Einstein, we might have missed General Relativity

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Einstein’s “happiest thought” led to General Relativity’s formulation. Would a different profound insight have led us forever astray?

KEY TAKEAWAYS

  • Prior to Einstein’s arrival on the scene, there were a few problems with Newtonian physics: it didn’t work correctly at high speeds, and the observed orbit of Mercury didn’t match the theoretical predictions. 
  • After his insights that led us to Special Relativity, Einstein had what he called “his happiest thought,” which was the equivalence principle, leading him to formulate the General theory of Relativity. 
  • But if he, or anyone else, had a different set of insights instead, it could have led to an “epicycle” style fix to Newtonian gravity that solved the immediate problem but didn’t describe the underlying physics at all. 

Back in the late 1800s, what we thought of as “fundamental science” was rapidly advancing, leading to two different conflicting perspectives. Among most of the old guard, Maxwell’s theory of electromagnetism represented a spectacular achievement: making sense of electricity and magnetism as a single, unified phenomenon. Along with Newtonian gravity and the mechanical laws of motion, it seemed that everything in the Universe could soon be explained. But many others, including many young and emerging scientists, saw precisely the opposite: a Universe on the verge of a crisis.

At speeds approaching the speed of light, time dilation and length contraction violated Newton’s laws of motion. When we tracked the orbit of Mercury over centuries, we found that its precession deviated from the Newtonian prediction by a small but significant amount. And phenomena like radioactivity simply couldn’t be explained within the existing framework.

Back in the late 1800s, what we thought of as “fundamental science” was rapidly advancing, leading to two different conflicting perspectives. Among most of the old guard, Maxwell’s theory of electromagnetism represented a spectacular achievement: making sense of electricity and magnetism as a single, unified phenomenon. Along with Newtonian gravity and the mechanical laws of motion, it seemed that everything in the Universe could soon be explained. But many others, including many young and emerging scientists, saw precisely the opposite: a Universe on the verge of a crisis.

At speeds approaching the speed of light, time dilation and length contraction violated Newton’s laws of motion. When we tracked the orbit of Mercury over centuries, we found that its precession deviated from the Newtonian prediction by a small but significant amount. And phenomena like radioactivity simply couldn’t be explained within the existing framework.

The coming decades would see many revolutionary developments take place: special relativity, quantum mechanics, mass-energy equivalence, and nuclear physics among them. But perhaps the most imaginative leap forward was Einstein’s General Relativity, which only came about because of one key realization. If things had played out just slightly differently, we might still be chasing after that game-changing theoretical insight today.

For hundreds of years, since the time of Tycho Brahe, we had tracked the perihelion of Mercury as it approached the Sun at its closest, and found something shocking: unlike the predictions of Newtonian gravity, Mercury did not return to the same place with each completed orbit!

This was a bit of a puzzle. Under the laws of Newtonian gravity, any negligibly small mass in a stable gravitational orbit around a large, unmoving one would have to make a closed ellipse: returning to its exact same starting point upon completing each revolution. However, there were two known factors that should complicate this about the planet Mercury’s orbit as observed from Earth.

  1. Planet Earth has equinoxes, and those equinoxes precess as our rotation axis migrates over time. With each passing century, this accounts for 5025 arc-seconds of precession, where 3600 arc-seconds makes up 1°.
  2. There are other masses in the Solar System that also exert gravitational forces on all of the other masses, leading to an additional precession effect. From the seven other major planets, Venus through Neptune, Mercury gains an additional 532 arc-seconds of precession per century.

All told, that’s a predicted precession of 5557 arc-seconds per century. And yet, even in the early 1900s, we had conclusively determined that the observed precession was more like 5600 arc-seconds per century, with an uncertainty of less than 0.1% in that figure. Newtonian gravity, somehow, was still failing us.

Other ideas included modifying Newton’s gravity. Simon Newcomb and Asaph Hall took Newton’s law of gravitation and decided to modify the exponent attached to the inverse-square force law — the “2” in the 1/r part of Newtonian gravity — to account for Mercury’s precession. Instead of being exactly 2, they noted that if the exponent in the force law were changed to “2 + ε,” where ε (the Greek letter epsilon) was some tiny number that could be tuned to match the observations, Mercury’s perihelion precession could be explained without messing up the orbits of any of the other planets. It was a clever, but ultimately incorrect and insufficient, approach.

Einstein imagined being in some sort of a room, with that room accelerating through space. Then he asked himself what sort of measurement, if any, could he make from within that room that would distinguish that accelerating room-in-motion from an identical room that was stationary, but in a gravitational field?

His spectacular realization — that there would be none — led him to the conclusion that what we experienced as gravity wasn’t a “force” at all in the old, Newtonian, action-at-a-distance sort of sense. Instead, just as objects in motion relative to one another experienced their passage through space and time differently, gravitation must represent some sort of alteration for how an observer experienced the spacetime through which they passed. 

Einstein went off, enlisted the help of others, and mathematically began thinking of how the presence of matter-and-energy would curve and distort the very fabric of spacetime. In 1915, this culminated in the release of General Relativity in its final form. Mass (and energy) told spacetime how to curve, and that curved spacetime told all matter and energy how to move through it.

The author points out that other, ad-hoc modifications to Newtonian gravity (like adding epicycles to the geocentric model of the solar system) could have given a match between theory and observations. But such a “solution” would have lacked the profound insights into spacetime that formed the foundation of Einstein’s General Relativity, and the theory wouldn’t have actually given a true description of how nature works.

In science, finding one fix that works for one problem (or a small set of similar problems) among many isn’t the way our understanding of the Universe advances. Sure, it may make us feel better when we have a successful description of things, but getting the right answer for the wrong reason can often lead us even farther astray than not being able to obtain the right answer at all.

The hallmark of a good scientific theory is that it can explain:

  • a wide variety of existing observations,
  • across a broad range of timescales, distance scales, energy scales, and other physical conditions,
  • can make new predictions that differ from the previously prevailing theory,
  • and that those predictions can be put to the test, either validating it or refuting it,

while introducing the fewest number of new free parameters possible. Today, a Universe governed by General Relativity, that began with an inflationary state that gave rise to the hot Big Bang, and that contains some form of dark matter and dark energy in addition to the “normal stuff,” is the most remarkably successful picture we’ve ever concocted. But as awesome as our successes are, we’re still searching for a better, more successful description of reality. Whether there is one or not, the only way we’ll find out is to keep on trying, and letting nature itself be the ultimate arbiter of the only important question we can ask: what is true?

Complete article at Big Think

In considering “the only important question we can ask”, namely, “What is true?”, can we think of any commonly held theory that matches some of the data, but has had to be propped up by various “epicycles,” and may “lead us even farther astray” by missing a profound understanding of reality?

4 Replies to “At Big Think: Without Einstein, we might have missed General Relativity

  1. 1
    relatd says:

    This article is highly speculative. While giving due credit to Einstein, it can only offer a few other points about electricity and magnetism. Gravity is affected by mass and and angular momentum. In other words, a large object will attract other objects for reasons unknown. It does not have to be in motion to do this. I think Einstein had insufficient information about traveling at the speed of light. That as a spaceship, for example, approached the speed of light it would need infinite energy and gain infinite mass. The mathematics do not make sense. Gamma ray bursts can travel faster than light and release Cherenkov radiation. Why? Unknown.

    That said, I don’t see spaceships traveling near the speed of light anytime soon. However, if man is going to explore other solar systems, a faster than light drive would be required.

  2. 2
    Caspian says:

    The mathematics of special relativity is straightforward, and the formulas thereof show that as the velocity of an object approaches the speed of light, the momentum and kinetic energy of that object approach infinity.
    Gamma ray bursts do not travel faster than light. Cherenkov radiation is emitted by high-energy particles that enter a material and end up temporarily moving faster than the speed of light in that material. The speed of light in a material (v) is equal to the speed of light in vacuum (c) divided by the refractive index of the material (n). As an equation, this is v = c/n. There’s no conflict with Einstein’s relativity theory here.

  3. 3
    TAMMIE LEE HAYNES says:

    Good question

    “Can we think of any commonly held theory that matches some of the data, but has had to be propped up by various “epicycles,” and may “lead us even farther astray” by missing a profound understanding of reality?”

    As a Creationist, let me offer a few obvious ones:
    – Evolution
    – Naturalistic Origin of the Universe
    – Gender Fluidity
    – Catastrophic Global Warming
    – Naturalistic Abiogenesis

    Anybody got some others?

  4. 4
    awstar says:

    Erwin Schr ?odinger (1887-1961) presented another argument showing that general relativity does not comply with Mach’s principle [125] and [83]. In this article he says: “The general theory of relativity too in its original form2 could not yet satisfy the Machian requirement, as was soon recognized. After the secular precession of the perihelion of Mercury was deduced, in amazing agreement with experiment, from it, every naive person had to ask: With respect to what, according to the theory, does the orbital ellipse perform this precession, which according to experience takes place with respect to the average system of the fixed stars? The answer that one receives is that the theory requires this precession to take place with respect to a coordinate system in which the gravitational potentials satisfy certain boundary conditions at infinity. However, the connection between these boundary conditions and the presence of the masses of the fixed stars was in no way clear, since these last were not included in the calculation at all.” As the fixed stars were not included in the calculations of the precession of the perihelion of the planets in general relativity, it does not make sense to say that this precession is relative to the stars. On the other hand, the observations made by astronomers indicate that this precession happens relative to the background of fixed stars. This can only be a coincidence in general relativity. In relational mechanics this will no longer be a coincidence. It will be shown that it is the distant universe which generates the inertial force ?m?a or the kinetic energy mv2/2. The distant universe has a fundamental influence over the bodies of the solar system. The precession of the perihelion calculated with relational mechanics is really relative to the distant universe, and not relative to an abstract frame disconnected from the distant matter in the cosmos.

    Relational Mechanics pg 154
    Andre K.T. Assis

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