Special relativity: a first encounter, 100 years since Einstein


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Capturing the uncapturable

Since light is deflected in a gravitational field, it is possible for the light of a distant object to reach an observer along two or more paths. For instance, light of a very distant object such as a quasar can pass along one side of a massive galaxy and be deflected slightly so as to reach an observer on Earth, while light passing along the opposite side of that same galaxy is deflected as well, reaching the same observer from a slightly different direction.

As a result, that particular observer will see one astronomical object in two different places in the night sky. This kind of focussing is well known when it comes to optical lenses , and hence the corresponding gravitational effect is called gravitational lensing.


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Observational astronomy uses lensing effects as an important tool to infer properties of the lensing object. Even in cases where that object is not directly visible, the shape of a lensed image provides information about the mass distribution responsible for the light deflection. In particular, gravitational lensing provides one way to measure the distribution of dark matter , which does not give off light and can be observed only by its gravitational effects. One particularly interesting application are large-scale observations, where the lensing masses are spread out over a significant fraction of the observable universe, and can be used to obtain information about the large-scale properties and evolution of our cosmos.

Gravitational waves , a direct consequence of Einstein's theory, are distortions of geometry that propagate at the speed of light, and can be thought of as ripples in spacetime.

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They should not be confused with the gravity waves of fluid dynamics , which are a different concept. In February , the Advanced LIGO team announced that they had directly observed gravitational waves from a black hole merger. Indirectly, the effect of gravitational waves had been detected in observations of specific binary stars. Such pairs of stars orbit each other and, as they do so, gradually lose energy by emitting gravitational waves. In such a system, one of the orbiting stars is a pulsar.

This has two consequences: a pulsar is an extremely dense object known as a neutron star , for which gravitational wave emission is much stronger than for ordinary stars. Also, a pulsar emits a narrow beam of electromagnetic radiation from its magnetic poles. As the pulsar rotates, its beam sweeps over the Earth, where it is seen as a regular series of radio pulses, just as a ship at sea observes regular flashes of light from the rotating light in a lighthouse.

This regular pattern of radio pulses functions as a highly accurate "clock". It can be used to time the double star's orbital period, and it reacts sensitively to distortions of spacetime in its immediate neighborhood. Since then, several other binary pulsars have been found. The most useful are those in which both stars are pulsars, since they provide accurate tests of general relativity.

The Experiment That Made Einstein Famous - WSJ

Currently, a number of land-based gravitational wave detectors are in operation, and a mission to launch a space-based detector, LISA , is currently under development, with a precursor mission LISA Pathfinder which was launched in Gravitational wave observations can be used to obtain information about compact objects such as neutron stars and black holes , and also to probe the state of the early universe fractions of a second after the Big Bang.

Certain types of black holes are thought to be the final state in the evolution of massive stars. On the other hand, supermassive black holes with the mass of millions or billions of Suns are assumed to reside in the cores of most galaxies , and they play a key role in current models of how galaxies have formed over the past billions of years.

Matter falling onto a compact object is one of the most efficient mechanisms for releasing energy in the form of radiation , and matter falling onto black holes is thought to be responsible for some of the brightest astronomical phenomena imaginable. Notable examples of great interest to astronomers are quasars and other types of active galactic nuclei. Under the right conditions, falling matter accumulating around a black hole can lead to the formation of jets , in which focused beams of matter are flung away into space at speeds near that of light.

There are several properties that make black holes most promising sources of gravitational waves. One reason is that black holes are the most compact objects that can orbit each other as part of a binary system; as a result, the gravitational waves emitted by such a system are especially strong. Another reason follows from what are called black-hole uniqueness theorems : over time, black holes retain only a minimal set of distinguishing features these theorems have become known as "no-hair" theorems , regardless of the starting geometric shape.

For instance, in the long term, the collapse of a hypothetical matter cube will not result in a cube-shaped black hole. Instead, the resulting black hole will be indistinguishable from a black hole formed by the collapse of a spherical mass. In its transition to a spherical shape, the black hole formed by the collapse of a more complicated shape will emit gravitational waves.

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One of the most important aspects of general relativity is that it can be applied to the universe as a whole. A key point is that, on large scales, our universe appears to be constructed along very simple lines: all current observations suggest that, on average, the structure of the cosmos should be approximately the same, regardless of an observer's location or direction of observation: the universe is approximately homogeneous and isotropic.

Such comparatively simple universes can be described by simple solutions of Einstein's equations. The current cosmological models of the universe are obtained by combining these simple solutions to general relativity with theories describing the properties of the universe's matter content, namely thermodynamics , nuclear- and particle physics. Einstein's equations can be generalized by adding a term called the cosmological constant. When this term is present, empty space itself acts as a source of attractive or, less commonly, repulsive gravity.

Einstein originally introduced this term in his pioneering paper on cosmology, with a very specific motivation: contemporary cosmological thought held the universe to be static, and the additional term was required for constructing static model universes within the framework of general relativity.


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  7. When it became apparent that the universe is not static, but expanding, Einstein was quick to discard this additional term. General relativity is very successful in providing a framework for accurate models which describe an impressive array of physical phenomena. On the other hand, there are many interesting open questions, and in particular, the theory as a whole is almost certainly incomplete. In contrast to all other modern theories of fundamental interactions , general relativity is a classical theory: it does not include the effects of quantum physics.

    The quest for a quantum version of general relativity addresses one of the most fundamental open questions in physics. While there are promising candidates for such a theory of quantum gravity , notably string theory and loop quantum gravity , there is at present no consistent and complete theory. It has long been hoped that a theory of quantum gravity would also eliminate another problematic feature of general relativity: the presence of spacetime singularities. These singularities are boundaries "sharp edges" of spacetime at which geometry becomes ill-defined, with the consequence that general relativity itself loses its predictive power.

    Furthermore, there are so-called singularity theorems which predict that such singularities must exist within the universe if the laws of general relativity were to hold without any quantum modifications. The best-known examples are the singularities associated with the model universes that describe black holes and the beginning of the universe.

    Other attempts to modify general relativity have been made in the context of cosmology. In the modern cosmological models, most energy in the universe is in forms that have never been detected directly, namely dark energy and dark matter. There have been several controversial proposals to remove the need for these enigmatic forms of matter and energy, by modifying the laws governing gravity and the dynamics of cosmic expansion , for example modified Newtonian dynamics. Beyond the challenges of quantum effects and cosmology, research on general relativity is rich with possibilities for further exploration: mathematical relativists explore the nature of singularities and the fundamental properties of Einstein's equations, [46] and ever more comprehensive computer simulations of specific spacetimes such as those describing merging black holes are run.

    Additional resources, including more advanced material, can be found in General relativity resources. From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Theory of gravity by Albert Einstein.

    6 editions of this work

    This article is a non-technical introduction to the subject. For the main encyclopedia article, see General relativity. Introduction History. Fundamental concepts. Principle of relativity Theory of relativity Frame of reference Inertial frame of reference Rest frame Center-of-momentum frame Equivalence principle Mass—energy equivalence Special relativity Doubly special relativity de Sitter invariant special relativity World line Riemannian geometry.

    Equations Formalisms. Main article: Equivalence principle. Physics portal Astronomy portal. General relativity Introduction to the mathematics of general relativity Introduction to special relativity History of general relativity Tests of general relativity Numerical relativity Derivations of the Lorentz transformations List of books on general relativity. A precis of Newtonian gravity can be found in Schutz , chapters 2—4. It is impossible to say whether the problem of Newtonian gravity crossed Einstein's mind before , but, by his own admission, his first serious attempts to reconcile that theory with special relativity date to that year, cf.

    General relativity: How Einstein's theory explains the universe, and more

    Pais , p. Norton Janssen , p. Einstein himself also explains this in section XX of his non-technical book Einstein Following earlier ideas by Ernst Mach , Einstein also explored centrifugal forces and their gravitational analogue, cf. Stachel He considered an object "suspended" by a rope from the ceiling of a room aboard an accelerating rocket: from inside the room it looks as if gravitation is pulling the object down with a force proportional to its mass, but from outside the rocket it looks as if the rope is simply transferring the acceleration of the rocket to the object, and must therefore exert just the "force" to do so.

    For simple derivations of this, see Harrison This part of the historical development is traced in Pais , section 12b. More complete treatments on a fairly elementary level can be found e. General Relativity and Gravitation. Bibcode : GReGr.. Poisson An introduction using only very simple mathematics is given in chapter 19 of Schutz For the most precise measurements to date, see Bertotti Abbott et al.

    Physical Review Letters. Bibcode : PhRvL.

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    For an up-to-date account of the role of black holes in structure formation, see Springel et al. A treatment that is more thorough, yet involves only comparatively little mathematics can be found in Robson Using undergraduate mathematics but avoiding the advanced mathematical tools of general relativity, Berry provides a more thorough presentation. Chang, Hasok Darrigol, Olivier Goenner, Hubert a. Science in Context.

    Goenner, Hubert b.

    Special relativity: a first encounter, 100 years since Einstein Special relativity: a first encounter, 100 years since Einstein
    Special relativity: a first encounter, 100 years since Einstein Special relativity: a first encounter, 100 years since Einstein
    Special relativity: a first encounter, 100 years since Einstein Special relativity: a first encounter, 100 years since Einstein
    Special relativity: a first encounter, 100 years since Einstein Special relativity: a first encounter, 100 years since Einstein
    Special relativity: a first encounter, 100 years since Einstein Special relativity: a first encounter, 100 years since Einstein
    Special relativity: a first encounter, 100 years since Einstein Special relativity: a first encounter, 100 years since Einstein
    Special relativity: a first encounter, 100 years since Einstein Special relativity: a first encounter, 100 years since Einstein
    Special relativity: a first encounter, 100 years since Einstein Special relativity: a first encounter, 100 years since Einstein

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