Read The Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time, and the Texture of Reality Online
Authors: Brian Greene
Tags: #Science, #Cosmology, #Popular works, #Astronomy, #Physics, #Universe
Through special relativity, Einstein showed that every observer cuts up spacetime into parallel slices that he or she considers to be all of space at successive instants of time, with the unexpected twist that observers moving relative to one another at constant velocity will cut through spacetime at different angles. If one such observer should start accelerating, you might guess that the moment-to-moment changes in his speed and/or direction of motion would result in moment-to-moment changes in the angle and orientation of his slices. Roughly speaking, this is what happens. Einstein (using geometrical insights articulated by Carl Friedrich Gauss, Georg Bernhard Riemann, and other mathematicians in the nineteenth century) developed this idea—by fits and starts—and showed that the differently angled cuts through the spacetime loaf smoothly merge into slices that are
but fit together as perfectly as spoons in a silver-ware tray, as schematically illustrated in Figure 3.8.
observer carves spatial slices that are warped.
With this insight, Einstein was able to invoke the equivalence principle to profound effect. Since gravity and acceleration are equivalent, Einstein understood that gravity itself must be nothing but warps and curves in the fabric of spacetime. Let's see what this means.
If you roll a marble along a smooth wooden floor, it will travel in a straight line. But if you've recently had a terrible flood and the floor dried with all sorts of bumps and warps, a rolling marble will no longer travel along the same path. Instead, it will be guided this way and that by the warps and curves on the floor's surface. Einstein applied this simple idea to the fabric of the universe. He imagined that in the absence of matter or energy—no sun, no earth, no stars—spacetime, like the smooth wooden floor, has no warps or curves. It's flat. This is schematically illustrated in Figure 3.9a, in which we focus on one slice of space. Of course, space is really three dimensional, and so Figure 3.9b is a more accurate depiction, but drawings that illustrate two dimensions are easier to understand, so we'll continue to use them. Einstein then imagined that the presence of matter or energy has an effect on space much like the effect the flood had on the floor. Matter and energy, like the sun, cause space (and spacetime
) to warp and curve as illustrated in Figures 3.10a and 3.10b. And just as a marble rolling on the warped floor travels along a curved path, Einstein showed that anything moving through warped space—such as the earth moving in the vicinity of the sun—will travel along a curved trajectory, as illustrated in Figure 3.11a and Figure 3.11b.
It's as if matter and energy imprint a network of chutes and valleys along which objects are guided by the invisible hand of the spacetime fabric. That, according to Einstein, is how gravity exerts its influence. The same idea also applies closer to home. Right now, your body would like to slide down an indentation in the spacetime fabric caused by the earth's presence. But your motion is being blocked by the surface on which you're sitting or standing. The upward push you feel almost every moment of your life—be it from the ground, the floor of your house, the corner easy chair, or your kingsize bed—is acting to stop you from sliding down a valley in spacetime. By contrast, should you throw yourself off the high diving board, you are giving in to gravity by allowing your body to move freely along one of its spacetime chutes.
Figure 3.8 According to general relativity, not only will the spacetime loaf be sliced into space at moments of time at different angles (by observers in relative motion), but the slices themselves will be warped or curved by the presence of matter or energy.
Figures 3.9, 3.10, and 3.11 schematically illustrate the triumph of Einstein's ten-year struggle. Much of his work during these years aimed at determining the precise shape and size of the warping that would be caused by a given amount of matter or energy. The mathematical result Einstein found underlies these figures and is embodied in what are called the
Einstein field equations.
As the name indicates, Einstein viewed the warping of spacetime as the manifestation—the geometrical embodiment—of a gravitational field. By framing the problem geometrically,
Flat space (2-d version).
Flat space (3-d version).
The sun warping space (2-d version).
The sun warping space (3-d version).
Einstein was able to find equations that do for gravity what Maxwell's equations did for electromagnetism.
And by using these equations, Einstein and many others made predictions for the path that would be followed by this or that planet, or even by light emitted by a distant star, as it moves through curved spacetime. Not only have these predictions been confirmed to a high level of accuracy, but in head-to-head competition with the predictions of Newton's theory, Einstein's theory consistently matches reality with finer fidelity.
Of equal importance, since general relativity specifies the detailed mechanism by which gravity works, it provides a mathematical framework for determining how fast it transmits its influence. The speed of transmission comes down to the question of how fast the shape of space can change in time. That is, how quickly can warps and ripples—ripples like those on the surface of a pond caused by a plunging pebble—race from place to place through space? Einstein was able to work this out, and the answer he came to was enormously gratifying. He found that warps and ripples—gravity, that is—do not travel from place to place instantaneously, as they do in Newtonian calculations of gravity. Instead,
travel at exactly the speed of light.
Not a bit faster or slower, fully in keeping with the speed limit set by special relativity. If aliens plucked the moon from its orbit, the tides would recede a second and a half later, at the exact same moment we'd see that the moon had vanished. Where Newton's theory failed, Einstein's general relativity prevailed.
Figure 3.11 The earth stays in orbit around the sun because it follows curves in the spacetime fabric caused by the sun's presence.
Beyond giving the world a mathematically elegant, conceptually powerful, and, for the first time, fully consistent theory of gravity, the general theory of relativity also thoroughly reshaped our view of space and time. In both Newton's conception and that of special relativity, space and time provided an unchanging stage for the events of the universe. Even though the slicing of the cosmos into space at successive moments has a flexibility in special relativity unfathomable in Newton's age, space and time do not respond to happenings in the universe. Spacetime—the loaf, as we've been calling it—is taken as a given, once and for all. In general relativity, all this changes. Space and time become players in the evolving cosmos. They come alive. Matter here causes space to warp there, which causes matter over there to move, which causes space way over there to warp even more, and so on. General relativity provides the choreography for an entwined cosmic dance of space, time, matter, and energy.
This is a stunning development. But we now come back to our central theme: What about the bucket? Does general relativity provide the physical basis for Mach's relationist ideas, as Einstein hoped it would?
Over the years, this question has generated much controversy. Initially, Einstein thought that general relativity fully incorporated Mach's perspective, a viewpoint he considered so important that he christened it
In fact, in 1913, as Einstein was furiously working to put the final pieces of general relativity in place, he wrote Mach an enthusiastic letter in which he described how general relativity would confirm Mach's analysis of Newton's bucket experiment.
And in 1918, when Einstein wrote an article enumerating the three essential ideas behind general relativity, the third point in his list was Mach's principle. But general relativity is subtle and it had features that took many years for physicists, including Einstein himself, to appreciate completely. As these aspects were better understood, Einstein found it increasingly difficult to fully incorporate Mach's principle into general relativity. Little by little, he grew disillusioned with Mach's ideas and by the later years of his life came to renounce them.
With an additional half century of research and hindsight, we can consider anew the extent to which general relativity conforms to Mach's reasoning. Although there is still some controversy, I think the most accurate statement is that in some respects general relativity has a distinctly Machian flavor, but it does not conform to the fully relationist perspective Mach advocated. Here's what I mean.
that when the spinning water's surface becomes concave, or when you feel your arms splay outward, or when the rope tied between the two rocks pulls taut, this has nothing to do with some hypothetical—and, in his view, thoroughly misguided—notion of absolute space (or absolute spacetime, in our more modern understanding). Instead, he argued that it's evidence of accelerated motion with respect to all the matter that's spread throughout the cosmos. Were there no matter, there'd be no notion of acceleration and none of the enumerated physical effects (concave water, splaying arms, rope pulling taut) would happen.
What does general relativity say?
According to general relativity, the benchmarks for all motion, and accelerated motion in particular, are freely falling observers—observers who have fully given in to gravity and are being acted on by no other forces. Now, a key point is that the gravitational force to which a freely falling observer acquiesces arises from all the matter (and energy) spread throughout the cosmos. The earth, the moon, the distant planets, stars, gas clouds, quasars, and galaxies all contribute to the gravitational field (in geometrical language, to the curvature of spacetime) right where you're now sitting. Things that are more massive and less distant exert a greater gravitational influence, but the gravitational field you feel represents the combined influence of the matter that's out there.
The path you'd take were you to give in to gravity fully and assume free-fall motion—the benchmark you'd become for judging whether some other object is accelerating
be influenced by all matter in the cosmos, by the stars in the heavens and by the house next door. Thus, in general relativity, when an object is said to be accelerating, it means the object is accelerating with respect to a benchmark determined by matter spread throughout the universe. That's a conclusion which has the feel of what Mach advocated. So, in this sense, general relativity does incorporate some of Mach's thinking.
Nevertheless, general relativity does not confirm all of Mach's reasoning, as we can see directly by considering, once again, the spinning bucket in an otherwise empty universe. In an empty unchanging universe—no stars, no planets, no anything at all—there is no gravity.
And without gravity, spacetime is not warped—it takes the simple, uncurved shape shown in Figure 3.9b—and that means we are back in the simpler setting of special relativity. (Remember, Einstein ignored gravity while developing special relativity. General relativity made up for this deficiency by incorporating gravity, but when the universe is empty and unchanging there is no gravity, and so general relativity reduces to special relativity.) If we now introduce the bucket into this empty universe, it has such a tiny mass that its presence hardly affects the shape of space at all. And so the discussion we had earlier for the bucket in special relativity applies equally well to general relativity. In contradiction to what Mach would have predicted, general relativity comes to the same answer as special relativity, and proclaims that even in an otherwise empty universe, you
feel pressed against the inner wall of the spinning bucket; in an otherwise empty universe, your arms
feel pulled outward if you spin around; in an otherwise empty universe, the rope tied between two twirling rocks
become taut. The conclusion we draw is that even in general relativity, empty spacetime provides a benchmark for accelerated motion.
Hence, although general relativity incorporates some elements of Mach's thinking, it does not subscribe to the completely relative conception of motion Mach advocated.
Mach's principle is an example of a provocative idea that provided inspiration for a revolutionary discovery even though that discovery ultimately failed to fully embrace the idea that inspired it.