Einstein's Mind-Bending Theory of Relativity Passes Yet Another Huge Test

Einstein’s Mind-Bending Theory of Relativity Passes Yet Another Huge Test

What is happening

Scientists sent a satellite into space to test Einstein’s weak equivalence principle with extreme precision.

why is it important

The weak equivalence principle is an integral part of general relativity, so these test results offer even more support for a fundamental theory of our universe.

In 1916, Albert Einstein dared to declare that Isaac Newton was wrong about gravity. No, he said, it is not some mysterious force emanating from Earth.

Instead, Einstein imagined that space and time are twisted into an interdimensional grid, and the laces of this grid are like uncoiled paperclips. Foldable; moldable. It is only because we exist within this sort of immaterial mesh, he believed, that our mere human bodies experience facade with a force that keeps us on the ground. We call it gravity.

(If that hurts your brain, don’t worry, here’s an article dedicated to breaking that concept down.)

And while the genius mathematician referred to this puzzling notion as his theory of general relativity, a title that stuck, his peers called it “totally impractical and nonsensical,” a title that was not. Against all odds, Einstein’s mind-numbing idea has not yet wavered. Its premises hold true on both the smallest scale and the incomprehensibly large. Experts have tried to crack them again and again, but general relativity still prevails.

And on Wednesday, thanks to an ambitious satellite experiment, scientists announced that once again general relativity has proven to be a fundamental truth of our universe. The team conducted what it calls the “most accurate test” of one of the key aspects of general relativity, called the weak equivalence principle, with a mission dubbed Microscope.

“I have been working on this subject for more than 20 years, and I realize how lucky I was to be the project leader of the scientific instrument and the co-investigator of this mission,” said Manuel. Rodrigues, scientist at the French Aerospace Laboratory. Onera and author of a new study, published in the journal Physical Review Letters.

“It’s very rare to leave such a remarkable result in the history of physics.”

A depiction of how Einstein’s relativity imagines the universe.

Zooey Liao/CNET

What is the principle of weak equivalence?

The principle of weak equivalence is strange.

That said pretty much all objects in a gravitational field must fall the same way when no other force is acting on them – I’m talking about external interference like wind, a person kicking the object, another object that hits it, you get the idea.

And yes, when I say all objects, I mean all objects. A feather; a piano; a basketball; you and me; anything you can imagine, really, according to this principle must fall exactly the same way.

The Microscope project sent a satellite into Earth orbit that contained two objects: a platinum alloy and a titanium alloy. “The selection was based on technological considerations,” Rodrigues said, such as whether the materials were easy and feasible to manufacture in the lab.

But most important to understanding the weak equivalence principle, or WEP, these alloys were propelled into Earth’s orbit because things up there exist in our planet’s gravitational field without any other force acting. on them. Perfect for test criteria. Once the satellite was in space, the researchers began to test, for years, whether the platinum wick and the titanium wick fell in the same way as they revolved around the Earth.

They did – to an extremely precise degree.

“The most exciting part of the project was developing an instrument and a mission that no one had ever done before to such a level of precision – a new world to explore,” Rodrigues said. “As pioneers of this new world, we expected every moment to encounter phenomena that had not been seen before because we were the first to enter it.”

A cylindrical bronze structure containing scientific apparatus, with a pointed bottom

A capsule used during the Microscope mission.

ZARM/Selig – ONERA 2013

If you’re into the technical details, the results of the experiment showed that the fall acceleration of one alloy did not differ from the other by more than 1 part in 10^15. A difference beyond of that amount, say the researchers, would mean that WEP is violated by our current understanding of Einstein’s theory.

Looking ahead, the team is working on a follow-up mission called Microscope 2, which Rodrigues says will test the weak equivalence principle 100 times better.

However, it’s probably as good as it gets for at least a decade or so, the researchers say.

Great, what does this mean to me?

In a way, the solidity of the theory of general relativity is a kind of problem. This is because although it is an essential model for understanding our universe, it is not the only plan.

We also have constructs like the standard model of particle physics, which explains how things like atoms and bosons work, and quantum mechanics, which explains things like electromagnetics and the uncertainty of existence. .

But here’s the caveat.

These two concepts seem just as unbreakable as general relativity, but are not compatible with it. So… something is wrong. And that something is stopping us from creating a unified history of the physical universe. The standard model, for example, is said to be incapable of explaining gravity, and general relativity does not really take into account quantum phenomena. It’s like a huge battle to be the ultimate theory.

Four scientists, dressed in mint green outfits and hairnets, stand next to an oven-sized device wrapped in gold foil

The Microscope team standing with satellite equipment, right.

ONERA/Rodrigues 2016

“Some theories predict a coupling between gravitation and certain electromagnetic parameters,” Rodrigues offered as an example. “This coupling does not exist in Einstein’s theory, which is why WEP exists.”

We find ourselves at a crossroads.

But the silver lining is that the vast majority of scientists consider all of these theories to be unfinished. So if we can somehow find a way to to end – locating a new coupling, for example, as Rodrigues puts it, or identifying a new particle to add to the standard model – which could lead us to the missing pieces of the puzzle of our universe.

“It should be a revolution in physics,” Rodrigues said of the WEP breakup. “That will mean we find a new force, or maybe a new particle like the graviton – that’s the physicist’s holy grail.”

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