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The Physics Update Vol. 10 No.

1 2006

General Relativity: Warping of Space and Time

C. M. Kenneth Hong
Department of Physics, National University of Singapore

Gravity is the force that keeps our feet on the

ground and is the source of acceleration that
returns a ball to Earth. This article explores the
science of gravity and how it evolved from the
impressive achievements of Newtons laws to the
revolutionary advances of Einsteins theory of
relativity. Einsteins theory of relativity comprises
of two: special relativity and general relativity.
The former one replaces Newtonian mechanics
when the speed is close to the speed of light and is
to be consistent with Maxwells theory of
electromagnetism. General relativity, on the other
hand, supersedes Newtonian gravity when mass or
energy is very large. Both theories completely
revolutionized our concepts in space and time, as
well as, the way we view our universe.

relative to the absolute space through which light

supposedly moved by measuring the speed of light
at different times so that the orientation of their
equipment would change. However, to their
surprising, they measured precisely the same
speed of light for any orientation of their
apparatus! They demonstrated that the observed
speed of light is independent of the observers
motion through space.

Special Relativity
In the nineteenth century, the well-known theory
of electromagnetism was based on Maxwells
equations which describe the behaviour of
electromagnetism and electromagnetic waves.
Maxwells equation showed that light is an
electromagnetic wave and required that all
electromagnetic waves propagate in vacuum at a
fixed speed.

Figure 1 A schematic setup for the Michelson-Morley

experiment. 1

Albert Einstein had his first insight about relativity

from thinking about electromagnetism. In
particular, at the age of sixteen, he puzzled over
the consequence of travelling at the speed of light.
One of these is now known as Einsteins mirror:

At that time, it was believed that light required a

medium the so called aether for propagation.
The universe was thus filled with aether in which
Maxwells equations hold. That is, aether
constituted an absolute reference frame against
which speeds could be measured. Aether seemed
to have some contradictory properties: it was
sufficient elastic to support electromagnetic waves
but it had no resistance to bodies moving through
it. Many experiments were devised to detect some
measurable effects of the aether. However, none
were successful and this led to many imaginative
explanations to account for it.

What would you see if you and the mirror

you were looking into were both moving at
the speed of light?
The special theory of relativity (or just special
relativity) was proposed by Einstein in 1905 at the
age of 26. Special relativity results from two
fundamental postulates: (1) Principle of relativity:
The laws of Physics are the same for all observers
moving at steady speeds with respect to each

The most famous experiment is the one carried out

by Albert Michelson and Edward Morley in 1887.
They attempted to determine Earths motion

T. Hey and P. Walters, Einsteins Mirror, P40, Cambridge

University Press, 1991.


The Physics Update Vol. 10 No.1 2006

other; and (2) The constancy of the speed of light:
The speed of light is constant regardless of the
motion of the observer or of the sender.

astronaut, you appear to be compressed in the

direction of motion and your clock run slowly!
When measuring the length of the moving ruler,
you do so by noting the positions of the two ends
at the same time according to your clock.
However, those two events the two
measurements you made do not occur at the
same time as observed by the astronaut. This lack
of simultaneity, together with time dilation, means
that time is relative. The previously accepted
Newton concept of an absolute and universal time
that was the same for all observers has now been
Additional careful experimentation would reveal
that the mass of the rocket also increases.
Theoretically, the mass of the rocket becomes
nearly infinitely large as the speed of the rocket
approaches the speed of light. Therefore, objects
become harder to accelerate as their speeds
increase. It becomes impossible to accelerate any
object up to and beyond the speed of light. As a
corollary, the speed of light becomes the ultimate
speed for any physical object and signal.

Figure 2 Einsteins 1905 paper on special relativity. 2

With the special relativity, Einstein elevated the

speed of light to the status of a constant of nature.
He rewrote the new laws of mechanics to reflect
this new fact and led to a deeper understanding of
the universe. This theory is called special
because it applies only to restricted inertial frames
in which the effects of gravity can be ignored.
Special relativity is equivalent to Newtonian
mechanics in describing objects that move much
more slowly than the speed of light, but it differs
significantly in its predictions at high speeds.

Finally, perhaps the best-known prediction of

special relativity is that the rockets energy and
mass are proportional to one another via the
famous formula E = mc2. This is one way to see
why objects with any mass can never reach the
speed of light an infinite amount of energy is
required to get there! The mass and energy are
now equivalent. With this concept of mass-energy
equivalence, conservation of mass and energy are
combined allowing mass and energy can be
converted to each other. The conversion factor is
just the square of the speed of light. Both nuclear
power plants and atomic weapons are the explicit
validations of this formula.

Special relativity has several important

consequences that stuck many people as bizarre.
We describe here some of those odd
consequences. Imagine that a rocket is flying past
you closely at a relative speed comparable to the
speed of light. You begin to notice that the rocket
appears to contract in the direction of motion. A
one-meter ruler on board, which is identical at the
launch to the one you keep in your laboratory, is
now shorter than its twin. This is called Lorentz
length contraction.

Newtonian Gravity
Issac Newton developed the gravitational law that
summarizes how gravity depends on mass and
distance. Newtons law says that the force of
gravity between two objects is proportional to the
mass of each of them. The greater the gravitational
attractions between them if the objects are more
massive. The law also says that the force between
two objects is proportional to the inverse square of
their distance.

At the same time, the rockets clock, which

synchronized prior to launch with yours, now ticks
more slowly. This phenomenon, called time
dilation, can be found on the routine work in
particle accelerators. Of course, from the view
point of the astronaut in the rocket, you are the one
moving rapidly. Hence, as observed from the

Newtons explanation of gravitational interactions

must be considered one of the most successful


The Physics Update Vol. 10 No.1 2006

physical theories of all times. It accounts for the
motions of all the constituents of the solar system
with uncanny accuracy, permitting, for instance,
the prediction of eclipses hundreds of years ahead.

same rate and reached the lunar surface at exactly

the same time.
To explain why all objects fall at the same rate
under the gravitational pull, Newton proposed the
equivalence of inertial mass and gravitational
mass. Inertial mass is the resistance of an object to
any change in its state of motion. This is the mass
in Newtons second law. It is a permanent
property of the object and does not change depend
on its location. Gravitational mass, on the other
hand, is the respond of an object to gravity. It
determines how strongly two objects attract each
other by gravity. It depends on the local strength
of gravity and appears to vary according to the
environment. For instance, an object in deep space
still has inertial mass but its gravitational mass is
zero. There is no reason why these two quantities
from so different origins are the same. However, it
is the apparent equivalence of these two types of
masses which results in the uniformity of
gravitational acceleration Galileos result that all
objects fall at the same rate independent of mass.

In Newtons theory of gravity, the strength has

nothing to do with how long the objects have been
in each others presence. This means that the
objects will immediately feel a change in their
mutual gravitational attraction if their masses or
the separation changes. For instance, if the Sun
were suddenly to explode, the Earth, being some
150 million kilometres away, would instantly
experience the change on their mutual
gravitational pull. The knowledge that the Sun had
exploded would be instantaneously transmitted to
the Earth through the sudden change in their
mutual gravitational pull although the light from
the explosion would take about eight minutes to
reach the Earth.
This conclusion is in direct conflict with Einstein's
special relativity since no physical signal can be
transmitted faster than speed of light. Confident in
the success of special relativity, Einstein began the
search of a new theory of gravity compatible with
special relativity. Almost a decade later, in 1915,
he published the general theory of relativity (or
just general relativity). General relativity is now
general enough to include all possible reference
frames in which the effects of gravity cannot be

A direct test of the equivalence between inertial

and gravitational masses is the comparison of the
acceleration of two objects of different
composition in gravitational field. If this
equivalence is violated, then the accelerations of
different objects would differ. Newton himself
used a fixed length pendulum with weights of
varying composition to test this equivalence. The
period of the swing of the pendulums should
depend only on the length of the pendulum
regardless of the compositions. Newton concluded
that these two types of masses are the same to an
accuracy of at least 1 part in 1000.

Mass and Acceleration

The Greek philosopher Aristotle believed that all
objects have a natural tendency to fall towards the
center of the universe, which was considered to be
the center of the Earth. According to Aristotle, the
heavier objects fall faster than lighter ones since
the heavier ones were being pulled harder by
gravity. The influence of Aristotle in the following
centuries made it difficult to challenge any of his

Towards the end of the nineteenth century, the

Hungarian physicist Roland von Etvs performed
an experiment significantly improved upon
Newtons accuracy. He developed a device called
a torsion balance, which consists of a pair of
objects of equal mass attached to the opposite ends
of a rod suspended by a fine wire. In additional to
gravitational force on each object, there is an
inertial force due to the rotation of the Earth. If the
inertial and gravitational masses are not the same,
the rod will rotate about a vertical axis until it is
halted by the restoring torque of the twisted wire.
The amount of twist can be measured by rotating
the whole apparatus through 180. The rod will
now twist in the opposite direction. However, if
there are exactly equal, there will be no movement
of the rod between these two orientations of the

Galileo Galilei was the first major scientist to

refute Aristotles theories. According to legend,
Galileo dropped various objects from the top of
the Leaning Tower of Pisa. He demonstrated that
all objects fall at the same rate under the pull of
gravity if air resistance is eliminated. This
experiment was also carried out by Apollo 15
astronaut David Scott by dropping a hammer and a
feather simultaneously onto the Moon. It was
observed that these two objects fell at precisely the

The Physics Update Vol. 10 No.1 2006

apparatus. Using this apparatus, Etvs was able
to verify this equivalence to within a few parts in
1000 million. Modern versions of Etvs type
experiments have been carried out to verify this
equivalence to even higher degrees of accuracy.
Einstein's Happiest Thought
Galileo and Newton had accepted the equality
between inertial and gravitational masses as a
happy coincidence. However, Einstein was not
content and started to look for an even deeper
insight behind this equality.

Figure 3 If there were no windows in the elevator,

Einstein would not be able to tell whether he is at rest
on Earth or accelerating at a constant rate through
space. 3

In 1907, while pondering some issues on gravity at

his desk in the patent office in Bern, Switzerland,
Einstein had the central insight leading him to his
general relativity. In a lecture, Einstein told the
story about what happened:

Instead, if the observer is in a free-falling lift

above the Earth, he will be floating freely in the
lift. He seems to feel no gravitational force. All
objects will also floating with him as if gravity
were absent. This is, of course, only an
approximation as we know that the gravity at the
top of the lift is a little weaker than that at the
bottom. There will still be residual effect of
gravity, called tidal force, which is responsible for
the ocean tides on the Earth. However, if the lift is
sufficiently small, it will be closer to a zerogravity situation. The observer would be unable to
tell whether he was in free fall or in a gravity-free
environment until the lift hit the ground! In
effect, acceleration due to free fall is equivalent to
a gravitational field that cancels out the Earths
gravity. Therefore, this small free-falling lift can
be treated as an inertial reference frame.

I was sitting in a chair in the patent office

at Bern when all of a sudden a thought
occurred to me: If a person falls freely he
will not feel his own weight. I was
startled. This simple thought made a deep
impression on me. It impelled me toward a
theory of gravitation.
Einstein later referred to this thought as the
happiest thought of my life. This happiest
thought infers that special relativity and all other
laws of physics appear as usual in a frame of
reference falling freely under the influence of
To understand Einstein's insight, consider an
observer in a rocket in the outer space without the
influence of gravity. The rocket is undergoing
uniform acceleration upwards at 9.8 m/s2. To this
observer, he will feel the force of the floor on his
feet. This is the same situation that you will feel
the force of your seat on your back if you are on
the car being accelerated forward. Einstein's
realization was that the observer will not be able to
distinguish this accelerated situation from one
without acceleration but with gravity. Now, if the
rocket is stationary on the Earths surface, i.e.
under the influence of Earths approximately
uniform gravity g = 9.8 m/s2, this observer will
again feel the familiar force of the floor on his

Einstein called the indistinguishability between

accelerated motions with gravity the equivalence
principle. It plays a central role in the construction
of general relativity. This principle could be used
to produce artificial gravity on a space station. The
station could be made to spin so that the
centripetal acceleration in the living quarters is 9.8
m/s2. This would make the weight of anyone in
the living quarters the same as on the Earth.
Non-Euclidean Geometry
Euclidean geometry is the geometry we learn from
schools. This approach to geometry was laid down
by Euclid and has formed the basis for teaching
the subject for more than 2000 years. We are all


The Physics Update Vol. 10 No.1 2006

educated to believe that parallel straight lines
never intersect, three interior angles of a triangle
adds up to 180, and so on.

lines and the angles of a triangle add up to more

than 180. A typical example of elliptic geometry
is the surface of a sphere. The straightest line
between two points on this surface is part of a
great circle defined such that a slice through a
great circle cuts the sphere into two equal halves.
Examples of great circles are the lines of longitude
and the equator. This generalization of the notion
of a straight line is called a geodesic. In general,
the geodesics are paths of shortest distance and
define the straight lines for a given surface.

Euclids geometry is based on five postulates: (1)

A line can be drawn from any point to any other
point; (2) A finite line segment can be extended to
a line of any length; (3) A circle can be drawn
with any centre and at any distance from that
centre; (4) All right angles are equal to one
another; and (5) Parallel postulate: Given a line
and a point not on this line, there is only one line
through this point that is parallel to the original
line. These postulates were assumed to be selfevidently true. However, the fifth postulate was
not so obvious. Many mathematicians tried
unsuccessfully to prove it.

Figure 5 A triangle on the surface of the Earth for

which the sum of the three interior angles adds up to
more than 180. 5

In Euclidean geometry, the distance between any

two points can be calculated using the familiar
Pythagoras theorem. Riemann discovered that
distances between two points on any surface can
also be calculated by a generalization of the
Pythagoras theorem. Riemann further extended it
to spaces of any number of dimensions, which
cannot be easily visualized, and to surfaces whose
curvature was able to vary from point to point.
This mathematical apparatus was exactly the one
needed by Einstein in order to construct his new
theory of gravity.

Figure 4 A triangle on the surface of a saddle for which

the sum of the three interior angles adds up to less than
180. 4

Non-Euclidean geometry arose from the problem

on the Euclids fifth postulate. The essential
difference between Euclidean and non-Euclidean
geometry is the nature of the parallel lines. In
1829, the Russian Nikolai Lobachevski built a new
geometry without the fifth postulate. In
Lobachevskis geometry, there is more than one
line through a point which is parallel to any given
line. The sum of the interior angles in a triangle is
less than 180 in this geometry. This actually
describes geometry on a surface such as saddle
which appears concave in direction along the spine
of the horse but convex in the other direction.
Geometry with these properties is known as
hyperbolic geometry now.

Spacetime Geometry
Space and time are to be treated on equal footing
and can be interrelated in special relativity. In
1908, Hermann Minkowski developed the idea of
spacetime continuum as the underlying
geometry behind the space and time relationships
proposed by special relativity. Minkowski
proposed treating time as a variable in the same
way as one treats the space coordinates of a point
in three-dimensional space. Instead of space and
time separately, one should now think in terms of

In 1854, Bernhard Riemann founded another type

of geometry, known as elliptic geometry now, by
dropping the second Euclids postulate. He
proposed that lines can be finite in length but
endless. In this geometry, there are no parallel

T. Hey and P. Walters, Einsteins Mirror, P182,

Cambridge University Press, 1991.


The Physics Update Vol. 10 No.1 2006

events in four-dimensional spacetime. This fourdimensional spacetime is a very useful concept in
relativity (both special and general relativity) and
is called Minkowski spacetime in special relativity.

relationship between two nearby events on the

geodesic is space-like, null (light-like), or timelike, the geodesics in spacetime are classified as
space-like, null (light-like) or time-like. Space-like
geodesics are paths on the surface of simultaneity
according to an inertial observer. The path of a
light ray in spacetime is described by a null
geodesic. The time-like geodesics is the path
traced out by an inertial observer and it is the path
with the longest elapsed time.

This four-dimensional spacetime is easier to be

visualized in the mean of spacetime diagrams. The
conventions used in spacetime diagrams are as
follows: the horizontal direction denotes space,
while the vertical direction denotes time.
Horizontal sections which are higher up in the
diagram give the spatial position at a later time.

Minkowski spacetime is a flat spacetime just like

the Euclidean space is flat. Consider two initial
observers which are initially stationary with
respect to each other. Their initial geodesics are
two parallel time-like geodesics. According to
special relativity, inertial observers who initially
are at rest always remain at rest with respect to
each other. Thus, initially parallel time-like
geodesics always remain parallel. The same
conclusion applies to both null and space-like
geodesics. Therefore, Minkowski spacetime is flat.

The basic element in spacetime is event. In the

usual Euclidean geometry, we can represent the
position of any point by three coordinates. Now,
an event is specified by four coordinates: the three
coordinates x, y and z, describing where the event
happened, together with time, t, of the event,
specifying when it happened. An event
corresponds to a point in the spacetime diagrams.

Gravity and Geometry

Einstein concluded that spacetime must be curved
from his equivalence principle. However, the
spacetime appears locally flat to the free-falling
observer. Gravity that we feel when we are not in
a free-falling is a manifestation of spacetime

Figure 6 A spacetime diagram of the motion of the

Earth around the Sun. 6
Figure 7 A schematic diagram illustrates the idea that
the curvature mimics a force acting between the ants. 7

The world line of an object is the sequence of

spacetime events corresponding to the history of
the object. It traces out a path in the spacetime
diagrams. For instance, consider the motion of the
Earth around the Sun. Since the Sun is at rest, its
world line is just a vertical straight line. In the case
of the Earth, its orbit in space is (nearly) circular
and is restricted to a plane. The Earths word line
traces out a spiral helix in spacetime diagram.

To illustrate how Einstein could make the leap

from his equivalence principle to the idea of
curved spacetime, imagine a colony of twodimensional creatures, Spherelander, living on a
two-dimensional surface of the sphere,
Sphereland. Spherelanders construct a sufficient
large triangle by using a set of very straight
aluminium rulers. They intend to measure the sum
of the interior angles. According to their
knowledge of Euclidean geometry, they expect the

Geodesics in spacetime are the straightest paths

in spacetime. According to whether the spacetime
T. Hey and P. Walters, Einsteins Mirror, P60, Cambridge
University Press, 1991.

J. A. Wheeler, A Journey into Gravity and Spacetime,

P69, Scientific American Library (New York), 1990.


The Physics Update Vol. 10 No.1 2006

General Relativity

sum to be 180. Surprisingly, they obtain the sum

to be 200. They then postulate that there is force
acting on the aluminium rulers. This superstitious
force causes the rulers bend in such a way to make
the sum exceeds 180.

Einstein concluded that the effects of gravity can

be described in terms of curved spacetime. To
complete his formulation of general relativity, it
remains to spell out in quantitative detail the
relationship between spacetime curvature and the
distribution of matter. Although Einstein had a
clear physical picture of the equivalence principle
and of the curved spacetime as early as 1907, it
took him eight years more to arrive at the
equations of general relativity.

To test their postulate, they construct the same

triangle but now using platinum rulers. Again,
they obtain the same result exactly. After repeating
the same experiment by using different type of
rulers, they conclude that this superstitious force
affects all rulers equally. Next, the Spherelanders
construct smaller triangle using shorter rulers and
the sum turns out to be 190. They realize that
smaller triangles yield smaller sum. As the
triangles get smaller and smaller, the sum gets
closer and closer to the expected value of 180.
Since all rulers behaved exactly the same way,
Spherelanders then suggest that it might have less
to do with the rulers themselves rather than the
underlying structure of Sphereland. They come out
the idea that perhaps their world, Sphereland, is
actually curved. Furthermore, when they confine
their attention to progressively smaller regions, the
world appears more and more equivalent to a flat

Figure 8 Einsteins 1916 paper on general relativity. 8

Einstein used a similar line of arguments from his

equivalence principle to curved spacetime. All
objects fall at the same rate. Maybe, the
gravitational force acting on them has less to do
with the objects themselves rather than with the
underlying spacetime geometry. Just as
Sphereland was curved, our spacetime is also
curved. The trajectories of falling objects simply
reflect the distortion of spacetime. In sufficiently
small free-falling laboratories, all objects
experience no gravity. The spacetime inside the
laboratory is approximately Minkowski spacetime
just like the smaller space in Sphereland was
approximately the flat space.

The central content of general relativity is an

equation which has the schematic form:

spacetime mass - energy


This relation, called the Einsteins equations, is the

field equation of general relativity in the way that
Maxwells equations are the field equations of
electromagnetism. Maxwells equations relate the
electromagnetic field to its sources charges and
currents. Einsteins equation relates spacetime
curvature to its source the mass-energy density.

Furthermore, Einstein argued that this should also

apply to all laws of physics. In other words, all
equations were to be written in the usual form they
had in the Minkowski spacetime when applied to a
free-falling frame. The motion of the free-falling
bodies is along the geodesics of the curved
spacetime just like the straightest lines in
Sphereland correspond to geodesics.

The field equations allow us to calculate how

much curvature is generated in the presence of
matter. The equivalence principle then tells how
matter responds to it freely falling bodies move
along geodesics. A famous statement by American
physicist John Wheeler illustrates the major
principle in general relativity: matter tells


The Physics Update Vol. 10 No.1 2006

instantaneous action of the Sun. Unlike Newton,
Einstein has specified the mechanism by which
gravity is transmitted to be the warping of the
spacetime. That is to say the Earth is hold in orbit
due to the warping of the spacetime caused by the
presence of the Sun.

spacetime how to curve, and curved spacetime

tells matter how to move.
To obtain a feel for this new view of gravity, we
consider the following rubber membrane-bowling
ball analogy. In the absence of any matter or
energy, the spacetime would be flat. This could be
visualized as a sheet of rubber membrane. Now,
the presence of mass suggested that the spacetime
is to be warped. This is much like a situation that
we put a bowling ball on the rubber membrane.
The region of the rubber membrane around the
bowling ball becomes distorted.

Gravitational Red/Blue Shift

The gravitational red shift was the first of
Einstein's great predictions after he had formulated
his version of the equivalence principle. This
phenomenon is the gravitational analogue of the
Doppler effect. You should have the experience of
the Doppler effect in your daily life a noticeable
change in the pitch of the siren as the ambulance
passes you. When the source (ambulance) is
approaching you, the effective wavelength of the
sound wave (siren) is shortened as the source
moves closer during the period of the siren and
hence a higher pitch of the siren is detected.
Similarly, the pitch of the siren will be lowered if
it is receding from you.

We now place a small ball bearing on the distorted

rubber membrane and set if off with some initial
velocity. If the rubber membrane is flat, the ball
bearing will travel along a straight line. Due to the
distortion on the rubber membrane by bowling
ball, the ball bearing will now travel along a
curved path. Furthermore, if we set the ball
bearing moving with just a right speed in just the
right direction, it will move in an orbit around the
bowling ball.

The easiest way to understand the gravitational red

shift is to consider the following thought
experiment. There is an emitter of a well-defined
wavelength of light placed on the ground. A
receiver is placed at the top of a high tower and is
tuned to receive the incoming signal from the
emitter on the ground. Assume that there is an
observer at rest right next to the receiver. He
begins to fall back to Earth at the instant the
emitter sends the light upward.

Now, the Sun, like the bowling ball, warps the

spacetime around it, and the Earths motion, like
that of the ball bearing, is determined by the
warping of the spacetime. The Earth, like the ball
bearing, will move in orbit around the Sun if its
speed and orientation have certain suitable values.
This effect on the motion of the Earth is what we
normally refer to as the gravitational influence of
the Sun.

According to this free-falling observer, gravity is

absent due to equivalence principle. He measures
the wavelength of the light to be the same as the
emitted wavelength. As the light moves upward,
he also begins to fall. However, the wavelength of
the light remains unchanged as seen by him. He
will observe the receiver moving away from him
as he is falling. Therefore, when the receiver
receives the light, it is going to detect a longer
wavelength than that measured by the free-falling
observer due to Doppler effect. In this case, we
have gravitational red shift effect when light is
moving against the gravity. On the other hand, if
the emitter had been at the top and the receiver on
the ground, the shift would have been toward
shorter wavelength since the receiver would be
moving toward the free-falling observer.
Gravitational blue shift effect occurs in this case.

Figure 9 The rubber membrane-bowling analogy to

illustrate the new view of gravity from general
relativity. 9

In Newtons view, the mechanism holding the

Earth in orbit is due to the mysterious
T. Hey and P. Walters, Einsteins Mirror, P192,
Cambridge University Press, 1991.


The Physics Update Vol. 10 No.1 2006

stationary observer is in a gravitational field, he
will conclude that the gravity bends light.

Figure 10 The gravitational red shift experiment

carried out at Harvard tower. 10
Figure 11 A schematic diagram for the bending of light
due to gravity. 11

The gravitational red shift was verified in the

famous Pound-Rebka experiment. This experiment
is very close in concept to the one described in the
above thought experiment. It was carried out at
Harvard University's Jefferson laboratory in 1959.
This result confirmed the predictions at the 10%
level and was later improved to better than the 1%
level by Pound and Snider.

This bending of light was the first experimental

test of Einsteins predictions. The idea is to detect
the change in position of stars as the starlight
gazed the Sun. The observations were performed
by Sir Arthur Eddington and his collaborators
during the solar eclipse of 1919. The result was
consistent with Einsteins prediction and made the
front page of most major newspapers. It made the
name of Einstein and his general relativity world

Bending of Light
Einstein predicted that the deflection of light under
the influence of gravity. It is quite easy to see how
Einsteins equivalence principle leads to a
deflection of light from the following thought
experiment. Consider an astronaut in a rocket
located in the outer space under no influence of
gravity. A light ray is emitted from one side of the
rocket to a light detector on the opposite side. The
astronaut observes that the light ray is travelling
along a straight line from one side to the other.
Now, consider the same rocket in free-fall near to
the Earth. According to equivalence principle, the
astronaut again will observe that the light ray
travels in a straight line across the rocket.

Gravitational Time Dilation

General relativity predicts that clocks tick slower
in a strong gravitational field. This can be
illustrated as following. From the discussion on
gravitational red shift, we know that light is going
to be red-shifted when it is travelling upwards.
The observer on the top is going to detect the light
with longer wavelength. This will mean that he is
going to receive the light pulses less frequently
than the observer on the ground. For instance, if
the observer on the ground sends light pulses at 1
second intervals (according to the clock on the
ground), then the observer on the top would
receive the pulses at intervals of greater than 1
second (according to the clock on the top). The
observer on the top therefore concludes that the
ground clock is running slower.

Consider the same experiment from the view point

of a stationary observer on the ground. This
stationary observer also needs to observe that the
light ray is detected by the detector. However, by
the time the light has crossed the rocket, the rocket
and the detector has fallen down a distance.
Therefore, this stationary observer will observe
that the light ray follows a curved path. Since the


Alternatively, if the observer on the top sent light

pulses at one second intervals downwards, the


The Physics Update Vol. 10 No.1 2006

observer on the ground would receive the pulses at
intervals of lesser than one second. The ground
observer will then conclude that the top clock is
running faster. We therefore conclude that clocks
run slower in a stronger gravitational field and the
stronger the gravitational field the slower the

The precession of the orbit is not peculiar to

Mercury, all the planetary orbits precess. In fact,
Newton's theory predicts these effects as mostly
being produced by the gravitational attractions of
the other planets on one another. The question is
whether Newton's predictions agree with the
amount an orbit precesses. The precession of the
orbits of all planets except for Mercury's can, in
fact, be understood using Newton's equations. But
Mercury seemed to be an exception.

This effect also affects our biological clocks.

Hence, it makes certain sense that it would be
better if we always stay on the basement level. We
will be younger than those stay on the high-floor
level! However, this effect is going to be a minute
one on the Earth due to the weak gravity. Imagine
that we are living on a surface of a much more
massive object. In this case, we can simply stay on
the basement in order to be younger. Although one
will be older staying on high-floor level, one
would be smarter there since one could think faster
there comparatively!

Figure 12 Artist's version of the precession of

Mercury's orbit. 12

experimentally measured using Cesium atomic
clocks by Hafele and Keating on 1971. They made
airline flights around the world in both directions,
once eastward and once westward. They compared
their clocks with the clock of the Observatory in
Washington, D.C. when they returned. To
calculate the expected times, we have to include
both gravitational time dilation and special
relativistic effect. The result matched the theory to
better than 10%. Later experiments involving
rockets and spacecraft improved on this accuracy.
Nowadays, this effect has to be taken care to
resolve the discrepancy between the clocks on the
satellites and the clocks on the ground in the
Global Positioning System (GPS). This is a
practical demonstration of the theory of relativity
in a real-world system.

The total observed precession of Mercury is 5600

arc-seconds per century (one degree equals to
3600 arc-seconds) with respect to the position of
the Vernal Equinox of the Sun. Newton's
equations predict a precession of 5557 arc-seconds
per century. This has taken into account all the
effects from the other planets, the slight
deformation of the Sun due to its rotation, as well
as, the fact that the Earth is not an inertial frame.
There is a discrepancy of 43 arc-seconds per
A number of ad-hoc proposals were put forward to
account for the discrepancy. One was the existence
of new matter (planet, dust or asteroid) in an orbit
between Mercury and the Sun. Unfortunately, no
solid observational evidence was ever found. Lots
of suggestions were made to explain this
discrepancy, some simple, some serious, some
very complicated, and none very successful. In
contrast, Einstein was able to predict, without any
adjustments whatsoever, that the orbit of Mercury
should precess by an extra 43 seconds of arc per
century should the general relativity be correct.

Precession of the Perihelion of Mercury

A longstanding problem in the study of the Solar
System was that the orbit of Mercury did not
behave as required by Newton's theory. As the
Mercury orbits the Sun, it traces out an ellipse
with the Sun at one focus. The point in the orbit
that is the closest to the Sun, called perihelion, is
fixed, so that a line drawn from the Sun to the
perihelion points in a fixed direction. It was found
that the perihelion of Mercury does not always
occur at the same location but rotates around the
Sun. The ellipse is then rotates in its plane so that
the actual orbit describes a kind of rosette pattern.
This rotation of the orbit is called a precession.



The Physics Update Vol. 10 No.1 2006

solution. The critical radius at which the escape
speed from an object would equal to the speed of
light has been named after Schwarzschild as the
Schwarzschild radius. Every object has a
Schwarzschild radius at which the object would
have to be compressed for it to become a black
hole. In other words, a black hole is an object that
happens to lie within its own Schwarzschild

Black Holes
Black hole is probably one of the famous
predictions of general relativity. A black hole is a
cosmic hotel in such a way that you can check in
but you cannot check out! It is an object so
massive that not even light can escape its
attractions. It is surprising that the idea of a black
hole was first anticipated over 200 years ago
although general relativity is to be employed to the
full description of black holes.
Normally, when you throw a ball up into the
air, it falls back down to the Earth. However, if
you throw a ball up at a speed of greater than 11.2
kilometers per second, Earth's escape speed, it will
not return. Such speed is required in order for the
astronauts to go to the Moon. Escape speed is the
key to understand black holes. By definition, the
escape speed is the minimum speed required for an
object to escape from the gravitational pull of
another. A bodys escape speed is proportional to
the square root of the bodys mass divided by the
square root of its radius.

Figure 13 Basic structure of a Schwarzschild black

hole. 13

The surface of an imaginary sphere with radius

equal to the Schwarzschild radius and centered on
the point mass is called the event horizon. We
could think of the event horizon as the surface
of a black hole. The event horizon serves as a
loyal cosmic traffic officer ensuring a one-way
traffic to black hole. It defines the region within
which no event can ever be known by outside
observers. Anything from outsides can cross this
surface; however, anything that happens inside
remains forever hidden to outside observers.

In 1783, John Michell, a British geologist and

astronomer, pointed out that a sufficiently dense
object might have an escape speed faster than
light. Since not even light can escape from this
object, it would be invisible. In 1796, the French
mathematician Pierre Simon Laplace promoted
similar ideas to those of Michell. These objects are
often referred to as dark stars. The phase black
hole was coined by Wheeler in 1967.

There is a singularity at the center of a black hole.

This is a point at which both its density and
gravitational field become infinite. Singularities
are not physical; rather, they always signal the
breakdown of the theory producing them. Many
strange things may occur around singularities. In
view of this, Roger Penrose proposed the cosmic
censorship hypothesis stating that Nature always
hides any singularity in 1969. For instance, the
black hole singularity is found inside an event
horizon. Even though physics fails, its breakdown
cannot affect us outside.

Consider a hypothetical experiment in which the

Sun is being compressed. As the Sun shrinks, its
mass remains the same, but its escape speed
increases because the Suns radius is decreasing. If
the Sun could be compressed to less than 3
kilometers, the escape speed would exceed the
speed of light. Since nothing can go faster than
light, absolutely nothing could escape from the
surface of the compressed Sun. Our Sun would be
invisible and uncommunicative. The compressed
Sun could be said to have disappeared from the
universe. Only its gravitational field would remain
behind betraying the presence of its mass.

A black hole could be formed at the final stage of

stellar evolution for a high mass star. A star like
our Sun is prevented from gravitational collapse
by the outward pressure generated by nuclear

The connection of black holes to general relativity

starts with a German astronomer Karl
Schwarzschild. In 1916, Schwarzschild first
obtained an exact solution from Einsteins field
equations describing a static point mass. This
solution is now known as the Schwarzschild



The Physics Update Vol. 10 No.1 2006

To examine the nature of the black hole, lets orbit
around a black hole with 10 solar masses at a safe
distance in a spacecraft. This black hole would
have a 30-kilometer event horizon. Suppose a poor
observer is falling into the black hole to probe it.
Everything would appear to be as usual to the
infalling observer. He will realize nothing special
and eventually crosses the event horizon the
point of no return. This poor observer is now
doomed to fall towards the singularity of the black
hole. As he falls closer to the singularity, he would
start to be uncomfortable. If, as he falls in, his feet
are closer to the singularity than his head, his feet
will be pulled more strongly inward than his head.
He would find himself stretched enormously in
height and squeezed unmercifully laterally. The
near infinite spacetime curvature would stretch
him like a piece of spaghetti and rip his body apart
spaghettification. The remnant of his body
would be hitting to the singularity and the black
hole has now added the mass of this poor observer.

fusions in the interior. This is similar as in the case

of a balloon in which it is not flattened due to the
pressure of air molecules interior. Toward the end
of a stars life, the nuclear fuel for these nuclear
reactions becomes exhausted and the star now
begins to contract under gravity.
The final destiny of the star is governed simply by
its mass. A not very massive star, such as the Sun,
will shed some of its outer layers to form planetary
nebula. At the center of the nebula remains the
core of the star, which cools down to become a
small but dense white dwarf. A white dwarf
consists of nuclei wandering about in the sea of
electrons. It is prevented to be further
gravitationally collapsed because the inward
gravity is balanced by the electron degeneracy
pressure. This electron degeneracy pressure is a
consequence of the Pauli exclusion principle in
which the electrons are resisted to be squashed
Stars more massive than our Sun come to a more
dramatic end. The Indian-born astrophysicist,
Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, showed that the
electron degeneracy pressure is not strong enough
to counterbalance the gravitational pull if the star
is more massive than 1.4 solar masses
Chandrasekhar limit. The electrons are then
absorbed by protons to form neutrons, and the
final collapse of the core is very rapid. This results
a very violent stellar explosion, which is called
supernova by Walter Baade and Fritz Zwicky in
1934, and a neutron star is left behind. The
neutron degeneracy pressure now serves as a
mechanism to prevent further gravitational
collapse. In 1939, Robert Oppenheimer and
Hartland Snyder further showed that the neutron
degeneracy pressure is insufficient to prevent
further collapse if the mass of the neutron star is
more than 3 solar masses. The core will collapse
that results in a singularity and a black hole is then

Watching from a safe distance in our orbiting

spacecraft, we would realize that an increasing
amount of time is required to receive the signal
from the poor infalling observer as he is
approaching the event horizon gravitational time
dilation. Furthermore, the signal from the poor
infalling observer would be detected to have
longer wavelength gravitational red shift. Upon
reaching the event horizon, the time of the
infalling observer would seem to stop from us and
the signal emitted would be red-shifted to
infinitely long wavelengths. Theoretically, the
signal could still reach us still moving at the
speed of light but with zero energy. Thus, the
emitted signal would be red-shifted beyond our
perception. Consequently, the image of the
infalling observer would be frozen on the event
horizon and we would never actually witness the
infalling observer sink below the event horizon.
All the observational evidence for black holes is
necessarily indirect. As matter falling towards a
black hole will be accelerated to speeds
approaching the speed of light, we expect black
holes to be strong sources of X-rays caused by the
charged matter falling towards them. There is now
a great deal of indirect astronomical evidence for
black holes in two mass ranges: (1) stellar mass
black holes with masses ranging from 4 to 15 solar
masses; and (2) supermassive black holes with
masses in the range of order 105 to 1010 solar

Black holes are not cosmic vacuum cleaner. They

do not cruise around interstellar space and suck up
everything insight. In fact, the orbit of an object
near a black hole is the same as its orbit near a star
of the same mass. Only if the object is too close to
the event horizon, its orbit would be significantly
deviate from the predictions from Newtonian
gravity. Of course, if the object is falling into a
black hole, it would be unable to come out.


The Physics Update Vol. 10 No.1 2006

Many stars in our galaxy are believed to occur in
binary systems in which two stars are in orbit
round each other. Some binary systems have
peculiar properties that the visible member is in
orbit around the invisible companion. The
invisible member emits large amounts X-rays and
its mass is measured as several solar masses. It is
therefore believed that the invisible companion is
a black hole. Amongst, one particular binary
system lying in the constellation Cygnus has
drawn much attention. The black hole candidate is
an X-ray source called Cygnus X-1. The visible
companion is a blue B-type supergiant and the
mass of the Cygnus X-1 is about 10 solar masses
making it too massive to be anything but a black
hole. Some other black hole candidates include the
third X-ray source discovered in the Large
Magellanic Cloud called LMC X-3 with a
mass of nearly 10 solar masses, as well as, the Xray binary system A0620-00 which contains an
invisible compact object of mass 3.8 solar masses.

Expansion of the Universe

General relativity also plays a role on the origin
and evolution of the whole universe. After his
great success with general relativity, Einstein
began to think about the implication of his theory
for the universe as a whole. In 1917, he came out
the first mathematical model of the universe. This
began a new field of physics relativistic
To his great surprise, when the equations are
applied to the universe as a whole, he reached a
remarkable conclusion: the overall size of the
universe must be changing in time. At this time,
the universe was strongly believed to be a very
static place. For this reason, Einstein chose to
modify his field equations by introducing an extra
term known as cosmological constant. With this
extra term, he introduced a new repulsive force
and this allowed him to obtain a static universe

However, the strongest evidence for black holes

comes from observations of the centers of many
galaxies including our own. It is currently believed
that most if not all galaxies contain a supermassive
black hole at their centers. Sagittarius A* is a
bright and compact radio source at the center of
our own galaxy Milky Way which is believed
to be associated with the 2.6 million-solar-mass
supermassive black hole. In May 2004, 30
previously-hidden supermassive black holes
outside Milky Way have been discovered. This
discovery suggests that there are at least twice as
many of these black holes as previously thought.

In 1922, Russian meteorologist Alexander

Friedmann had used Einsteins original field
equations and obtained solutions describing
expanding universes. The next important step in
revealing the nature of the universe was taken by
Edwin Hubble. In 1929, Hubble discovered that
distant galaxies are receding from ours at a speed
proportional to their distance Hubbles law.
Hubbles observation is direct evidence that the
universe is expanding. Owing to Hubbles
discovery, Einstein later admitted that the
introduction of cosmological constant was the
greatest blunder of my life.

Additionally, there is some evidence for

intermediate-mass black holes, those with masses
of a few hundred to a few thousand solar masses.
In 2000, the first intermediate-mass black holes
have been observed far from the center of the
galaxy M82. These black holes are probably
young and have masses between 100 and 1000
solar masses. The discovery of the first
intermediate-mass black hole in our galaxy has
been reported in 2004. This black hole of 1300
solar masses is orbiting three light-years from
Sagittarius A*. The discoveries of intermediatemass black holes provide missing link between
stellar mass black holes in binaries and the
supermassive black holes in the hearts of galaxies.

Figure 14 All stars will see all other stars moving away
from them in an expanding universe. A rising loaf of
raisin bread is a good visual model: each raisin will see
all other raisins moving away from it as the loaf
expands. 14



The Physics Update Vol. 10 No.1 2006

In 1931, Georges Lematre, a Belgian priest and
mathematician, proposed that the universe may
have started with the explosion of a primeval atom
containing the total mass of the universe. The
observed expansion was caused by the explosion
of this cosmic atom. This explosion was later
called the Big Bang and this description of the
creation of the universe is now known as the Big
Bang model.

Thus, by studying the detailed physical properties

of the radiation, we can learn about conditions in
the universe on very large scales, since the
radiation we see today has traveled over such a
large distance, and the universe at very early
times. Observations of the cosmic background
radiation have continued, with the most
spectacular results coming from the Cosmic
Background Explorer (COBE) satellite launched
in 1989, as well as, the Wilkinson Microwave
Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) satellite launched in

The implications of the Big Bang model were first

worked out by Russian-born physicist, George
Gamow. He considered in detail how nuclear
reactions taking place after the Big Bang could
create the elements we have right now. Together
with Hans Bethe and his graduate student Ralph
Alpher, they realized that the Big Bang would be
expected to create lighter elements, hydrogen and
helium, in the correct proportions to explain their
abundance in the early universe. The abundance of
light elements is one of the primary pieces of
evidence for the Big Bang model.

The Big Bang is a very successful model on the

universe. However, it fails to account some of the
basic questions about the universe. For instance, it
provides no clue on why the universe is being so
flat, what drives the expansion, etc. In 1981, MIT
physicist Alan Guth, came up the idea of the
inflationary universe. He proposed that the early
universe went through a period of extremely rapid
expansion. During this inflation epoch lasted
between 10-35 to 10-32 seconds after the Big Bang
the universe expanded in size by a factor of 1050
from smaller than an atom to bigger than a galaxy.
It was driven by vast amounts of energy released
when a symmetry breaking phase transition

The Big Bang model had a serious problem the

Earth was older than the universe. Partly
motivated by this problem, Fred Hoyle, Thomas
Gold and Hermann Bondi developed an alternative
model Steady State model to account for the
expansion of the universe. This involved the
continuous creation of matter and yielded a
continuously expanding universe with a constant
average density. In fact, it was Hoyle who coined
the name Big Bang for Lematres model.
The support of these two models was quite even
for a number of years. However, the discovery of
the cosmic background radiation has ruled out the
Steady State model. Gamow, Alpher and Robert
Herman have actually predicted the existence of
the cosmic background radiation in 1948.
However, it was Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson
at the Bell Telephone Laboratories in Murray Hill,
New Jersey, who accidentally discovered this
radiation in 1965. The radiation was acting as a
source of excess noise in a radio receiver they
were building. This cosmic background radiation
is now about 2.7 K corresponding to the
microwave portion of the electromagnetism
spectrum. Although it is invisible to the naked eye,
it fills the universe and can be detected
everywhere we look.

Figure 15 The introduction of inflationary period to the

early universe. 15

The evolution of the universe is determined by a

struggle between the rate of expansion and the
average density of matter. The current rate of
expansion is measured by the Hubble constant. If
the average density of matter is less than the
critical density, which is proportional to the square
of the Hubble constant, then the universe will

The cosmic background radiation was emitted

only a few hundred thousand years after the Big
Bang, long before stars or galaxies ever existed.



The Physics Update Vol. 10 No.1 2006

expand forever open universe. If the average
density of matter is greater than the critical
density, then the gravity will eventually win and
the universe will collapse back to itself, the so
called Big Crunch, closed universe. If the
average density of matter exactly equals to the
critical density, the rate of expansion will
asymptotically approach zero flat universe.
However, recent observations of distant supernova
have suggested that the expansion of the universe
is actually accelerating, which implies the
existence of a form of matter with a strong
negative pressure, such as the cosmological
constant. This strange form of matter is also
sometimes referred to as the dark energy. If dark
energy in fact plays a significant role in the
evolution of the universe, then in all likelihood the
universe will continue to expand forever.

his by 40 percents, so Albert sees Bob age another

3 years during his return. Bob will be 6 years older
when he gets back. Bob has time-travelled 4 years
into the future.
According to special relativity, time will slow
down if one moves faster and faster and
approaches the speed of light. If one could reach
the speed of light, time would stop. And, if one
could move even faster than speed of light, then
one, in principle, could go back to time.
Unfortunately, the speed of light is the ultimate
speed limit and one cannot go faster than it.
However, in general relativity, spacetime can
become so distorted that permits shortcuts through
spacetime. This would allow one to beat a light
beam and travel back to the past.
In 1988 Kip Thorne and his associates have
proposed the idea of taking a shortcut back in time
by traveling quickly through a wormhole. In a
nutshell, wormholes are tunnels connecting two
distant regions of spacetime. If one could take
such a shortcut, one could reach the destination
ahead of a light beam across curved space. In
principle, one could even be able to get back in
time to see oneself off.

Time Travel
No idea from science fiction has captured the
human imagination as much as time travel the
ability to travel to any point in the future or past.
One could go to the future to take a vacation or
even bring back a cure for cancer. One could also
go to the past to witness major historical events or
even meet historical figures.
Nowadays, the subject of time travel has jumped
from the pages of science fictions to the pages of
physics journals as physicists explore whether it
might be allowed by the laws of physics. The
paradoxes associated with time travel always pose
a challenge and allow physicists to test the
boundaries of current physical laws. In Newtons
universe, time travel was inconceivable. However,
it has become a real possibility in Einsteins

Figure 16 A wormhole creates a shortcut between the

Earth and Alpha Centauri. 16

To illustrate the idea, suppose there is a wormhole

with one mouth near the Earth and the other near
Alpha Centauri. You could then reach Alpha
Centauri by taking the ordinary four-light-year
route or jumping thorugh the wormhole with lets
say 10 kilometers. If you dive from the Earth
through the wormhole in the year 2006, you might
perharps emerge at Alpha Centauri in the year
1996. You could now travel back to the Earth at a
very high speed so that you get back to Earth in
year 2000. You would have time-travelled 6 years
back into your past and could even shake hands
with yourself when you took off in the year 2006!

Time dilation is the key to time travel to the

future. It is best illustrated through the famous
twin paradox. Suppose there are twin brothers
Albert and Bob. Albert stays on the Earth. Bob
takes off in a spaceship at 80 percent of the speed
of light to Alpha Centauri which is 4 light-years
away. Bobs trip there will take 5 Earth years.
However, Albert will see Bobs clock running
slower than his by 40 percents, Bob will age only
3 years during the trip. Bob turns around when he
reaches Alpha Centauri and returns to Earth again
at 80 percent of the speed of light. The return also
takes 5 Earth years. So, Albert is 10 years older
when Bob arrives back home. On the return trip,
Albert sees Bobs clock again running slower than

J. R. Gott, Time Travel in Einsteins Universe, P119,

Houghton Mifflin (USA), 2001.


The Physics Update Vol. 10 No.1 2006

pulsar orbit by Doppler shifts of the pulse period
as the pulsar moves toward or away from us. Since
the discovery of the binary pulsar in 1974, timing
of the pulsar has shown that the stars are indeed
spiralling together just as predicted. In 300 million
years the stars will coalesce - that should produce
gravitational radiation that can be easily detected!
Figure 17 A warp drive creates a shortcut between the
Earth and Alpha Centauri via a U-shaped distortion in
spacetime. 17

Direct detection of gravitational wave has long

been sought. Laser interferometer observatories
are being constructed that will be able to detect
gravitational waves from possible sources
potentially as far away as 100 million light years.
In 1992, Laser Interferometric Gravity-wave
Observatory (LIGO), a collaboration between
Caltech and MIT, began its search for cosmic
gravitational waves that are theoretically created in
supernova collapses of stellar cores, collisions and
coalescences of neutron stars or black holes and
the remnants of gravitational radiation created by
the birth of the universe. There are at least five
other projects among European, Australian,
Japanese, and Space Physicist groups constructing
other Gravitational-Wave Observatories. This
would open up a whole new observational window
on the universe.

Warp drive is a sister possibility in time travel to

wormhole. In Star Trek, the crew of the Enterprise
used warp drive to alter space so that they could
travel among stars at speed faster than that of light.
In simple terms, a warp drive creates a U-shaped
distortion in spacetime and hence a shortcut
between two distant regions. One could also use
warp drive to travel to the past just like the case in
Future Outlooks
General relativity also predicts gravitational waves
that move through space. Gravitational wave is the
gravitational counterpart of an electromagnetic
wave. Gravitational radiation results from changes
in the strength of a gravitational field. In principle,
a gravitational wave should be emitted at the speed
of light whenever any massive objects accelerate.
The passage of gravitational wave should produce
small distortions in the space through which it
passes. However, gravity is an exceedingly weak
force compared with electromagnetism, these
distortions are expected to be very small.

Figure 18 Detection of gravitational waves: In the

presence of gravitational waves, the distance between
the mirrors will fluctuate. 18

The detection of gravitational wave would provide

such strong support for the theory of relativity that
scientists are eager to search for them.
Gravitational waves have not yet been detected
directly, but we believe that they have been
detected indirectly by radio astronomers in the
binary pulsar system 1913+16. As the pulsar is
orbiting around its companion (every 8 hours in
this compact system), general relativity predicts
that gravitational waves should be produced.
Although these waves are far too faint to be
detected directly, the binary pulsar system is
losing energy through this radiation, and the
pulsar/neutron star and its companion are
predicted to be slowly spiralling together. The
rapid radio pulses permit precise timing of the

Our understanding of the universe has deepened

profoundly during the past century. We now have
two foundational pillars upon which modern
physics rests. One is Einsteins general relativity
which provides a theoretical framework for
unverstanding the universe on the largest scales:
stars, galaxies and beyond to the universe itself.
The other is quantum mechanics which provides
theoretical framework for understanding the
universe on the smallest scales: molecules, atoms
and all the way to subatomic particles like
electrons and quarks. Both theories have
tremendous success.

J. R. Gott, Time Travel in Einsteins Universe, P119,

Houghton Mifflin (USA), 2001.



The Physics Update Vol. 10 No.1 2006

However, general relativity and quantum
mechanics cannot be both right there are
mutually incompatible. So far, physicists study
things that are either huge and heavy or things that
are small and light, but not both. For these cases,
physicists need only general relativity or only
quantum mechanics. Under certain extreme
conditions, where things are very massive and
very small near the center of the black hole or
the whole universe at the moment of the big bang
we require both general relativity and quantum
mechanics. Unfortunately, when we try to
combine general relativity and quantum
mechanics, their union brings violent catastrophe.
Physicists are now eager to search for a correct
theoretical framework quantum gravity to
unify these two foundational pillars for a deeper
Further Readings
1. T. Hey and P. Walters, Einstein's Mirror,
Cambridge University Press (1997).
2. K. S. Thorne, Black Holes and Time Warps:
Einsteins Outrageous Legacy, W.W. Norton
(New York), 1994.
3. J. R. Gott, Time Travel in Einstein's
Universe: The physical Possibilities of Travel
through Time, Houghton Mifflin (Boston),
4. J. A. Wheeler, A Journey into Gravity and
Spacetime, Scientific American Books (New
York), 1990.
5. J. Schwinger, Einsteins Legacy: The Unity
of Space and Time, Scientific American
Books (New York), 1986.
6. C. M. Will, Was Einstein Right? Putting
General Relativity to the Test, 2nd Ed., Basic
Books (New York), 1986.
7. R. M. Wald, Space, Time and Gravity: The
Theory of the Big Bang and Black Holes, 2nd
Ed., University of Chicago Press (Chicago),
8. S. Weinberg, The First Three Minutes: A
Modern View of the Origin of the Universe,
2nd Ed., Basic Books (New York), 1993.
9. B. R. Greene, The Elegant Universe:
Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the
Quest for the Ultimate Theory, W. W. Norton
(New York), 1999.
10. A. H. Guth, The Inflationary Universe: The
Quest for A New Theory of Cosmic Origins,
Perseus Books (Cambridge), 1997.