In the fall of 1915, after ten years of analysis, Albert Einstein presented his gravitational field equations of general relativity in a series of lectures at the Royal Prussian Academy of Sciences. The final lecture was delivered on November 25th, 104 years ago.
Yet it wasn’t until a month or so ago that I got a bug up my butt about general relativity. I was focused on some of the paradox-like results of the special theory of relativity and was given to understand, without actually understanding, that the general theory of relativity would solve them. Not to dwell in detail on my own psychological shortcomings, but I was starting to obsess about the matter a bit.
Merciful it was that I came across The Perfect Theory: A Century Of Geniuses And The Battle Over General Relativity when I did. In its prologue, author Pedro G. Ferreira explains how he himself (and others he knows in the field) can get bitten by the Einstein bug and how one can feel compelled to spend the remainder of one’s life investigating and exploring general relativity. His book explains the allure and the promise of ongoing research into the fundamental nature of the universe.
The Perfect Theory tells its story through the personalities who formulated, defended, and/or opposed the various theories, starting with Einstein’s work on general relativity. Einstein’s conception of special relativity came, for the most part, while sitting at his desk during his day job and performing thought experiments. He was dismissive of mathematics, colorfully explaining “[O]nce you start calculating you shit yourself up before you know it” and more eloquently dubbing the math “superfluous erudition.” His special relativity was incomplete in that it excluded the effects of gravity and acceleration. Groundbreaking though his formulation of special relativity was, he felt there had to be more to it. Further thought experiments told him that the gravity and acceleration were related (perhaps even identical) but his intuition failed to close the gap between what he felt had to be true and what worked. The solution came from representing space and time as a non-Euclidean continuum, a very complex mathematical proposition. The equations are a thing of beauty but also are beyond the mathematical capabilities of most of us. They have also been incredibly capable of predicting physical phenomena that even Albert Einstein himself didn’t think were possible.
From Einstein, the book walks us through the ensuing century looking at the greatest minds who worked with the implications of Einstein’s field equations. The Perfect Theory reads much like a techno-thriller as it setts up and then resolves conflicts within the scientific world. The science and math themselves obviously play a role and Ferreira has a gift of explaining concepts at an elementary level without trivializing them.
Stephen Hawking famously was told that every formula he included in A Brief History of Time would cut his sales in half. Hawking compromised by including only Einstein’s most famous formula, E = mc2. Ferreira does Hawking one better, including only the notation, not the full formula, of the Einstein Tensor in an elaboration on Richard Feynman’s story about efforts to find a cab to a Relativity conference as told in Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman. The left side of that equation can be written as, Gμν. This is included, not in an attempt to use the mathematics to explain the theory, but to illustrate Feynman’s punch line. Feynman described fellow relativity-conference goers as people “with heads in the air, not reacting to the environment, and mumbling things like gee-mu-nu gee-mu-nu”. Thus, the world of relativity enthusiasts is succinctly summarized.
The most tantalizing tidbit in The Perfect Theory is offered up in the prologue and then returned to at the end. Ferreira predicts that this century will be the century of general relativity, in the same way the last century was dominated by quantum theory. It is his belief we are on the verge of major new discoveries about the nature of gravity and that some of these discoveries will fundamentally change how we look at and interact with the universe. Some additional enthusiasm shines through in his epilogue where he notes the process of identifying and debunking a measurement of gravitational waves that occurred around the time the book was published.
By the end of the book, his exposition begins to lean toward the personal. Ferreira has an academic interest in modified theories of gravity, a focus that is outside the mainstream. He references, as he has elsewhere in the book, the systematic hostility toward unpopular theories and unpopular researchers. In some cases, this resistance means a non-mainstream researcher will be unable to get published or unable to get funding. In the case of modified gravity, he hints that this niche field potentially threatens the livelihood of physicists who have built their careers on Einstein’s theory of gravity. In fact, it wasn’t so long ago that certain aspects of Einstein’s theory were themselves shunned by academia. As a case in point, the term “Big Bang” was actually coined as a pejorative for an idea that, while mathematically sound, was too absurd to be taken as serious science. Today, we recognize it as a factual and scientific description of the origin of our universe. Ferreira shows us a disturbing facet of the machinery that determines what we, as a society and a culture, understand as fundamental truth. I’m quite sure this bias isn’t restricted to his field. In fact, my guess would be that other, more openly-politicized fields exhibit this trend to an even greater degree.
Ferreira’s optimism is infectious. In my personal opinion, if there is to be an explosion of science it may come from a different direction that what Ferreira implies. One of his anecdotes involves the decision of the United States to defund the Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA), a multi-billion dollar project to use a trio of satellites to measure gravitational waves. To the LISA advocates, we could be buying a “gravitational telescope,” as revolutionary in terms of current technologies as radiotelescopy was to optical telescopes. The ability to see further away and farther back in time would then produce new insights into the origins of the universe. But will the taxpayer spend billions on such a thing? Should he?
Rather than in the abstract, I’d say the key to the impending relativity revolution is found in Ferreira’s own description of the quantum revolution of the past century. It was the engineering applications of quantum theory, primarily to the development of atomic weapons, that brought to it much of the initial focus of interest and funding. By the end of the century, new and practical applications for quantum technology were well within our grasp. My belief is that a true, um, quantum leap forward in general relativity will come from the promise of practical benefit rather than fundamental research.
In one of the last chapters, Ferreira mentions that he has two textbooks on relativity in his office. In part, he is making a point about a changing-of-the-guard in both relativity science and scientists, but I assume he also keeps them because they are informative. I’ve ordered one and perhaps I can return to my philosophical meanderings once I’m capable of doing some simple math. Before I found The Perfect Theory, I had been searching online for a layman’s tutorial on relativity. Among my various meanderings, I stumbled across a simple assertion; one that seems plausible although I don’t know if it really has any merit. The statement was something to the effect that there is no “gravitational force.” An object whose velocity vector is bent (accelerated) by gravitational effects is, in fact, simply traveling a straight line within the curvature of timespace. If I could smarten myself up to the point where I could determine the legitimacy of such a statement, I think I could call that an accomplishment.