Ask Ethan: How Do Massless Particles Experience Gravity?
“Given the equation for gravity between two masses, and the fact that photons are massless, how is it possible for a mass (like a star or a black hole) to exert influence on said photon?”
You know the law of universal gravitation: you put in what any two masses are, how far apart they are from each other, and the gravitational constant of the Universe, and you can immediately know what the force is between any two objects. Set one of the masses to zero, and the force goes to zero. So why is it, then, that if you take the ultimate particle with no mass, a photon, and pass it close by a mass, its path does bend? Why do massless particles experience gravity?
To understand why, you should think about what happens if you and I start at the same place near a mass, but I’m stationary and you’re moving. How far away is that mass? What’s the “r” that goes into Newton’s equation? And who’s right: me or you?
Physicists Used Einstein’s Relativity To Successfully Predict A Supernova Explosion
“When the lens and a background source align in a particular fashion, quadruple images will result. With slightly different light-travel paths, the brightness and arrival time of each image is unique. In November 2014, a quadruply-lensed supernova was observed, showcasing exactly this type of alignment. Although a single galaxy caused the quadruple image, that galaxy was part of a huge galaxy cluster, exhibiting its own strong lensing effects. Elsewhere in the cluster, two additional images of the same galaxy also appear.”
We normally think of light traveling in a straight line, but that’s only true if your space is flat. In the real Universe, mass and matter not only exist, but clump together into massive structures like galaxies, quasars, and galaxy clusters. When a background source of light passes through these foreground masses, the light can get bent and distorted into multiple images that are magnified and arrive at slightly different times. If an event occurs in one such image, we can predict, based on General Relativity, cluster dynamics, and dark matter, when that event will appear in the other images.
“I’d like somebody to finally acknowledge and admit that showing balls on a bed sheet doesn’t cut it as a picture of reality.”
Okay, I admit it: visualizing General Relativity as balls on a bedsheet doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. For one, if this is what gravity is supposed to be, what pulls the balls “down” onto the bedsheet? For another, if space is three dimensional, why are we talking about a 2D “fabric” of space? And for another, why do these lines curve away from the mass, rather than towards it?
It’s true: this visualization of General Relativity is highly flawed. But, believe it or not, all visualizations of General Relativity inherently have similar flaws. The reason is that space itself is not an observable thing! In Einstein’s theory, General Relativity provides the link between the matter and energy in the Universe, which determines the geometric curvature of spacetime, and how the rest of the matter and energy in the Universe moves in response to that. In this Universe, we can only measure matter and energy, not space itself. We can visualize it how we like, but all visualizations are inherently flawed.
“Every time you see a diagram, an article, or a story talking about the “big bang singularity” or any sort of big bang/singularity existing before inflation, know that you’re dealing with an outdated method of thinking. The idea of a Big Bang singularity went out the window as soon as we realized we had a different state — that of cosmic inflation — preceding and setting up the early, hot-and-dense state of the Big Bang. There may have been a singularity at the very beginning of space and time, with inflation arising after that, but there’s no guarantee. In science, there are the things we can test, measure, predict, and confirm or refute, like an inflationary state giving rise to a hot Big Bang. Everything else? It’s nothing more than speculation.”
The Universe, as we observe it today, is expanding and cooling, with the overall density dropping as the volume of space increases. If we ran the clock backwards, however, instead of forwards, things would appear to contract, become denser, and grow hotter. If you go back farther and farther in time, you’d come to an epoch before there were stars and galaxies; before neutral atoms could stably form; before atomic nuclei could remain; etc. You’d go all the way back to hotter and denser states, eventually compressing all the matter and energy in the Universe into a single point: a singularity. This was the ultimate beginning of everything according to the original Big Bang: the birth of time and space.
This Simple Thought Experiment Shows Why We Need Quantum Gravity
“The description that General Relativity puts forth — that of matter telling space how to curve, and curved space telling matter how to move — needs to be augmented to include an uncertain position that has a probability distribution to it. Whether gravity is quantized or not is still an unknown, and has everything to do with the outcome of such a hypothetical experiment. How an uncertain position translates into a gravitational field, exactly, remains an unsolved problem on the road to a full quantum theory of gravity. The principles that underlie quantum mechanics must be universal, but how those principles apply to gravity, and in particular to a particle passing through a double slit, is a great unknown of our time.”
Perhaps the greatest holy grail in theoretical physics is the quest for a quantum theory of gravity. For all the gravitational phenomena we’ve ever measured, observed, or subjected to a test, General Relativity has come through with predictions that match what we’ve seen exactly. For all the other physical phenomena in the Universe, the rules of quantum field theory and the Standard Model of particle physics match up perfectly. But what would happen if we tried to apply General Relativity to an inherently quantum phenomenon? In particular, what happens if we fire a single particle, like an electron, through a double slit? What happens to that particle’s gravitational field?
Einstein Wins Again! General Relativity Passes Its First Extragalactic Test
“For the first time, we’ve been able to perform a direct test of General Relativity outside of our Solar System and get solid, informative results. The ratio of the Newtonian potential to the curvature potential, which relativity demands be equal to one but where alternatives differ, confirms what General Relativity predicts. Large deviations from Einstein’s gravity, therefore, cannot happen on scales smaller than a few thousand light years, or for masses the scale of an individual galaxy. If you want to explain the accelerated expansion of the Universe, you can’t simply say you don’t like dark energy and throw Einstein’s gravity away. For the first time, if we want to modify Einstein’s gravity on galactic-or-larger scales, we have an important constraint to reckon with.”
For many of the greatest cosmic puzzles today, you can either add two new ingredients, dark matter and dark energy, or you can seek to modify Einstein’s theory of gravity. While Einstein’s General Relativity has been confirmed spectacularly under a wide variety of circumstances, the only robust tests that are independent of dark matter or dark energy assumptions occur on scales of the Solar System or smaller. That’s only for distances that are a tiny fraction of a light year, and for masses no bigger than the Sun, which should trouble you when you’re making inferences about galaxies, clusters, or the entire Universe! But thanks to a very fortunate galactic system
a strong gravitational lens that is only 500 million light years distant
we’ve been able to put Einstein’s theory of gravity to the test for galactic masses and distance scales in the thousands of light years.