Category Archives: Science

The History of Gravity

Timeline: the history of gravity

Geraint Lewis, University of Sydney

Our understanding of gravity has gone through a few permutations, from Newton’s equations through to Einstein’s general relativity. With today’s discovery of gravitational waves, we look back on how our grasp of gravity has evolved over the centuries.

1687: Newtonian gravity

Isaac Newton publishes Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica, giving a comprehensive account of gravity. This gave astronomers an accurate toolbox for predicting the motions of planets. But it was not without its problems, such as calculating the precise orbit of the planet Mercury.

All planets’ orbits precess – with the closest point of their orbit moving slightly with each revolution – due to the gravitational tugs from other planets.

Wes Mountain/The Conversation, CC BY-ND

The issue with Mercury’s orbit was that the amount of precession did not match what Newton’s theory predicted. It was only a small discrepancy, but big enough for astronomers to know it was there!

Wes Mountain/The Conversation, CC BY-ND

1859: Planet Vulcan

To explain Mercury’s odd behaviour, Urbain Le Verrier proposed the existence of an unseen planet called Vulcan, which orbited closer to the sun. He suggested that the gravity from Vulcan was influencing Mercury’s orbit. But repeated observations revealed no signs of Vulcan.

Wes Mountain/The Conversation, CC BY-ND

1905: Special relativity

Albert Einstein shakes up physics with his special theory of relativity. He then started incorporating gravity into his equations, which led to his next breakthrough.

1907: Einstein predicts gravitational redshift

What we now call gravitational redshift was first proposed by Einstein from his thoughts in the development of general relativity.

Wes Mountain/The Conversation, CC BY-ND

Einstein predicted that the wavelength of light coming from atoms in a strong gravitational field will lengthen as it escapes the gravitational force. The longer wavelength shifts the photon to the red end of the electromagnetic spectrum.

1915: General relativity

Albert Einstein publishes general theory of relativity. The first great success was its accurate prediction of Mercury’s orbit, including its previously inscrutable precession.

The theory also predicts the existence of black holes and gravitational waves, although Einstein himself often struggled to understand them.

Wes Mountain/The Conversation, CC BY-ND

1917: Einstein theorises stimulated emission

In 1917, Einstein publishes a paper on the quantum theory of radiation indicating stimulated emission was possible.

Einstein proposed that an excited atom could return to a lower energy state by releasing energy in the form of photons in a process called spontaneous emission.

In stimulated emission, an incoming photon interacts with the excited atom, causing it to move to a lower energy state, releasing photons that are in phase and have the same frequency and direction of travel as the incoming photon. This process allowed for the development of the laser (light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation).

1918: Prediction of frame dragging

Josef Lense and Hans Thirring theorise that the rotation of a massive object in space would “drag” spacetime around with it.

1919: First observation of gravitational lensing

Gravitational lensing is the bending of light around massive objects, such as a black hole, allowing us to view objects that lie behind it. During a total solar eclipse in May 1919, stars near the sun were observed slightly out of position. This indicated that light was bending due to the sun’s mass.

Wes Mountain/The Conversation, CC BY-ND

1925: First measurement of gravitational redshift

Walter Sydney Adams examined light emitted from the surface of massive stars and detected a redshift, as Einstein predicted.

1937: Prediction of a galactic gravitational lensing

Swiss astronomer Fritz Zwicky proposed that an entire galaxy could act as a gravitational lens.

1959: Gravitational redshift verified

The theory was conclusively tested by Robert Pound and Glen Rebka by measuring the relative redshift of two sources at the top and bottom of Harvard University’s Jefferson Laboratory tower. The experiment accurately measured the tiny change in energies as photons travelled between the top and the bottom.

Wes Mountain/The Conversation, CC BY-ND

1960: Laser invented using stimulated emission

Theodore H. Maiman, a physicist at Hughes Research Laboratories in California, builds the first laser.

1960s: First evidence for black holes

The 1960s was the beginning of the renaissance of general relativity, and saw the discovery of galaxies that were powered by the immense pull of black holes in their centres.

There is now evidence of massive black holes in the hearts of all large galaxies, as well as there being smaller black holes roaming between the stars.

1966: First observation of gravitational time delays

American astrophysicist Irwin Shapiro proposed that if general relativity is valid, then radio waves will be slowed down by the sun’s gravity as they bounce around the solar system.

Wes Mountain/The Conversation, CC BY-ND

The effect was observed between 1966-7 by bouncing radar beams off the surface of Venus and measuring the time taken for the signals to return to Earth. The delay measured agreed with Einstein’s theory.

We now use time-delays on cosmological scales, looking at the time differences in flashes and flares between gravitationally lensed images to measure the expansion of the universe.

1969: False detection of gravitational waves

American physicist Joseph Weber (a bit of a rebel) claimed the first experimental detection of gravitational waves. His experimental results were never reproduced.

Wes Mountain/The Conversation, CC BY-ND

1974: Indirect evidence for gravitational waves

Joseph Taylor and Russell Hulse discover a new type of pulsar: a binary pulsar. Measurements of the orbital decay of the pulsars showed they lost energy matching the amounts predicted by general relativity. They receive the 1993 Nobel Prize for Physics for this discovery.

Wes Mountain/The Conversation, CC BY-ND

1979: First observation of a galactic gravitational lens

The first extragalactic gravitational lens was discovered, when observers Dennis Walsh, Bob Carswell and Ray Weymann saw two identical quasi-stellar objects, or “quasars”. It turned out to be one quasar that appears as two separate images.

Since the 1980s, gravitational lensing has become a powerful probe of the distribution of mass in the universe.

1979: LIGO receives funding

US National Science Foundation funds construction of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO).

1987: Another false alarm for gravitational waves

A false alarm on direct detection from Joseph Weber (again) with claimed signal from the supernova SN 1987A using his torsion bar experiments, which consisted of large aluminium bars designed to vibrate when a large gravitational wave passed through it.

1994: LIGO construction begins

It took a long time, but the construction of LIGO finally began in Hanford, Washington, and Livingston, Louisiana.

2002: LIGO starts first search

In August 2002, LIGO starts searching for evidence of gravitational waves.

2004: Frame dragging probe

NASA launches Gravity Probe B to measure the spacetime curvature near the Earth. The probe contained gyroscopes that rotated slightly over time due to the underlying spacetime. The effect is stronger around a rotating object which “drags” spacetime around with it.

Wes Mountain/The Conversation, CC BY-ND

The gyroscopes in Gravity Probe B rotated by an amount consistent with Einstein’s theory of general relativity.

Wes Mountain/The Conversation, CC BY-ND

2005: LIGO hunt ends

After five searches, the first phase of LIGO ends with no detection of gravitational waves. The sensors then undergo an interim refit to improve sensitivity, called Enhanced LIGO.

2009: Enhanced LIGO

An upgraded version called Enhanced LIGO starts new hunt for gravitational waves.

2010: Enhanced LIGO hunt ends

Enhanced LIGO fails to detect and gravitational waves. A major upgrade, called Advanced LIGO begins.

2014: Advanced LIGO upgrade completed

The new Advanced LIGO has finished installation and testing and is nearly ready to begin a new search.

2015: False alarm #3 for gravitational waves

The indirect signature of gravitational waves in the early universe was claimed by the BICEP2 experiment, looking at the cosmic microwave background. But it looks like this was dust in our own galaxy spoofing the signal.

2015: LIGO upgraded again

Advanced LIGO starts a new hunt for gravitational waves with four times the sensitivity of the original LIGO. In September, it detects a signal that looks likely to be from the collision between two black holes.

2016: Gravitational wave detection confirmed

After rigorous checks, the Advanced LIGO team announce the detection of gravitational waves.

Wes Mountain/The Conversation, CC BY-ND

The Conversation

Geraint Lewis, Professor of Astrophysics, University of Sydney

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Flat wrong: the misunderstood history of flat Earth theories

Chris Fleming, Western Sydney University

For most people, being described as a “flat Earther” is an insult. The idea of the Earth being flat is considered not only wrong, but a model of wrongness, the gold standard of being incorrect about something.

This being so, oddly enough, most people described pejoratively as “flat Earthers” do not actually believe that the Earth is flat. “Flat Earther” is simply a scientifically seasoned variation of “idiot”.

For a recent example, US President Barack Obama recently expressed impatience with the persistent objections put forward by climate change deniers by saying: “We don’t have time for a meeting of the Flat Earth Society.”

In a subsequent move that one can read as either very fortunate or very unfortunate, the real Flat Earth Society issued a statement in support the hypothesis of anthropogenic climate change.

What do we do, then, when someone actually does believe that the Earth is flat, as the American rapper B.o.B expressed recently? The usual path seems to be blocked; it’s difficult to insult someone with a term that they themselves happily adopt.

Edge of the world

But what exactly is a “flat Earth theory”? In fact, there never has been anything called “the flat Earth theory”. Different cultures at different times have posited a staggeringly diverse array worldviews which cannot easily be summed up with the phrase “flat Earth.” Nor is the idea of a flat Earth something that is exclusive to the Western world.

Even the most cursory historical survey shows that the idea that the Earth is flat has been a notion shared by an extraordinarily wide range of cultures and tied to vastly different metaphysical systems and cosmologies.

It was a common belief in ancient Greece, as well as in India, China and in a wide range of indigenous or “pre-state” cultures. Both the poets Homer and Hesiod described a flat Earth. This was maintained by Thales, considered by many one of the first philosophers, Lucretius, an avowed materialist, as well as Democritus, the founder of atomic theory.

The ancient Greek conception, in turn, has some parallels with that of early Egyptian and Mesopotamian thought, with both thinking that the Earth was a large disc surrounded by a gigantic body of water. The ancient Chinese were also virtually unanimous in their view of the Earth’s flatness, although – in this system – the heavens were spherical and the Earth was square.

A number of ancient Indian conceptions, common – with some degree of variation – to ancient Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism, tie their cosmography to botanical images, with the earth being comprised of four continents surrounding a mountain, akin to the way petals encircle the bud of a flower. Ancient Norse thought postulated a circular flat Earth surrounded by a sea inhabited by a giant serpent.

Others, like the Mountain Arapesh people of Papua New Guinea, envisage a world which ends at the horizon, the place where giant clouds gather. But even where commonalities exist across these traditions, vastly different metaphysical and cosmological narratives are at stake.

And, to complicate matters, to these we must add cultures and intellectual traditions for whom the shape of Earth is of no interest whatsoever. Many tribal or pre-state societies, for instance, have little concern for what might be considered cosmography.

Does it look flat?
DonkeyHotey, CC BY

Turtles all the way down

However, from at least the 6th century BCE, the theory of the flat Earth began to fall out of favour. By the time we get to Aristotle in the 4th century BCE, the idea of a spherical Earth is commonplace, at least among the educated classes. And by the 1st Century BCE it is considered an uncontroversial truth. Having said that, the theory of a flat Earth has continued as a minor tradition in thought, like a handful of theories in science, such as Lamarckianism and vitalism.

Despite the historical tide having long turned, the mid 20th century saw the establishment of the Flat Earth Society, started in 1956 by Samuel Shenton, whose work was continued by the retired aircraft mechanic, Charles K. Johnson, in 1972.

From California (where else?), Johnson functioned as president for The International Flat Earth Society. As its spokesman, he made a series of claims that have now become widespread outside the flat Earth community: the Apollo moon landings were faked, and that the correct view of the world is the traditional Christian one of the earth being flat.

Johnson, interestingly enough, didn’t get only his cosmology wrong, he got his history and theology wrong as well. Orthodox Christian thinkers, at least since 5th century on, have supported the idea of a spherical Earth, from Bede through to Thomas Aquinas.

Indeed, as the University of California historian Jeffrey Burton Russell has argued, very few educated people in the West after the 3rd century BCE thought that the world was flat. This goes directly against the common belief that most people in medieval times believed the Earth was flat.

How unenlightened they were

But, if the flat Earth serves as a kind if myth or fantasy for those who believe in it, there are also myths about the flat Earth that are just as widespread.

One of the most widely propagated myths in the contemporary world is the belief that Columbus was advised by the Catholic Church to abandon his journey on the basis that he risked falling off the edge of the world.

It’s source is the 19th century writer, Washington Irving, author of other rigorous historical accounts such as The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle.

What this suggests is that we are sometimes overly keen to enlist the past – or our version of the past – in our attempts to feel better about how enlightened we are and how benighted were our predecessors.

That, of course, does not mean that nobody believed the Earth was flat in the middle ages; nor does it entail that nobody believes it today. Mohammed Yusuf, the founder of Boko Haram, famously claimed to not believe in a whole series of modern ideas which he though were contrary to Islam – including the spherical shape of the Earth.

If there is anything truly astounding about BoB’s improbable cosmographical musings, it’s that the battle between him and Neil deGrasse Tyson is, at this stage at least, being carried out only through the medium of rap. That could be a historical first for cosmography.

The Conversation

Chris Fleming, Senior Lecturer in Cultural and Social Analysis, Western Sydney University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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