Of course we all know what gravity is. It’s the force responsible for making objects fall, keeping our feet firmly planting on the ground, and maintaining the moon’s orbit around the earth. But by what mechanism does gravity accomplish these tasks? Surely there are no invisible strings of a master puppeteer. The full story behind understanding the force of gravity spans at least 400 years. Three giant steps have led to modern physics’ current picture.
Step 1: The Copernican Revolution, Galileo and Kepler
Just before he died, in 1543, Nicolaus Copernicus published his famous work describing the heliocentric model of the universe. Although he had formulated his theory years earlier, he delayed publishing until the end of his life. This was probably because he feared criticism from contemporaries or retribution from the church. Placing the sun at the center of the known universe (as opposed to the earth) was a revolutionary idea for its time. This was a monumental leap in the early scientific age.
The idea that the earth moved went against common sense and intuition. In reality, whether the sun moved or the earth moved could not be determined by visual means. Sometimes science has to rely on other methods; in this case, the daily/monthly movements of the planets had to be charted and analyzed.
An object can only be said to be in motion in reference to something else. For example, if you are on a boat that is departing from a large dock, and you look to your side, you will see the dock moving. For an instant you will think that the dock is moving. Then you realize this can’t be true. You may feel the boat rocking or accelerating, but from a visual point of view you can’t tell which is moving.
Years later, Galileo adamantly supported Copernicus’ view and took the brunt of the attack from the church. He was sentenced to house arrest, where he spent the last decade of his life. Nevertheless, Galileo’s contribution to science extended much further than the celestial model. He was instrumental in establishing observation and experimentation as pillars of scientific reasoning. It was becoming clearly that there was order and predictability in nature, which was accessible to human analysis.
Johannes Kepler also lived in Galileo’s time, and he was able to calculate the motion of the planets using mathematics. His most famous work is known as the laws of planetary motion, a precursor to Newton’s laws. In the process he calculated that the orbits of the planets were not perfect circles as originally thought. But rather moved in elongated circles called ellipses. Although the movement of the celestial bodies were being charted in great detail, there was still no comprehensive theory of gravity.
Step 2: Newton’s Insights
Isaac Newton imagined a cannon perched on a mountain top and asked himself the following question: what would happen if cannon balls were fired at steadily increasing speeds? The first few balls would start out in a straight line and then fall to the earth in a curved trajectory. However, if he kept going, something peculiar would happen. The curved path of the cannon ball would eventually match the curvature of the earth. The cannon ball would be in perpetual free fall, and orbiting the earth.
This was the key insight. The same force that was responsible for maintaining the orbits of the moon and planets also caused an apple to fall from a tree. No one had thought of this before. At least if someone had, it did not become public knowledge.
Therefore, the story that Newton got his idea of gravity when an apple fell on his head may not be true. He could have been thinking about cannon balls. But having a cannon ball fall on his head does not make for an inspiring story. What followed was a mathematical unity of both the heavens and earth, his laws of motion and universal gravitation. In spite of Newton’s great achievements, he still had no clue what gravity actually was. It would take more than 200 years for someone to come up with the answer.
Step 3: Einstein’s Imagination
Among many things, Albert Einstein was famous for his thought experiments. He imagined physical scenarios, which he tried to figure out what would happen and how it could be explained. Perhaps this is how he came up with his picture of gravity.
In 1915, ten years after his theory of special relativity, he published the theory of general relativity. As it relates to the actual cause of gravity, the answer is as counter intuitive as the earth moving through space. The gravitational effects are caused by the properties of space itself; just as Einstein had shown that time was flexible (in special relativity), space was also flexible.
It is the warping or curving of the fabric of space that make objects fall and maintain the orbits of celestial bodies. It is similar to the effect of a large rubber sheet (like a trampoline). If one were to place a large heavy ball at the center of the sheet, any smaller balls would be drawn to it by the warping of the sheet (caused by the heavy ball).
Orbits will be created when a balance is established between the motion of a body and the distortion of the spatial fabric. That’s it, distortions in space caused by massive bodies, not a pull or push is responsible for gravity. This theory goes beyond Einstein’s imagination; it has been confirmed by scientific observations. It took 400 years of investigation to understand the basic property of one of the most familiar forces on earth.
References: Richard Dawkins, The Magic of Reality
The Elegant Universe 1 of 3 Einstein’s Dream (Published on Jun 21, 2012) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UV_X2B5OK1I
Stephen Hawking’s Universe -101- Seeing is Believing (June 14, 2013) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5kgPxvJqvEA