Eddington 1927: A New Law of Gravitation


This paper presents Chapter VI (section 3) from the book THE NATURE OF THE PHYSICAL WORLD by A. S. EDDINGTON. The contents of this book are based on the lectures that Eddington delivered at the University of Edinburgh in January to March 1927.

The paragraphs of original material are accompanied by brief comments in color, based on the present understanding.  Feedback on these comments is appreciated.

The heading below links to the original materials.


A New Law of Gravitation

Having found a new picture of gravitation, we require a new law of gravitation; for the Newtonian law told us the amount of the tug and there is now no tug to be considered. Since the phenomenon is now pictured as curvature the new law must say something about curvature. Evidently it must be a law governing and limiting the possible curvature of space-time.

There are not many things which can be said about curvature—not many of a general character. So that when Einstein felt this urgency to say something about curvature, he almost automatically said the right thing. I mean that there was only one limitation or law that suggested itself as reasonable, and that law has proved to be right when tested by observation.

Some of you may feel that you could never bring your minds to conceive a curvature of space, let alone of space-time; others may feel that, being familiar with the bending of a two-dimensional surface, there is no insuperable difficulty in imagining something similar for three or even four dimensions. I rather think that the former have the best of it, for at least they escape being misled by their preconceptions. I have spoken of a “picture”, but it is a picture that has to be described analytically rather than conceived vividly. Our ordinary conception of curvature is derived from surfaces, i.e. two-dimensional manifolds embedded in a three-dimensional space. The absolute curvature at any point is measured by a single quantity called the radius of spherical curvature. But space-time is a four-dimensional manifold embedded in—well, as many dimensions as it can find new ways to twist about in. Actually a four-dimensional manifold is amazingly ingenious in discovering new kinds of contortion, and its invention is not exhausted until it has been provided with six extra dimensions, making ten dimensions in all. Moreover, twenty distinct measures are required at each point to specify the particular sort and amount of twistiness there. These measures are called coefficients of curvature. Ten of the coefficients stand out more prominently than the other ten.

Einstein’s law of gravitation asserts that the ten principal coefficients of curvature are zero in empty space.

The curvature of space can best be visualized as the twisting of substance, because the substance is continuous throughout the universe. This twisting can best be visualized as changing quantization of field-substance, and changing inertia (inertial density) of material-substance. This was addressed mathematically by Einstein.

Einstein’s “empty space” shall be space empty of material-substance but not of field-substance. Thus, in Einstein’s theory, ten principle coefficients apply to field-substance, and twenty apply to material-substance. The twisting of substance may be referred to as curvature, but, in actuality, it is much more complex than the two-dimensional concept of geometrical curvature.

If there were no curvature, i.e. if all the coefficients were zero, there would be no gravitation. Bodies would move uniformly in straight lines. If curvature were unrestricted, i.e. if all the coefficients had unpredictable values, gravitation would operate arbitrarily and without law. Bodies would move just anyhow. Einstein takes a condition midway between; ten of the coefficients are zero and the other ten are arbitrary. That gives a world containing gravitation limited by a law. The coefficients are naturally separated into two groups of ten, so that there is no difficulty in choosing those which are to vanish.

To the uninitiated it may seem surprising that an exact law of Nature should leave some of the coefficients arbitrary. But we need to leave something over to be settled when we have specified the particulars of the problem to which it is proposed to apply the law. A general law covers an infinite number of special cases. The vanishing of the ten principal coefficients occurs everywhere in empty space whether there is one gravitating body or many. The other ten coefficients vary according to the special case under discussion. This may remind us that after reaching Einstein’s law of gravitation and formulating it mathematically, it is still a very long step to reach its application to even the simplest practical problem. However, by this time many hundreds of readers must have gone carefully through the mathematics; so we may rest assured that there has been no mistake. After this work has been done it becomes possible to verify that the law agrees with observation. It is found that it agrees with Newton’s law to a very close approximation so that the main evidence for Einstein’s law is the same as the evidence for Newton’s law; but there are three crucial astronomical phenomena in which the difference is large enough to be observed. In these phenomena the observations support Einstein’s law against Newton’s. (One of the tests—a shift of the spectral lines to the red in the sun and stars as compared with terrestrial sources—is a test of Einstein’s theory rather than of his law.)

It is essential to our faith in a theory that its predictions should accord with observation, unless a reasonable explanation of the discrepancy is forthcoming; so that it is highly important that Einstein’s law should have survived these delicate astronomical tests in which Newton’s law just failed. But our main reason for rejecting Newton’s law is not its imperfect accuracy as shown by these tests; it is because it does not contain the kind of information about Nature that we want to know now that we have an ideal before us which was not in Newton’s mind at all. We can put it this way. Astronomical observations show that within certain limits of accuracy both Einstein’s and Newton’s laws are true. In confirming (approximately) Newton’s law, we are confirming a statement as to what the appearances would be when referred to one particular spacetime frame. No reason is given for attaching any fundamental importance to this frame. In confirming (approximately) Einstein’s law, we are confirming a statement about the absolute properties of the world, true for all space-time frames. For those who are trying to get beneath the appearances Einstein’s statement necessarily supersedes Newton’s; it extracts from the observations a result with physical meaning as opposed to a mathematical curiosity. That Einstein’s law has proved itself the better approximation encourages us in our opinion that the quest of the absolute is the best way to understand the relative appearances; but had the success been less immediate, we could scarcely have turned our back on the quest.

Einstein adds the speed of light as the absolute reference point in his theory of relativity. This translates as zero inertia (or quantization). Thus, Einstein visualizes a scale of quantization/inertia that has a definite and absolute reference point of zero.

I cannot but think that Newton himself would rejoice that after 200 years the “ocean of undiscovered truth” has rolled back another stage. I do not think of him as censorious because we will not blindly apply his formula regardless of the knowledge that has since accumulated and in circumstances that he never had the opportunity of considering.

I am not going to describe the three tests here, since they are now well known and will be found in any of the numerous guides to relativity; but I would refer to the action of gravitation on light concerned in one of them. Light-waves in passing a massive body such as the sun are deflected through a small angle. This is additional evidence that the Newtonian picture of gravitation as a tug is inadequate. You cannot deflect waves by tugging at them, and clearly another representation of the agency which deflects them must be found.

The reference point of zero inertia is theoretical only, because light does have very small but finite inertia since it bends to sun’s gravitation.  But light’s inertia may be assumed to be zero relative to the inertia of material-substance. Therefore, the theory of relativity is successful when applied to gravity relating to matter.

Since light’s inertia cannot be assumed to be zero relative to the inertia of field-substance, it explains why the theory of relativity is not consistent with quantum mechanics. If we can only find a way to use the theoretical point of zero inertia mathematically in the theory of relativity, we may be able to establish its consistency with quantum theory.


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