Eddington 1927: A New Picture of Gravitation



This paper presents Chapter VI (section 2) 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 Picture of Gravitation

The Newtonian picture of gravitation is a tug applied to the body whose path is disturbed. I want to explain why this picture must be superseded. I must refer again to the famous incident in which Newton and the apple-tree were concerned. The classical conception of gravitation is based on Newton’s account of what happened; but it is time to hear what the apple had to say. The apple with the usual egotism of an observer deemed itself to be at rest; looking down it saw the various terrestrial objects including Newton rushing upwards with accelerated velocity to meet it. Does it invent a mysterious agency or tug to account for their conduct? No; it points out that the cause of their acceleration is quite evident. Newton is being hammered by the molecules of the ground underneath him. This hammering is absolute—no question of frames of reference. With a powerful enough magnifying appliance anyone can see the molecules at work and count their blows. According to Newton’s own law of motion this must give him an acceleration, which is precisely what the apple has observed. Newton had to postulate a mysterious invisible force pulling the apple down; the apple can point to an evident cause propelling Newton up.

The case for the apple’s view is so overwhelming that I must modify the situation a little in order to give Newton a fair chance; because I believe the apple is making too much of a merely accidental advantage. I will place Newton at the centre of the earth where gravity vanishes, so that he can remain at rest without support—without hammering. He looks up and sees apples falling at the surface of the earth, and as before ascribes this to a mysterious tug which he calls gravitation. The apple looks down and sees Newton approaching it; but this time it cannot attribute Newton’s acceleration to any evident hammering. It also has to invent a mysterious tug acting on Newton.

We have two frames of reference. In one of them Newton is at rest and the apple is accelerated; in the other the apple is at rest and Newton accelerated. In neither case is there a visible cause for the acceleration; in neither is the object disturbed by extraneous hammering. The reciprocity is perfect and there is no ground for preferring one frame rather than the other. We must devise a picture of the disturbing agent which will not favour one frame rather than the other. In this impartial humour a tug will not suit us, because if we attach it to the apple we are favouring Newton’s frame and if we attach it to Newton we are favouring the apple’s frame. (It will probably be objected that since the phenomena here discussed are evidently associated with the existence of a massive body (the earth), and since Newton makes his tugs occur symmetrically about that body whereas the apple makes its tugs occur unsymmetrically (vanishing where the apple is, but strong at the antipodes), therefore Newton’s frame is clearly to be preferred. It would be necessary to go deeply into the theory to explain fully why we do not regard this symmetry as of first importance ; we can only say here that the criterion of symmetry proves to be insufficient to pick out a unique frame and does not draw a sharp dividing line between the frames that it would admit and those it would have us reject. After all we can appreciate that certain frames are more symmetrical than others without insisting on calling the symmetrical ones ‘”right”‘ and unsymmetrical ones ‘wrong’.)  The essence or absolute part of gravitation cannot be a force on a body, because we are entirely vague as to the body to which it is applied. We must picture it differently.

Can we visualize gravitation as something other than a force?

The ancients believed that the earth was flat. The small part which they had explored could be represented without serious distortion on a flat map. When new countries were discovered it would be natural to think that they could be added on to the flat map. A familiar example of such a flat map is Mercator’s projection, and you will remember that in it the size of Greenland appears absurdly exaggerated. (In other projections directions are badly distorted.) Now those who adhered to the flat-earth theory must suppose that the map gives the true size of Greenland—that the distances shown in the map are the true distances. How then would they explain that travellers in that country reported that the distances seemed to be much shorter than they “really” were? They would, I suppose, invent a theory that there was a demon living in Greenland who helped travellers on their way. Of course no scientist would use so crude a word; he would invent a Graeco-Latin polysyllable to denote the mysterious agent which made the journeys seem so short; but that is only camouflage. But now suppose the inhabitants of Greenland have developed their own geography. They find that the most important part of the earth’s surface (Greenland) can be represented without serious distortion on a flat map. But when they put in distant countries such as Greece the size must be exaggerated; or, as they would put it, there is a demon active in Greece who makes the journeys there seem different from what the flat map clearly shows them to be. The demon is never where you are; it is always the other fellow who is haunted by him. We now understand that the true explanation is that the earth is curved, and the apparent activities of the demon arise from forcing the curved surface into a flat map and so distorting the simplicity of things.

What has happened to the theory of the earth has happened also to the theory of the world of space-time. An observer at rest at the earth’s centre represents what is happening in a frame of space and time constructed on the usual conventional principles which give what is called a flat space-time. He can locate the events in his neighbourhood without distorting their natural simplicity. Objects at rest remain at rest; objects in uniform motion remain in uniform motion unless there is some evident cause of disturbance such as hammering; light travels in straight lines. He extends this flat frame to the surface of the earth where he encounters the phenomenon of falling apples. This new phenomenon has to be accounted for by an intangible agency or demon called gravitation which persuades the apples to deviate from their proper uniform motion. But we can also start with the frame of the falling apple or of the man in the lift. In the lift-frame bodies at rest remain at rest; bodies in uniform motion remain in uniform motion. But, as we have seen, even at the corners of the lift this simplicity begins to fail; and looking further afield, say to the centre of the earth, it is necessary to postulate the activity of a demon urging unsupported bodies upwards (relatively to the lift-frame). As we change from one observer to another—from one flat space-time frame to another—the scene of activity of the demon shifts. It is never where our observer is, but always away yonder. Is not the solution now apparent? The demon is simply the complication which arises when we try to fit a curved world into a flat frame. In referring the world to a flat frame of space-time we distort it so that the phenomena do not appear in their original simplicity. Admit a curvature of the world and the mysterious agency disappears. Einstein has exorcised the demon.

The picture of a flat or curved space is hard to grasp since space is not an entity in itself. Space is the extension characteristic of substance. “Empty space” is not empty of invisible field-substance.

Do not imagine that this preliminary change of conception carries us very far towards an explanation of gravitation. We are not seeking an explanation; we are seeking a picture. And this picture of world-curvature (hard though it may seem) is more graspable than an elusive tug which flits from one object to another according to the point of view chosen.

It is possible that the field-substance becomes curved and that may explain gravity.


Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.
%d bloggers like this: