Eddington 1927: The Law of Curvature



This paper presents Chapter VII (section 1) 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.


The Law of Curvature

Gravitation can be explained. Einstein’s theory is not primarily an explanation of gravitation. When he tells us that the gravitational field corresponds to a curvature of space and time he is giving us a picture. Through a picture we gain the insight necessary to deduce the various observable consequences. There remains, however, a further question whether any reason can be given why the state of things pictured should exist. It is this further inquiry which is meant when we speak of “explaining” gravitation in any far-reaching sense.

At first sight the new picture does not leave very much to explain. It shows us an undulating hummocky world, whereas a gravitationless world would be plane and uniform. But surely a level lawn stands more in need of explanation than an undulating field, and a gravitationless world would be more difficult to account for than a world with gravitation. We are hardly called upon to account for a phenomenon which could only be absent if (in the building of the world) express precautions were taken to exclude it. If the curvature were entirely arbitrary this would be the end of the explanation; but there is a law of curvature—Einstein’s law of gravitation—and on this law our further inquiry must be focussed. Explanation is needed for regularity, not for diversity; and our curiosity is roused, not by the diverse values of the ten subsidiary coefficients of curvature which differentiate the world from a flat world, but by the vanishing everywhere of the ten principal coefficients.

All explanations of gravitation on Newtonian lines have endeavoured to show why something (which I have disrespectfully called a demon) is present in the world. An explanation on the lines of Einstein’s theory must show why something (which we call principal curvature) is excluded from the world.

The ten principal coefficients seem to vanish for the field-substance. These must be relevant only for the material-substance. The other ten coefficients that do not vanish, must explain the field-substance.

In the last chapter the law of gravitation was stated in the form—the ten principal coefficients of curvature vanish in empty space. I shall now restate it in a slightly altered form—

The radius of spherical (Cylindrical curvature of the world has nothing to do with gravitation, nor so far as we know with any other phenomenon. Anything drawn on the surface of a cylinder can be unrolled into a flat map without distortion, but the curvature introduced in the last chapter was intended to account for the distortion which appears in our customary flat map; it is therefore curvature of the type exemplified by a sphere, not a cylinder.) curvature of every three-dimensional section of the world, cut in any direction at any point of empty space, is always the same constant length.

The ten principal coefficients, which vanish for empty space, and which are relevant only for the material substance, seem to determine gravity. The world is determined by material-substance and the gravity associated with it. Einstein seems to be saying that the distribution of matter and gravity in this world is constant in any direction.

Besides the alteration of form there is actually a little difference of substance between the two enunciations; the second corresponds to a later and, it is believed, more accurate formula given by Einstein a year or two after his first theory. The modification is made necessary by our realisation that space is finite but unbounded (p. 80). The second enunciation would be exactly equivalent to the first if for “same constant length” we read “infinite length”. Apart from very speculative estimates we do not know the constant length referred to, but it must certainly be greater than the distance of the furthest nebula, say 1020 miles. A distinction between so great a length and infinite length is unnecessary in most of our arguments and investigations, but it is necessary in the present chapter.

The only significance that may be given to that length (1020) is the absolute level of inertia attributed to matter.

We must try to reach the vivid significance which lies behind the obscure phraseology of the law. Suppose that you are ordering a concave mirror for a telescope. In order to obtain what you want you will have to specify two lengths (i) the aperture, and (2) the radius of curvature. These lengths both belong to the mirror— both are necessary to describe the kind of mirror you want to purchase—but they belong to it in different ways. You may order a mirror of 100 foot radius of curvature and yet receive it by parcel post. In a certain sense the 100 foot length travels with the mirror, but it does so in a way outside the cognizance of the postal authorities. The 100 foot length belongs especially to the surface of the mirror, a two-dimensional continuum; space-time is a four-dimensional continuum, and you will see from this analogy that there can be lengths belonging in this way to a chunk of space-time—lengths having nothing to do with the largeness or smallness of the chunk, but none the less part of the specification of the particular sample. Owing to the two extra dimensions there are many more such lengths associated with spacetime than with the mirror surface. In particular, there is not only one general radius of spherical curvature, but a radius corresponding to any direction you like to take. For brevity I will call this the “directed radius” of the world. Suppose now that you order a chunk of spacetime with a directed radius of 500 trillion miles in one direction and 800 trillion miles in another. Nature replies “No. We do not stock that. We keep a wide range of choice as regards other details of specification; but as regards directed radius we have nothing different in different directions, and in fact all our goods have the one standard radius, x trillion miles.” I cannot tell you what number to put for x because that is still a secret of the firm.

The fact that this directed radius which, one would think, might so easily differ from point to point and from direction to direction, has only one standard value in the world is Einstein’s law of gravitation. From it we can by rigorous mathematical deduction work out the motions of planets and predict, for example, the eclipses of the next thousand years; for, as already explained, the law of gravitation includes also the law of motion. Newton’s law of gravitation is an approximate adaptation of it for practical calculation. Building up from the law all is clear; but what lies beneath it? Why is there this unexpected standardisation? That is what we must now inquire into.


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