Einstein 1920: The Gravitational Field

Reference: Einstein’s 1920 Book

This paper presents Part II, Chapter 2 from the book RELATIVITY: THE SPECIAL AND GENERAL THEORY by A. EINSTEIN. The contents are from the original publication of this book by Henry Holt and Company, New York (1920).

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

The heading below is linked to the original materials.

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The Gravitational Field

If we pick up a stone and then let it go, why does it fall to the ground?” The usual answer to this question is: “Because it is attracted by the earth.” Modern physics formulates the answer rather differently for the following reason. As a result of the more careful study of electromagnetic phenomena, we have come to regard action at a distance as a process impossible without the intervention of some intermediary medium. If, for instance, a magnet attracts a piece of iron, we cannot be content to regard this as meaning that the magnet acts directly on the iron through the intermediate empty space, but we are constrained to imagine—after the manner of Faraday—that the magnet always calls into being something physically real in the space around it, that something being what we call a “magnetic field.” In its turn this magnetic field operates on the piece of iron, so that the latter strives to move towards the magnet. We shall not discuss here the justification for this incidental conception, which is indeed a somewhat arbitrary one. We shall only mention that with its aid electromagnetic phenomena can be theoretically represented much more satisfactorily than without it, and this applies particularly to the transmission of electromagnetic waves. The effects of gravitation also are regarded in an analogous manner.

We may regard the effects of gravitation analogous to magnetism that can be explained as a magnetic field.

The action of the earth on the stone takes place indirectly. The earth produces in its surroundings a gravitational field, which acts on the stone and produces its motion of fall. As we know from experience, the intensity of the action on a body diminishes according to a quite definite law, as we proceed farther and farther away from the earth. From our point of view this means: The law governing the properties of the gravitational field in space must be a perfectly definite one, in order correctly to represent the diminution of gravitational action with the distance from operative bodies. It is something like this: The body (e.g. the earth) produces a field in its immediate neighbourhood directly; the intensity and direction of the field at points farther removed from the body are thence determined by the law which governs the properties in space of the gravitational fields themselves.

Earth produces a gravitational field, which varies in space according to a definite law.

In contrast to electric and magnetic fields, the gravitational field exhibits a most remarkable property, which is of fundamental importance for what follows. Bodies which are moving under the sole influence of a gravitational field receive an acceleration, which does not in the least depend either on the material or on the physical state of the body. For instance, a piece of lead and a piece of wood fall in exactly the same manner in a gravitational field (in vacuo), when they start off from rest or with the same initial velocity. This law, which holds most accurately, can be expressed in a different form in the light of the following consideration.

The gravitational field exhibits the most remarkable property that the acceleration in the field depends only on the field and not on the body being accelerated.

According to Newton’s law of motion, we have

where the “inertial mass” is a characteristic constant of the accelerated body. If now gravitation is the cause of the acceleration, we then have

where the “gravitational mass” is likewise a characteristic constant for the body. From these two relations follows:

If now, as we find from experience, the acceleration is to be independent of the nature and the condition of the body and always the same for a given gravitational field, then the ratio of the gravitational to the inertial mass must likewise be the same for all bodies. By a suitable choice of units we can thus make this ratio equal to unity. We then have the following law: The gravitational mass of a body is equal to its inertial mass.

The inertial mass is calculated from an impact type force, whereas, the gravitational mass is calculated from a continuously applied force. If the two forces have the same magnitude, and both acceleration and intensity of the field are independent of the body then the gravitational mass is the same as inertial mass.

It is true that this important law had hitherto been recorded in mechanics, but it had not been interpreted. A satisfactory interpretation can be obtained only if we recognise the following fact: The same quality of a body manifests itself according to circumstances as “inertia” or as “weight” (lit. “heaviness”). In the following section we shall show to what extent this is actually the case, and how this question is connected with the general postulate of relativity.

The “weight” of a body is the same thing as its “inertia”.

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FINAL COMMENTS

Gravitation may be explained as a field surrounding a body. The weight of a body is the same as its inertia.

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