Theory of General Relativity Given Toughest Test Yet

Einstein’s theory of general relativity has been given its toughest test yet by a team of researchers who have conducted a 16 year-long experiment but, thus far, Einstein's century old theory is still holding up - just.

The theory, which Albert Einstein published in 1915, is the cornerstone of what scientists know about gravity: that huge objects, and small ones, warp the fabric of four-dimensional space-time. While general relativity can explain the motions of the cosmos, it cannot be used to explain actions at the smallest scales of our universe. Those behaviours are studied under quantum physics, and the team of researchers, who have spent 16 years looking for flaws in Einstein's theory, are endeavouring to seek a future theory that may unify the two, in order to further help us understand our place in the universe.


“As spectacularly successful as Einstein’s theory of general relativity has proven to be, we know that is not the final word in gravitational theory,” said Dr Robert Ferdman, a physicist from the University of East Anglia. “More than 100 years later, scientists around the world continue their efforts to find flaws in his theory."


In this new study, published in Physical Review X, researchers observed the motion of two huge pulsars – a type of neutron star that emits beams of electromagnetic radiation from its poles – through seven radio telescopes around the world.


While the double pulsar, originally discovered in 2003, was unimaginable to Einstein or other physicists of his time, it is “the most precise laboratory” scientists have available to test his theories, Dr Ferdman said. Scientists were able to test how energy is carried by gravitational waves at a scale 1000 times better than current technology. Not only did the researchers find that Einstein’s theory held up, but they were able to see effects that had never been studied before.


“We even need to take Einstein’s famous equation E = mc2 into account when considering the effect of the electromagnetic radiation emitted by the fast-spinning pulsar on the orbital motion."


The scientists said that, while the level of precision they were able to measure in was unprecedented, future experiments with larger telescopes will examine the universe with an even greater level of accuracy and – one day – could find a deviation from Einstein’s theory.

Photo credit: Max Planck Institute

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