Rethinking relativity: Is time out of joint?

By | October 25, 2009

Starlight behaving oddly (Image: X-ray: NASA/CXC/MIT/E.-H Peng et al; Optical: NASA/STScI)EVER since Arthur Eddington travelled to the island of Príncipe off Africa to measure starlight bending around the sun during a 1919 eclipse, evidence for Einstein’s theory of general relativity has only become stronger. Could it now be that starlight from distant galaxies is illuminating cracks in the theory’s foundation?

Everything from the concept of the black hole to GPS timing owes a debt to the theory of general relativity, which describes how gravity arises from the geometry of space and time. The sun’s gravitational field, for instance, bends starlight passing nearby because its mass is warping the surrounding space-time. This theory has held up to precision tests in the solar system and beyond, and has explained everything from the odd orbit of Mercury to the way pairs of neutron stars perform their pas de deux.

Yet it is still not clear how well general relativity holds up over cosmic scales, at distances much larger than the span of single galaxies. Now the first, tentative hint of a deviation from general relativity has been found. While the evidence is far from watertight, if confirmed by bigger surveys, it may indicate either that Einstein’s theory is incomplete, or else that dark energy, the stuff thought to be accelerating the expansion of the universe, is much weirder than we thought (see “Not dark energy, dark fluid”).

The analysis of starlight data by cosmologist Rachel Bean of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, has generated quite a stir. Shortly after the paper was published on the pre-print physics archive, prominent physicist Sean Carroll of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena praised Bean’s research. “This is serious work by a respected cosmologist,” he wrote on his blog Cosmic Variance. “Either the result is wrong, and we should be working hard to find out why, or it’s right, and we’re on the cusp of a revolution.”

The weak lensing technique can also be used to measure two different effects of gravity. General relativity calls for gravity’s curvature of space to be equivalent to its curvature of time. Light should be influenced in equal amounts by both.

When the COSMOS data was released in 2007, the team – led by Massey – assumed these two factors were equivalent. Their analysis revealed that gravitational tugs on light were stronger than anticipated, but they put this down to a slightly higher concentration of ordinary and dark matter in the survey’s patch of sky than had been predicted.

To look for potential deviations from general relativity, Bean reanalysed the data and dropped the requirement that these two components of gravity had to be equal. Instead the ratio of the two was allowed to change in value. She found that between 8 and 11 billion years ago gravity’s distortion of time appeared to be three times as strong as its ability to curve space. An observer around at the time wouldn’t have noticed the effect because it only applies over large distances. Nonetheless, “there is a preference for a significant deviation from general relativity”, says Bean (

… finding a deviation when the universe was less than half its current age is odd – if general relativity had broken down at some level, the signs should be most dramatic more recently, long after the repulsive effect of dark energy overwhelmed the attractive powers of gravity some 6 billion years ago. … “Nobody is yet betting money that the effect is real,” says cosmologist Dragan Huterer of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. … Although COSMOS photographed a deep patch of sky, it was fairly small by the standards of modern surveys. This opens up the possibility that this region might be anomalous, notes Asantha Cooray, an astrophysicist at the University of California, Irvine.

… Future projects will scan the sky over much wider areas and collect images of many more lensed galaxies. For example, the Dark Energy Survey is poised to start surveying the sky from 2011 and will build up an even more precise picture of how light has been bent over the course of the universe’s history.

via Rethinking relativity: Is time out of joint? – space – 21 October 2009 – New Scientist.

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