The Law of Universal Gravitation

Since the gravitational force is experienced by all matter in the universe, from the largest galaxies down to the smallest particles, it is often called universal gravitation. (Based upon observations of distant supernovas around the turn of the 21st cent., a repulsive force, termed dark energy, that opposes the self-attraction of matter has been proposed to explain the accelerated expansion of the universe.) Sir Isaac Newton was the first to fully recognize that the force holding any object to the earth is the same as the force holding the moon, the planets, and other heavenly bodies in their orbits. According to Newton's law of universal gravitation, the force between any two bodies is directly proportional to the product of their masses (see mass) and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them. The constant of proportionality in this law is known as the gravitational constant; it is usually represented by the symbol G and has the value 6.670 × 10 - 11 N-m2/kg2 in the meter-kilogram-second (mks) system of units. Very accurate early measurements of the value of G were made by Henry Cavendish.

The Relativistic Explanation of Gravitation

Newton's theory of gravitation was long able to explain all observable gravitational phenomena, from the falling of objects on the earth to the motions of the planets. However, as centuries passed, very slight discrepancies were observed between the predictions of Newtonian theory and actual events, most notably in the motions of the planet Mercury. The general theory of relativity proposed in 1916 by Albert Einstein explained these differences and provided a geometric explanation for gravitational phenomena, holding that matter causes a curvature of the space-time framework in its immediate neighborhood.

The Search for Gravity Waves

Tantalizing evidence for the existence of gravity waves, which are predicted by Einstein's general theory of relativity and would be analogous to electromagnetic waves, comes from astronomical observations of a binary pulsar designated 1913 + 16. The rate at which the two neutron stars in the binary rotate around each other is changing in a manner that is consistent with the emission of gravity waves. A hypothetical particle, given the name graviton, has been suggested as the mediator of the gravitational force; it is analogous to the photon, the particle embodying the quantum properties of electromagnetic waves (see quantum theory). The search for gravity waves continues with the building of large interferometers that would be sensitive enough to detect the faint waves directly (see interference). Millions of dollars have already been spent on the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory (LIGO), supported by the National Science Foundation, and work is beginning on the even more ambitious Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA).

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The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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