The Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time, and the Texture of Reality - Brian Greene (2004)


Chapter 3. Relativity and the Absolute


Some discoveries provide answers to questions. Other discoveries are so deep that they cast questions in a whole new light, showing that previous mysteries were misperceived through lack of knowledge. You could spend a lifetime—in antiquity, some did—wondering what happens when you reach earth’s edge, or trying to figure out who or what lives on earth’s underbelly. But when you learn that the earth is round, you see that the previous mysteries are not solved; instead, they’re rendered irrelevant.

During the first decades of the twentieth century, Albert Einstein made two deep discoveries. Each caused a radical upheaval in our understanding of space and time. Einstein dismantled the rigid, absolute structures that Newton had erected, and built his own tower, synthesizing space and time in a manner that was completely unanticipated. When he was done, time had become so enmeshed with space that the reality of one could no longer be pondered separately from the other. And so, by the third decade of the twentieth century the question of the corporeality of space was outmoded; its Einsteinian reframing, as we’ll talk about shortly, became: Is spacetime a something? With that seemingly slight modification, our understanding of reality’s arena was transformed.

Is Empty Space Empty?

Light was the primary actor in the relativity drama written by Einstein in the early years of the twentieth century. And it was the work of James Clerk Maxwell that set the stage for Einstein’s insights. In the mid-1800s, Maxwell discovered four powerful equations that, for the first time, set out a rigorous theoretical framework for understanding electricity, magnetism, and their intimate relationship.1 Maxwell developed these equations by carefully studying the work of the English physicist Michael Faraday, who in the early 1800s had carried out tens of thousands of experiments that exposed hitherto unknown features of electricity and magnetism. Faraday’s key breakthrough was the concept of the field. Later expanded on by Maxwell and many others, this concept has had an enormous influence on the development of physics during the last two centuries, and underlies many of the little mysteries we encounter in everyday life. When you go through airport security, how is it that a machine that doesn’t touch you can determine whether you’re carrying metallic objects? When you have an MRI, how is it that a device that remains outside your body can take a detailed picture of your insides? When you look at a compass, how is it that the needle swings around and points north even though nothing seems to nudge it? The familiar answer to the last question invokes the earth’s magnetic field, and the concept of magnetic fields helps to explain the previous two examples as well.

I’ve never seen a better way to get a visceral sense of a magnetic field than the elementary school demonstration in which iron filings are sprinkled in the vicinity of a bar magnet. After a little shaking, the iron filings align themselves in an orderly pattern of arcs that begin at the magnet’s north pole and swing up and around, to end at the magnet’s south pole, as in Figure 3.1. The pattern traced by the iron filings is direct evidence that the magnet creates an invisible something that permeates the space around it—a something that can, for example, exert a force on shards of metal. The invisible something is the magnetic field and, to our intuition, it resembles a mist or essence that can fill a region of space and thereby exert a force beyond the physical extent of the magnet itself. A magnetic field provides a magnet what an army provides a dictator and what auditors provide the IRS: influence beyond their physical boundaries, which allows force to be exerted out in the “field.” That is why a magnetic field is also called a force field.


Figure 3.1 Iron filings sprinkled near a bar magnet trace out its magnetic field.

It is the pervasive, space-filling capability of magnetic fields that makes them so useful. An airport metal detector’s magnetic field seeps through your clothes and causes metallic objects to give off their own magnetic fields—fields that then exert an influence back on the detector, causing its alarm to sound. An MRI’s magnetic field seeps into your body, causing particular atoms to gyrate in just the right way to generate their own magnetic fields—fields that the machine can detect and decode into a picture of internal tissues. The earth’s magnetic field seeps through the compass casing and turns the needle, causing it to point along an arc that, as a result of eons-long geophysical processes, is aligned in a nearly south–north direction.

Magnetic fields are one familiar kind of field, but Faraday also analyzed another: the electric field. This is the field that causes your wool scarf to crackle, zaps your hand in a carpeted room when you touch a metal doorknob, and makes your skin tingle when you’re up in the mountains during a powerful lightning storm. And if you happened to examine a compass during such a storm, the way its magnetic needle deflected this way and that as the bolts of electric lightning flashed nearby would have given you a hint of a deep interconnection between electric and magnetic fields—something first discovered by the Danish physicist Hans Oersted and investigated thoroughly by Faraday through painstaking experimentation. Just as developments in the stock market can affect the bond market which can then affect the stock market, and so on, these scientists found that changes in an electric field can produce changes in a nearby magnetic field, which can then cause changes in the electric field, and so on. Maxwell found the mathematical underpinnings of these interrelationships, and because his equations showed that electric and magnetic fields are as entwined as the fibers in a Rastafarian’s dreadlocks, they were eventually christened electromagnetic fields, and the influence they exert the electromagnetic force.

Today, we are constantly immersed in a sea of electromagnetic fields. Your cellular telephone and car radio work over enormous expanses because the electromagnetic fields broadcast by telephone companies and radio stations suffuse impressively wide regions of space. The same goes for wireless Internet connections; computers can pluck the entire World Wide Web from electromagnetic fields that are vibrating all around us—in fact, right through us. Of course, in Maxwell’s day, electromagnetic technology was less developed, but among scientists his feat was no less recognized: through the language of fields, Maxwell had shown that electricity and magnetism, although initially viewed as distinct, are really just different aspects of a single physical entity.

Later on, we’ll encounter other kinds of fields—gravitational fields, nuclear fields, Higgs fields, and so on—and it will become increasingly clear that the field concept is central to our modern formulation of physical law. But for now the critical next step in our story is also due to Maxwell. Upon further analyzing his equations, he found that changes or disturbances to electromagnetic fields travel in a wavelike manner at a particular speed: 670 million miles per hour. As this is precisely the value other experiments had found for the speed of light, Maxwell realized that light must be nothing other than an electromagnetic wave, one that has the right properties to interact with chemicals in our retinas and give us the sensation of sight. This achievement made Maxwell’s already towering discoveries all the more remarkable: he had linked the force produced by magnets, the influence exerted by electrical charges, and the light we use to see the universe—but it also raised a deep question.

When we say that the speed of light is 670 million miles per hour, experience, and our discussion so far, teach us this is a meaningless statement if we don’t specify relative to what this speed is being measured. The funny thing was that Maxwell’s equations just gave this number, 670 million miles per hour, without specifying or apparently relying on any such reference. It was as if someone gave the location for a party as 22 miles north without specifying the reference location, without specifying north of what. Most physicists, including Maxwell, attempted to explain the speed his equations gave in the following way: Familiar waves such as ocean waves or sound waves are carried by a substance, a medium. Ocean waves are carried by water. Sound waves are carried by air. And the speeds of these waves are specified with respect to the medium. When we talk about the speed of sound at room temperature being 767 miles per hour (also known as Mach 1, after the same Ernst Mach encountered earlier), we mean that sound waves travel through otherwise still air at this speed. Naturally, then, physicists surmised that light waves—electromagnetic waves—must also travel through some particular medium, one that had never been seen or detected but that must exist. To give this unseen light-carrying stuff due respect, it was given a name: the luminiferous aether, or the aether for short, the latter being an ancient term that Aristotle used to describe the magical catchall substance of which heavenly bodies were imagined to be made. And, to square this proposal with Maxwell’s results, it was suggested that his equations implicitly took the perspective of someone at rest with respect to the aether. The 670 million miles per hour his equations came up with, then, was the speed of light relative to the stationary aether.

As you can see, there is a striking similarity between the luminiferous aether and Newton’s absolute space. They both originated in attempts to provide a reference for defining motion; accelerated motion led to absolute space, light’s motion led to the luminiferous aether. In fact, many physicists viewed the aether as a down-to-earth stand-in for the divine spirit that Henry More, Newton, and others had envisioned permeating absolute space. (Newton and others in his age had even used the term “aether” in their descriptions of absolute space.) But what actually is the aether? What is it made of? Where did it come from? Does it exist everywhere?

These questions about the aether are the same ones that for centuries had been asked about absolute space. But whereas the full Machian test for absolute space involved spinning around in a completely empty universe, physicists were able to propose doable experiments to determine whether the aether really existed. For example, if you swim through water toward an oncoming water wave, the wave approaches you more quickly; if you swim away from the wave, it approaches you more slowly. Similarly, if you move through the supposed aether toward or away from an oncoming light wave, the light wave’s approach should, by the same reasoning, be faster or slower than 670 million miles per hour. In 1887, however, when Albert Michelson and Edward Morley measured the speed of light, time and time again they found exactly the same speed of 670 million miles per hour regardless of their motion or that of the light’s source. All sorts of clever arguments were devised to explain these results. Maybe, some suggested, the experimenters were unwittingly dragging the aether along with them as they moved. Maybe, a few ventured, the equipment was being warped as it moved through the aether, corrupting the measurements. But it was not until Einstein had his revolutionary insight that the explanation finally became clear.

Relative Space, Relative Time

In June 1905, Einstein wrote a paper with the unassuming title “On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies,” which once and for all spelled the end of the luminiferous aether. In one stroke, it also changed forever our understanding of space and time. Einstein formulated the ideas in the paper over an intense five-week period in April and May 1905, but the issues it finally laid to rest had been gnawing at him for over a decade. As a teenager, Einstein struggled with the question of what a light wave would look like if you were to chase after it at exactly light speed. Since you and the light wave would be zipping through the aether at exactly the same speed, you would be keeping perfect pace with the light. And so, Einstein concluded, from your perspective the light should appear as though it wasn’t moving. You should be able to reach out and grab a handful of motionless light just as you can scoop up a handful of newly fallen snow.

But here’s the problem. It turns out that Maxwell’s equations do not allow light to appear stationary—to look as if it’s standing still. And certainly, there is no reliable report of anyone’s ever actually catching hold of a stationary clump of light. So, the teenage Einstein asked, what are we to make of this apparent paradox?

Ten years later, Einstein gave the world his answer with his special theory of relativity. There has been much debate regarding the intellectual roots of Einstein’s discovery, but there is no doubt that his unshakable belief in simplicity played a critical role. Einstein was aware of at least some experiments that had failed to detect evidence for the existence of the aether.2 So why dance around trying to find fault with the experiments? Instead, Einstein declared, take the simple approach: The experiments were failing to find the aether because there is no aether. And since Maxwell’s equations describing the motion of light—the motion of electromagnetic waves—do not invoke any such medium, both experiment and theory would converge on the same conclusion: light, unlike any other kind of wave ever encountered, does not need a medium to carry it along. Light is a lone traveler. Light can travel through empty space.

But what, then, are we to make of Maxwell’s equation giving light a speed of 670 million miles per hour? If there is no aether to provide the standard of rest, what is the what with respect to which this speed is to be interpreted? Again, Einstein bucked convention and answered with ultimate simplicity. If Maxwell’s theory does not invoke any particular standard of rest, the most direct interpretation is that we don’t need one. The speed of light, Einstein declared, is 670 million miles per hour relative to anything and everything.

Well, this is certainly a simple statement; it fit well a maxim often attributed to Einstein: “Make everything as simple as possible, but no simpler.” The problem is that it also seems crazy. If you run after a departing beam of light, common sense dictates that from your perspective the speed of the departing light has to be less than 670 million miles per hour. If you run toward an approaching beam of light, common sense dictates that from your perspective the speed of the approaching light will be greater than 670 million miles per hour. Throughout his life, Einstein challenged common sense, and this time was no exception. He forcefully argued that regardless of how fast you move toward or away from a beam of light, you will always measure its speed to be 670 million miles per hour—not a bit faster, not a bit slower, no matter what. This would certainly solve the paradox that stumped him as a teenager: Maxwell’s theory does not allow for stationary light because light never is stationary; regardless of your state of motion, whether you chase a light beam, or run from it, or just stand still, the light retains its one fixed and never changing speed of 670 million miles per hour. But, we naturally ask, how can light possibly behave in such a strange manner?

Think about speed for a moment. Speed is measured by how far something goes divided by how long it takes to get there. It is a measure of space (the distance traveled) divided by a measure of time (the duration of the journey). Ever since Newton, space had been thought of as absolute, as being out there, as existing “without reference to anything external.” Measurements of space and spatial separations must therefore also be absolute: regardless of who measures the distance between two things in space, if the measurements are done with adequate care, the answers will always agree. And although we have not yet discussed it directly, Newton declared the same to be true of time. His description of time in the Principia echoes the language he used for space: “Time exists in and of itself and flows equably without reference to anything external.” In other words, according to Newton, there is a universal, absolute conception of time that applies everywhere and everywhen. In a Newtonian universe, regardless of who measures how much time it takes for something to happen, if the measurements are done accurately, the answers will always agree.

These assumptions about space and time comport with our daily experiences and for that reason are the basis of our commonsense conclusion that light should appear to travel more slowly if we run after it. To see this, imagine that Bart, who’s just received a new nuclear-powered skateboard, decides to take on the ultimate challenge and race a beam of light. Although he is a bit disappointed to see that the skateboard’s top speed is only 500 million miles per hour, he is determined to give it his best shot. His sister Lisa stands ready with a laser; she counts down from 11 (her hero Schopenhauer’s favorite number) and when she reaches 0, Bart and the laser light streak off into the distance. What does Lisa see? Well, for every hour that passes, Lisa sees the light travel 670 million miles while Bart travels only 500 million miles, so Lisa rightly concludes that the light is speeding away from Bart at 170 million miles per hour. Now let’s bring Newton into the story. His ideas dictate that Lisa’s observations about space and time are absolute and universal in the sense that anyone else performing these measurements would get the same answers. To Newton, such facts about motion through space and time were as objective as two plus two equaling four. According to Newton, then, Bart will agree with Lisa and will report that the light beam was speeding away from him at 170 million miles per hour.

But when Bart returns, he doesn’t agree at all. Instead, he dejectedly claims that no matter what he did—no matter how much he pushed the skateboard’s limit—he saw the light speed away at 670 million miles per hour, not a bit less.3 And if for some reason you don’t trust Bart, bear in mind that thousands of meticulous experiments carried out during the last hundred years, which have measured the speed of light using moving sources and receivers, support his observations with precision.

How can this be?

Einstein figured it out, and the answer he found is a logical yet profound extension of our discussion so far. It must be that Bart’s measurements of distances and durations, the input that he uses to figure out how fast the light is receding from him, are different from Lisa’s measurements. Think about it. Since speed is nothing but distance divided by time, there is no other way for Bart to have found a different answer from Lisa’s for how fast the light was outrunning him. So, Einstein concluded, Newton’s ideas of absolute space and absolute time were wrong. Einstein realized that experimenters who are moving relative to each other, like Bart and Lisa, will not find identical values for measurements of distances and durations. The puzzling experimental data on the speed of light can be explained only if their perceptions of space and time are different.

Subtle but Not Malicious

The relativity of space and of time is a startling conclusion. I have known about it for more than twenty-five years, but even so, whenever I quietly sit and think it through, I am amazed. From the well-worn statement that the speed of light is constant, we conclude that space and time are in the eye of the beholder. Each of us carries our own clock, our own monitor of the passage of time. Each clock is equally precise, yet when we move relative to one another, these clocks do not agree. They fall out of synchronization; they measure different amounts of elapsed time between two chosen events. The same is true of distance. Each of us carries our own yardstick, our own monitor of distance in space. Each yardstick is equally precise, yet when we move relative to one another, these yardsticks do not agree; they measure different distances between the locations of two specified events. If space and time did not behave this way, the speed of light would not be constant and would depend on the observer’s state of motion. But it is constant; space and time do behave this way. Space and time adjust themselves in an exactly compensating manner so that observations of light’s speed yield the same result, regardless of the observer’s velocity.

Getting the quantitative details of precisely how the measurements of space and time differ is more involved, but requires only high school algebra. It is not the depth of mathematics that makes Einstein’s special relativity challenging. It is the degree to which the ideas are foreign and apparently inconsistent with our everyday experiences. But once Einstein had the key insight—the realization that he needed to break with the more than two-hundred-year-old Newtonian perspective on space and time—it was not hard to fill in the details. He was able to show precisely how one person’s measurements of distances and durations must differ from those of another in order to ensure that each measures an identical value for the speed of light.4

To get a fuller sense of what Einstein found, imagine that Bart, with heavy heart, has carried out the mandatory retrofitting of his skateboard, which now has a maximum speed of 65 miles per hour. If he heads due north at top speed—reading, whistling, yawning, and occasionally glancing at the road—and then merges onto a highway pointing in a northeasterly direction, his speed in the northward direction will be less than 65 miles per hour. The reason is clear. Initially, all his speed was devoted to northward motion, but when he shifted direction some of that speed was diverted into eastward motion, leaving a little less for heading north. This extremely simple idea actually allows us to capture the core insight of special relativity. Here’s how:

We are used to the fact that objects can move through space, but there is another kind of motion that is equally important: objects also move through time. Right now, the watch on your wrist and the clock on the wall are ticking away, showing that you and everything around you are relentlessly moving through time, relentlessly moving from one second to the next and the next. Newton thought that motion through time was totally separate from motion through space—he thought these two kinds of motion had nothing to do with each other. But Einstein found that they are intimately linked. In fact, the revolutionary discovery of special relativity is this: When you look at something like a parked car, which from your viewpoint is stationary—not moving through space, that is—all of its motion is through time. The car, its driver, the street, you, your clothes are all moving through time in perfect synch: second followed by second, ticking away uniformly. But if the car speeds away, some of its motion through time is diverted into motion through space. And just as Bart’s speed in the northward direction slowed down when he diverted some of his northward motion into eastward motion, the speed of the car through time slows down when it diverts some of its motion through time into motion through space. This means that the car’s progress through time slows down and therefore time elapses more slowly for the moving car and its driver than it elapses for you and everything else that remains stationary.

That, in a nutshell, is special relativity. In fact, we can be a bit more precise and take the description one step further. Because of the retrofitting, Bart had no choice but to limit his top speed to 65 miles per hour. This is important to the story, because if he sped up enough when he angled northeast, he could have compensated for the speed diversion and thereby maintained the same net speed toward the north. But with the retrofitting, no matter how hard he revved the skateboard’s engine, his total speed—the combination of his speed toward the north and his speed toward the east—remained fixed at the maximum of 65 miles per hour. And so when he shifted his direction a bit toward the east, he necessarily caused a decreased northward speed.

Special relativity declares a similar law for all motion: the combined speed of any object’s motion through space and its motion through time is always precisely equal to the speed of light. At first, you may instinctively recoil from this statement since we are all used to the idea that nothing but light can travel at light speed. But that familiar idea refers solely to motion through space. We are now talking about something related, yet richer: an object’s combined motion through space and time. The key fact, Einstein discovered, is that these two kinds of motion are always complementary. When the parked car you were looking at speeds away, what really happens is that some of its light-speed motion is diverted from motion through time into motion through space, keeping their combined total unchanged. Such diversion unassailably means that the car’s motion through time slows down.

As an example, if Lisa had been able to see Bart’s watch as he sped along at 500 million miles per hour, she would have seen that it was ticking about two-thirds as fast as her own. For every three hours that passed on Lisa’s watch, she would see that only two had passed on Bart’s. His rapid motion through space would have proved a significant drain on his speed through time.

Moreover, the maximum speed through space is reached when all light-speed motion through time is fully diverted into light-speed motion through space—one way of understanding why it is impossible to go through space at greater than light speed. Light, which always travels at light speed through space, is special in that it always achieves such total diversion. And just as driving due east leaves no motion for traveling north, moving at light speed through space leaves no motion for traveling through time! Time stops when traveling at the speed of light through space. A watch worn by a particle of light would not tick at all. Light realizes the dreams of Ponce de León and the cosmetics industry: it doesn’t age.5

As this description makes clear, the effects of special relativity are most pronounced when speeds (through space) are a significant fraction of light speed. But the unfamiliar, complementary nature of motion through space and time always applies. The lesser the speed, the smaller the deviation from prerelativity physics—from common sense, that is— but the deviation is still there, to be sure.

Truly. This is not dexterous wordplay, sleight of hand, or psychological illusion. This is how the universe works.

In 1971, Joseph Hafele and Richard Keating flew state-of-the-art cesium-beam atomic clocks around the world on a commercial Pan Am jet. When they compared the clocks flown on the plane with identical clocks left stationary on the ground, they found that less time had elapsed on the moving clocks. The difference was tiny—a few hundred billionths of a second—but it was precisely in accord with Einstein’s discoveries. You can’t get much more nuts-and-bolts than that.

In 1908, word began to spread that newer, more refined experiments were finding evidence for the aether.6 If that had been so, it would have meant that there was an absolute standard of rest and that Einstein’s special relativity was wrong. On hearing this rumor, Einstein replied, “Subtle is the Lord, malicious He is not.” Peering deeply into the workings of nature to tease out insights into space and time was a profound challenge, one that had gotten the better of everyone until Einstein. But to allow such a startling and beautiful theory to exist, and yet to make it irrelevant to the workings of the universe, that would be malicious. Einstein would have none of it; he dismissed the new experiments. His confidence was well placed. The experiments were ultimately shown to be wrong, and the luminiferous aether evaporated from scientific discourse.

But What About the Bucket?

This is certainly a tidy story for light. Theory and experiment agree that light needs no medium to carry its waves and that regardless of the motion of either the source of light or the person observing, its speed is fixed and unchanging. Every vantage point is on an equal footing with every other. There is no absolute or preferred standard of rest. Great. But what about the bucket?

Remember, while many viewed the luminiferous aether as the physical substance giving credibility to Newton’s absolute space, it had nothing to do with why Newton introduced absolute space. Instead, after wrangling with accelerated motion such as the spinning bucket, Newton saw no option but to invoke some invisible background stuff with respect to which motion could be unambiguously defined. Doing away with the aether did not do away with the bucket, so how did Einstein and his special theory of relativity cope with the issue?

Well, truth be told, in special relativity, Einstein’s main focus was on a special kind of motion: constant-velocity motion. It was not until 1915, some ten years later, that he fully came to grips with more general, accelerated motion, through his general theory of relativity. Even so, Einstein and others repeatedly considered the question of rotating motion using the insights of special relativity; they concluded, like Newton and unlike Mach, that even in an otherwise completely empty universe you would feel the outward pull from spinning—Homer would feel pressed against the inner wall of a spinning bucket; the rope between the two twirling rocks would pull taut.7 Having dismantled Newton’s absolute space and absolute time, how did Einstein explain this?

The answer is surprising. Its name notwithstanding, Einstein’s theory does not proclaim that everything is relative. Special relativity does claim that some things are relative: velocities are relative; distances across space are relative; durations of elapsed time are relative. But the theory actually introduces a grand, new, sweepingly absolute concept: absolute spacetime.Absolute spacetime is as absolute for special relativity as absolute space and absolute time were for Newton, and partly for this reason Einstein did not suggest or particularly like the name “relativity theory.” Instead, he and other physicists suggested invariance theory, stressing that the theory, at its core, involves something that everyone agrees on, something that is not relative.8

Absolute spacetime is the vital next chapter in the story of the bucket, because, even if devoid of all material benchmarks for defining motion, the absolute spacetime of special relativity provides a something with respect to which objects can be said to accelerate.

Carving Space and Time

To see this, imagine that Marge and Lisa, seeking some quality together-time, enroll in a Burns Institute extension course on urban renewal. For their first assignment, they are asked to redesign the street and avenue layout of Springfield, subject to two requirements: first, the street/avenue grid must be configured so that the Soaring Nuclear Monument is located right at the grid’s center, at 5th Street and 5th Avenue, and, second, the designs must use streets 100 meters long, and avenues, which run perpendicular to streets, that are also 100 meters long. Just before class, Marge and Lisa compare their designs and realize that something is terribly wrong. After appropriately configuring her grid so that the Monument lies in the center, Marge finds that Kwik-E-Mart is at 8th Street and 5th Avenue and the nuclear power plant is at 3rd Street and 5th Avenue, as shown in Figure 3.2a. But in Lisa’s design, the addresses are completely different: the Kwik-E-Mart is near the corner of 7th Street and 3rd Avenue, while the power plant is at 4th Street and 7th Avenue, as in Figure 3.2b. Clearly, someone has made a mistake.

After a moment’s thought, though, Lisa realizes what’s going on. There are no mistakes. She and Marge are both right. They merely chose different orientations for their street and avenue grids. Marge’s streets and avenues run at an angle relative to Lisa’s; their grids are rotated relative to each other; they have sliced up Springfield into streets and avenues in two different ways (see Figure 3.2c). The lesson here is simple, yet important. There is freedom in how Springfield—a region of space—can be organized by streets and avenues. There are no “absolute” streets or “absolute” avenues. Marge’s choice is as valid as Lisa’s—or any other possible orientation, for that matter.

Hold this idea in mind as we paint time into the picture. We are used to thinking about space as the arena of the universe, but physical processes occur in some region of space during some interval of time. As an example, imagine that Itchy and Scratchy are having a duel, as illustrated in Figure 3.3a, and the events are recorded moment by moment in the fashion of one of those old-time flip books. Each page is a “time slice”—like a still frame in a filmstrip—that shows what happened in a region of space at one moment of time. To see what happened at a different moment of time you flip to a different page.4 (Of course, space is three-dimensional while the pages are two-dimensional, but let’s make this simplification for ease of thinking and drawing figures. It won’t compromise any of our conclusions.) By way of terminology, a region of space considered over an interval of time is called a region of spacetime;you can think of a region of spacetime as a record of all things that happen in some region of space during a particular span of time.


Figure 3.2 (aMarge’s street design. (bLisa’s street design.


Figure 3.2 (cOverview of Marge’s and Lisa’s street/avenue designs. Their grids differ by a rotation.

Now, following the insight of Einstein’s mathematics professor Hermann Minkowski (who once called his young student a lazy dog), consider the region of spacetime as an entity unto itself: consider the complete flip book as an object in its own right. To do so, imagine that, as in Figure 3.3b, we expand the binding of the flip-card book and then imagine that, as in Figure 3.3c, all the pages are completely transparent, so when you look at the book you see one continuous block containing all the events that happened during a given time interval. From this perspective, the pages should be thought of as simply providing a convenient way of organizing the content of the block—that is, of organizing the events of  spacetime. Just as a street/avenue grid allows us to specify locations in a city easily, by giving their street and avenue address, the division of the spacetime block into pages allows us to easily specify an event (Itchy shooting his gun, Scratchy being hit, and so on) by giving the time when the event occurred—the page on which it appears—and the location within the region of space depicted on the pages.


Figure 3.3 (aFlip book of duel. (bFlip book with expanded binding.

Here is the key point: Just as Lisa realized that there are different, equally valid ways to slice up a region of space into streets and avenues,


Figure 3.3 (cBlock of spacetime containing the duel. Pages, or “time slices,” organize the events in the block. The spaces between slices are for visual clarity only; they are not meant to suggest that time is discrete, a question we discuss later.

Einstein realized that there are different, equally valid ways to slice up a region of spacetime—a block like that in Figure 3.3c—into regions of space at moments of time. The pages in Figures 3.3a, b, and c—with, again, each page denoting one moment of time—provide but one of the many possible slicings. This may sound like only a minor extension of what we know intuitively about space, but it’s the basis for overturning some of the most basic intuitions that we’ve held for thousands of years. Until 1905, it was thought that everyone experiences the passage of time identically, that everyone agrees on what events occur at a given moment of time, and hence, that everyone would concur on what belongs on a given page in the flip book of spacetime. But when Einstein realized that two observers in relative motion have clocks that tick off time differently, this all changed. Clocks that are moving relative to each other fall out of synchronization and therefore give different notions of simultaneity. Each page in Figure 3.3b is but one observer’s view of the events in space taking place at a given moment of his or her time. Another observer, moving relative to the first, will declare that the events on a single one of these pages do not all happen at the same time.

This is known as the relativity of simultaneity, and we can see it directly. Imagine that Itchy and Scratchy, pistols in paws, are now facing each other on opposite ends of a long, moving railway car with one referee on the train and another officiating from the platform. To make the duel as fair as possible, all parties have agreed to forgo the three-step rule, and instead, the duelers will draw when a small pile of gunpowder, set midway between them, explodes. The first referee, Apu, lights the fuse, takes a sip of his refreshing Chutney Squishee, and steps back. The gunpowder flares, and both Itchy and Scratchy draw and fire. Since Itchy and Scratchy are the same distance from the gunpowder, Apu is certain that light from the flare reaches them simultaneously, so he raises the green flag and declares it a fair draw. But the second referee, Martin, who was watching from the platform, wildly squeals foul play, claiming that Itchy got the light signal from the explosion before Scratchy did. He explains that because the train was moving forward, Itchy was heading toward the light while Scratchy was moving away from it. This means that the light did not have to travel quite as far to reach Itchy, since he moved closer to it; moreover, the light had to travel farther to reach Scratchy, since he moved away from it. Since the speed of light, moving left or right from anyone’s perspective, is constant, Martin claims that it took the light longer to reach Scratchy since it had to travel farther, rendering the duel unfair.

Who is right, Apu or Martin? Einstein’s unexpected answer is that they both are. Although the conclusions of our two referees differ, the observations and the reasoning of each are flawless. Like the bat and the baseball, they simply have different perspectives on the same sequence of events. The shocking thing that Einstein revealed is that their different perspectives yield different but equally valid claims of what events happen at the same time. Of course, at everyday speeds like that of the train, the disparity is small—Martin claims that Scratchy got the light less than a trillionth of a second after Itchy—but were the train moving faster, near light speed, the time difference would be substantial.

Think about what this means for the flip-book pages slicing up a region of spacetime. Since observers moving relative to each other do not agree on what things happen simultaneously, the way each of them will slice a block of spacetime into pages—with each page containing all events that happen at a given moment from each observer’s perspective— will not agree, either. Instead, observers moving relative to each other cut a block of spacetime up into pages, into time slices, in different but equally valid ways. What Lisa and Marge found for space, Einstein found for spacetime.

Angling the Slices

The analogy between street/avenue grids and time slicings can be taken even further. Just as Marge’s and Lisa’s designs differed by a rotation, Apu’s and Martin’s time slicings, their flip-book pages, also differ by a rotation, but one that involves both space and time. This is illustrated in Figures 3.4a and 3.4b, in which we see that Martin’s slices are rotated relative to Apu’s, leading him to conclude that the duel was unfair. A critical difference of detail, though, is that whereas the rotation angle between Marge’s and Lisa’s schemes was merely a design choice, the rotation angle between Apu’s and Martin’s slicings is determined by their relative speed. With minimal effort, we can see why.

Imagine that Itchy and Scratchy have reconciled. Instead of trying to shoot each other, they just want to ensure that clocks on the front and back of the train are perfectly synchronized. Since they are still equidistant from the gunpowder, they come up with the following plan. They agree to set their clocks to noon just as they see the light from the flaring gunpowder. From their perspective, the light has to travel the same distance to reach either of them, and since light’s speed is constant, it will reach them simultaneously. But, by the same reasoning as before, Martin and anyone else viewing from the platform will say that Itchy is heading toward the emitted light while Scratchy is moving away from it, and so Itchy will receive the light signal a little before Scratchy does. Platform observers will therefore conclude that Itchy set his clock to 12:00 before Scratchy and will therefore claim that Itchy’s clock is set a bit ahead of Scratchy’s. For example, to a platform observer like Martin, when it’s 12:06 on Itchy’s clock, it may be only 12:04 on Scratchy’s (the precise numbers depend on the length and the speed of the train; the longer and faster it is, the greater the discrepancy). Yet, from the viewpoint of Apu and everyone on the train, Itchy and Scratchy performed the synchronization perfectly. Again, although it’s hard to accept at a gut level, there is no paradox here: observers in relative motion do not agree on simultaneity—they do not agree on what things happen at the same time.


Figure 3.4 Time slicings according to (aApu and (b ) Martin, who are in relative motion. Their slices differ by a rotation through space and time. According to Apu, who is on the train, the duel is fair; according to Martin, who is on the platform, it isn’t. Both views are equally valid. In (b), the different angle of their slices through spacetime is emphasized.

This means that one page in the flip book as seen from the perspective of those on the train, a page containing events they consider simultaneous—such as Itchy’s and Scratchy’s setting their clocks— contains events that lie on different pages from the perspective of those observing from the platform (according to platform observers, Itchy set his clock before Scratchy, so these two events are on different pages from the platform observer’s perspective). And there we have it. A single page from the perspective of those on the train contains events that lie on earlier and later pages of a platform observer. This is why Martin’s and Apu’s slices in Figure 3.4 are rotated relative to each other: what is a single time slice, from one perspective, cuts across many time slices, from the other perspective.

If Newton’s conception of absolute space and absolute time were correct, everyone would agree on a single slicing of spacetime. Each slice would represent absolute space as viewed at a given moment of absolute time. This, however, is not how the world works, and the shift from rigid Newtonian time to the newfound Einsteinian flexibility inspires a shift in our metaphor. Rather than viewing spacetime as a rigid flip book, it will sometimes be useful to think of it as a huge, fresh loaf of bread. In place of the fixed pages that make up a book—the fixed Newtonian time slices— think of the variety of angles at which you can slice a loaf into parallel pieces of bread, as in Figure 3.5a. Each piece of bread represents space at one moment of time from one observer’s perspective. But as illustrated in Figure 3.5b, another observer, moving relative to the first, will slice the spacetime loaf at a different angle. The greater the relative velocity of the two observers, the larger the angle between their respective parallel slices (as explained in the endnotes, the speed limit set by light translates into a maximum 45° rotation angle for these slicings9) and the greater the discrepancy between what the observers will report as having happened at the same moment.

The Bucket, According to Special Relativity

The relativity of time and space requires a dramatic change in our thinking. Yet there is an important point, mentioned earlier and illustrated now by the loaf of bread, which often gets lost: not everything in relativity is relative.Even if you and I were to imagine slicing up a loaf of bread in two different ways, there is still something that we would fully agree upon: the totality of the loaf itself. Although our slices would differ, if I were to imagine putting all of my slices together and you were to imagine doing the same for all of your slices, we would reconstitute the same loaf of bread. How could it be otherwise? We both imagined cutting up the same loaf.

Similarly, the totality of all the slices of space at successive moments of time, from any single observer’s perspective (see Figure 3.4), collectively yield the same region of spacetime. Different observers slice up a region of spacetime in different ways, but the region itself, like the loaf of bread, has an independent existence. Thus, although Newton definitely got it wrong, his intuition that there was something absolute, something that everyone would agree upon, was not fully debunked by special relativity. Absolute space does not exist. Absolute time does not exist. But according to special relativity, absolute spacetime does exist. With this observation, let’s visit the bucket once again.


Figure 3.5 Just as one loaf of bread can be sliced at different angles, a block of spacetime is “time sliced” at different angles by observers in relative motion. The greater the relative speed, the greater the angle (with a maximum angle of 45˚ corresponding to the maximum speed set by light).

In an otherwise empty universe, with respect to what is the bucket spinning? According to Newton, the answer is absolute space. According to Mach, there is no sense in which the bucket can even be said to spin. According to Einstein’s special relativity, the answer is absolute spacetime.

To understand this, let’s look again at the proposed street and avenue layouts for Springfield. Remember that Marge and Lisa disagreed on the street and avenue address of the Kwik-E-Mart and the nuclear plant because their grids were rotated relative to each other. Even so, regardless of how each chose to lay out the grid, there are some things they definitely still agree on. For example, if in the interest of increasing worker efficiency during lunchtime, a trail is painted on the ground from the nuclear plant straight to the Kwik-E-Mart, Marge and Lisa will not agree on the streets and avenues through which the trail passes, as you can see in Figure 3.6. But they will certainly agree on the shape of the trail: they will agree that it is a straight line. The geometrical shape of the painted trail is independent of the particular street/avenue grid one happens to use.

Einstein realized that something similar holds for spacetime. Even though two observers in relative motion slice up spacetime in different ways, there are things they still agree on. As a prime example, consider a straight line not just through space, but through spacetime. Although the inclusion of time makes such a trajectory less familiar, a moment’s thought reveals its meaning. For an object’s trajectory through spacetime to be straight, the object must not only move in a straight line through space, but its motion must also be uniform through time; that is, both its speed and direction must be unchanging and hence it must be moving with constant velocity. Now, even though different observers slice up the spacetime loaf at different angles and thus will not agree on how much time has elapsed or how much distance is covered between various points on a trajectory, such observers will, like Marge and Lisa, still agree on whether a trajectory through spacetime is a straight line. Just as the geometrical shape of the painted trail to the Kwik-E-Mart is independent of the street/avenue slicing one uses, so the geometrical shapes of trajectories in spacetime are independent of the time slicing one uses.10

This is a simple yet critical realization, because with it special relativity provided an absolute criterion—one that all observers, regardless of their constant relative velocities, would agree on—for deciding whether or not something is accelerating. If the trajectory an object follows through spacetime is a straight line, like that of the gently resting astronaut (a) in Figure 3.7, it is not accelerating. If the trajectory an object follows has any other shape but a straight line through spacetime, it is accelerating. For example, should the astronaut fire up her jetpack and fly around in a circle over and over again, like astronaut (b) in Figure 3.7, or should she zip out toward deep space at ever increasing speed, like astronaut (c), her trajectory through spacetime will be curved—the telltale sign of acceleration. And so, with these developments we learn that geometricalshapes of trajectories in spacetime provide the absolute standard that determines whether something is accelerating. Spacetime, not space alone, provides the benchmark.


Figure 3.6 Regardless of which street grid is used, everyone agrees on the shape of a trail, in this case, a straight line.

In this sense, then, special relativity tells us that spacetime itself is the ultimate arbiter of accelerated motion. Spacetime provides the backdrop with respect to which something, like a spinning bucket, can be said to accelerate even in an otherwise empty universe. With this insight, the pendulum swung back again: from Leibniz the relationist to Newton the absolutist to Mach the relationist, and now back to Einstein, whose special relativity showed once again that the arena of reality—viewed as spacetime, not as space—is enough of a something to provide the ultimate benchmark for motion.11


Figure 3.7 The paths through spacetime followed by three astronauts. Astronaut (a) does not accelerate and so follows a straight line through spacetime. Astronaut (b) flies repeatedly in a circle, and so follows a spiral through spacetime. Astronaut (c) accelerates into deep space, and so follows another curved trajectory in spacetime.

Gravity and the Age-old Question

At this point you might think we’ve reached the end of the bucket story, with Mach’s ideas having been discredited and Einstein’s radical updating of Newton’s absolute conceptions of space and time having won the day. The truth, though, is more subtle and more interesting. But if you’re new to the ideas we’ve covered so far, you may need a break before pressing on to the last sections of this chapter. In Table 3.1 you’ll find a summary to refresh your memory when you’ve geared up to reengage.

Okay. If you’re reading these words, I gather you’re ready for the next major step in spacetime’s story, a step catalyzed in large part by none other than Ernst Mach. Although special relativity, unlike Mach’s theory, concludes that even in an otherwise empty universe you would feel pressed against the inside wall of a spinning bucket and that the rope tied between two twirling rocks would pull taut, Einstein remained deeply fascinated by Mach’s ideas. He realized, however, that serious consideration of these ideas required significantly extending them. Mach never really specified a mechanism whereby distant stars and other matter in the universe might play a role in how strongly your arms splay outward when you spin or how forcefully you feel pressed against the inner wall of a spinning bucket. Einstein began to suspect that if there were such a mechanism it might have something to do with gravity.

This realization had a particular allure for Einstein because in special relativity, to keep the analysis tractable, he had completely ignored gravity.


Maybe, he speculated, a more robust theory, which embraced both special relativity and gravity, would come to a different conclusion regarding Mach’s ideas. Maybe, he surmised, a generalization of special relativity that incorporated gravity would show that matter, both near and far, determines the force we feel when we accelerate.

Einstein also had a second, somewhat more pressing, reason for turning his attention to gravity. He realized that special relativity, with its central dictum that the speed of light is the fastest that anything or any disturbance can travel, was in direct conflict with Newton’s universal law of gravity, the monumental achievement that had for over two hundred years predicted with fantastic precision the motion of the moon, the planets, comets, and all things tossed skyward. The experimental success of Newton’s law notwithstanding, Einstein realized that according to Newton, gravity exerts its influence from place to place, from the sun to the earth, from the earth to the moon, from any-here to any-there, instantaneously, in no time at all, much faster than light. And that directly contradicted special relativity.

To illustrate the contradiction, imagine you’ve had a really disappointing evening (hometown ball club lost, no one remembered your birthday, someone ate the last chunk of Velveeta) and need a little time alone, so you take the family skiff out for some relaxing midnight boating. With the moon overhead, the water is at high tide (it’s the moon’s gravity pulling up on bodies of water that creates the tides), and beautiful moonlight reflections dance on its waving surface. But then, as if your night hadn’t already been irritating enough, hostile aliens zap the moon and beam it clear across to the other side of the galaxy. Now, certainly, the moon’s sudden disappearance would be odd, but if Newton’s law of gravity was right, the episode would demonstrate something odder still. Newton’s law predicts that the water would start to recede from high tide, because of the loss of the moon’s gravitational pull, about a second and a half before you saw the moon disappear from the sky. Like a sprinter jumping the gun, the water would seem to retreat a second and a half too soon.

The reason is that, according to Newton, at the very moment the moon disappears its gravitational pull would instantaneously disappear too, and without the moon’s gravity, the tides would immediately start to diminish. Yet, since it takes light a second and a half to travel the quarter million miles between the moon and the earth, you wouldn’t immediately see that the moon had disappeared; for a second and a half, it would seem that the tides were receding from a moon that was still shining high overhead as usual. Thus, according to Newton’s approach, gravity can affect us before light—gravity can outrun light—and this, Einstein felt certain, was wrong.12

And so, around 1907, Einstein became obsessed with the goal of formulating a new theory of gravity, one that would be at least as accurate as Newton’s but would not conflict with the special theory of relativity. This turned out to be a challenge beyond all others. Einstein’s formidable intellect had finally met its match. His notebook from this period is filled with half-formulated ideas, near misses in which small errors resulted in long wanderings down spurious paths, and exclamations that he had cracked the problem only to realize shortly afterward that he’d made another mistake. Finally, by 1915, Einstein emerged into the light. Although Einstein did have help at critical junctures, most notably from the mathematician Marcel Grossmann, the discovery of general relativity was the rare heroic struggle of a single mind to master the universe. The result is the crowning jewel of pre-quantum physics.

Einstein’s journey toward general relativity began with a key question that Newton, rather sheepishly, had sidestepped two centuries earlier. How does gravity exert its influence over immense stretches of space? How does the vastly distant sun affect earth’s motion? The sun doesn’t touch the earth, so how does it do that? In short, how does gravity get the job done? Although Newton discovered an equation that described the effect of gravity with great accuracy, he fully recognized that he had left unanswered the important question of how gravity actually works. In his Principia, Newton wryly wrote, “I leave this problem to the consideration of the reader.”13 As you can see, there is a similarity between this problem and the one Faraday and Maxwell solved in the 1800s, using the idea of a magnetic field, regarding the way a magnet exerts influence on things that it doesn’t literally touch. So you might suggest a similar answer: gravity exerts its influence by another field, the gravitational field. And, broadly speaking, this is the right suggestion. But realizing this answer in a manner that does not conflict with special relativity is easier said than done.

Much easier. It was this task to which Einstein boldly dedicated himself, and with the dazzling framework he developed after close to a decade of searching in the dark, Einstein overthrew Newton’s revered theory of gravity. What is equally dazzling, the story comes full circle because Einstein’s key breakthrough was tightly linked to the very issue Newton highlighted with the bucket: What is the true nature of accelerated motion?

The Equivalence of Gravity and Acceleration

In special relativity, Einstein’s main focus was on observers who move with constant velocity—observers who feel no motion and hence are all justified in proclaiming that they are stationary and that the rest of the world moves by them. Itchy, Scratchy, and Apu on the train do not feel any motion. From their perspective, it’s Martin and everyone else on the platform who are moving. Martin also feels no motion. To him, it’s the train and its passengers that are in motion. Neither perspective is more correct than the other. But accelerated motion is different, because you can feel it. You feel squeezed back into a car seat as it accelerates forward, you feel pushed sideways as a train rounds a sharp bend, you feel pressed against the floor of an elevator that accelerates upward.

Nevertheless, the forces you’d feel struck Einstein as very familiar. As you approach a sharp bend, for example, your body tightens as you brace for the sideways push, because the impending force is inevitable. There is no way to shield yourself from its influence. The only way to avoid the force is to change your plans and not take the bend. This rang a loud bell for Einstein. He recognized that exactly the same features characterize the gravitational force. If you’re standing on planet earth you are subject to planet earth’s gravitational pull. It’s inevitable. There is no way around it. While you can shield yourself from electromagnetic and nuclear forces, there is no way to shield yourself from gravity. And one day in 1907, Einstein realized that this was no mere analogy. In one of those flashes of insight that scientists spend a lifetime longing for, Einstein realized that gravity and accelerated motion are two sides of the same coin.

Just as by changing your planned motion (to avoid accelerating) you can avoid feeling squeezed back in your car seat or feeling pushed sideways on the train, Einstein understood that by suitably changing your motion you can also avoid feeling the usual sensations associated with gravity’s pull. The idea is wonderfully simple. To understand it, imagine that Barney is desperately trying to win the Springfield Challenge, a monthlong competition among all belt-size-challenged males to see who can shed the greatest number of inches. But after two weeks on a liquid diet (Duff Beer), when he still has an obstructed view of the bathroom scale, he loses all hope. And so, in a fit of frustration, with the scale stuck to his feet, he leaps from the bathroom window. On his way down, just before plummeting into his neighbor’s pool, Barney looks at the scale’s reading and what does he see? Well, Einstein was the first person to realize, and realize fully, that Barney will see the scale’s reading drop to zero. The scale falls at exactly the same rate as Barney does, so his feet don’t press against it at all. In free fall, Barney experiences the same weightlessnessthat astronauts experience in outer space.

Indeed, if we imagine that Barney jumps out his window into a large shaft from which all air has been evacuated, then on his way down not only would air resistance be eliminated, but because every atom of his body would be falling at exactly the same rate, all the usual external bodily stresses and strains—his feet pushing up against his ankles, his legs pushing into his hips, his arms pulling down on his shoulders—would be eliminated as well.14 By closing his eyes during the descent, Barney would feel exactly what he would if he were floating in the darkness of deep space. (And, again, in case you’re happier with nonhuman examples: if you drop two rocks tied by a rope into the evacuated shaft, the rope will remain slack, just as it would if the rocks were floating in outer space.) Thus, by changing his state of motion—by fully “giving in to gravity”— Barney is able to simulate a gravity-free environment. (As a matter of fact, NASA trains astronauts for the gravity-free environment of outer space by having them ride in a modified 707 airplane, nicknamed the Vomit Comet, that periodically goes into a state of free fall toward earth.)

Similarly, by a suitable change in motion you can create a force that is essentially identical to gravity. For example, imagine that Barney joins astronauts floating weightless in their space capsule, with the bathroom scale still stuck to his feet and still reading zero. If the capsule should fire up its boosters and accelerate, things will change significantly. Barney will feel pressed to the capsule’s floor, just as you feel pressed to the floor of an upward accelerating elevator. And since Barney’s feet are now pressing against the scale, its reading is no longer zero. If the captain fires the boosters with just the right oomph, the reading on the scale will agree precisely with what Barney saw in the bathroom. Through appropriate acceleration, Barney is now experiencing a force that is indistinguishable from gravity.

The same is true of other kinds of accelerated motion. Should Barney join Homer in the outer space bucket, and, as the bucket spins, stand at a right angle to Homer—feet and scale against the inner bucket wall—the scale will register a nonzero reading since his feet will press against it. If the bucket spins at just the right rate, the scale will give the same reading Barney found earlier in the bathroom: the acceleration of the spinning bucket can also simulate earth’s gravity.

All this led Einstein to conclude that the force one feels from gravity and the force one feels from acceleration are the same. They are equivalent. Einstein called this the principle of equivalence.

Take a look at what it means. Right now you feel gravity’s influence. If you are standing, your feet feel the floor supporting your weight. If you are sitting, you feel the support somewhere else. And unless you are reading in a plane or a car, you probably also think that you are stationary—that you are not accelerating or even moving at all. But according to Einstein you actually are accelerating. Since you’re sitting still this sounds a little silly, but don’t forget to ask the usual question: Accelerating according to what benchmark? Accelerating from whose viewpoint?

With special relativity, Einstein proclaimed that absolute spacetime provides the benchmark, but special relativity does not take account of gravity. Then, through the equivalence principle, Einstein supplied a more robust benchmark that does include the effects of gravity. And this entailed a radical change in perspective. Since gravity and acceleration are equivalent, if you feel gravity’s influence, you must be accelerating. Einstein argued that only those observers who feel no force at all—including the force of gravity—are justified in declaring that they are not accelerating. Such force-free observers provide the true reference points for discussing motion, and it’s this recognition that requires a major turnabout in the way we usually think about such things. When Barney jumps from his window into the evacuated shaft, we would ordinarily describe him as accelerating down toward the earth’s surface. But this is not a description Einstein would agree with. According to Einstein, Barney is not accelerating. He feels no force. He is weightless. He feels as he would floating in the deep darkness of empty space. He provides the standard against which all motion should be compared. And by this comparison, when you are calmly reading at home, you are accelerating. From Barney’s perspective as he freely falls by your window—the perspective, according to Einstein, of a true benchmark for motion—you and the earth and all the other things we usually think of as stationary are accelerating upward. Einstein would argue that it was Newton’s head that rushed up to meet the apple, not the other way around.

Clearly, this is a radically different way of thinking about motion. But it’s anchored in the simple recognition that you feel gravity’s influence only when you resist it. By contrast, when you fully give in to gravity you don’t feel it. Assuming you are not subject to any other influences (such as air resistance), when you give in to gravity and allow yourself to fall freely, you feel as you would if you were freely floating in empty space—a perspective which, unhesitatingly, we consider to be unaccelerated.

In sum, only those individuals who are freely floating, regardless of whether they are in the depths of outer space or on a collision course with the earth’s surface, are justified in claiming that they are experiencing no acceleration. If you pass by such an observer and there is relative acceleration between the two of you, then according to Einstein, you are accelerating.

As a matter of fact, notice that neither Itchy, nor Scratchy, nor Apu, nor Martin was truly justified in saying that he was stationary during the duel, since they all felt the downward pull of gravity. This has no bearing on our earlier discussion, because there, we were concerned only with horizontal motion, motion that was unaffected by the vertical gravity experienced by all participants. But as an important point of principle, the link Einstein found between gravity and acceleration means, once again, that we are justified only in considering stationary those observers who feel no forces whatsoever.

Having forged the link between gravity and acceleration, Einstein was now ready to take up Newton’s challenge and seek an explanation of how gravity exerts its influence.

Warps, Curves, and Gravity

Through special relativity, Einstein showed that every observer cuts up spacetime into parallel slices that he or she considers to be all of space at successive instants of time, with the unexpected twist that observers moving relative to one another at constant velocity will cut through spacetime at different angles. If one such observer should start accelerating, you might guess that the moment-to-moment changes in his speed and/or direction of motion would result in moment-to-moment changes in the angle and orientation of his slices. Roughly speaking, this is what happens. Einstein (using geometrical insights articulated by Carl Friedrich Gauss, Georg Bernhard Riemann, and other mathematicians in the nineteenth century) developed this idea—by fits and starts—and showed that the differently angled cuts through the spacetime loaf smoothly merge into slices that are curved but fit together as perfectly as spoons in a silver-ware tray, as schematically illustrated in Figure 3.8. An accelerated observer carves spatial slices that are warped.

With this insight, Einstein was able to invoke the equivalence principle to profound effect. Since gravity and acceleration are equivalent, Einstein understood that gravity itself must be nothing but warps and curves in the fabric of spacetime. Let’s see what this means.

If you roll a marble along a smooth wooden floor, it will travel in a straight line. But if you’ve recently had a terrible flood and the floor dried with all sorts of bumps and warps, a rolling marble will no longer travel along the same path. Instead, it will be guided this way and that by the warps and curves on the floor’s surface. Einstein applied this simple idea to the fabric of the universe. He imagined that in the absence of matter or energy—no sun, no earth, no stars—spacetime, like the smooth wooden floor, has no warps or curves. It’s flat. This is schematically illustrated in Figure 3.9a, in which we focus on one slice of space. Of course, space is really three dimensional, and so Figure 3.9b is a more accurate depiction, but drawings that illustrate two dimensions are easier to understand, so we’ll continue to use them. Einstein then imagined that the presence of matter or energy has an effect on space much like the effect the flood had on the floor. Matter and energy, like the sun, cause space (and spacetime5) to warp and curve as illustrated in Figures 3.10a and 3.10b. And just as a marble rolling on the warped floor travels along a curved path, Einstein showed that anything moving through warped space—such as the earth moving in the vicinity of the sun—will travel along a curved trajectory, as illustrated in Figure 3.11a and Figure 3.11b.

It’s as if matter and energy imprint a network of chutes and valleys along which objects are guided by the invisible hand of the spacetime fabric. That, according to Einstein, is how gravity exerts its influence. The same idea also applies closer to home. Right now, your body would like to slide down an indentation in the spacetime fabric caused by the earth’s presence. But your motion is being blocked by the surface on which you’re sitting or standing. The upward push you feel almost every moment of your life—be it from the ground, the floor of your house, the corner easy chair, or your kingsize bed—is acting to stop you from sliding down a valley in spacetime. By contrast, should you throw yourself off the high diving board, you are giving in to gravity by allowing your body to move freely along one of its spacetime chutes.


Figure 3.8 According to general relativity, not only will the spacetime loaf be sliced into space at moments of time at different angles (by observers in relative motion), but the slices themselves will be warped or curved by the presence of matter or energy.

Figures 3.9, 3.10, and 3.11 schematically illustrate the triumph of Einstein’s ten-year struggle. Much of his work during these years aimed at determining the precise shape and size of the warping that would be caused by a given amount of matter or energy. The mathematical result Einstein found underlies these figures and is embodied in what are called the Einstein field equations. As the name indicates, Einstein viewed the warping of spacetime as the manifestation—the geometrical embodiment—of a gravitational field. By framing the problem geometrically,


Figure 3.9 (aFlat space (2-d version). (bFlat space (3-d version).


Figure 3.10 (aThe sun warping space (2-d version). (bThe sun warping space (3-d version).

Einstein was able to find equations that do for gravity what Maxwell’s equations did for electromagnetism.16 And by using these equations, Einstein and many others made predictions for the path that would be followed by this or that planet, or even by light emitted by a distant star, as it moves through curved spacetime. Not only have these predictions been confirmed to a high level of accuracy, but in head-to-head competition with the predictions of Newton’s theory, Einstein’s theory consistently matches reality with finer fidelity.

Of equal importance, since general relativity specifies the detailed mechanism by which gravity works, it provides a mathematical framework for determining how fast it transmits its influence. The speed of transmission comes down to the question of how fast the shape of space can change in time. That is, how quickly can warps and ripples—ripples like those on the surface of a pond caused by a plunging pebble—race from place to place through space? Einstein was able to work this out, and the answer he came to was enormously gratifying. He found that warps and ripples—gravity, that is—do not travel from place to place instantaneously, as they do in Newtonian calculations of gravity. Instead, they travel at exactly the speed of light. Not a bit faster or slower, fully in keeping with the speed limit set by special relativity. If aliens plucked the moon from its orbit, the tides would recede a second and a half later, at the exact same moment we’d see that the moon had vanished. Where Newton’s theory failed, Einstein’s general relativity prevailed.


Figure 3.11 The earth stays in orbit around the sun because it follows curves in the spacetime fabric caused by the sun’s presence. (a ) 2-d version. (b3-d version.

General Relativity and the Bucket

Beyond giving the world a mathematically elegant, conceptually powerful, and, for the first time, fully consistent theory of gravity, the general theory of relativity also thoroughly reshaped our view of space and time. In both Newton’s conception and that of special relativity, space and time provided an unchanging stage for the events of the universe. Even though the slicing of the cosmos into space at successive moments has a flexibility in special relativity unfathomable in Newton’s age, space and time do not respond to happenings in the universe. Spacetime—the loaf, as we’ve been calling it—is taken as a given, once and for all. In general relativity, all this changes. Space and time become players in the evolving cosmos. They come alive. Matter here causes space to warp there, which causes matter over there to move, which causes space way over there to warp even more, and so on. General relativity provides the choreography for an entwined cosmic dance of space, time, matter, and energy.

This is a stunning development. But we now come back to our central theme: What about the bucket? Does general relativity provide the physical basis for Mach’s relationist ideas, as Einstein hoped it would?

Over the years, this question has generated much controversy. Initially, Einstein thought that general relativity fully incorporated Mach’s perspective, a viewpoint he considered so important that he christened it Mach’s principle.In fact, in 1913, as Einstein was furiously working to put the final pieces of general relativity in place, he wrote Mach an enthusiastic letter in which he described how general relativity would confirm Mach’s analysis of Newton’s bucket experiment.17 And in 1918, when Einstein wrote an article enumerating the three essential ideas behind general relativity, the third point in his list was Mach’s principle. But general relativity is subtle and it had features that took many years for physicists, including Einstein himself, to appreciate completely. As these aspects were better understood, Einstein found it increasingly difficult to fully incorporate Mach’s principle into general relativity. Little by little, he grew disillusioned with Mach’s ideas and by the later years of his life came to renounce them.18

With an additional half century of research and hindsight, we can consider anew the extent to which general relativity conforms to Mach’s reasoning. Although there is still some controversy, I think the most accurate statement is that in some respects general relativity has a distinctly Machian flavor, but it does not conform to the fully relationist perspective Mach advocated. Here’s what I mean.

Mach argued19 that when the spinning water’s surface becomes concave, or when you feel your arms splay outward, or when the rope tied between the two rocks pulls taut, this has nothing to do with some hypothetical—and, in his view, thoroughly misguided—notion of absolute space (or absolute spacetime, in our more modern understanding). Instead, he argued that it’s evidence of accelerated motion with respect to all the matter that’s spread throughout the cosmos. Were there no matter, there’d be no notion of acceleration and none of the enumerated physical effects (concave water, splaying arms, rope pulling taut) would happen.

What does general relativity say?

According to general relativity, the benchmarks for all motion, and accelerated motion in particular, are freely falling observers—observers who have fully given in to gravity and are being acted on by no other forces. Now, a key point is that the gravitational force to which a freely falling observer acquiesces arises from all the matter (and energy) spread throughout the cosmos. The earth, the moon, the distant planets, stars, gas clouds, quasars, and galaxies all contribute to the gravitational field (in geometrical language, to the curvature of spacetime) right where you’re now sitting. Things that are more massive and less distant exert a greater gravitational influence, but the gravitational field you feel represents the combined influence of the matter that’s out there.20 The path you’d take were you to give in to gravity fully and assume free-fall motion—the benchmark you’d become for judging whether some other object is accelerating —would be influenced by all matter in the cosmos, by the stars in the heavens and by the house next door. Thus, in general relativity, when an object is said to be accelerating, it means the object is accelerating with respect to a benchmark determined by matter spread throughout the universe. That’s a conclusion which has the feel of what Mach advocated. So, in this sense, general relativity does incorporate some of Mach’s thinking.

Nevertheless, general relativity does not confirm all of Mach’s reasoning, as we can see directly by considering, once again, the spinning bucket in an otherwise empty universe. In an empty unchanging universe—no stars, no planets, no anything at all—there is no gravity.21 And without gravity, spacetime is not warped—it takes the simple, uncurved shape shown in Figure 3.9b—and that means we are back in the simpler setting of special relativity. (Remember, Einstein ignored gravity while developing special relativity. General relativity made up for this deficiency by incorporating gravity, but when the universe is empty and unchanging there is no gravity, and so general relativity reduces to special relativity.) If we now introduce the bucket into this empty universe, it has such a tiny mass that its presence hardly affects the shape of space at all. And so the discussion we had earlier for the bucket in special relativity applies equally well to general relativity. In contradiction to what Mach would have predicted, general relativity comes to the same answer as special relativity, and proclaims that even in an otherwise empty universe, you will feel pressed against the inner wall of the spinning bucket; in an otherwise empty universe, your arms will feel pulled outward if you spin around; in an otherwise empty universe, the rope tied between two twirling rocks will become taut. The conclusion we draw is that even in general relativity, empty spacetime provides a benchmark for accelerated motion.

Hence, although general relativity incorporates some elements of Mach’s thinking, it does not subscribe to the completely relative conception of motion Mach advocated.22 Mach’s principle is an example of a provocative idea that provided inspiration for a revolutionary discovery even though that discovery ultimately failed to fully embrace the idea that inspired it.

Spacetime in the Third Millennium

The spinning bucket has had a long run. From Newton’s absolute space and absolute time, to Leibniz’s and then Mach’s relational conceptions, to Einstein’s realization in special relativity that space and time are relative and yet in their union fill out absolute spacetime, to his subsequent discovery in general relativity that spacetime is a dynamic player in the unfolding cosmos, the bucket has always been there. Twirling in the back of the mind, it has provided a simple and quiet test for whether the invisible, the abstract, the untouchable stuff of space—and spacetime, more generally—is substantial enough to provide the ultimate reference for motion. The verdict? Although the issue is still debated, as we’ve now seen, the most straightforward reading of Einstein and his general relativity is that spacetime can provide such a benchmark: spacetime is a something.23

Notice, though, that this conclusion is also cause for celebration among supporters of a more broadly defined relationist outlook. In Newton’s view and subsequently that of special relativity, space and then spacetime were invoked as entities that provide the reference for defining accelerated motion. And since, according to these perspectives, space and spacetime are absolutely unchangeable, this notion of acceleration is absolute. In general relativity, though, the character of spacetime is completely different. Space and time are dynamic in general relativity: they are mutable; they respond to the presence of mass and energy; they are not absolute. Spacetime and, in particular, the way it warps and curves, is an embodiment of the gravitational field. Thus, in general relativity, acceleration relative to spacetime is a far cry from the absolute, staunchly un-relational conception invoked by previous theories. Instead, as Einstein argued eloquently a few years before he died,24 acceleration relative to general relativity’s spacetime is relational. It is not acceleration relative to material objects like stones or stars, but it is acceleration relative to something just as real, tangible, and changeable: a field—the gravitational field.6 In this sense, spacetime—by being the incarnation of gravity—is so real in general relativity that the benchmark it provides is one that many relationists can comfortably accept.

Debate on the issues discussed in this chapter will no doubt continue as we grope to understand what space, time, and spacetime actually are. With the development of quantum mechanics, the plot only thickens. The concepts of empty space and of nothingness take on a whole new meaning when quantum uncertainty takes the stage. Indeed, since 1905, when Einstein did away with the luminiferous aether, the idea that space is filled with invisible substances has waged a vigorous comeback. As we will see in later chapters, key developments in modern physics have reinstituted various forms of an aetherlike entity, none of which set an absolute standard for motion like the original luminiferous aether, but all of which thoroughly challenge the naïve conception of what it means for spacetime to be empty. Moreover, as we will now see, the most basic role that space plays in a classical universe—as the medium that separates one object from another, as the intervening stuff that allows us to declare definitively that one object is distinct and independent from another—is thoroughly challenged by startling quantum connections.