Challenging Einstein

By | Science & Technology
image courtesy of Bill Saxton; NRAO/AUI/NSF

The theory of general relativity may be an important and popular concept, some may have heard of it and some may even be able to attribute it to Albert Einstein; the father of modern physics. However, the some people may be unaware of its exact purpose. Simplified the theory of general relativity puts forward an explanation for gravity; stating that matter has a specific effect upon the curvature of space-time to generate what we perceive as gravity. Einstein created ten equations known as field equations which may be used to explain this concept.

One example of general relativity in action is of the planets orbiting the sun. The sun’s huge amount of matter curves the shape of space-time, like a overweight cat sat on a mattress its creates a bowl shape around it. Objects moving through space may aim and travel along the shortest route which in this case is a curved path around the sun following the shape of its space-time dimple. This being said even the physicists use the concepts within this theory are technically yet to fully understand it and most of the time the calculations require a little bit of approximation to work. Although, a unique and rare discovery by an American graduate may finally offer the answers needed to fully understand, prove or even correct this theory once and for all.

Using the National Science Foundation’s Green Bank Telescope, the world’s largest fully steerable radio telescope, a cluster of stars were discovered over four thousand light-years away that possess a previously unseen level of proximity. This group of stars include two white dwarfs and a pulsar, all coexisting within an area smaller than the orbit of one’s own planet. This system might had to have been created after a burst of energy called a super-nova, this usually results the stars moving far away from one another. This makes their current predicament rare and a first for astronomers. These exotic celestial objects may have all sorts of interesting attributes. Pulsars are highly magnetised, rotating neutron stars which emit a beam of electromagnetic radiation, as the pulsar rotates its radiation may be detected as its beam lines up with the earth. By using this data the rotary speed of the pulsar has been calculated at spinning nearly 366 times per second. Its rotary speed may be indicative of its surrounding gravitational environment which in this case is shared with two white dwarfs. White dwarfs possess the same mass as the sun however they are compressed to the size of this planet. Both stars may be innovative at projecting high resolution data which may be detected on earth. This creates a hotbed of gravitational data for testing the theory so far used to understand it to its limits.

This may be an opportunity yet to yield answers, particularly upon the strong equivalence principle of general relativity which refers to self-gravitating objects like stars. If the equivalence principle is correct, the gravitational effect of the outer white dwarf may be identical for both the inner white dwarf and the pulsar. Though this theory has been tested prior to the triple star system discovery, this unique set up may offer an increase in accuracy several orders of magnitude greater than previously achieved. With such an increase in recordable data, deviations from this principle may finally call for a revised version of the theory of gravity which after nearly one hundred years of acceptance may be a step into the unknown.

With the discovery of this triple star phenomenon the race may be on to find deviations between each star, the first to do so may have their name indelibly etched into history right next Albert Einstein. Astronomers seem to be lining up to analyse these stars as their formation alone is a mystery with one of the authors of this discovery, Scott Ransom, describing them as “fascinating” and “truly crazy”.

How might these investigations into the stars, support the process of challenging previous-set theories?

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