[Paleopsych] ABC News: Proving Einstein Right
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Fri Jan 28 16:13:51 UTC 2005
Proving Einstein Right
Most of the Great Physicist's Ideas Have Been Confirmed, But Not All
By AMANDA ONION
Jan. 24, 2005 - It was 100 years ago when an obscure 26-year-old
office worker in a Swiss patent office submitted five papers that
would radically change the way people think about the universe.
In fact, Albert Einstein's ideas, devised entirely from thought, were
so advanced that scientists are still trying to prove some of them.
To find evidence for the brilliant physicist's ideas, researchers are
using the latest in technology and a century of research -- neither of
which Einstein had when he devised such profound concepts as the
General Theory of Relativity.
"It's amazing Einstein came up with his theories just by thinking
about the situation," said Peter Shawhan, a staff scientist at the
California Institute of Technology.
Catching a Wave
Shawhan is part of a large team of researchers who operate LIGO, a set
of two giant, L-shaped experiments in Louisiana marshland and
Washington state forestland. The facilities each feature two
2.5-mile-long steel tubes built in perfectly straight lines that are
designed to detect one of the faintest and most rare signals in the
universe -- gravitational waves.
According to Einstein's General Theory of Relativity, gravitational
waves are sent out by any object that undergoes acceleration. The
waves are so faint, however, that only those emanating from huge
events -- such as colliding neutron stars or two black holes smashing
together -- can be detected.
Even waves from these events are so faint that by the time they reach
Earth, they will be recorded by a difference of timing in the
instruments amounting to just 0.0000000000000000000000001th of a
"This is one of the hardest parts of his theory to prove because the
waves we hope to see are just so incredibly weak," said Shawhan. "It's
a tiny effect."
So far, the crew of scientists has no direct evidence the waves are
there. But a century ago Einstein proposed their existence, and so
they're confident they'll prove him right. It's just a matter of when.
An instrument at the joint of the two passageways sends light beams
down each arm. The light travels down the tubes and hits mirrors at
the near and far ends of each tunnel and then bounces back and forth
If no gravitational wave has been detected, then both light beams
arrive back at the source at exactly the same time. But if a
gravitational wave has struck Earth, then it will ever so slightly
alter the path of the beams so one will arrive fractions of a second
before the other.
The problem is, to measure something so slight, every aspect of the
experiment has to be extremely precise. And although LIGO is extremely
precise, it isn't as precise as it could be, says Shawhan.
"If there is a storm, it shakes the ground. High winds can shake the
buildings, which affect the readings, as does general traffic in the
area," he said.
A Waiting Game
To buffer the skewing affect of local vibrations, engineers are in the
process of installing a feedback control system that will eliminate
such outside "noise." They're also fine-tuning the instruments'
mirrors to prevent warping by heat from the lasers.
By 2013, LIGO is due to be ramped up even further so it can detect
gravitational waves emanating from even further out in space. That
should improve the experiment's chances since researchers suspect that
events large enough to emit a gravitational wave big enough to detect
are few and far between.
"We'll be able to detect events 10 times farther away with the
improvements," said Shawhan. "By then, there's a good chance we'll see
something. Otherwise, we might have to wait 10 to 100 years for a big
Three other similar facilities in Italy, Japan and Germany are also
waiting for a big wave. With so much money, work and time invested,
some may wonder if all the effort might be in vain. But they're not
just banking on Einstein's brilliance.
In 1993, two Princeton University scientists won a Nobel Prize for
demonstrating that the increasing speed of two spiraling neutron stars
fits exactly with Einstein's theory of relativity and gravitational
"They've been tracking this for some 20 years and the change in orbit
agrees exactly with the general theory of relativity," said Shawhan.
"It looks like great confirmation, but it's not a direct one."
What Did Einstein Miss?
While the LIGO team is eager to find direct confirmation of
gravitational waves and prove Einstein right, other groups are
scanning space for evidence that the physicist's theory might be
Why search for chinks in Einstein's armor? As his theory now stands,
the ideas don't mesh completely with another major field of physics --
quantum theory. Quantum theory examines all matter and motion in terms
of particles. As the theories now stand, Einstein's General Theory of
Relativity doesn't incorporate all the concepts within quantum theory.
So scientists have yet to discover a "Theory of Everything" --
something Einstein spent the last 30 years of his life pursuing -- in
"Einstein's theory of gravity is not a complete theory," said Michael
Salamon, a physicist at NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C. "In
order to probe gravity fully, we believe there are deviations from
Einstein's classical theory. Our mission is designed to find those
Salamon is part of NASA's Gravity Probe B mission, which has launched
four gyroscopes into orbit around Earth. The sensitive instruments
were designed to detect whether or not a large spinning object in
space (in this case, Earth) drags space-time -- the fabric of space --
with it, as Einstein's theory predicts.
"It's like twirling a spoon in a jar of honey," explains Salamon. "You
see the honey dragging along with the spoon. It's analogous to what
happens in space."
Scientists with the Gravity Probe B mission announced last fall that
the instruments have indeed proven that space-time is dragged by large
spinning objects, as Einstein predicted. But as more data streams in,
they hope to also reveal aspects of gravity that Einstein didn't
predict. It's this information that could point to an all-encompassing
theory that includes both Einstein's thinking and the more recent
concepts of quantum theory.
Even if scientists find evidence for new explanations of the universe,
Salamon stresses that Einstein's theories will still play a central
"Whatever new theory we come up with," he said, "it will ultimately
contain Einstein's original thinking. There is no doubt about that."
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