Newton's cherished constant may not be

May 6, 2002 at 1:14 PM
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CAMBRIDGE, Mass., May 6 (UPI) -- A Russian physicist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology has announced experimental data that may topple one of science's most cherished dogmas -- that Newton's gravitational constant, famously symbolized by a large "G," remains constant wherever, whenever and however it is measured.

"My colleagues and I have successfully experimentally demonstrated that the force of gravitation between two test bodies varies with their orientation in space, relative to a system of distant stars," Mikhail Gershteyn, a visiting scientist at the MIT Plasma Science and Fusion Center, told United Press International from Cambridge, Mass..

Isaac Newton first described G in 1687 as a fundamental component of his universal law of gravity. Two masses, Newton wrote, attract each other with a force proportional to their mass that falls off rapidly as the bodies move farther and farther apart. Albert Einstein later used G in his own field equations that fine-tuned Newton's original laws. In Einstein's universe, gravity is the effect on bodies moving through space that is curved or warped by the presence of matter.

The constant G describes gravity's attractive force precisely and appears in equations for any gravitational field, whether the field is between planets, stars, galaxies, microscopic particles or rays of light. Centuries of measurement have firmly fixed the value of G as the complex formula 6.673 times 10 to the minus 11th power, times meters traveled per second times the number of kilograms, squared.

Gravity is a relatively very weak force, yet it is strong enough to hold planets in orbit and to mash great gobs of matter into incredibly dense, infinitesimally small black holes.

If G varies under any circumstances, scientists would have to rewrite virtually every physical law, including a long-accepted feature of the universe -- isotropy, or the condition that a body's physical properties are independent of its orientation in space.

The idea that forces on bodies may vary relative to the orientation of distant stars has a powerful historical precedent in "Mach's Principle," a term Einstein coined in 1918 for the theory that eventually led him to his biggest breakthrough -- general relativity.

Swing a bucket of water at the end of rope and centrifugal forces pull it up and away. These forces result from the combined gravitational pull of all the distant stars and planets, Austrian physicist Ernst Mach wrote. Therefore any change in the orientation of heavenly bodies would affect forces on matter everywhere, so powerful is their combined effect. The idea that Newton's G may change relative to the rest of the universe is an example of Mach's adage -- matter out there affects forces right here.

Gershteyn said his experiments show Newton's G "changes with the orientation of test masses by at least 0.054 percent." This remarkable and unprecedented finding has landed his paper on the subject in the June issue of the international journal Gravitation and Cosmology.

"The fact that G varies depending on orientation of the two gravitating bodies relative to a system of fixed stars is a direct challenge to Newton's Universal Law of Gravitation," Gershteyn told UPI. "The existence of such an effect requires a radically new theory of gravitation, because the magnitude of this effect dwarfs any of Einstein's corrections to Newtonian gravity."

"Gershteyn and his coworkers lay an extraordinary and very interesting claim which -- if proven true -- would change our view of the universe," Lev Tsimring, a research physicist with the Institute for Nonlinear Science at the University of California San Diego, told UPI. "In a well-controlled experiment, the authors proposed to measure the gravitational force between two bodies with respect to the orientation of the experimental setup to distant stars," Tsimring explained. The experiment, he said, would seek to detect gravitational anisotropy -- the condition that the attractive force between bodies would vary with respect to their spatial orientation, not their separating distance.

"The latest paper by the authors -- in collaboration with an experimentalist who is a well-respected specialist in precisely that kind of measurement -- provides strong evidence in favor of the validity of the author's original claim," Tsimring said.

Gravitation and Cosmology Editor Kirill Bronnikov agreed.

"The evident merit of the paper by Mikhail Gershteyn et. al. is the information of a possible new effect, discovered experimentally -- the effect of anisotropy related to Newton's constant G," Bronnikov told UPI from Moscow. "So far the possibility of such an effect has only been discussed theoretically."

"The authors of this paper make some extraordinary claims in a legitimate journal," George Spagna, chairman of the physics department at Randolph-Macon College, told UPI from Ashland, Va. "But they do not provide enough of their data or theoretical justification. They must provide much more information to be convincing."

Other scientists will need to provide "more detailed and independent experiments to confirm and elaborate the experimental results obtained in Gershteyn's paper," Lev Tsimring told UPI. "I cannot exclude that there might be other ways of explaining this anisotropy within conventional theory, but I believe that Gershteyn's results are convincing."

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(Reported by UPI Science Correspondent Mike Martin in Columbia, Mo.)

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