Rethinking Relativity: Is Time Out of Joint?

Rachel Courtland asks a deep question in New Scientist:

Ever since Arthur Eddington travelled to the island of Príncipe off Africa to measure starlight bending around the sun during a 1919 eclipse, evidence for Einstein’s theory of general relativity has only become stronger. Could it now be that starlight from distant galaxies is illuminating cracks in the theory’s foundation?

Everything from the concept of the black hole to GPS timing owes a debt to the theory of general relativity, which describes how gravity arises from the geometry of space and time. The sun’s gravitational field, for instance, bends starlight passing nearby because its mass is warping the surrounding space-time. This theory has held up to precision tests in the solar system and beyond, and has explained everything from the odd orbit of Mercury to the way pairs of neutron stars perform their pas de deux.

Yet it is still not clear how well general relativity holds up over cosmic scales, at distances much larger than the span of single galaxies. Now the first, tentative hint of a deviation from general relativity has been found. While the evidence is far from watertight, if confirmed by bigger surveys, it may indicate either that Einstein’s theory is incomplete, or else that dark energy, the stuff thought to be accelerating the expansion of the universe, is much weirder than we thought (see “Not dark energy, dark fluid”).

The analysis of starlight data by cosmologist Rachel Bean of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, has generated quite a stir. Shortly after the paper was published on the pre-print physics archive, prominent physicist Sean Carroll of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena praised Bean’s research. “This is serious work by a respected cosmologist,” he wrote on his blog Cosmic Variance. “Either the result is wrong, and we should be working hard to find out why, or it’s right, and we’re on the cusp of a revolution”…


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