Trova il tuo prossimo libro preferito

Abbonati oggi e leggi gratis per 30 giorni
On Gravity: A Brief Tour of a Weighty Subject

On Gravity: A Brief Tour of a Weighty Subject

Leggi anteprima

On Gravity: A Brief Tour of a Weighty Subject

3.5/5 (3 valutazioni)
240 pagine
3 ore
Apr 24, 2018


A brief introduction to gravity through Einstein’s general theory of relativity

Of the four fundamental forces of nature, gravity might be the least understood and yet the one with which we are most intimate. From the months each of us spent suspended in the womb anticipating birth to the moments when we wait for sleep to transport us to other realities, we are always aware of gravity. In On Gravity, physicist A. Zee combines profound depth with incisive accessibility to take us on an original and compelling tour of Einstein's general theory of relativity. 

Inspired by Einstein's audacious suggestion that spacetime could ripple, Zee begins with the stunning discovery of gravity waves. He goes on to explain how gravity can be understood in comparison to other classical field theories, presents the idea of curved spacetime and the action principle, and explores cutting-edge topics, including black holes and Hawking radiation. Zee travels as far as the theory reaches, leaving us with tantalizing hints of the utterly unknown, from the intransigence of quantum gravity to the mysteries of dark matter and energy.

Concise and precise, and infused with Zee's signature warmth and freshness of style, On Gravity opens a unique pathway to comprehending relativity and gaining deep insight into gravity, spacetime, and the workings of the universe.

Apr 24, 2018

Informazioni sull'autore

A. Zee is professor of physics at the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics at the University of California, Santa Barbara. His books include Quantum Field Theory in a Nutshell, Einstein Gravity in a Nutshell, and Fearful Symmetry: The Search for Beauty in Modern Physics (all Princeton).

Correlato a On Gravity

Libri correlati
Articoli correlati

Anteprima del libro

On Gravity - A. Zee

on gravity

on gravity

a brief tour of a weighty subject a. zee

Princeton University Press Princeton and Oxford

Copyright © 2018 by Princeton University Press

Published by Princeton University Press

41 William Street, Princeton, New Jersey 08540

In the United Kingdom: Princeton University Press

6 Oxford Street, Woodstock, Oxfordshire, OX20 1TR

Jacket design by Jason Alejandro

All Rights Reserved

ISBN 978-0-691-17438-9

Library of Congress Control Number: 2018933625

British Library Cataloging-in-Publication Data is available

This book has been composed in Minion Pro and Helvetica Neue

Printed on acid-free paper. ∞

Typeset by Nova Techset Pvt Ltd, Bangalore, India

Printed in the United States of America

10  9  8  7  6  5  4  3  2  1

To all those who taught me about gravity



After writing a massive textbook on Einstein gravity, called appropriately enough Einstein Gravity in a Nutshell and referred to henceforth as GNut, I was a bit stung by a native of the Amazon who jokingly said that, while he liked the book, he had to ask a friend to carry it for him. (What a weakling! Don’t physics students go to the gym any more? Bring back the compulsory gym of my undergrad years!) Of course, the book’s weight¹ reflects the innate beauty and importance of the subject it covers.

In any case, my lamentations to Ingrid Gnerlich, my longtime editor at Princeton University Press, led to the thought of writing a short book for a change. I felt that, since I had written a long book on Einstein gravity, I had a license to write a short book on Einstein gravity.

I had also published in 1989 a popular book about Einstein gravity titled An Old Man’s Toy and later republished as Einstein’s Universe: Gravity at Work and Play, referred to henceforth as Toy. Thus, I think of this book as between a toy and a nutshell.

One motivation for this book is to help people bridge the gap between popular books and textbooks on Einstein gravity. You could read popular books until you are blue in the face, but if you want to have a true understanding of Einstein gravity, there is no getting around tackling a serious textbook. From the emails I receive, I know that many would like to cross that gap. So consider this book as a stepping stone toward GNut.

Actually, Einstein gravity is much less demanding mathematically than quantum mechanics. I have placed some of the mathematics involved, mainly that needed to describe curved spacetime, into an appendix. That appendix provides a good gauge. If you could follow the material in there easily, then you might be ready for GNut.

On the other hand, if you don’t feel like slugging through the appendix, you could still enjoy this book as a popular book written at a somewhat higher level than the standard popular literature about Einstein gravity.

Sitting between a toy and a nutshell, I feel that I can afford to be somewhat sketchier in some of my explanations. The way these sketches could be fleshed out calls for more math, not more words. I could always refer the motivated reader to further details in GNut.

A week after I signed the contract for this book, gravity waves were detected, and thus naturally, the book weaves around gravity waves, starting and ending with them. One thing I do not do is to go through a detailed description of the detector and the observational protocol, not because I don’t think that’s important, but for that, firsthand accounts by those who lived through the design, setup, and actual detection would be best.

Instead, I focus on the conceptual framework of Einstein’s theory—and yes, its beauty—in keeping with my being, after all, a professor of theoretical physics. Reluctantly, I have to omit several topics. For instance, the reader will find no mention of the three classic tests of Einstein gravity, nor of such figures as Arthur Eddington,² who through his observations of distant starlight curving in the gravitational field helped bring the new theory to the attention of the general public. But I do discuss Faraday, Maxwell, and Hertz, because I want to emphasize the concepts of field, wave, and action as fundamental to theoretical physics. With the example of the electromagnetic wave in front of us, we are led naturally to gravity waves, at least with the benefit of hindsight. For a short book such as this, I am obliged to pick and choose.


Once again, I am deeply grateful to Ingrid Gnerlich, who has worked on all my Princeton University Press books. In addition to all her good advice, she has entrusted the manuscript to the capable hands of my long-time copyeditor Cyd Westmoreland. I also thank Karen Carter, Chris Ferrante, and Arthur Werneck. As with all my other books, Craig Kunimoto’s patient help taming the computer was indispensable. I completed this book in Paris, and I am enormously indebted to Henri Orland for all his efforts in making my stay pleasant and productive. I thank the research center at Saclay and the École Normale Supérieure for their hospitality, and Jean-Philippe Bouchaud for financing my chair through the Foundation of the École Normale Supérieure. Needless to say, but as always, I appreciate the support of my wife, Janice. Incidentally, some time after turning in the manuscript, I left on a lecture tour of Israel. At the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, I had the opportunity to visit the Einstein archive. For a theoretical physicist, seeing Einstein gravity written out longhand in Einstein’s handwriting³ is almost a religious experience.


on gravity


The song of the universe

A few faint notes

Finally, finally, the long wait was over: we the human race on planet earth collectively heard the song of the universe.* Yes, we, a rather malevolent but somewhat clever species, can now proudly say that we have detected the ripples of spacetime, a mere few billions years after life emerged from the primeval ooze.

We have now joined the in-club of those civilizations who are tuned in to the song of the universe. Very impressive, considering that it has been only a few hundred years after a first understanding of gravity, when physicists junked the Aristotelian the apple wants to go home myth.

Einstein triumphs once again.

Two black holes spiraling in for a final embrace

In the silence of deep dark space, 1.3 billion light years away from us, two black holes fatally attracted each other. They got closer and closer, spiraled around, embraced, and quickly merged into a single black hole. In the process, they radiated away an enormous amount of energy in a burst of gravity waves.

And thus that particular burst of gravity waves shot outward, spreading into the universe, much like a stone dropped into a pond causes a circular wave to spread out. That was 1.3 billion years ago, long before dinosaurs emerged,¹ when humans were but a mirage in a sleeping trilobite’s dream.

As eons and eons passed, that herd of gravitons² journeyed on, at the speed of light, across the almost incomprehensible vastness of the universe, getting closer and closer to planet earth. They reached our world on September 14, 2015, when they were detected by two massive detectors, kilometers long and equipped with the most delicate cutting-edge instruments known to human technology, one in Livingston, Louisiana, the other in Richland, Washington.³ These sites, being far separated, detected the pulse with a millisecond time difference. Much as you with your two ears could determine, by the slight difference in arrival times of sound in the two ears, the direction to the source of the sound, physicists could roughly locate the direction of the two black holes that had merged.

Spacetime comes alive

In 1915, as these particular gravitons approached earth—after 1.3 billion years, only a hundred more years to go!—an earthling named Albert Einstein (1879–1955) finally completed his theory of gravity, also known as general relativity. He shocked the physics world, saying in effect that there was no gravity, only curved spacetime.

Physicists learned an astonishing secret: what we called gravity is all about the dance between spacetime and energy, one curving this way and that, the other moving hither and thither. Spacetime and energy in a pas de deux: energy in all its forms, such as you and me.

Energy is matter, and matter is energy, as the very same Einstein taught us back in 1905 in his theory of special relativity: E = mc², surely the best-known formula⁴ in all of physics!

So, we have known for a long time that spacetime could curve. It follows that spacetime could also wave. That one follows from the other did not escape Einstein’s notice. The very next year,* in 1916, he published a paper⁵ noting the existence of gravity waves.

Waves and rigidity

Waves are all around us. Tap a large block of jello with a spoon, and you will see a wave propagate across it. Wind passing over the sea commands the water to wave incessantly. A singer’s vocal cords compress the air, and a sound wave propagates outward. Any compressible medium can wave.

Think of a long metal rod. Hit one end. The regular arrangement of atoms at that end is compressed, if only ever so slightly. By bouncing back to their appointed positions a momentlater, the atoms crowd their neighbors down the line, who are in turn compressed. Thus information gets transmitted down the rod in a compressional wave. Pass it on: somebody hit the rod at one end.

The speed with which the wave propagates is determined by the elasticity, or equivalently by its inverse, rigidity. The more rigid the rod, the faster the wave moves. You could think of rigidity as a measure of the eagerness of the atoms to bounce back to where they were.

Theoretical physicists love to contemplate taking things to the extreme. Consider an infinitely rigid rod. Then by definition, when you hit one end, the whole thing moves as a whole, and the information that the rod is being hit at one end is transmitted to the other end instantaneously. But you would recall that in Einstein’s special relativity, energy and information cannot move faster than c, the speed of light.† It follows that infinitely rigid rods are not allowed in physics.

The last rigid entity to fall

This point will be crucial to our discussion later, because Newtonian spacetime is absolutely rigid. According to Newton (here I am being unfair to the great man, as we will see later), gravity is transmitted instantaneously.

It follows that once Einstein declared that spacetime is elastic, not absolutely rigid, gravity waves became inevitable. This is why the overwhelming majority⁷ of theoretical physicists have long been convinced of the existence of gravity waves.

That waves and rigidity clash is readily understood in everyday terms. Undulation—think belly dancing—is all about flexibility, and a stiff and stern man could hardly be expected to wave.

Think of spacetime as the last rigid entity in classical physics to fall.

Sometimes one is ahead of the other, sometimes the other is ahead

After the historic announcement that spacetime is flexible enough to support waves, a reporter asked why Einstein was so prescient, so far ahead of the experimentalists. Good question, but it would be more accurate to ask why experiments are so far behind the theory in this case.* In physics, sometimes theory is ahead of experiment, sometimes the other way around. Ideally, they move together and steadily ahead in pace, for physics to progress.

Seldom is the gap as large⁸ as a hundred years!

A century of spectacular technological advances was necessary to detect gravity waves. The reason, as we will see, is that the gravity wave, by the time it got to earth, had become fantastically weak. To understand why, we need to appreciate that, in spite of our everyday experiences, gravity is fantastically weak. This fact will be explained in the next two chapters.

You say gravitational wave, I say gravity wave

You might think that these waves generated by gravity would be called gravity waves, but alas, history intervenes: water waves, such as those on ponds and oceans, were called gravity waves long before Einstein came onto the scene. The excess water in the crest of a wave is pulled down by the earth’s gravity to fill a neighboring trough. It overshoots and turns the trough into a crest. Thus a wave propagates. The physics is entirely Newtonian and clear.

Thus, physics journals and textbooks⁹ refer to the kind of wave we are talking about as a gravitational wave. In his 1918 paper,¹⁰ Einstein used Gravitationswellen. See the figure.

I was curious which term popular physics books would use. I looked at one¹¹ and saw that the author used both terms, sometimes on the same page. Later, I flipped through my own popular book¹² on Einstein gravity, and was surprised to see that I used gravity waves. Given the American¹³ penchant to shorten everything in sight, I do not doubt that gravity wave will eventually win. After all, water wave is of interest to only a relatively small subset of physicists.

I also did an informal poll of the intelligentsia excluding physicists. All prefer gravity wave to gravitational wave.

I will use the term gravity wave in this book, throwing in gravitational wave occasionally.

The title page of Einstein’s 1918 paper.

Hai raggiunto la fine di questa anteprima. Registrati per continuare a leggere!
Pagina 1 di 1


Cosa pensano gli utenti di On Gravity

3 valutazioni / 0 Recensioni
Cosa ne pensi?
Valutazione: 0 su 5 stelle

Recensioni dei lettori