What’s up with gravity?

Cheer the discovery of the gravitational wave when it happens. But don’t be fooled: gravity will remain our greatest mystery for a long time yet.

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Get ready for a lot of Einstein love. This year marks the centenary of Einstein’s general theory of relativity, which describes how gravity works. Sort of.

It does enough, for instance, to predict the existence of gravitational waves – ripples in space caused by objects moving within it. Not that we have ever seen one. US scientists have just celebrated the completion of their latest gravitational wave detector, which will turn on later this year. They hope to use them to spot the shaking caused by cataclysmic events, such as the collision of two black holes or a supernova explosion.

No one doubts that the waves do exist. Whether our detectors will prove sensitive enough to see them is another matter. Even if they do, it will be a hollow victory. General relativity will have ticked another box but it won’t advance our basic understanding of how gravity works. The truth is that this remains a mystery.

What we do know is that when you throw a ball up in the air, it returns to earth. That’s because the ball and the earth possess a quality called mass: a way of quantifying how difficult it is to accelerate something, to get that ball moving, or to change its path, or stop it. We can describe how something that has mass will move under the influence of something else with mass by calculating the geometry of the object’s gravitational field using Einstein’s mathematics.

Put simply, anything with mass warps the space (and time) around it, and an object travelling through this warped space follows a curved path. In the case of the ball, that means falling back down to earth. In the case of the earth moving past the sun, it means moving in an elliptical orbit rather than a line. After this, we’re hand-waving. Yes, we can do calculations and we can make predictions of phenomena that this warping of space and time will create. But gravity remains our least-understood force – by a very long way.

Take its weakness. The ball falls to earth, but a fridge magnet doesn’t fall off the fridge, even with the mass of the whole planet pulling on it. That’s seven million billion billion kilos losing out to a magnet the size of a coin. If you want to write down how much stronger than gravity the electromagnetic force is, you’ll need a 1 and 40 zeroes.

What’s more, our theory of magnets is much more complete than our theory of gravity. Gravity aside, we can describe all the forces using a mathematical description known as quantum field theory – a framework that lays out how energy, mass, space and time work together to create the forces we see in the universe. According to this theory, particles borrow energy thanks to the “uncertainty principle” of quantum mechanics, using it to create particles that pop in and out of existence. This is no flight of fancy: these “virtual” particles have been found for all the forces. They are the photon, the gluon and the W, Z and Higgs particles.

But we haven’t come close to finding anything that would constitute the “graviton”. Although we can understand the basic electromagnetic and nuclear forces that give us atoms, chemistry and all our electronic gadgets, we don’t have a bottom-up understanding of why a ball falls back to earth.

So cheer the discovery of the gravitational wave when it happens. But don’t be fooled: gravity will remain our greatest mystery for a long time yet.

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article appears in the 27 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Saying the Unsayable