Einstein in spaaaaace!

The great Hungarian physicist Loránd Eötvös (usually pronounced "utvush" in English) performed the first modern precision test of the equivalence principle. I didn't have space to talk about him in my Daily Beast article, but he deserves a mention. [Credit: Hungarian Academy of Sciences]

The great Hungarian physicist Loránd Eötvös (usually pronounced “utvush” in English) performed the first modern precision test of the equivalence principle. I didn’t have space to talk about him in my Daily Beast article, but he deserves a mention. [Credit: Hungarian Academy of Sciences]

I think I major reason I admire clever experiments is because I’m a total dunce in the lab. Like all physics majors in college, I paid my dues, taking the required lab courses, even designing my own experiments when called upon. But I was never much good at it: my brain seems to run more toward theoretical physics, and fairly mathematical theory at that. (See also: the Pauli effect, though obviously I’m not in the same category as Pauli.)

So, today’s Daily Beast article celebrates testing one of the foundational concepts in Einstein’s general theory of relativity (and other gravitational theories): the equivalence principle. In its simplest form, it asserts that equal masses fall at the same rate, no matter what they are made of. At its most complex, it’s a statement about the fundamental nature of mass and its role in gravitation. Yet, because of the weakness of gravity, the equivalence principle is hard to test.

[O]nly a few specialized labs around the world are sensitive enough to measure gravity precisely. Some researchers even think we may be nearing the limits of what we can do on Earth’s surface, where any number of things can interfere. Small earthquakes, settling buildings, even tiny shifts in Earth’s gravitational field can add small amounts of uncertainty. The solution, of course, is to go into space, but naturally that has its own challenges. Not least of those worries: Even small space-based experiments are much more expensive than Earth-bound counterparts. [read more…]

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