Monday, September 13, 2010


There has been a good deal of talk lately about gravity. We're all taught early on in our science education about the remarkable insight of Isaac Newton, that the force that causes, e.g., apples to fall from trees is, in fact, the same force that keeps the moon in orbit about the earth (or rather about a common center of gravity relatively close to the center of the earth). The Newtonian gravitational constant, G, is the least precisely known of all the fundamental constants, in part because gravity is a shockingly weak force and therefore difficult to measure. (As I demonstrated to my freshmen students, gravity is so weak that even with the feeble muscles in my legs I can jump up in the air in defiance of the opposing force of the gravitational pull of the entire earth.) More frustrating than the difficulty in precision measurement of G is the fact that different research groups using different techniques come up with experimental estimates of G that differ by surprisingly large amounts. This paper (published last week in Phys. Rev. Lett.) is another example. The authors sweated over the details of their systematic uncertainties for two years before publishing this result, which disagrees with the "official" CODATA value for G by 10 sigma (!). This is a classic showcase for the art, elegance, and necessary attention to detail required in precision measurement physics.

Also making many waves during 2010 is this paper by Erik Verlinde. The claim of this paper is that gravity is emergent, rather than a "real" force. It's been argued since Einstein published general relativity that gravity is different at a deep level than traditional forces. GR says that we should think of gravity as a deformation of spacetime due to the presence of stress/energy. Freely falling particles always travel on geodesics (locally straight lines), and those geodesics are determined by the distribution of mass and energy (including that due to spacetime deformation). In the appropriate limit, GR reduces to Newtonian gravity. Verlinde, striking out in a completely different direction, argues that one can start from very general considerations, and gravity emerges as an "entropic" force. An entropic force is an apparent force that results from the tendency of matter and energy to explore all available microscopic states. For example, a polymer will tend to ball up because there are many more microscopic states that describe the polymer wadded up than extended. Pulling on the two ends of the polymer chain to straighten it out will require overcoming this entropic tendency, and the result is a tension force. Verlinde argues that gravity arises similarly. I need to re-read the paper - it's slippery in places, especially on what underlying background assumptions are made about time and space, and what really plays the role of temperature here. Still, intriguing food for thought, and it's elegant that he can get both something GR-like and something Newtonian to fall out of such an analysis.
Regardless of how you may feel about Verlinde's speculations and the difficulty of measuring G, at least you can laugh in shocked disbelief that these people are serious.  (I should be careful making jokes.  Knowing Rick Perry, they'll start pushing this in Texas public schools next year.)