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No. 119: Sep-Oct 1998

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Einstein In Free Fall

We now describe two abstruse phenomena, one of which is well-recognized, the other which is suggested by quantum mechanics, but is yet unobserved. Both involve only tiny physical effects. Even so, we should remember that a linchpin of Special Relativity is the tiny advance of Mercury's perihelion. It was Mercury's miniscule orbital anomaly that helped overthrow Newtonian celestial mechanics. Now, quantum mechanics may, in turn, undermine Relativity. The gist of this introduction is that we have here tiny, hard-to-visualize phenomena that are so scientifically important that it is worthwhile trying to understand them.

In the first abstruse phenomenon, quantum mechanical effects demonstrate that the laws of classical electromagnetism are flawed. According to the classical view, an electron cruising by an ideal solenoid (a tube with an internal magnetic field but none outside) should be unaffected; that is, the electron should not "feel" the confined magnetic field. But, in the quantum mechanical view, the "presence" of the electron is smeared out so that it penetrates the solenoid, and the electron is affected by the confined field. This has been demonstrated.

A Los Alamos scientist, D. Ahluwalia, ventures that an analogous situation prevails with gravity. He notes that General Relativity predicts that a particle (or person) in free fall cannot distinguish this condition (weightlessness) from the situation in a hollow shell of matter, where the gravitational field is cancelled out. A person would feel weightless in both situations.

But the strange part arises when one looks at the two situations from the perspective of quantum mechanics; that is, one puts gravity into Shroedinger's equation. Ahluwalia asserts that the particle's (or person's) gravitational presence is smeared out, just like that of the electron outside the solenoid. In consequence, masses can "feel" their gravitational potential and will behave differently in free fall than when inside a hollow sphere, contrary to what Einstein maintained in his General Relativity.

(Seife, Charles; "Einstein in Free Fall," New Scientist, p. 11, June 13, 1998.)

Comment. Like the princess who felt the pea beneath her pile of matresses, this tiny quantum mechanical effect, if experimentally verified, could undercut Relativity, which is a foundation stone of our modern philosophical outlook. Bizarre as many predictions of quantum mechanics are, they are usually verified experimentally.

From Science Frontiers #119, SEP-OCT 1998. 1998-2000 William R. Corliss

Science Frontiers Sourcebook Project Reviewed in:


  • "A sourcebook of unexplained phenomena is therefore a valuable addition to a collection of scientific literature. William R. Corliss has provided this in the past with his source books of scientific anomalies in several subjects, and now he has provided it for astronomy. He has done an excellent job of collecting and editing a large amount of material, taken in part from scientific journals and in part from scientific reporting in the popular or semi-scientific press." -- "The Mysterious Universe: A Handbook of Astronomical Anomalies", reviwed by Thomas Gold, Cornell University, in Icarus, vol.41, 1980

  • "An interesting, systematic presentation of unusual weather [..] This book is recommended for a general audience" --"Corliss, William R., Tornados, Dark Days, Anomalous Precipitation, and Related Weather Phenomena, Sourcebook Project, 1983.", revieweed in Choice, September 1983
  • "..the science is necessarily somewhat speculative, but Corliss's symthesis is based on reputable sources." -- "Corliss, William R. (Compiler). Lightning, Auroras, Nocturnal Lights, and Related Luminous Phenomena" reviwed by Joseph M. Moran, Univ. of Wisconsin in Science Books and Films, Sep/Oct 1983

  • "Before opening the book, I set certain standards that a volume which treads into dangerous grounds grounds like this must meet. The author scrupulously met, or even exceeded those standards. Each phenomenon is exhaustively documented, with references to scientific journals [..] and extensive quotations" -- "Book Review: The moon and planets: a catalog of astronomical anomalies", The Sourcebook Project, 1985., Corliss, W. R., Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, Vol. 81, no. 1 (1987), p. 24., 02/1987