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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