CfA Press Release
Release No.: 04-16|
For Release: May 12, 2004
Scientists Prepare to Place Einstein on the Rim of a Black Hole
Cambridge, MA - It may soon be sink-or-swim time for Albert Einstein.
Scientists are preparing for the ultimate test of Einstein's law of
known as the theory of general relativity, through a systematic,
study of hundreds of black holes.
But there are really no losers in this exam. The observations will
strengthen Einstein's legacy or reveal flaws in general relativity that
eventually will pave the road to a more complete theory. Dr. Jon Miller
the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics discusses the potential
testing Einstein at a meeting held this week at Stanford University
"Beyond Einstein: From The Big Bang to Black Holes."
The goal is to study the effect of gravity on time, matter and energy
gravity is most pronounced: at the theoretical border of a black hole
the event horizon. Scientists know where to look, and now they are
the tools needed to do it.
"For extreme gravity, you can't beat a black hole," said Miller.
observations take us close to a black hole, where we see glimpses of the
bizarre physics predicted by Einstein. In a few more years, with a
next-generation X-ray telescope, we will be able to zoom in closer yet,
right to the event horizon, to give Einstein a proper testing."
One proposed mission that could do this, Miller said, is the
X-ray Observatory. This observatory comprises four satellites flying and
observing in unison, with a combined light-collecting area 100 times
than any X-ray mission before it.
Many of Einstein's predictions have been confirmed: observations reveal
that gravity can bend light, slow time and warp space-time. Scientists
to go one step further to find whether gravity causes such effects to
precise degree that Einstein's math predicts. To answer this question,
more detailed knowledge about black holes is needed. The workhorses of
X-ray astronomy -- NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory and Rossi X-ray
Explorer and Europe's XMM-Newton Observatory - have provided tantalizing
hints that Einstein is right, but nothing yet is conclusive.
The pursuit to understand gravity to such precision is far from trivial,
Miller said. General relativity and quantum mechanics were the physics
behind nearly every scientific advance of the twentieth century, from
nuclear energy to computers. General relativity evolved from cracks in
Newton's 225-year-old gravity law. Could it be that cracks in general
relativity will usher in the next great scientific revolution?
say that something isn't quite right -- either general relativity,
theory, or both -- because neither theory can describe all of the forces
Scientists will look for small deviations between observation and theory
black hole measurements. This is not without precedent: about 100
ago, astronomers found that the measured orbit of Mercury around the Sun
differed from what was predicted by Isaac Newton's law of gravity by
70 miles per year. Albert Einstein's law of gravity, general
accounts for the discrepancy, which is caused by a subtle warp in
from the Sun's gravity speeding Mercury's orbit. Clearly, precise
measurements were needed to uncover the deviation.
Fast-forward to the 21st century: Miller said that Constellation-X will
so efficient at detecting distorted light from black hole systems that
scientists will be able to build libraries of light profiles, from which
will be possible to test predictions of gravitational light bending
black holes. This is because Constellation-X will detect more light in
time, allowing scientists to create "movies" in a single observation of
movement of matter as it approaches a black hole event horizon.
Constellation-X also will dramatically reveal how black holes, which have
surface, can spin like a tornado in space, dragging the fabric of space
(space-time) along with it.
Constellation-X is a key mission in NASA's Beyond Einstein roadmap. For
more information, refer to http://constellation.gsfc.nasa.gov or
http://universe.nasa.gov. For more information on the Beyond Einstein
meeting, refer to http://www-conf.slac.stanford.edu/einstein/.
Headquartered in Cambridge, Mass., the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics is a joint collaboration between the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory and the Harvard College Observatory. CfA scientists, organized into six research divisions, study the origin, evolution and ultimate fate of the universe.
For more information, contact:
David Aguilar, Director of Public Affairs
Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics
Phone: 617-495-7462 Fax: 617-495-7468
Public Affairs Specialist
Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics
Phone: 617-495-7463, Fax: 617-495-7016