In a contest for the least contentious statement a person can make, “What goes up must come down” is surely a strong contender. Of the four known fundamental forces—gravity, the electromagnetic force, and the strong and weak nuclear forces—we have the most intuitive understanding of gravity. From our first experiments dropping Cheerios from our high chair, we spend our lives coming to grips with the limitations that gravity imposes on us.
In the late 1600s, Isaac Newton devised the first serious theory of gravity. He described gravity as a field that could reach out across great distances and dictate the path of massive objects like the Earth. Newton’s theory was stunningly effective, yet the nature of the gravitational field remained a mystery. In 1915, Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity gave theorists their first look “under the hood” of gravity. What we call gravity, Einstein argued, is actually the distortion of space and time. The Earth looks like it’s rounding the Sun in an ellipse, but it’s actually following a straight line through warped spacetime.
Einstein’s theory of gravity is very good at explaining the behavior of large objects. But just a few years later, physicists opened up the world of the ultra-small, revealing that the other fundamental forces are due to the exchange of specialized force-carrying particles: photons convey electromagnetism, the strong nuclear force is transmitted by gluons and the weak nuclear force is imparted by the movement of the W and Z bosons. Is gravity due to the same kind of particle exchange?
We actually don’t know the answer to that question, but we have a name for that hypothetical particle if it does exist: It is called the graviton. And even though we have never observed a graviton, we know a great deal about them, if they are real. First, since the range of the force due to gravity is infinite and the force due to gravity weakens as one over the square of the distance between two objects (i.e. 1/r2), the graviton must have zero mass. We know this because if the photon had mass, it would change the “2” in the exponent and that “2” has been established with incredible precision. Like massless photons, gravitons should travel at the speed of light.
General relativity also gives us some insight into the nature of gravitons. In general relativity, the distribution of mass and energy in the universe is described by a four-by-four matrix that mathematicians call a tensor of rank two. This is important because if the tensor is the source of gravitation, you can show that the graviton must be a particle with a quantum mechanical spin of two. Another nice fallout of this correspondence is that the graviton is the only possible massless, spin two particle. If you observe a massless, spin two particle, you have found the graviton.
So why hasn’t anyone found a graviton yet? The problem with searching for gravitons is that gravity is incredibly weak. For instance, the electromagnetic force between an electron and a proton in a hydrogen atom is 1039 times larger than the gravitational force between the same two particles. Perhaps a more intuitive example is the behavior of a magnet and a paperclip. A magnet will hold a paperclip against the Earth’s gravity. Think about what that means. A little magnet, like the one that held your art to your parent’s refrigerator when you were a kid, pulls the paperclip upwards, while the gravity of an entire planet pulls downward, and the magnet wins.
Individual gravitons interact very feebly, and we are only held to the planet because the Earth emits so many of them. Because a single graviton is so weak, it is impossible for us to directly detect individual classical gravitons.
However, there are new and innovative ideas about gravity in which other forms of gravitons might exist. Some of these exotic gravitons might be detectable, but they require significant modifications to our understanding of our universe. This is where things get a bit mind-bending.
If “what goes up, must come down” might be a catch phrase for Captain Obvious, “we live in three dimensions” could be the rallying cry of his sidekick, Lieutenant Duh. However, some scientists have proposed the idea that gravity might have access to more than three dimensions. In that case, gravity might not actually be as weak as we think it is. It only appears weak because, unlike the other fundamental forces, it has extra dimensions into which it can “spread out.”
On the face of it, this seems silly. The 1/r2 nature of gravity is an incontrovertible sign that gravity operates in three dimensions, and this behavior has been directly verified down to distances smaller than a millimeter. But this leaves open the possibility of extra dimensions smaller than 150 micrometers or so. One can imagine these small dimensions by thinking of a tightrope. To a tightrope walker, who can only walk forward and backward on the rope, the rope is one-dimensional. But to an ant, which can also crawl around the rope’s circumference, the rope seems to be two-dimensional. What appears to be one-dimensional to a large being is two-dimensional to a smaller one. These smaller dimensions are cyclical in that if you travel around the outside of one, you will end up back in the same place.
Quantum mechanics tells us that every particle is also a vibrating wave, and it has been proposed that gravitons could vibrate in these extra dimensions, wrapping around the small dimension like bracelets encircling a slender wrist. However, the cyclical nature of the extra dimension imposes limits on how a graviton can vibrate. Only an integer number of wavelengths can fit evenly in the extra dimension. And this brings us to a couple of interesting consequences. In theories with extra dimensions, more than one type of graviton can exist. One way to see that is to imagine taking a sine wave and wrapping it around a cylinder. In order for it to fit perfectly, you must use one wavelength or two or three or any integer number of wavelengths. Each of these instances is a distinct graviton; the ones with more vibrations can actually have mass. Particles of this kind are called Kaluza-Klein gravitons after physicists Theodor Kaluza and Oskar Klein, who first proposed the idea of additional small spatial dimensions. On tiny scales, Kaluza-Klein gravitons can have mass, but on larger scales, they reduce to the familiar massless gravitons of classical theory.
Using particle accelerators like the Large Hadron Collider, physicists are already searching for these small extra dimensions, in part by looking for the expected decay products of massive gravitons. They haven’t found anything yet, which means that if extra dimensions exist, they must be a thousand times smaller than a proton, although there are many caveats to how one interprets the data.
Gravity is the one known fundamental force that has resisted study in the quantum realm and finding gravitons of any kind would be a huge step forward in our understanding of the phenomenon. Devising a successful theory of quantum gravity is one of the hottest goals of modern physics and ongoing experimental searches for gravitons will play a central role.
Our picks for further reading
Nature of Reality: What Is Gravity Made Of?
In this video blog, physicist Greg Kestin describes the 2014 results from the BICEP2 experiment and their implications for gravitons and quantum gravity.
The Physics Teacher: Extra Dimensions of Space
Author Don Lincoln explains what physicists talk about when they talk about extra dimensions.
Poincare Prize Lecture: Is a Graviton Detectable?
In this technical lecture, eminent theorist Freeman Dyson asks whether it will ever be possible to detect gravitons.
Warped Passages: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Universe’s Hidden Dimensions
In this popular book, Harvard physicist Lisa Randall explains why theorists believe extra dimensions may exist, and how we might find them.