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Light in an Accelerating Room

Brian Greene illustrates the science behind Einstein’s Theory of Relativity using an accelerating room model.

AIRED: 5/29/2019 | 00:02:58
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When Albert Einstein has a new idea --a good idea-- he does not let it go. He shakes it, he twists it, he caresses it in search of a jewel that may be hidden inside. And that's what happens with this newfound link between accelerated motion and gravity. Einstein's mind returns again and again to images of people falling from rooms-- rooms accelerating an empty space are falling down toward the earth. And in the process he realizes something profound.

Imagine that I am in one of those rooms freely falling toward the earth and as I'm floating around inside I click on a laser. What will I see? Well this is not a trick question. I'll see if a laser light goes straight across the room and hits a corresponding point on the opposite wall-- that red dot over there. But what would you all see watching this from the surface of the earth? Well you will surely agree that the light begins at the laser and ends at that red dot, but because from your perspective gravity is causing the room to accelerate downward you will see the light go in a curved trajectory after all that is the only way that the light can begin at the laser and end at the red dot given that from your perspective the room is falling ever more quickly while the light is in transit. What's the conclusion? In a gravitational field light falls. As light sweeps along the contours of space imbued with gravity and traces out curved trajectories; a direct link between gravity and curvature. And with this vital insight Einstein, can begin to see the glimmers of a new understanding of gravity taking shape. The idea is that if there's no matter, no gravity, then space is not curved. But if we bring in a massive body like the sun, then the environment, it responds. The environment warps. The environment curves in response to the presence of the sun, in response to the motion of the sun, and if we were to take a two-dimensional slice through this environment we see that the earth itself is kept in orbit because it's rolling along a valley in a curved environment that the sun creates.

This is Einstein's proposal for how gravity works: warps and curves in the fabric of space and time. It's not a proposal that's meant to only work out there in outer space, it's meant to work everywhere even here.