Now that the specifics of Special Relativity have been covered, its time to move to
the godfather of relativity theory, otherwise known as General Relativity.
General Relativity (GR) is an all-encompassing theory that fully describes the
relationship between space, time and gravity. GR is often described in a complex manner,
making it difficult to understand; although it need not be. It is based on three principles:
Everything that is true about Special Relativity (SR) for objects moving
at constant velocity is also true for objects that are accelerating.
Gravity is indistinguishable from acceleration.
A free-moving body acts to reduce its degree of time dilation.
Lets begin with the second of these since its the easiest to
Suppose you awoke one morning and found yourself locked in a strange
windowless room. Since you dont remember being taken there you would have no idea
where you were. You could be anywhere on Earth. In fact, you may not even be on Earth. For
all you know you may be in outer space accelerating at a uniform 9.8 m/s2 which
would feel just like Earths gravitational field.
Suppose also that your kidnappers had kindly left behind a range of scientific equipment
that allowed you to accurately measure the degree of acceleration or gravitational force.
GR says that: there is no experiment you could perform that would allow you to determine
whether you were experiencing gravity or a constant acceleration. In other words they are
effectively the same thing. This is called The Principle of Equivalence.
For example suppose that you were in fact accelerating though space and you threw a ball
horizontally. The ball would curve toward the floor just like it does on Earth. In this
case the ball is actually moving in a straight line and the floor is rising to meet it.
But since youre moving with the floor it appears that the ball is curving downward.
Next suppose that you directed a horizontal laser beam across the room to the opposite
wall. The beam moves in a straight line but, due to the rising floor and walls, it strikes
the wall at a point slightly lower than where it started. Just like the ball, this makes
the laser beam appear to curve downward (again, it isnt really).
Now heres the really interesting part: According to GR, since gravity is equivalent
to acceleration, if you fire a horizontal laser beam on Earth it should also curve
downward in the same manner. In other words light should feel the pull of gravity just as
all material objects do. This is an amazing claim because we dont think of light as
being a material substance. Does it really happen? Lets put that question aside for
the moment and look more deeply into the GR principles.
Time Dilation due to Acceleration
Now to examine the first principle of GR. Again, imagine that you are in
the room accelerating through space at a smooth 9.8 m/s2. To make the following
calculation simple, suppose the ceiling is very tall, namely 300,000 km high. Question: If
someone turned on a light on the ceiling, how long would it take that light to reach the
floor? Well if the room was moving at a constant velocity it would take one second because
thats how far light moves in a second. But since this room is accelerating it should
take slightly less than a second because the floor is rising at an increasing pace. More
importantly, the light would strike the floor at a speed slightly greater than that of
At this point SR steps in as if to say: Tut-tut. The speed of light must always be a
constant and cannot be perceived to be any faster. Therefore the observer on the floor
must experience a faster sensation of time to make the light appear to move at the correct
speed. In other words, the observer needs to experience time dilation in order to
not violate SR principles.
Now lets calculate the degree of time dilation. Consider the room in the diagram
This room has a height H and is moving upward with a
constant acceleration a. If a light is turned on at the ceiling it moves
downward at a speed of c. How long will it take to reach the floor? Let P1
be the position of the light beam and P2 be that of the floor.
Both measurements are the distance to where the floor would be if it continued at a
constant velocity from the instant when the light was turned on (to simplify, assume the
floor was initially at rest the distances will then be to its starting position).
As the light beam moves downward its position at time t will be:
And the position of the floor will be:
The two will meet when P1 = P2
at the time:
How fast will the beam be moving when it hits the floor? The floor will be
moving upward at velocity a * t and the light beam
downward at c. Adding these together we get:
This velocity is greater than light. So to calculate the degree of time
dilation needed to slow it down to c we take the ratio v/c:
This is like the GR equivalent of the Lorentz Transform (LT) for SR. It
shows how much faster time should run according to acceleration and height. For small
values of acceleration this closely approximates to (using binomial expansion):
Problems with the GR time dilation formula
Now lets look at some anomalies in the above formula:
1. When this formula was derived, the movement was in the direction of acceleration.
Whereas with the LT, the movement is always assumed to be at right angles to the observer
(see earlier chapter). This appears inconsistent.
2. If acceleration is negative, i.e. the floor is accelerating away from the light, time
should instead slow down. With the LT, velocity direction makes no difference because the
velocity term is squared. So GR time dilation should both speed up and slow down the
sensation of time. The significance of this is explained below with clocks.
3. The formula says that an accelerating object (such as the floor in this example) should
experience relative time dilation. But relative to what? Presumably relative to something
that isnt accelerating. The only reference object here is the ceiling light. But
that ceiling light is accelerating at exactly the same rate as the floor so there
shouldnt be any time dilation between the two.
4. The formula depends both on the acceleration a and the height H.
This appears odd because we should expect the dilation to be based only on acceleration.
After all, the LT depends only on velocity. And what is H? It is an
arbitrary height of the ceiling. If you moved the ceiling the result would be different.
Or if there were several lights at different heights within the room we would calculate
several different time dilations.
The Triple Clock Dilemma
In the earlier discussion on SR a number of logical inconsistencies were
pointed out involving moving clocks. A similar problem exists with GR. Consider the below
Three clocks A, B and C
are initially moving to the right with an identical velocity. They are perfectly
synchronized and according to SR, should remain that way since there is no relative
Suddenly clock B begins to accelerate by steadily increasing its
velocity. According to GR time dilation should now occur. B is
accelerating away from A, so B should slow down relative
to A. B is also accelerating toward C,
so B should speed up relative to C. Meanwhile A
and C continue have no relative motion and should remain synchronized.
B<A and B>C and A=C.
Again we have another impossibility.
Time Dilation due to Gravity
Now that we have determined the time dilation for a constant acceleration
we can do the same with gravity. Heres how the theory goes:
Suppose there were two people: one on the Earths surface and the other at the
Earths centre (assuming thats possible!). At the centre of the Earth the net
gravity is zero because the pull comes equally from all directions. Let the person at the
centre be called A and the one on the surface be called B.
Now A fires a laser beam toward B. How
long does it take the light to reach B? According to classical mechanics
the time taken will depend only on the Earths radius. However GR has other ideas...
Since B is experiencing the downward pull of gravity, this is equivalent
to experiencing a steady upward acceleration of 9.8 m/s2. The Principle of
Equivalence says that we can base our calculation on the assumption that the Earths
surface is accelerating upward at this rate. What this means is that the light beam will
take longer and will be moving slower when it reaches the Earths surface. Its
almost as if the pull of gravity were slowing the light down. In order to not violate SR
then, the sensation of time at the surface must slow down to make the light appear at the
In other words B must be in a slower time frame relative to A.
Put another way, clocks in a high gravitational field must tick slower than those in low
gravity, even though neither are experiencing any acceleration (putting aside the
Calculating the Gravitational Time Dilation
Okay lets now figure out just how much dilation should occur due to
gravity. This will be easy since the calculation has already been done for a fixed
acceleration see formula (1). Simply by replacing height H with
the Earths radius R, and acceleration a with minus
g (because the direction is away from the light source), we determine the
velocity of the light striking the surface will be:
The degree of dilation required will be the ratio c/v
in this case we use the inverse of the earlier ratio in order to make its value
greater than 1:
This tells us how much slower time should move at the surface of a planet
of radius R and surface gravity g, compared to a point
of zero gravity. For small values of gravity this closely approximates to:
Using Newtons gravitation equation we can also rewrite (2) as:
Where G is the gravitational constant and M
is the mass of the Earth or some other large spherical object.
Problems with the GR time dilation (for gravity) formula
One benefit this gravitation formula (2) has over the acceleration formula
(1) is that gravity will always be positive. This means that the triple clock problem
wont be an issue. Nevertheless this formula still has a problem: namely the
inclusion of the radius R into the equation.
For example, suppose there was a planet that had half of Earths diameter but made of
a material of double the density. The surface gravity on this planet would be identical to
Earths. However due to the formula including radius into the equation, time dilation
would be only half as much. This appears to violate the Principle of Equivalence which
states that there should be no difference between the two because gravity is the same.
The Black Hole conundrum
A more interesting question arises with regard to high levels of gravity.
Notice that the above ratio (2) has a denominator that could potentially become zero. This
should theoretically happen for large values of gravity, and when it does, time dilation
should become infinite. This means that time on the surface will come to a complete stop.
Also notice that this term is contained within a square root which would be a problem if
its contents became negative. Since it is impossible to have square roots of negative
numbers (in the real world) this implies that there must be some theoretical upper limit
to gravity or that something very strange must happen if gravity tries to exceed that
GR proponents submit that when an object becomes this large its gravity will prevent
everything from escaping, including light. Such an object is called a black
hole because no light could emit from it. Furthermore if the object becomes any
larger, e.g. by adding extra mass, something must happen to prevent the term within the
square root from becoming negative. One way this might happen is for the object to enlarge
its radius, making that term positive see formula (3). However there is no reason
why a now even heavier object should expand; if anything the increased gravity should
force it to shrink. But the moment it did shrink gravity would increase to a larger amount
and make that term even more negative. Therefore it was proposed that at this point the
object will suddenly collapse into a point of zero size while still maintaining its mass
and take on some sort of infinite gravity. This point-object is referred to as a
To determine the dimensions of such an object (prior to its collapse) well assume it
to be composed of a substance known as neutron-star matter. This is what neutron stars are
said to be composed of: entirely of atomic nuclei. It has a density of 2x1017
kg/m3 which is very close to the density of an atoms nucleus . Substituting this density into the appropriate equations we find that
a black hole should have the following attributes:
Radius = 28350 m
Mass = 1.91x1031 kg
Gravity = 1.58x1012 m/s2
So this black hole has a diameter of 56.7 km about the size of a major city
and a mass 10 times heavier than our Sun. And most impressively, a surface gravity 160
billion times greater than Earths!
Could such things exist? Certainly there are plenty of stars with enough mass to form the
above object if they were compressed into neutron-star matter. And if light is bent by
gravity, even to a slight extent, it is certainly conceivable that it might be bent
backward under such extreme gravity.
Well there is an easier way to reproduce this situation without resorting to enormous
gravity. Namely that the GR formula (2) contains a radius term and this allows us to
achieve the same infinite dilation under low gravity conditions.
For example, it can be shown that a planet made of a material with uniform density of 7.65
micrograms per cubic metre and radius of 4.59x1015 meters (about half a light
year) will have a surface gravity equal to Earths. But due to its enormous radius
the time dilation on the surface will be infinite; i.e. time will come to a stand-still
and not even light could escape, even by a short distance. This is despite there being
only Earth-strength gravity. Furthermore GR predicts that it will be impossible for this
planet to be even one metre larger because the term inside the square root would then
become negative. Does this seem correct? There appears to be no logical reason why such a
planet should suddenly collapse into a singularity point.
It turns out that such speculations are unnecessary because the
proper gravitational time dilation function contains a much-overlooked term that prevents
singularities from occurring. This will be covered in the next chapter.
The Weak Equivalence Principle
Getting back to the Principle of Equivalence described earlier, there
are actually two of these. The first, that gravity is
indistinguishable from acceleration, is known as the Equivalence of
Acceleration or the Strong Equivalence Principle. The second
is the Equivalence of Mass or the Weak Equivalence Principle.
What the second says is that gravitational mass is directly
proportional to inertial mass. That is, an object experiences
a gravitational force that is directly proportional to its
inertia. Put more simply, all objects will free-fall in a
vacuum at precisely the same rate.
As far as we can tell this is statement is quite true and the
experiments support it. But one wonders, why say it at
all? This principle is not telling us anything we didnt
already know from Newtons equation: F=GMm/r2. Newton, in
his Principia, made no mention of gravitational mass nor suggestion
of different type of mass. The big M and little m in that
equation referred originally only to mass, and without saying what
type it was.
The concept of gravitational mass it seems is being used to suggest a
betterment of GR over classical mechanics. While GR does have
some improvements over the Newtonian description of gravity, as will be
discussed in the following chapter, this is not one of them.
Strictly speaking, this second equivalence principle is a not a
statement about GR but of classical mechanics and should not be
considered part of GR theory.
Continued in part 2.