Einstein’s theory of relativity remains strong after the quantum challenge

The researchers confirmed a basic assumption in physics with unprecedented precision — that various properties of mass, such as weight, inertia, and gravity, are always equivalent, regardless of the specific composition of the mass involved. This reinforces the equivalence principle, essential to Einstein’s theory of relativity, and addresses the critical point of difference between classical and quantum physics.

Research teams from Leibniz University Hannover and the University of Bremen confirm another principle of equivalence.

Scientists have used half a century of lunar laser ranging data to confirm with 100 times greater accuracy that all mass properties are equal. This finding greatly supports Einstein’s equivalence principle, which is a cornerstone of the theory of relativity.

One of the most basic assumptions of fundamental physics is that the different properties of mass—weight, inertia, and gravity—always remain the same with respect to each other. Without this equivalence, Einstein’s theory of relativity would be contradictory and existing physics textbooks would have to be rewritten. Although all measurements to date confirm the equivalence principle, quantum theory posits that there must be a violation. This discrepancy between Einstein’s gravitational theory and modern quantum theory is why more rigorous tests of the equivalence principle are particularly important.

A team from the Center for Applied Space Technology and Microgravity (ZARM) at the University of Bremen, in collaboration with the Institute for Geodesy (IfE) at Leibniz University Hannover, has successfully demonstrated that it is 100 times larger.[{” attribute=””>accuracy that passive gravitational mass and active gravitational mass are always equivalent – regardless of the particular composition of the respective masses. The research was conducted within the framework of the Cluster of Excellence “QuantumFrontiers.” On July 13, the team published their findings as a highlights article in the scientific journal Physical Review Letters.

Binary System Earth Moon

Binary system Earth-Moon. Credit: AEOS Medialab, ESA 2002

Physical context

Inertial mass resists acceleration. For example, it causes you to be pushed backward into your seat when the car starts. Passive gravitational mass reacts on gravity and results in our weight on Earth. Active gravitational mass refers to the force of gravitation exerted by an object, or more precisely, the size of its gravitational field. The equivalence of these properties is fundamental to general relativity. Therefore, both the equivalence of inertial and passive gravitational mass and the equivalence of passive and active gravitational mass are being tested with increasing precision.

Vishwa Vijay Singh

First Author of the Publication, Vishwa Vijay Singh. Credit: Singh

What was the study about?

If we assume that passive and active gravitational mass are not equal – that their ratio depends on the material – then objects made of different materials with a different center of mass would accelerate themselves. Since the Moon consists of an aluminum shell and an iron core, with centers of mass offset against each other, the Moon should accelerate. This hypothetical change in speed could be measured with high precision, via “Lunar Laser Ranging.” This involves pointing lasers from Earth at reflectors on the Moon placed there by the Apollo missions and the Soviet Luna program. Since then, round trip travel times of laser beams are recorded. The research team analyzed “Lunar Laser Ranging” data collected over a period of 50 years, from 1970 to 2022, and investigated such mass difference effects. Since no effect was found, this means that the passive and active gravitational masses are equal to approximately 14 decimal places. This estimate is a hundred times more accurate than the best previous study, dating back to 1986.

Unique expertise

LUH’s Institute of Geodesy – one of only four centers worldwide analyzing laser distance measurements to the Moon – has unique expertise in assessing the data, particularly for testing general relativity. In the current study, the institute analyzed the Lunar Laser Ranging measurements, including error analysis and interpretation of the results.

Vishwa Vijay Singh, Jürgen Müller and Liliane Biskupek from the Institute of Geodesy at Leibniz University Hannover, as well as Eva Hackmann and Claus Lämmerzahl from the Center of Applied Space Technology and Microgravity (ZARM) at the University of Bremen published their findings in the journal Physical Review Letters, where the paper was highlighted in the category “editors’ suggestion.”

Reference: “Equivalence of Active and Passive Gravitational Mass Tested with Lunar Laser Ranging” by Vishwa Vijay Singh, Jürgen Müller, Liliane Biskupek, Eva Hackmann and Claus Lämmerzahl, 13 July 2023, Physical Review Letters.
DOI: 10.1103/PhysRevLett.131.021401

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