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Albert Einstein's theory of gravity is generally explained in a wrong way

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Showing 1-9 of 9 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 17 Feb 2011 17:36:15 GMT
Rasih Bensan says:
About the misrepresentation of Albert Einstein's theory of gravity.

The way many physicists explain Albert Einstein's theory of gravity in TV and DVD documentaries, the way they write about it in books for the general public raises many questions and requires clarification.

In summary, according to these physicists Einstein stated that gravity is the warping of space - time by a massive object having considerable mass such as the sun. The planets orbit the sun because they have to follow the warping ( curvature ) of space-time around the sun. Other stars in the universe which have planets also warp space in their vicinity. By the same reasoning the moon and artificial satellites orbit the Earth, and many planets in the Solar system make their moons orbit them by warping the space-time around themselves with their great masses. Smaller objects such as asteroids generate very weak gravity because their masses are small and therefore warp the space-time around themselves very little. In fact some physicists even say that according to Einstein gravity was not even a force like Isaac Newton claimed it was. To demonstrate this, these physicists stretch a table cloth or a nylon sheet with gridlines, put a ball in the middle of the cloth / nylon stretch. The weight of the ball creates a dent in the strethed cloth. In this demonstration the stretched cloth represents the fabric of space-time, the ball in the middle represents the sun and the dent in the cloth is supposed to be the warping of space-time by the mass of the sun. Then the demonstrator rolls some smaller balls which rotate several times on the cloth around the ball placed in the middle. This is supposed to represent the orbiting planets following the curvature of space - time around the sun. And this is gravity. You can see this demonstration on many documentaries about Einstein and even in the BBC movie named Einstein & Eddington. In the movie, the famous British Astronomer Arthur Eddington does the demonstration with a tablecloth, a loaf of bread as the sun and an apple as an orbiting planet. As is known Arthur Eddington proved Einstein's theory that gravity bends light by photographing the shift in the visible position of the stars aligned behind the sun in the sky during a solar eclipse in 1920.

This interpretation of Einstein's General Theory of Relativity about Gravity raises many questions & objections in the mind of the careful analyst / thinker. Moreover, the demonstration of gravity with the stretched tablecloth representing space-time and the balls representing the sun and planets and the dent in the cloth representing the warp of space-time by a massive body and saying that according to Einstein this is what gravity is all about has a major flaw and is a poor analogy with the Solar System.

The objections / questions below are not to Einstein nor to his theory of gravity, but rather to the way it is explained by some physicists to the general public.

1) How can space-time be warped ? You can warp a malleable substance such as a sheet of aluminum or plastic or any flexible matter. But how can the sun or any massive object warp the space-time around it ? Space-time is not matter, it is emptiness, nothingness. How can nothingness be warped ? There is nothing to warp. Space is full of many particles at sub-atomic scale such as cosmic radiation, solar wind etc. But they are not space-time, they exist in space-time like bigger objects such as the stars and planets do. Space itself is emptiness, nothingness, it is not a substance. How can nothingness be bent or warped by a massive object ?

2) What makes the planets orbit the sun ? According to this interpretation of Einstein's theory of gravity planets orbit the sun because they have to follow the curvature in space-time created by the sun's mass around itself. OK then if gravity is not the force of attraction between objects having a mass like Isaac Newton said it was, what made the planets start to orbit around the sun in the curved fabric of space-time in the first place? Before the planets and the sun formed they were a giant cloud of gas rotating around its axis and held together with the force of gravity.

3) What about Newton's apple ? When Newton's apple falls from the tree onto the ground is it because the Earth's mass has warped the space-time around itself and the apple has to follow that curvature towards the Earth ? If gravity is not a force of attraction but merely the warping of space-time what pulls the apple towards the Earth ? What holds us humans on the surface of the Earth and prevents us from flying off into space if not the attractive force of gravity of the Earth's mass ?

4) Double standard about what gravity is . After having dismissed Newtonian Theory of gravity as proven wrong by Einstein, that it is not a force but a mere warping of space-time, the same physicists talk about gravity as a force elsewhere contradicting themselves. For example when they talk about the holy grail of physics, the quest for the Grand Unification Theory of Forces of Nature. That is a theory of everything that will hopefully someday unite the 4 fundamental forces ; nuclear strong force, nuclear weak force, electromagnetic force and the force of gravity under one unified theory. But while explaining Einstein's theory of gravity they had dismissed gravity from being a force. Now they say it is a force, the weakest of the 4 forces.

5) The table cloth demonstration is flawed In the table cloth and balls demonstration of the alleged Einstein's theory of gravity, what creates the dent in the middle of the stretched cloth ? It is the weight of the ball placed in the middle of the cloth. In other words the force of Earth's gravity pulls the ball down towards the center of the Earth. The ball's mass does not mysteriously warp the cloth under it. The sun is not pulled down in space-time like the ball on the table cloth is. Therefore the ball on the cloth can not be an anology for the sun in space-time.

6) Trying to reconcile unreconcilable interpretations Many times we hear / read that Einstein did not prove Newton's theory of gravity wrong, that they are both right in their own domains. To justify this it is said that satellite / space technology uses Newtonian theories of force, mass, acceleration and gravity to calculate rocket trajectories, satellite orbits etc. with great accuracy. And that this demonstrates that Newton's theory of gravity is still valid. On the other hand as Einstein's theory of gravity is explained gravity is dismissed from being a force ( force defined as an influence on an object to set the object into motion or change its motion ) and redefined as the warping of space-time by a massive object in it. Perhaps Newton's theory of Gravity can be reconciled with Einstein's but not with this kind of interpretation. Gravity is either a force or it is not. It can not both be a force and not be a force . At best one of the interpretations is true the other false. They are contradictory statements and therefore can not both be true.

7) Einstein's theory of gravity is not taught in middle and high schools

After almost 100 years after Einstein published his General Theory of Relativity on gravity, most middle school and high school science and physics lessons still only slightly mention if at all Einstein's theory of gravity. They devote the gravity subject almost entirely to Isaac Newton's theory of gravity. Even though Einstein's discovery that gravity is the warping of space - time has been widely accepted for almost a century it is amazing that schools around the world still stubbornly limit their lessons to Newton's theory.


Einstein most certainly was right in his theories including that of gravity and he replaced some misconceptions in Newtonian theories but the way these are explained by some physicists to the general public suffer from the flaws summarized above. Any physicist aiming to explain these to the general public should make sure that these points are dealt with effectively. Otherwise confusion on these subjects will continue.

Posted on 20 Mar 2011 12:12:46 GMT
On the go says:
Your article is so full of questions it is almost impossible to know where to begin.
Have you never heard of the gravitational lens?
The demonstation with the stretched cloth is obviously a much simplified version, but it seems to work. How would you begin to demonstrate a four-dimensional theory on the surface of the Earth without the Earth's gravity playing some part?
The apple is not "pulled" towards the Earth - it falls into a slower time-zone, retaining it's total energy by using energy of motion. That's why an object falling towards a massive object accelerates at a constant rate.
Newton's gravity is used because it still works for many applications - and it's simpler......
I suggest that you read "Einstein's universe" by Nigel Calder.

In reply to an earlier post on 20 Mar 2011 16:33:24 GMT
Rasih Bensan says:
OK thanks for your recommendation. Although I read many books about Einstein I haven't read Einstein's Universe by Nigel Calder and will look into it.

Posted on 26 Mar 2011 12:53:33 GMT
Last edited by the author on 26 Mar 2011 13:01:30 GMT
Carol Haynes says:
There was another identical thread about this somewhere that I wrote a long response on (not sure what happened to it but here is the link: The main thing to remember is that Einstein himself introduced the idea of "curvature of space" and "warping" himself - so to say this incorrectly describes Einstein's theory is to say he himself got it wrong ;)

In reply to an earlier post on 26 Mar 2011 18:32:06 GMT
Rasih Bensan says:
Yes, I remember and appreciate you taking the time to reply to my questions. I am aware that Einstein talked about the curvature of space - time. In fact many scientists think that the universe is round just like most of the celestial bodies like planets and stars. I have had some other interesting replies too. However, I did not get the answer to my question how can space - time which is emptiness be warped ? How can gravity warp something that is emptiness, something that does not exist. I am aware that space is full of particles and radiation. But it is not the radiation and the particles that are alleged to be warped. Saying that space-time is warped is saying that emptiness is warped. This is what I fail to grasp. I know many expert physicists talk about the warping of space-time around a body such as the sun by its gravity and that it maybe said that the laymen may not understand it because of lack of expertise on the subject. But that still does not answer the question how can nothingness be warped.

Posted on 27 Mar 2011 03:07:58 BDT
Carol Haynes says:
The nothingness of space is not warped - what is warped is the force fields created by the presence of matter.

It is a matter of perception gravity can be seen as the force of attraction between massive bodies or gravity can be seen as the distortion of force fields caused by the presence of massive bodies.

In 'empty' space force fields still exist but are very small and generally considered to be uniform. Near massive bodies the forces fields become much stronger and non uniform as they deflect matter passing through the forcefield according to Einstein's equations (or Newton's equations to a close approximation).

In reply to an earlier post on 27 Mar 2011 08:05:39 BDT
Rasih Bensan says:
Dear Carol Haynes,

Thank you for this clarification. I guess this must be the electromagnetic force field that permeates throughout space. If physicists making documentary TV programs and DVD s or writing books on the subject for non - physicists specified this in advance instead of just talking about the warping of the " fabric of space-time " this confusion would not arise. Otherwise it is not clear to the non - physicist what this fabric is made of and how it can be warped. Your answer clarifies the point. Thanks again.

In the meantime I assume that you must be a scientist in a related field in a university or a scientific organization right ? If so I would be interested if you or your organization have any science education videos on the internet for high school or university students or the general public. I am already following several such programs out of personal interest and to support my son's science lessons in middle school. Thanks.

Posted on 27 Mar 2011 13:30:41 BDT
Last edited by the author on 27 Mar 2011 13:59:06 BDT
Carol Haynes says:
The field associated with mass is the gravitational field which behaves in a similar, but much weaker, manner to electromagnetic radiation. In fact the gravitational field near large stars is strong enough to affect electromagnetic radiation. This is how astronomers first looked for the presence of black holes because light in a strong gravitational field doesn't travel in a straight line but rather curves in the curved gravitational field. Since we see along the light path which is bent the objects beyond further away, beyond the black hole, appear to us to be shifted in the sky by a a small amount. This is the process called gravitational lensing and was a predicition of Einstein's General Relativity which now has a practical application.

A lot of general relativity and the mathematics Einstein produced is about measuring distance in space along these curved light paths (called geodesics) - and whilst simple in idea takes a lot of effort to get to grips with the detail!

I don't work in university - many year ago my degree included a lot of theoretical physics and General Relativity was the area I was particularly interested in.

I can't recommend any DVDs but if you want to read more some of Einstein's own books were written for a more general readership and don't include to many equations. He was an excellent teacher. Try Relativity: The Special and the General Theory

There is a US DVD called "Einstein's Big Idea" (based on the book E=MC2 by David Bodanis*) which looks as though it might be interesting and is published by a company that usually produces thought provoking documentaries - I haven't seen it though and you would need a region free DVD player. As far as I can tell it is a dramatised documentary with John Lithgow narrating. * Reading some of the reviews of the book on Amazon it may not appeal to you as there seems to be a number of misunderstandings and oddities in Bogdanis's book!

Failing that try books like "A Brief History of Time" by Stephen Hawking. I'm sure others might chip in with suggestions too.

In reply to an earlier post on 27 Mar 2011 16:43:59 BDT
Rasih Bensan says:
I watched Einstein's Big Idea two times on google video. It was very good. I had read Stephen Hawking's A brief history of time when it came out in 1985. His latest book of 2010 titled The Grand Design which I read recently is a good update and even better than a brief history of time.
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Total posts:  9
Initial post:  17 Feb 2011
Latest post:  27 Mar 2011

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