Albert Einstein, who won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1921, contributed an alternate theory of gravity in the early 1900s. It was part of his famous General Theory of Relativity, and it offered a very different explanation from Newton's Law of Universal Gravitation. Einstein didn't believe gravity was a force at all; he said it was a distortion in the shape of space-time, otherwise known as "the fourth dimension" (see How Special Relativity Works to learn about space-time).
Basic physics states that if there are no external forces at work, an object will always travel in the straightest possible line. Accordingly, without an external force, two objects travelling along parallel paths will always remain parallel. They will never meet.
But the fact is, they do meet. Particles that start off on parallel paths sometimes end up colliding. Newton's theory says this can occur because of gravity, a force attracting those objects to one another or to a single, third object. Einstein also says this occurs due to gravity -- but in his theory, gravity is not a force. It's a curve in space-time.
According to Einstein, those objects are still travelling along the straightest possible line, but due to a distortion in space-time, the straightest possible line is now along a spherical path. So two objects that were moving along a flat plane are now moving along a spherical plane. And two straight paths along that sphere end in a single point.
Still more-recent theories of gravity express the phenomenon in terms of particles and waves. One view states that particles called gravitons cause objects to be attracted to one another. Gravitons have never actually been observed, though. And neither have gravitational waves, sometimes called gravitational radiation, which supposedly are generated when an object is accelerated by an external force [source: Scientific American].
Gravitons or no gravitons, we know that what goes up must come down. Perhaps someday, we'll know exactly why. But until then, we can be satisfied just knowing that planet Earth won't go hurtling into the sun anytime soon. Gravity is keeping it safely in orbit.
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More Great Links
- "Einstein's geometric gravity." Einstein Online.http://www.aei.mpg.de/einsteinOnline/en/elementary/generalRT/GeomGravity/index.html
- "Gravity." Princeton WordNet.http://wordnetweb.princeton.edu/perl/webwn?o2=&o0=1&o7=&o5=&o1=1&o6=&o4=&o3=&s=gravitational+attraction
- Kurtus, Ron. "Gravitation and the Force of Gravity." Succeed in Physical Science: School for Champions.http://www.school-for-champions.com/science/gravity.htm
- "Is gravity a particle or a wave?" Scientific American. October 21, 1999.http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=is-gravity-a-particle-or