The Rolling Stones Answer

One of the questions to which I alluded in Q&A that came up not long ago was why mass curves space. The answer to this, as measured by curiosity fulfillment, is an unsatisfying “we don’t know”. The reason the discussion doesn’t end right here is that it’s important to know why one can’t answer that question, and why not having an answer is not a scientific flaw or crisis.

This is a cousin to a question that one can answer, which is why space is curved. That one is relatively straightforward: we have length contraction, which is a logical consequence of a constant speed of light in an inertial frame. (Logical here is not necessarily synonymous with intuitive, but the premise of a constant c and physics being the same everywhere — the postulates of special relativity — lead directly to the phenomena of time dilation and length contraction) Moving objects are contracted along their direction of motion. So what happens to an object or system moving in a circle? At some radius r, the circumference is no longer given by the familiar 2*pi*r, since any length one measure will be length contracted. In other words, the flat Cartesian coordinates of Euclidean geometry we are used to using is no longer adequate to describe the details of the system. It’s not flat anymore. That’s the thought process that led Einstein to develop the curved geometry of General Relativity, which describes the kinematics when we include gravity. There’s an acceleration, and the coordinate system has to change. (Deeper understanding is impeded by the realization that freefall is an inertial frame, which is another counter-intuitive concept one must wrap their head around. Then there’s all the math.) That’s it in a nutshell.

But why does mass (in a Newtonian sense, energy in relativity) do this? Can’t help you. This is, to many non-scientists, the Rolling Stones issue: Can’t Get No Satisfaction from that answer. It’s been implied (and sometimes declared) that this, or some other question to which science has no answer, should really bother me, and it just doesn’t keep me up at night. But unanswered questions are supposed to haunt me, right?

No, not really. Unanswered scientific questions, perhaps, and especially ones in our field of study might cause me to lose sleep, but not metaphysical ones. And that’s really what this boils down to: science is about building models to explain what’s happening around us, and there are limits to those models. I can do a whole lot of science without knowing why mass attracts another mass or (closer to my field) exactly what the mechanism is that causes an atom to emit a photon. I know what transitions are possible, I know how the emitted photon will be polarized, I know the atom will recoil as a result — all of those things are measurable effects, and fit into a model of how the atom-photon interaction behaves.

But wouldn’t it be great if we knew why all of this was happening? Yes, and I imagine there are people who spend time thinking about such things. But any answer they come up with has to be checked to see if it’s right, and that’s the problem. Science progresses, in a very broad sense, by either theory driving experiment, or experiment driving theory. But both have to happen. Special relativity is an example of theory driving experiment — there were no observations of time dilation or length contraction that had identified a hole in our physics knowledge. The framework came first, and experiment verified it. Similarly with Einstein’s model of spontaneous and stimulated emission, which led to the development of the laser. Quantum mechanics has some prominent examples in the other direction — observed phenomena (photoelectric effect, and Stern-Gerlach, which is actually an example of both phenomena) that did not fit in with existing the theory and demanded an explanation based on new thinking. But the new theories, and the models based on them, are not accepted merely because they explain the one observation that prompted them — that’s too ad hoc. One has to be sure the model works under a wide range of conditions, which prompts further experiment. Only then do you accept it.

Which is why some of these deep questions do not beget a scientific explanation. There is no unexplained phenomenon to require a model be built, and there is no experiment to test a model that someone comes up with. A question that does not carry one of those banners is generally not going to be something that science addresses.

2 thoughts on “The Rolling Stones Answer

  1. there is no experiment to test a model that someone comes up with. The greatest obstacle is not ignorance but the illusion of knowledge. Physics cannot observe what it does not contain. The testable answer is in chemistry.

    Pseudo-Riemannian spacetime with spactime curvature is General Relativity. GR universally works to the limits of observation. GR arises from SR with an empirically falsfiable founding postulate, The Equivalence Principle: All local material bodies fall identically in vacuum, along minimum action trajectories.

    Weitzenböck spacetime with spacetime torsion is teleparallel gravitation (Einstein and a boatload of mathematicians, 1930). The EP is not postulated. If the EP is true, teleparallelism collapses into GR. The EP is violated by deeply relativistic angular momentum (body as physical spin; particle and orbital). Even millisecond pulsars are insufficient. There is another.

    Spacetime torsion is analogous to Lorentz force – it is chiral. Quantitative geometric parity divergence (chirality in all directions) arises from moments of inertia. One then asks a simple question: Do opposite shoes falsify the EP? Test spacetime geometry with chemical configuration.

    Metaphoric shoes; atom-scale shoes self-similarly aggregated to centimeter scale. Do chemically and macroscopically identical, local inverse geometric parity atomic mass distributions vacuum free fall along non-identical minimum action trajectories? Covariance with respect to reflection in space and time is not required by the Poincaré group of Special Relativity or the Einstein group of General Relativity. Do single crystals in enantiomorphic space groups falsify the Equivalence Principle?
    Two proposed geometric parity Eotvos experiments. Opposed enantiomorphs of alpha-quartz or gamma-glycine. Right-handed 3(1) screw axes, left-handed 3(2) screw axes.

    Physics is a coward for not looking. The worst it can do is succeed. Theory is already in place consistent with GR and predicted observation both. Cowards!

  2. Why do you need mass-energy to do GR? Shouldn’t you just be able to use curvature or are there cases of curvature which behave differently from mass-energy?

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