When I started this blog, over 2 years ago now, I never anticipated picking up ‘followers’ and now I feel the need to maintain some sort of standard. For those who do follow this blog, it is obvious that I don’t comment on a regular basis (although I do on other people’s blogs) but that I only write when something especially attracts my attention. It’s becoming increasingly a blog where I want to share rare intellectual discoveries rather than express my opinions, though I do that as well.
Two recent such discoveries, are Cracking the Einstein Code by Fulvio Melia and What is Life by Erwin Schrodinger. The second book is a classic that I’ve wanted to read for a long time, while the first was an unexpected discovery. This post will focus on Melia’s book, subtitled, Relativity and the Birth of Black Hole Physics, and Schrodinger’s tome will probably be a subject for a future post.
Melia’s book is largely concerned with a little-known aspect of Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity (yes, it deserves capitals): a Kiwi called Roy Kerr, in 1963, unlocked the code inherent in Einstein’s 6 field equations that gave a description of space-time for a rotating body, which is the normal reality for massive bodies in the universe, from planets like ours to entire galaxies.
Now I need to say at the start, that whilst I write on esoteric topics, my knowledge is limited in the extreme, unlike the authors whom I read. Anyone following recent comments on this blog will notice that a generous intellect, called Timmo, has made critical comments on 2 of my former posts (Quantum Tunneling, Oct. 09 and Nature's Layers of Reality, May 09). I wish to acknowledge Timmo’s contribution and I welcome someone who really does know what they’re talking about when it comes to physics.
What I especially like about Melia’s account is that he acknowledges all the other people who contributed to the success of relativity theory (specifically, the General Theory), most of whom I’d never heard of. Like many people, I thought that Einstein’s theory had come effectively fully-fledged from his own mind. I wasn’t aware that there was a history of significant contributions from its conception right up to 1963, almost a decade after Einstein’s death.
Firstly, there is David Hilbert (who is extraordinarily famous in mathematics) and who had a correspondence with Einstein and helped him to develop his field equations. In fact, according to Melia, Hilbert actually published the equations on
But even Hilbert “could not overcome a serious problem – how to demonstrate that energy is conserved in Einstein’s theory.” From a conceptual point of view, this had always troubled me about relativity, and it wasn’t until I read Feynman’s account in Six Not-So-Easy Pieces, that I believe I understood it. What I didn’t know, before reading Melia’s account, is that a woman, Emmy Noether, who worked with Hilbert at Gottingen University, was the one who resolved this issue by introducing symmetries in connection with conservation laws, specifically conservation of momentum and energy. To paraphrase Melia,
Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity is premised on the ‘Principle of Equivalence’. Standing in a stationary elevator car in earth’s gravity is equivalent to being accelerated in an elevator car ‘vertically’ in gravity-free space (vertical, in this context, means being pulled from above our heads so our feet are pressed against the floor of the car). Gravity is felt as a force, by us on earth, only because we are stopped from falling. In free fall, no one feels a force being exerted on them, whether they are in a space ship orbiting the earth or jumping off a cliff. This is the key conceptual point to grasp about Einstein’s theory of gravity (which is the General Theory of Relativity). In free fall there is no force, even though this is counter-intuitive when you are earth-bound, because we rarely experience free-fall for any meaningful period of time without dying.
I don’t claim to understand Noether’s Theorem, but I understand its significance. Noether died relatively young in
Likewise, I’d never heard of Roy Kerr before reading Melia’s book, yet his contribution to relativistic physics is arguably no less significant. According to Melia, Kerr’s Theorem is the fundamental methodology used to investigate black holes (theoretically) to this day.
Kerr completed his undergraduate course at
Unaware of this (at the time), Kerr decided that pure mathematics wasn’t his forte and so went into applied mathematics instead, specifically relativistic physics. It is well known (amongst people who take an interest in physics) that Karl Schwarzschild was the first to provide a solution to Einstein’s field equations for the simplest, idealised scenario of a completely symmetrical sphere in a vacuum. He was a Professor of Potsdam University but formulated his solution whilst serving on the Russian front in WW1. He became ill soon after and died after returning home, but his name remains forever associated with black holes, which are a natural theoretical consequence of his solution.
Kerr’s solution (known as Kerr’s Theorem) was not realised until 1963 when he was at the
Spectroscopy analyses the exact wavelengths of light emitted by a distant star, and from the Doppler shift we are able to determine how fast they retreat from us and thus how far away they are. There is a direct proportional relationship between how fast stars retreat and how far away they are using Hubble’s constant, named after Edwin Hubble who first discovered this phenomenon.
The first quasar, 3C273, was discovered by Maarten Schmidt at the Palomar Observatory in California, but because they were only seen as radio sources, spectroscopic analysis was not possible until a light source could be found to be directly associated with the radio source. Hence Hazard’s brilliant idea, subsequently employed at Parkes, to pinpoint quasar 3C273. And it was Schmidt who did the spectroscopic analysis, revealing that the light was red-shifted by an enormous 16% making it much further away then anyone had imagined.
During the 1960s,
The curious aspect of Schmidt’s discovery is that, at the very first Texas Symposium on Relativistic Astrophysics in 1963, Kerr gave a 10minute lecture on his Theorem, which was virtually ignored because all the participants were far more interested in the recently discovered quasar. Yet Kerr’s Theorem gave the only relativistic solution to spinning black holes, which is exactly what quasars are.
Melia is meticulous in his coverage of all the people who contributed to our understanding of relativistic physics, both theoretically and experimentally. Not only the well known ones like Karl Schwarzschild, John Wheeler, Roger Penrose and Stephen Hawking, but unknown heroes like Noether and Kerr. He also mentions an Australian, Brandon Carter, who used Kerr’s Theorem to show that a ‘time loop’ (or 'time machine') could theoretically be generated beyond the event horizon of a rotating black hole. (But it only works in a vacuum, which makes it a catch-22 time machine.)
The significance of Kerr’s solution is that every significant physical body we know of in the universe is rotating, so Schwarzschild’s solution would almost certainly never be applicable to reality. Kerr’s solution reveals that there are, in fact, 2 event horizons for a rotating black hole. The event horizon is where the escape velocity from a black hole becomes the speed of light so nothing can escape from it. But a spinning black hole literally drags space-time around with it, which creates an inner and outer event horizon – don’t worry, I don’t understand it either. When a body crosses the first event horizon, the parameters of space and time are reversed: space becomes time-like and time becomes space-like. This is because time freezes at the event horizon for an outside observer and the external time becomes infinite from the inside. Time becomes space-like in that it becomes static and infinite, if I interpret it correctly. When an object crosses the second event horizon they reverse again so that ‘inside’ a spinning black hole, space and time become theoretically normal again. Of course, no one knows how true this really is. The other problem is that these theoretical considerations all assume a vacuum which is not the case if something is actually ‘crossing over’. To this day, there are no solutions to Einstein’s field equations for a non-vacuum – that is, for example, inside an object like the earth or the sun – only for outside in space.
That effectively is the limit of my understanding of this subject, even after reading Melia’s book. The story of Kerr himself is no less interesting. One gets the impression that, despite his obvious talents, he was not cut out for high level academia. He did not publish everything he uncovered, and he was not competitive in the sense that he sought to outdo his rivals at every opportunity, nor was he one for self-promotion. He left
Roy Kerr writes his own afterward in Fulvio Melia’s book (they are good friends), in which he talks about the difficulties in attempting to get the advanced education he badly needed in 1950s