Most people take gravity for granted. But for University of Pennsylvania astrophysicist Bhuvnesh Jain , the nature of gravity is the question of a lifetime. As scientists have been able to see farther and deeper into the universe, the laws of gravity have been revealed to be under the influence of an unexplained force.
By innovatively analyzing a well-studied class of stars in nearby galaxies, Jain and his colleagues -- Vinu Vikram, Anna Cabre and Joseph Clampitt at Penn and Jeremy Sakstein at the University of Cambridge -- have produced new findings that narrow down the possibilities of what this force could be. Their findings, published on the Arxiv , are a vindication of Einstein’s theory of gravity. Having survived a century of tests in the solar system, it has passed this new test in galaxies beyond our own as well.
In 1998, astrophysicists made an observation that turned gravity on its ear: the universe’s rate of expansion is speeding up. If gravity acts the same everywhere, stars and galaxies propelled outward by the Big Bang should continuously slow down, like objects thrown from an explosion do here on Earth.
This observation used distant supernovae to show that the expansion of the universe was speeding up rather than slowing down. This indicated that something was missing from physicists’ understanding of how the universe responds to gravity, which is described by Einstein’s theory of general relativity. Two branches of theories have sprung up, each trying to fill its gaps in a different way.
One branch -- dark energy -- suggests that the vacuum of space has an energy associated with it and that energy causes the observed acceleration. The other falls under the umbrella of "scalar-tensor" gravity theories, which effectively posits a fifth force (beyond gravity, electromagnetism and the strong and weak nuclear forces) that alters gravity on cosmologically large scales.
"These two possibilities are both radical in their own way," Jain said. "One is saying that general relativity is correct, but we have this strange new form of energy. The other is saying we don’t have a new form of energy, but gravity is not described by general relativity everywhere."
Jain’s research is focused on the latter possibility; he is attempting to characterize the properties of this fifth force that disrupts the predictions general relativity makes outside our own galaxy, on cosmic length scales. Jain’s recent breakthrough came about when he and his colleagues realized they could use the troves of data on a special property of a common type of star as an exquisite test of gravity.
Astrophysicists have been pursuing tests of gravity in the cosmos for many years, but conventional tests require data on millions of galaxies. Future observations are expected to provide such enormous datasets in the coming data. But Jain and his colleagues were able to bypass the conventional approach.
"We’ve been able to perform a powerful test using just 25 nearby galaxies that is more than a hundred times more stringent than standard cosmological tests," Jain said.
The nearby galaxies are important because they contain stars called cepheids that are bright enough to be seen individually. Moreover, cepheids have been used for decades as a kind of interstellar yardstick because their brightness oscillates in a precise and predictable way.