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24.1 Introducing General Relativity

Einstein proposed the equivalence principle as the foundation of the theory of general relativity. According to this principle, there is no way that anyone or any experiment in a sealed environment can distinguish between free fall and the absence of gravity.

24.2 Spacetime and Gravity

By considering the consequences of the equivalence principle, Einstein concluded that we live in a curved spacetime. The distribution of matter determines the curvature of spacetime; other objects (and even light) entering a region of spacetime must follow its curvature. Light must change its path near a massive object not because light is bent by gravity, but because spacetime is.

24.3 Tests of General Relativity

In weak gravitational fields, the predictions of general relativity agree with the predictions of Newton’s law of gravity. However, in the stronger gravity of the Sun, general relativity makes predictions that differ from Newtonian physics and can be tested. For example, general relativity predicts that light or radio waves will be deflected when they pass near the Sun, and that the position where Mercury is at perihelion would change by 43 arcsec per century even if there were no other planets in the solar system to perturb its orbit. These predictions have been verified by observation.

24.4 Time in General Relativity

General relativity predicts that the stronger the gravity, the more slowly time must run. Experiments on Earth and with spacecraft have confirmed this prediction with remarkable accuracy. When light or other radiation emerges from a compact smaller remnant, such as a white dwarf or neutron star, it shows a gravitational redshift due to the slowing of time.

24.5 Black Holes

Theory suggests that stars with stellar cores more massive than three times the mass of the Sun at the time they exhaust their nuclear fuel will collapse to become black holes. The surface surrounding a black hole, where the escape velocity equals the speed of light, is called the event horizon, and the radius of the surface is called the Schwarzschild radius. Nothing, not even light, can escape through the event horizon from the black hole. At its center, each black hole is thought to have a singularity, a point of infinite density and zero volume. Matter falling into a black hole appears, as viewed by an outside observer, to freeze in position at the event horizon. However, if we were riding on the infalling matter, we would pass through the event horizon. As we approach the singularity, the tidal forces would tear our bodies apart even before we reach the singularity.

24.6 Evidence for Black Holes

The best evidence of stellar-mass black holes comes from binary star systems in which (1) one star of the pair is not visible, (2) the flickering X-ray emission is characteristic of an accretion disk around a compact object, and (3) the orbit and characteristics of the visible star indicate that the mass of its invisible companion is greater than 3 MSun. A number of systems with these characteristics have been found. Black holes with masses of millions to billions of solar masses are found in the centers of large galaxies.

24.7 Gravitational Wave Astronomy

General relativity predicts that the rearrangement of matter in space should produce gravitational waves. The existence of such waves was first confirmed in observations of a pulsar in orbit around another neutron star whose orbits were spiraling closer and losing energy in the form of gravitational waves. In 2015, LIGO found gravitational waves directly by detecting the signal produced by the merger of two stellar-mass black holes, opening a new window on the universe. Since then, many other gravitational wave signals have been found, signaling the mergers of both black holes and neutron stars.

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