How Everything Works
How Everything Works How Everything Works

Question 1209

How does gravity bend visible light? — AHM, Pasadena, California
According to the concept of inertia, established by Galileo and Newton several hundred years ago, an object that's not experiencing any pushes or pulls will continue to move in a straight line at a steady pace—in short, it travels at a constant velocity. This observation can also be stated simply as an object in motion continues in motion and an object at rest remains at rest.

When Newton formulated his theory of gravity, he viewed gravity as exerting forces on objects—it pulled them toward one another so that they no longer followed their straight inertial paths. That's why a ball arcs through the air, gradually turning toward the ground as the earth's gravity pulls it downward. This interpretation of gravity was very successful and remains extremely useful to this day.

However, there is a second interpretation of gravity: the one offered by Einstein in the general theory of relativity. According to this interpretation, concentrations of mass/energy warp space-time so that objects that are following inertial paths—called geodesics—no longer travel in simple straight lines. In effect, a ball arcs through the air because it is following a curved geodesic path and not because it is experiencing a force. While this exotic interpretation for gravity isn't all that useful for slow moving objects like balls—Newtonian gravity is much more practical in that case—it's important when dealing with fast moving objects like light. Light also follows geodesics, but because it travels so quickly its geodesics tend to be rather straight. Even light passing just above the surface of the sun bends only just enough to measure. Still, one of the most important confirmations of general relativity came during a total solar eclipse when light from a star was found to bend slightly as it passed by the sun's obscured surface.

Finally, I should say that you can also interpret the bending of light in terms of Newtonian gravity—that because light contains energy, it acquires a weight when gravity is present and this weight causes its path to bend. However, this Newtonian observation omits so much of the intrigue and beauty that comes with the bending of space-time that I prefer the more modern interpretation.


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