Science in the News

Another Success for General Relativity—and Biblical Reliability

by Hugh Ross

Anyone who has read either technical or non-technical books about twentieth-century developments in physics knows the significance of general relativity. As I seek to explain in The Creator and the Cosmos and Beyond the Cosmos, general relativity establishes a cosmic beginning, hence a Beginner. General relativity affirms that the universe is a dynamic entity, not a static infinitude as several earlier generations of scientists and philosophers had come to believe it.

One of general relativity’s greatest contributions comes to us in the form of a theorem which springs from its equations: the space-time theorem. This theorem (proved statement) tells us that the Beginner, or Causer, of the universe must have the capacity to create dimensions, specifically all the space and time dimensions associated with the matter and energy of the universe.1, 2

No holy book in the world comes close to hinting at such a concept—except the Bible. Both the Old and New Testaments declare truths about creation and the Creator that general relativity and the space-time theorem help us comprehend and affirm, for example God’s existence “before the beginning of time” and His existence everywhere in, but also beyond, the matter and energy of the universe.

Establishing the truth of the space-time theorem provides a great opportunity to prove (remember that this word means “test,” or “demonstrate by testing”) the soundness of the Christian faith. To make matters simple, at least from a physicists perspective, the space-time theorem rests on just two conditions: 1) the universe must contain mass, and 2) general relativity must be right. In other words, whatever evidence supports the notion that the universe has mass and that general relativity correctly describes the dynamics of the universe also supports the truth of the space-time theorem.

I have yet to encounter a rational denial that the universe has mass. So, I will not bother to argue that point. The crux of the case for the space-time theorem, then, lies in determining the reliability of general relativity.

Over the last few decades numerous observational tests have been devised for general relativity. In each case general relativity has passed with flying colors.3 For instance, general relativity predicts the rate at which two neutron stars orbiting one another will move closer together. When this phenomenon was observed and measured, general relativity proved accurate to better than a trillionth of a percent precision.4 In the words of Roger Penrose, this test result made general relativity one of the best confirmed principles in all of physics.5

Another important test of general relativity, however, has just been completed. This test focuses on the prediction that spinning bodies will drag or twist the space-time fabric itself. For readers who want a little of the technical detail, here it is: General relativity states that if a disk of material orbits a body as dense as a neutron star or black hole and orbits it at an angle to the spin axis, the gravity of these dense objects will actually drag or twist the space-time dimensions, causing the disk to wobble like a child’s top. In turn, this wobble will generate ups and downs in the intensity of the X-ray radiation emitted from the disk. The theory even predicts the rate at which the up-and-down oscillations will occur, based on the spin characteristics of the particular neutron star or black hole being observed.

At the most recent meeting of the American Astronomical Society, two separate research teams, one from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the other from the Astronomical Observatory of Rome and the University of Rome, reported results from just this kind of test. The American team observed five black holes and discovered oscillations as rapid as 300 times per seconds.6 In each case the oscillation rate was exactly what general relativity predicted. The Italian team observed several black holes and likewise the general relativistic predictions were right on target.6

Since these findings were reported, general relativity has passed several more tests. One provided the first conclusive evidence for stellar-mass black holes, objects predicted by general relativity. Measurements of the orbital characteristics of a star orbiting the x-ray nova A0620-00 showed that the nova’s mass is greater than that of neutron star. It must be a black hole.7 Measurements of several more x-ray novae yield the same conclusion.7

Another proof came from measurements on supermassive (exceeding a million solar masses) black holes, found in the nuclei of very large galaxies. For the first time, researchers found a way to measure the spin velocities in the inner regions of the disks surrounding such black holes.7 These velocities, measuring close to one-third the velocity of light, precisely match what general relativity predicts.

Yet another confirmation can be seen in an image brought to us by the Hubble Space Telescope. As you may know, general relativity predicts that gravity can bend light. In fact, the first confirmation of general relativity came during a solar eclipse in 1919, when stars in the Hyades star cluster appeared to be “slightly out of place.” In the years since 1919, more dramatic and definitive tests of light bending have become possible. For instance, when a massive galaxy lies exactly on the line of sight between the observer’s telescope and a distant quasar, general relativity predicts the appearance of an “Einstein ring” centered on the image of the quasar. Glimpses of such rings have been seen from time to time, but now, for the first time, an unambiguous, complete Einstein ring has been observed at optical and infrared wavelengths.8 (See photo on page 1.)It gives us a “dazzling demonstration of Einstein’s theory at work.”9

The last major prediction of general relativity needing observational confirmation was the Lense-Thirring effect: the prediction that the spin of a body will generate space-time curvature in that body’s vicinity and therefore will slightly alter the path of a smaller body orbiting it. The predicted alteration is incredibly small, and until recently no instruments existed with adequate sensitivity to either confirm or deny it. However, five physicists from Italy and Spain have just published their findings from a four-year study using two laser-ranged satellites, LAGEOS and LAGEOS II, orbiting Earth.10 Though the error bar is still larger than they would like, they were able to confirm that the Lense-Thirring effect does exist and that its value is within 10% of what general relativity predicted.11

As if God were providing a spectacular finale to this affirmation of general relativity, news reports have just been released about the first-ever observation of a hypernova—yet another of general relativity’s predicted phenomena. The hypernova makes a supernova seem weak. A hypernova is an explosion so intense that for a few seconds at certain wavelengths (gamma ray wavelengths) its energy release is the equivalent of millions of supernovae (remember that a supernova at its peak outshines a hundred billion ordinary stars). So intense was this observed explosion that some journalists compared it to the big bang itself and speculated that it may overturn the laws of physics.12 And, if the laws of physics are overturned, so is everything we know about the history of the universe. General relativity, however, rides to the rescue with a dramatic explanation. According to general relativity, the merger of neutron stars and/or black holes will generate exactly the kind of gamma ray burst that astronomers observed.13, 14 We can be thankful that this event took place more than half way across the universe where we could detect it without being destroyed by it.

No theory of physics has been tested as rigorously and as comprehensively as general relativity. Because general relativity has passed all its tests, we can be confident in the conclusions drawn from it and from its derivative, the space-time theorem. This confidence carries significance for Christians. It gives us a remarkable degree of certainty that the biblical doctrine of creation and the Creator is true. Our faith is and will remain securely rooted in factual reality.

1.Hugh Ross, The Creator and the Cosmos, 2nd edition (Colorado Springs: Navpress, 1995), pp. 72-93.
2.Hugh Ross, Beyond the Cosmos (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 1996), pp. 21-33.
3.Hugh Ross, The Fingerprint of God, 2nd edition (Orange, Calif.: Promise Publishing, 1991), pp. 45-47.
4.Beyond the Cosmos, pp. 22-23.
5.Roger Penrose, Shadows of the Mind (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), p. 230.
6.Ron Cowen, “Einstein’s General Relativity: It’s a Drag,” Science News, 152 (1997), p. 308.
7.G. S. Bisnovatyi-Kogan, “At the Border of Eternity,” Science, 279 (1998), p. 1321.
8.Stephen Battersby, “A Ring in Truth,” Nature, 392 (1998), p. 548.
9.Andrew Watson, “Einstein’s Theory Rings True,” Science, 280 (1998), p. 205.

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