There’s a minor scandal in fundamental physics that doesn’t get talked about much, and it has to do with the very first fundamental force discovered, gravity. The scandal is the value of Newton’s gravitational constant G, which is the least well known of the fundamental constants, with a value of 6.674 28(67) x 10-11 m3 kg-1 s-2. That may seem pretty precise, but the uncertainty (the two digits in parentheses) is scandalously large when compared to something like Planck’s constant at 6.626 068 96(33) x 10-34 J s. (You can look up the official values of your favorite fundamental constants at this handy page from NIST, by the way…)
To make matters worse, recent measurements of G don’t necessarily agree with each other. In fact, as reported in Nature, the most recent measurement, available in this arxiv preprint, disagrees with the best previous measurement by a whopping ten standard deviations, which is the sort of result you should never, ever see.
This obviously demands some explanation, so:
What’s the deal with this? I mean, how hard can it be to measure gravity? You drop something, it falls, there’s gravity. It’s easy to detect the effect of the Earth’s gravitational pull, but that’s just because the Earth has a gigantic mass, making the force pretty substantial. If you want to know the precise strength of gravity, though, which is what G characterizes, you need to look at the force between two smaller masses, and that’s really difficult to measure.
Why? I mean, why can’t you just use the Earth, and measure a big force? If you want to know the force of gravity to a few parts per million, you would need to know the mass of the Earth to better than a few parts per million, and we don’t know that. A good measurement of G requires you to use test masses whose values you know extremely well, and that means working with smaller masses. Which means really tiny forces– the force between two 1 kg masses separated by 10 cm is 6.6 x 10-9 N, or about the weight of a single cell.
OK, I admit, that’s a bit tricky. So how do they do it? There are four papers cited in the Nature news article. I’ll say a little bit about each of them, and how they figure into this story.
The oldest measurement cited by Nature is the torsion balance measurement from 2000 by the Eöt-Wash group at the University of Washington. This is an extremely refined version of the traditional method of measuring G first developed by Henry Cavendish in the late 1700’s.
Let’s assume I’m too lazy to follow that link, and summarize in this post, mmmkay? OK. Cavendish’s method used a “torsion pendulum,” which is a barbell-shaped mass hung at the end of a very fine wire, as seen at right. You put two test masses near the ends of the barbell, and they attract the barbell, causing the wire to twist. The amount of twist you get depends on the force, so by measuring the twist of the wire for different test masses and different separations, you can measure the strength of gravity and its dependence on distance.
Sounds straightforward enough. It is, in concept. Of course, given the absurdly tiny size of the forces involved, it’s a really fiddly measurement to do. Cavendish himself set the apparatus up inside a sealed room, and then read the twist off from outside, using a telescope. If he was in the room looking at the apparatus, the air currents created by his presence were enough to throw things off.
This remained the standard technique for G measurements for about two centuries, though, because it’s damnably difficult to do better. And the Eöt-Wash group’s version is really astounding.
So, how did they do better? One of the biggest sources of error in the experiment comes from the twisting of the wire. In an ideal world, the response of the wire would be linear– that is, if you double the force, you double the twist. In the real world, though, that’s not a very good assumption, and that makes the force measurement really tricky if the wire twists at all.
The great refinement introduced by the Eöt-Wash group was to not allow the wire to twist. They mounted their pendulum, shown at left, on a turntable, and made small rotations of the mount as the wire started to twist, to prevent the twist from becoming big. Their force measurement was then determined by how much they had to rotate the turntable to compensate for the gravitational force causing a twist of the wire.
They also mounted the attracting masses on a turntable, and rotated it in the opposite direction around the pendulum, to avoid any systematic problems caused by the test masses or their positioning. Their signal was thus an oscillating correction signal, as each test mass passed by their pendulum, and they recorded data for a really long time: their paper reports on six datasets, each containing three days worth of data acquisition.
The value they got was 6.674 215 6 ± 0.000092 x 10-11 m3 kg-1 s-2, far and away the best measurement done to that point.
So what are the other papers? The second one, in chrononogical order, is a Phys. Rev. D paper from a group in Switzerland, who used a beam balance to make their measurement. They had two identical test masses hung from fine wires, and they alternately weighed each mass while moving enormous “field masses” weighing several metric tons each into different positions, as shown in the figure at right. In the “T” configuration, the upper test mass should appear heavier than the lower test mass, as the large field masses between them pull one down and the other up. In the “A” configuration, the upper test mass should be lighter, as the field masses pull it up while pulling the lower mass down.
This was another experiment with very long data taking, including this wonderfully deadpan description:
The equipment was fully automated. Measurements lasting up to 7 weeks were essentially unattended. The experiment was controlled from our Zurich office via the internet with data transfer occurring once a day.
Their value, 6.674 252(109)(54) x 10-11 m3 kg-1 s-2 is in good agreement with the Eöt-Wash group’s result.
If it agrees, why even mention it? It’s an important piece of the story, because it’s a radically different technique, giving the same answer. It’s extremely unlikely that these would accidentally come out to be the same, because the systematic effects they have to contend with are so very different.
Yeah, great. Get to the disagreement. OK, OK. The third measurement, in this PRL by a group in China, uses a pendulum again, but a different measurement technique. They used a rectangular quartz block as their pendulum, suspended by the center, with test masses outside the pendulum. They place these test masses in one of two positions: near the ends of the pendulum when it was at rest (shown in the figure), or far away from the ends (where the “counterbalancing rings” are in the figure).
The gravitational attraction of the masses in the near configuration makes the pendulum twist at a slightly different rate than in the far configuration, and that’s what they measured. The oscillation period was almost ten minutes, and the difference between the two was around a third of a second, which gives you some idea of how small an effect you get.
Their value was 6.673 49(18) x 10-11 m3 kg-1 s-2, which is a significantly larger uncertainty than the other two, but even with that, doesn’t agree with them. Which is kind of a problem.
So, how do you deal with that? Well, they obviously had a little trouble getting the paper through peer review– it says it was first submitted in 2006, but not published until 2009. That probably means they needed to go back and re-check a bunch of their analysis to satisfy the referees that they’d done everything correctly. After that, though, all you can do is put the result out there, and see what other people can make of it.
Which brings us to the final paper? Exactly. This is an arxiv preprint, and thus isn’t officially in print yet, but it has been accepted by Physical Review Letters.
They use yet another completely different technique, this one employing free-hanging masses whose position they measure directly using a laser interferometer. They also have two configurations, one with a bunch of source masses between the two hanging masses, the other with the source masses outside the hanging masses. The gravitational attraction of the 120kg source masses should pull the hanging masses either slightly closer together, or slightly farther apart, depending on the configuration, and this change of position is what they measure.
Their value is 6.672 34 ± 0.000 14 x 10-11 m3 kg-1 s-2, which has nice small error bars– only the Eöt-Wash result is better in that regard– but is way, way off from the other values. Like, ten times the uncertainty off from the other values. There’s no obvious reason why this would be the case, though. If anything, the experiment is simpler in concept than any of the others, so you would expect it to be easier to understand. There aren’t any really glaring flaws in the procedure, though (it never would’ve been accepted otherwise), so this presents a problem.
So, now what? Well, in the short term, this probably means that the CODATA value for G (the official, approved number used by international physics) will need to be revised to increase the uncertainty. This is kind of embarrassing for metrology, but has happened before– a past disagreement of this type is one of the things that prompted the original Eöt-Wash measurements.
In the medium to long term, you can bet that every group with a bright idea about how to measure G is tooling up to make another run at it. This sort of conflict, like any other problem in physics, will ultimately need to be resolved by new data.
Happily, these experiments cost millions of dollars (or less), not billions, so we can hope for multiple new measurements with different techniques to resolve the discrepancy. It’ll take a good long while, though, given how slowly data comes in for these types of experiment, which will give lots of people time to come up with new theories of what’s really going on here.
Gundlach, J., & Merkowitz, S. (2000). Measurement of Newton’s Constant Using a Torsion Balance with Angular Acceleration Feedback Physical Review Letters, 85 (14), 2869-2872 DOI: 10.1103/PhysRevLett.85.2869
Schlamminger, S., Holzschuh, E., Kündig, W., Nolting, F., Pixley, R., Schurr, J., & Straumann, U. (2006). Measurement of Newton’s gravitational constant Physical Review D, 74 (8) DOI: 10.1103/PhysRevD.74.082001
Luo, J., Liu, Q., Tu, L., Shao, C., Liu, L., Yang, S., Li, Q., & Zhang, Y. (2009). Determination of the Newtonian Gravitational Constant G with Time-of-Swing Method Physical Review Letters, 102 (24) DOI: 10.1103/PhysRevLett.102.240801
Harold V. Parks, & James E. Faller (2010). A Simple Pendulum Determination of the Gravitational Constant Physical Review Letters (accepted) arXiv: 1008.3203v2