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News from the world of maths: Einstein passes with 99.5% result

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Einstein passes with 99.5% result

On September 14th, after 3 years observing a rare double pulsar, an international team led by Prof. Michael Kramer from the Jodrell Bank Observatory announced staggering results confirming Einstein's general theory of relativity to 99.5% accuracy. The observations were made on a pair of pulsars orbiting each other approximately 2000 light years from Earth. Each pulsar weighs a little more than the Sun but has a diameter of around 10km. The extreme mass of the pair gives us a rare opportunity to study the predicted effects of general relativity.

Sometimes when a large star collapses it becomes a very small, very dense object known as a neutron star. A pulsar is a rotating neutron star. Pulsars are extremely useful for astronomical observations as they emit constant, powerful beams of radio waves similar to how a lighthouse emits a beam of light. Each time a beam sweeps past Earth we observe a distinctive radio pulse. By precisely measuring the time between pulses we can make detailed calculations on the effect gravity is having on the radio waves. By current theory, this behaviour should be governed by the laws of general relativity and it turns out that the predictions match with observation to an astonishing level of accuracy.

Another very important result is that the distance between the two pulsars is shrinking by around 7mm per day. This also agrees with Einstein's predictions. According to general relativity, the pulsars should be emitting gravitational waves and although these waves have never been directly detected, their emission should cause the pulsar system to lose energy. The observable effect of this would be the pulsars spiraling towards each other by precisely the amount observed giving compelling evidence for the existence of gravitational waves.

However Dr. Kramer believes that there are still many more exciting results to come: "The double pulsar is really quite an amazing system. It not only tells us a lot about general relativity, but it is a superb probe of the extreme physics of super-dense matter and strong magnetic fields but is also helping us to understand the complex mechanisms that generate the pulsar's radio beacons." He concludes; "We have only just begun to exploit its potential!"

You can read the full story at the Jodrell Bank Observatory website.

posted by Plus @ 2:06 PM

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