Why is General Relativity so difficult?
Just a brief post following yesterday’s centenary of General Relativity, after which somebody asked me what is so difficult about the theory. I had two answers to that, one mathematical and one conceptual.
The Field Equations of General Relativity are written above. In the notation used they don’t look all that scary, but they are more complicated than they look. For a start it looks like there is only one equation, but the subscripts μ and ν can each take four values (usually 0, 1, 2 or 3), each value standing for one of the dimensions of four-dimensional space time. It therefore looks likes there are actually 16 equations. However, the equations are the same if you swap μ and ν around. This means that there are “only” ten independent equations. The terms on the left hand side are the components of the Einstein Tensor which expresses the effect of gravity through the curvature of space time and the right hand side describes the energy and momentum of “stuff”, prefaced by some familiar constants.
The Einstein Tensor is made up of lots of partial derivatives of another tensor called the metric tensor (which describes the geometry of space time), which relates, through the Field Equations, to how matter and energy are distributed and how these components move and interact. The ten equations that need to be solved simultaneously are second-order non-linear partial different equations. This is to be compared with the case of Newtonian gravity in which only ordinary different equations are involved.
Problems in Newtonian mechanics can be difficult enough to solve but the much greater mathematical complexity in General Relativity means that problems in GR can only be solved in cases of very special symmetry, in which the number of independent equations can be reduced dramatically.
So that’s why it’s difficult mathematically. As for the conceptual problem it’s that most people (I think) consider “space” to be “what’s in between the matter” which seems like it must be “nothing”. But how can “nothing” possess an attribute like curvature? This leads you to conclude that space is much more than nothing. But it’s not a form of matter. So what is it? This chain of thought often leads people to think of space as being like the Ether, but that’s not right either. Hmm.
I tend to avoid this problem by not trying to think about space or space-time at all, and instead think only in terms of particle trajectories or ligh rays and how matter and energy affect them. But that’s because I’m lazy and only have a small brain…