Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

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12 Iyar 5763 - May 14, 2003 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








Anomalies in the "Laws" of The Universe

by Dr. N. Vidal

Introduction: In a Single Glance

"From the heavens, Hashem watched; He saw all the people. From the place of His seat, He supervised all the earth dwellers -- Who forms together their hearts, Who understands all their deeds" (Tehillim 33:13- 15).

Rabbenu Ovadiah MiBartenura (Rosh Hashanah 1:2) explains the last of these pesukim as follows. "The Creator, Hakodosh Boruch Hu, sees all their hearts together and comprehends all their deeds. Even though they pass before Him one by one [on Rosh Hashanah], they are nevertheless surveyed in a single glance."

Hashem takes in the hearts of all men in a single moment even though they are scattered across the globe, or even beyond it. The Radak explains, "This means: how could the thoughts of their hearts be hidden from Him, since He created them? `Together,' because He knows them all, as a group. Chazal derive from the word `together' that they are all viewed in a single glance (Rosh Hashanah 18). Since He knows their hearts, He certainly knows their deeds . . . "

Hakodosh Boruch Hu is present in every place, at every instant. His glory fills the world and the world is His glory. His knowledge is all encompassing and absolute; it is not derived from a single source.

Man, on the other hand, has only localized knowledge of his immediate vicinity and time. From his own little corner -- on a small planet that is part of a solar system, among a huge number of other such systems in the universe -- he tries to investigate what takes place in stars and galaxies that are thousands of light years distant from him. The laws he derives from examining his immediate, measurable vicinity can be applied with confidence only to his own location and time.

It is by no means clear, even from a scientific perspective, that laws holding true on earth can be applied to distant heavenly bodies, as though man's vista were genuinely universal. Yet man vainly believes that he has knowledge of the natural laws applying throughout the universe, as though what is evident in his own locale acquaints him with conditions everywhere else.

Man has been investigating the laws of nature that apply on earth for thousands of years and his efforts have met with considerable success, especially in recent centuries. In the last four years though, the assumption that some of the most basic laws of physics could be confidently applied all over the universe has been severely shaken. This article will examine two recent discoveries that have called the understanding of contemporary scientists into question.

The first discovery relates to the gravitational pull of the earth and the stars. It now appears that the pull of gravity on earth is not identical with that on stars and in distant galaxies. This casts doubt on the theory that gravity has a universal and constant value everywhere.

The second discovery concerns the laws governing light. Here too, it now appears that the laws governing the radiation and absorption of light from stars and distant galaxies are not the same as the corresponding laws that apply to light in laboratories here on earth. If future observations provide further corroboration of these phenomena, it will necessitate a major revamping of scientific theory about the universe.

Part One: Universal Gravitation

A Mysterious Force

One of the most elementary features of our lives on earth is that everything around us, without exception, remains firmly upon the ground. Living creatures, plants, buildings, mountains, rivers, oceans, air and water -- all stay upon the earth's surface. Even if one of them leaves it for a moment or even longer, it always returns. For a rocket to break completely free of the earth's gravitational pull, it must be given a "getaway velocity" of eleven kilometers a second.

For thousands of years men tried to fathom the phenomenon of gravity. The ancients maintained that things fell towards the ground because, as objects made from "earth," that was their "natural" place and everything possessed a natural affinity for its own place. Air, they said, rose higher because that was its natural place. Fire also rose, because it was naturally attracted to the burning sun while water always tended to find the lowest point, though it remained above the earth's surface. Each of the four elements: earth, water, air and fire, thus had its own particular level, which it always sought.

Approximately four centuries ago, the English scientist Sir Isaac Newton argued that the earth itself exerts an attractive pull upon everything on its surface. This force, he said, worked over a distance, without any "ropes or intermediaries" whatsoever. It was, in fact, a mysterious, invisible power, whose existence could only be inferred from its effects and so it indeed remains, even to our modern understanding. Although nobody has ever actually seen the earth exerting its force of gravity, we are so used to the idea of things falling to the ground and remaining there, that we unquestioningly attribute it to gravity's mysterious "pull."

Between the Heavenly Bodies

Newton did not limit gravitational pull to the earth. In his opinion, which has since been universally adopted, every heavenly body exerts a gravitational pull on every other physical object in its vicinity, be it a mere meteor, or another star (fig 1). The force is thus known as universal gravitational force.

A body's gravitational pull grows weaker with increasing distance. Near the earth's surface, the pull is relatively strong and brings both small and large objects back to earth. When a rocket is fired into space, the further away it moves from earth, the weaker is the gravitational pull (fig. 2). If the rocket is directed towards the moon, the closer it gets to the moon, the stronger the moon's gravitational pull becomes, while the earth's is almost nonexistent. Throughout the universe, stars and galaxies exert gravitational pull on other bodies within their own systems as well as on neighboring systems. Newton developed a formula that allows the strength of the gravitational pull between two bodies to be calculated.

Figure 3 shows a galaxy containing several million stars. Today it is reckoned that what keeps the group together and prevents the individual stars from dispersing throughout space, is the mutual gravitational pull between them all. One might have expected this pull to result in the stars convergence upon each other at the galaxy's center but this does not happen. The reason is that each star also has its own individual movement within the group, much the same way as each individual bee goes about its own business among the thousands of other bees that swarm within its hive.

Evidently, some point of balance is reached between the stars' mutual attraction and the individual paths that they follow within the boundaries of the galaxy (see fig.4), thus enabling it to remain a distinct grouping, with its own particular shape.

Something similar can be observed within our own solar system (fig. 5). The Sun exerts a gravitational pull upon all the planets, yet they do not move towards it and crash into it because each one has its own movement. The Sun's pull, in conjunction with each planet's own movement, results in its constant orbit around the Sun (fig. 6).

Innumerable galaxies fill every part of the universe that is visible to us by means of telescopes. It transpires that each of them has its own movement through space. It is thought today that the mutual gravitational pull between the galaxies is the overriding power throughout the reaches of space. The tremendous distances between one galaxy and another mean that this power is very weak but it is present nonetheless and extends across space to the farthest galaxies.

It is worth pointing out that the power of gravity is not magnetic but independent. Relatively speaking, it is one of the weaker forces in the natural world. It seems however, to be the only one that pervades the entire universe, to its very edge.

Einstein's Modification

Up to a century ago, Newton's formula for gravitational attraction and his model of the universe were unchallenged. Then, Albert Einstein advanced his theory that denied the existence of a gravitational force. According to Einstein, objects fell to the earth and heavenly bodies moved in orbits, not because of gravitational attraction but because the earth itself, or the sun, created certain tracks of movement in their direct environs. This is called a gravitational field. The presence of a body in space changes the properties of the space around it, so that other objects in its field can only follow certain paths that it has predetermined for them.

Gravity as a force vanished in Einstein's vision, to be replaced by set movements through space dictated by the matter it contained.

Einstein also propounded a mathematical formula for calculating the strength of the attraction between heavenly bodies. The results obtained from Einstein's formula are almost identical to those obtained from Newton's. The tiny difference between them however, is highly significant when considering the vast distances of space.

Newton's Law of Gravitation, modified according to Einstein's Theory of General Relativity, form the basis of the precise calculations that chart the paths of the spacecraft that are sent from earth to the moon and to other planets in the solar system. Obviously, such calculations must be absolutely accurate. A discrepancy of a thousandth of a degree in direction at the outset, can result in a very wide error, indeed, at a great distance from earth.

The fact that scientists can successfully land spacecraft on the moon and other planets is evidence that man's knowledge of the basic Law of Gravitation, as it applies to the solar system, is such as enables him to apply it there with great precision. Were this not the case, the results of the past forty years' work to advance space exploration and travel would have been nowhere near as successful as they have been.

A Pair of Pioneers

Thus far, practical results can be said to have borne out the Law's application to the solar system. Astronomers however, have also been applying Newton's Law, which is of fundamental importance in all calculations, to distant stars and galaxies, assuming that it applies in exactly the same way at the farthest edges of the universe -- even at distances of thousands of light years -- as it does within the solar system. Who guarantees, though, that the formulae that have yielded such beautiful results when applied to the solar system, hold true for distant galaxies?

Following scientific tradition, this has simply been assumed since no evidence has hitherto indicated otherwise. In science, assumptions are made which are regarded as "scientific truth" until new information proves them wrong. Lately however, such information has apparently been registered.

In '72 and '73 two spacecraft, called Pioneer 10 and Pioneer 11, were sent into space, along opposite trajectories away from the solar system, as shown in figure 8. Pioneer 10 was the first to reach the planet Jupiter. Afterwards, Pioneer 11 also arrived there and, continuing its own journey, it became the first craft ever to reach Saturn.

After completing their missions, the two craft continued moving through space, away from the solar system. Although they had completed the tasks that they had been sent for, American scientists continued monitoring them. Their movements were observed for any deviation which might attest to the existence of the gravitational pull of a tenth, hitherto invisible and undetected planet in the solar system which had been suspected to exist.

The two crafts' solar batteries continued functioning well and they went on transmitting continuous radio signals back to earth, enabling scientists at NASA to calculate their exact positions. In 1980, when Pioneer 10 was still within the solar system moving somewhere between Uranus and Neptune, it became apparent that there was a slight, unclear discrepancy between the craft's position as indicated by its signals and its expected position based on calculation. Pioneer 10 was lagging slightly behind where it should have been, as though the gravitational pull was very slightly stronger there.

This discrepancy continued showing year after year and today, Pioneer 10 is four hundred thousand kilometers behind its calculated position. Since the craft is moving away from the sun, it appears as though the sun's gravitational pull is stronger there, than we have so far understood it to be here on earth. Until 1990, when a radio failure on Pioneer 11 stopped its transmission of useful signals, it too, was showing an identical pattern of discrepancy. A spacecraft named Ulysses also shows a similar anomaly.

Coming to Terms

Until 1994, scientists investigated many other possible causes for the spacecrafts' slowing down, such as propellant leakage, thermal emission, solar radiation pressure, interactions with the solar "wind" and others. However, they found that none of these could account for the size and direction of the anomalous acceleration. Also they wanted to wait several years to accumulate more data to ensure that the anomaly is consistent.

They then began to consider whether the mathematical formulae for calculating the gravitational pull of the sun and planets, might vary at great distances (or with time) from the forms that are in general use.

This possibility is particularly bewildering to physicists and astronomers because the Gravitational Laws have formed the bedrock of scientific thought and work in the past century. Many scientists are hoping that a different cause will be identified that will leave the gravitational formulae intact.

If this does not happen however, it will prove a fatal blow to the assumption that the laws of gravity as they have been shown to apply on and near to the earth, can be applied at great distances away from it. All the data that has been derived about times, distances between stars and stars' structures and properties based on this assumption, would then prove to be groundless.

It has been proposed that further spacecraft be sent out to provide more information about this phenomenon but so far, governments have been unwilling to allot funds to such projects.

Recently, another discovery has been made, showing that even on the earth's surface, minute, unexplained discrepancies in the gravitational pull exist. It appears that there is an infinitesimal difference between the strength of gravity in France and China, along certain geographical latitudes. This phenomenon also requires further investigation until it can be corroborated.

Part Two: Light from Distant Galaxies

A Basic Source of Information

Light is one of the most fundamental and fascinating phenomena in the natural world. It fills the world, where it arrives within minutes of having left the sun, travelling at a speed of three hundred thousand kilometers per second. It is radiated by burning objects and is either reflected, partially or wholly, or absorbed by other objects in its vicinity. White light can be split up into its constituent colors. It allows us to make use of our sense of sight, which is our principal source of information about our environment.

All that we know about distant stars and galaxies derives from our analysis of the light rays that reach us from them. Their distance, their movements, their size, their temperature and chemical composition etc. can all be discovered by investigating their light rays.

One of the most basic processes involving light that requires understanding is that taking place within a luminescent object. What actually happens to matter that makes it give off light?

Similarly, the process unfolding within an object absorbing light also requires understanding. Physicists have carefully researched these processes under laboratory conditions, using microscopes and other apparatus.

By the beginning of the twentieth century, they had already reached the conclusion that the radiation and absorption of light involved the individual atoms of the emitting matter in question. The Quantum Theory, which is both broad in scope and profound in content, was formulated to make it possible to calculate the conditions governing many submicroscopic processes, including the radiation and absorption of light.

Over the past eighty years, the theory has proven highly successful. The results it has yielded have been confirmed experimentally with astonishing accuracy in tests involving the radiation and absorption of both light and other atomic particles. The Quantum Theory is dominant today in subatomic physics. Without the information it has yielded, atomic and nuclear physics would not have made the strides that they have in recent times.

Almost -- but Not Quite

Approximately four years ago however, physicists and astronomers were baffled by yet another puzzling discovery. Upon viewing a hundred different galaxies (of a type known as quasars) through astronomical telescopes, it became apparent that the light reaching us from them was not quite obeying the laws and calculations that are recognized in light's behavior nearer to earth.

Astronomers use prisms to split the light that arrives on earth from heavenly bodies. Dark bands crossing the bands of color -- indicating the absorption of light -- are visible at specific points on the resulting spectra. By making highly accurate measurements of the exact positions of the dark bands, the substances giving off the light can be conclusively identified.

In the case of the spectra from the hundred quasars that have been measured recently, the substances resulting in the dark bands have also been identified beyond any doubt. However, the bands' positions are not in exactly the same positions that are recognized for these substances under laboratory conditions on earth. They show a very slight, but clear, displacement.

Again, other factors that might account for these discrepancies have been investigated, such as inaccuracy of the telescope, of other apparatus involved, or of the electronic equipment surrounding them, but no possible technical causes have been identified hitherto.

Again, without any choice, scientists are being forced to consider whether the physics of light in distant galaxies might differ slightly from that of light on earth. They believe that the speed of light may vary between distant galaxies. Such a hypothesis however, shakes their entire understanding of the processes going on inside their own laboratories, as well as of those taking place at the farthest reaches of the universe. If new, varying factors have to be introduced into their understanding, they must be identified for conditions on earth, as well as elsewhere.

There are also far-reaching consequences for scientists' measurements of how much time has passed, of how stars develop and of distances throughout the universe. If physical laws change at great distances, no definite conclusions whatsoever can be drawn about events taking place in faraway space, since the basic laws and figures differ here and there.

Many researchers have now returned to the telescope results that originally gave rise to these doubts, to check and re- check their correctness. At the same time though, researchers into the Quantum Theory have also begun to seek ways of modifying the theory in order to accommodate the new discoveries.

In Conclusion

Until such time as these anomalous results are proven wrong, these two examples furnish proof of science's inability to provide absolute and comprehensive natural laws and measurements.

The history of science itself has shown repeatedly that mere mortals can never arrive at these absolute laws. Hakodosh Boruch Hu has enabled them to rummage around and investigate their own small and immediate environment and to formulate localized laws whose application is limited -- and even these laws are proven inadequate every few centuries.

All of science's digging will never uncover the true, absolute laws that govern the natural world. Scientific research may facilitate the development of airplanes, washing machines and portable cell phones of ever increasing efficiency, contributing to man's comfort and convenience -- which is in fact their sole raison d'etre -- but it will never succeed in uncovering the absolute, Divine truth.

The laws that science discovers will always be temporary and fleeting, changing with each new discovery and ultimately being replaced, like the human beings that propound them, for the path they follow is not that of recognition of and fear of Hashem.

In his discourse on The Creation, Rabbenu Nissim writes that, "Man's knowledge of things is not of their true, essential nature but of their circumstances . . . for his understanding is only founded upon observable events" (Bereishis, section beginning, "Achar kach omar . . . ")


"Strange Attraction," New Scientist 20/07/02, pp. 28- 32. About the gravitational anomaly.

"Blinding Flash," New Scientist 11/05/02, pp. 29- 32. About light from quasars.

These two articles contain further references to the professional literature.

Stenger, Richard. "Puzzling Hyper-gravity Proves Weighty Mystery" (CNN: May 21, 2001).

Gustafson, John R. "Three Spacecraft Reveal Unexplained Motion," (Los Alamos National Laboratory, News Release dated Sept. 24, 1998)

Dr. N. Vidal was an astronomer at the Greenwich Observatory in England, Professor of Astronomy at the Australia National University and a visiting professor of astronomy at Harvard University. He is currently at the Center for Scientific Education in Bayit Vegan, Jerusalem.


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