Classical theories of gravitation

Classical theories of gravitation

In theoretical physics, the current Gold Standard Theory of Gravitation is the general theory of relativity. This is a classical, relativistic field theory of gravitation. At present, there is no quantum theory of gravitation, although considerable progress has been made toward this goal, using a variety of approaches.

General relativity was not the first classical relativistic field theory of gravitation, or even the first metric theory of gravitation — that was Nordström's theory of gravitation, which is now known to be incompatible with observation.

Presently, general relativity is believed to be compatible with observation. However, this might not always be the case. Moreover, it is generally believed that general relativity requires quantum corrections at high curvatures or in other extreme conditions; but this Planckian regime appears to be experimentally inaccessible for the moment. It is conceivable that general relativity might turn out to fail at lower energies; in other words, while it is almost universally expected that the classical limit of any reasonable quantum theory of gravitation should be general relativity, this expectation could be wrong. There are in fact some currently mysterious phenomena, particularly the well-known Pioneer anomaly, which might eventually turn out to require a revision of even our classical notions of gravitation.

Since its introduction, various classical relativistic gravitation theories have been suggested as alternatives to general relativity. Such theories have had various theoretical motivations, in addition to the obvious motivation just described (general relativity might not after all be the best possible classical theory for describing how gravitation works in Nature). These motivations include:

  • General relativity is fundamentally awkward in the way it handles how energy/momentum is exchanged between the gravitational field and everything else; teleparallel gravity is an alternative theory motivated in part by an attempt to remedy this theoretical flaw.
  • General relativity is awkward in the way it handles the coupling of spin to gravitation at the level of test particles; Einstein-Cartan gravitation is motivated in part by an attempt to remedy this flaw.
  • Despite Einstein's initial hopes in 1913–1916, general relativity does not clearly or fully validate a precisely formulated Mach principle. This is an umbrella term for a collection of loosely formulated proposals to the effect that the definition of inertial motion depends upon the presence and distribution of matter in the observable universe. One reason for the difficulty is that this notion seems to resist a covariant formulation.

This article discusses some of these issues, and attempts to compare how various popular alternative classical field theories of gravitation fare in dealing with them.

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See also

  • Classical unified field theories describes attempts by Einstein and others to unify gravitation and electromagnetism.
  • Quantum gravity surveys contemporary work toward creating a quantum theory of gravitation.
  • Theory of everything surveys contemporary work toward unifying gravitation with the other known fundamental interactions of physics.

Articles on specific classical field theories of gravitation


  • Misner, Thorne and Wheeler ("MTW") Gravitation (Freeman, NY, 1973), chapter 39: "Other theories of gravity and the Post-Newtonian approximation"
  • C.M. Will, Theory and experiment in gravitational physics
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