Gravity or gravitation is a natural phenomenon by which all things with mass are brought towards (or ‘gravitate’ towards) one another including stars, planets, galaxies and even light and sub-atomic particles. Gravity is responsible for the complexity in the universe, by creating spheres of hydrogen, igniting them under pressure to form stars and grouping them into galaxies. Without gravity, the universe would be an uncomplicated one, existing without thermal energy and composed only of equally spaced particles. On Earth, gravity gives weight to physical objects and causes the tides. Gravity has an infinite range, and it cannot be absorbed, transformed, or shielded against.

Gravity is most accurately described by the general theory of relativity (proposed by Albert Einstein in 1915) which describes gravity, not as a force, but as a consequence of the curvature of spacetime caused by the uneven distribution of mass/energy; and resulting in time dilation, where time lapses more slowly in strong gravitation. However, for most applications, gravity is well approximated by Newton’s law of universal gravitation, which postulates that gravity is a force where two bodies of mass are directly drawn (or ‘attracted’) to each other according to a mathematical relationship, where the attractive force is proportional to the product of their masses and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them. This is considered to occur over an infinite range, such that all bodies (with mass) in the universe are drawn to each other no matter how far they are apart.

Gravity is the weakest of the four fundamental interactions of nature. The gravitational attraction is approximately 10−38 times the strength of the strong force (i.e. gravity is 38 orders of magnitude weaker), 10−36 times the strength of the electromagnetic force, and 10−29 times the strength of the weak force. As a consequence, gravity has a negligible influence on the behavior of sub-atomic particles, and plays no role in determining the internal properties of everyday matter (but see quantum gravity). On the other hand, gravity is the dominant force at the macroscopic scale, that is the cause of the formation, shape, and trajectory (orbit) of astronomical bodies, including those of asteroids, comets, planets, stars, and galaxies. It is responsible for causing the Earth and the other planets to orbit the Sun; for causing the Moon to orbit the Earth; for the formation of tides; for natural convection, by which fluid flow occurs under the influence of adensity gradient and gravity; for heating the interiors of forming stars and planets to very high temperatures; for solar system, galaxy, stellar formation and evolution; and for various other phenomena observed on Earth and throughout the universe.

In pursuit of a theory of everything, the merging of general relativity and quantum mechanics (or quantum field theory) into a more general theory of quantum gravity has become an area of research.

Scientific revolution

Modern work on gravitational theory began with the work of Galileo Galilei in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. In his famous (though possibly apocryphal) experiment dropping balls from the Tower of Pisa, and later with careful measurements of balls rolling down inclines, Galileo showed that gravity accelerates all objects at the same rate. This was a major departure from Aristotle’s belief that heavier objects accelerate faster. Galileo postulated air resistance as the reason that lighter objects may fall more slowly in an atmosphere. Galileo’s work set the stage for the formulation of Newton’s theory of gravity.

Newton’s theory of gravitation

Sir Isaac Newton, an English physicist who lived from 1642 to 1727

In 1687, English mathematician Sir Isaac Newton published Principia, which hypothesizes the inverse-square law of universal gravitation. In his own words, “I deduced that the forces which keep the planets in their orbs must [be] reciprocally as the squares of their distances from the centers about which they revolve: and thereby compared the force requisite to keep the Moon in her Orb with the force of gravity at the surface of the Earth; and found them answer pretty nearly.” The equation is the following:

F = G \frac{m_1 m_2}{r^2}\

Where F is the force, m1 and m2 are the masses of the objects interacting, r is the distance between the centers of the masses and G is the gravitational constant.

Newton’s theory enjoyed its greatest success when it was used to predict the existence of Neptune based on motions of Uranus that could not be accounted for by the actions of the other planets. Calculations by both John Couch Adams and Urbain Le Verrier predicted the general position of the planet, and Le Verrier’s calculations are what led Johann Gottfried Galle to the discovery of Neptune.

A discrepancy in Mercury’s orbit pointed out flaws in Newton’s theory. By the end of the 19th century, it was known that its orbit showed slight perturbations that could not be accounted for entirely under Newton’s theory, but all searches for another perturbing body (such as a planet orbiting the Sun even closer than Mercury) had been fruitless. The issue was resolved in 1915 by Albert Einstein’s new theory of general relativity, which accounted for the small discrepancy in Mercury’s orbit.

Although Newton’s theory has been superseded by the Einstein’s general relativity, most modern non-relativistic gravitational calculations are still made using the Newton’s theory because it is simpler to work with and it gives sufficiently accurate results for most applications involving sufficiently small masses, speeds and energies.

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