It may be hard to believe that the cause of gravity continues to remain one of the great mysteries of science, even to this day. This article will briefly explore our understanding of gravity.

We are all familiar with the effects of gravity. The story of Newton being hit on the head by an apple leading to his discovery of gravity is often taught to school children. In short, gravity is a natural phenomenon by which all physical bodies attract each other. For example, the Earth attracts you and keeps you grounded. When you weigh yourself, you are actually measuring the effect gravity has on your body. Although this seems obvious, science still continues to debate what causes gravity.

In 1687, English mathematician Sir Isaac Newton published Principia and wrote, “ “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.” This became known as Newton’s inverse square law of gravity. Although Newton was unable to define the exact nature of the gravitational force, Newton’s law of universal gravitation became widely accepted right up to the beginning of the 20th century. It is often taught in high school science classes and for most applications is a good approximation regarding the behavior of gravity.

In 1915, Einstein published his theory of gravity within the framework of his now famous theory of general relativity. According to general relativity, the effects of gravitation are caused by a spacetime curvature and not a force, as Newton had asserted.  Einstein’s theory of general relativity was able to successfully account for several effects that were unexplained by Newton’s law, such as the anomalies in the orbits of Mercury. Einstein’s theory of general relativity proposed that spacetime is curved by matter, and that free-falling objects are moving along locally straight paths, called geodesics, in curved spacetime. A simple way to think about this is to think about a drum. Now think about pushing down in the center of the drum. This would cause the entire surface of the drum to become concave (i.e., curve inward). If you drop a marble on the drum, it will fall to the center due to the inward curvature of the drum’s surface. Although Einstein general theory of relativity is now a corner stone of modern physics, especially astrophysics, it still did not explain fundamentally why or how matter curves space, which still left the nature of gravitation a mystery. On a side note, while general relativity predicted numerous phenomena, such as  gravitational lensing (i.e., the bending of light by a large mass) and an effect of gravity on time known as gravitational time dilation (i.e., the slowing down of “clock” in a strong gravitational field), it was incompatible with the highly successful theory of quantum mechanics, which describes the behavior of atoms and subatomic particles.

Where does all this leave us? Currently, there is no widely accepted theory on the fundamental nature of gravity. However, there is no lack of proposed theories. The one that appears to have the most support is string theory. M-theory is the most comprehensive formulation of string theory. In general, M-theory asserts that the fundamental building blocks of all matter can be reduced to infinitely small building blocks of vibrating energy, having only the dimension of length, termed “stings.” Conceptually, the “strings” vibrate in multiple dimensions. The vibration of the string determines whether it appears as matter or energy. According to string theory, every form of matter or energy is the result of the string’s vibration. In addition, M-theory predicts there are eleven dimensions, ten spacial and one temporal, as opposed to the four dimensions implicitly predicted by relativity and quantum mechanics. One of the attractions of string theory is that it fundamentally explains gravity. At this point, you might think we have finally reached a conclusion regarding the nature of gravity, but there are problems. There is no scientific consensus that M-theory correctly describes reality. Its detractors, such as Richard Feynman, Roger Penrose and Sheldon Lee Glashow, have criticized M-theory for not providing experimental predictions at accessible energy scales. In essence, science has been unable to verify M-theory experimentally.

While scientists understand how gravity acts, they do not understand why it exists. For example, why are atoms mostly empty space, instead of being pulled into a solid mass by gravity? Why is the force that holds atoms together different from gravity? Modern physics holds that the gravitational force is mediated by a massless particle called the graviton, which is postulated to travel at the speed of light. However, there is no experimental evidence that the graviton exists. In essence, the effects of gravity have been known for thousands of years, likely by the earliest humans. Laws describing the behavior of gravity have been known for hundreds of years. The exact nature of gravity continues to be controversial.