Washington: A physicist has proposed an experiment to test whether the world`s most iconic equation, Albert Einstein`s E=mc2, may be correct or not depending on where you are in space.
The simplest atom found in nature, hydrogen, consists only of a nucleus orbited by one electron. Lebed`s calculations indicate that the electron can jump to a higher energy level only where space is curved. Photons emitted during those energy-switching events (wavy arrow) could be detected to test the idea.
Although physicists have since validated Einstein`s equation in countless experiments and calculations, and many technologies including mobile phones and GPS navigation depend on it, University of Arizona physics professor Lebed has stirred the physics community by suggesting that E=mc2 may not hold up in certain circumstances.
The key to Lebed`s argument lies in the very concept of mass itself.
According to accepted paradigm, there is no difference between the mass of a moving object that can be defined in terms of its inertia, and the mass bestowed on that object by a gravitational field.
In simple terms, the former, also called inertial mass, is what causes a car`s fender to bend upon impact of another vehicle, while the latter, called gravitational mass, is commonly referred to as "weight."
This equivalence principle between the inertial and gravitational masses, introduced in classical physics by Galileo Galilei and in modern physics by Albert Einstein, has been confirmed with a very high level of accuracy.
"But my calculations show that beyond a certain probability, there is a very small but real chance the equation breaks down for a gravitational mass," Lebed said.
If one measures the weight of quantum objects, such as a hydrogen atom, often enough, the result will be the same in the vast majority of cases, but a tiny portion of those measurements give a different reading, in apparent violation of E=mc2.
This has physicists puzzled, but it could be explained if gravitational mass was not the same as inertial mass, which is a paradigm in physics.
"Most physicists disagree with this because they believe that gravitational mass exactly equals inertial mass," Lebed said.
"But my point is that gravitational mass may not be equal to inertial mass due to some quantum effects in General Relativity, which is Einstein`s theory of gravitation. To the best of my knowledge, nobody has ever proposed this before," he said.