Gravity, one of the constants of life, not to mention physics, is less than constant when it comes to being measured. Various experiments over the years have come up with perplexingly different values for the strength of the force of gravity, and the latest calculation just adds to the confusion.
The results of a painstaking 10-year experiment to calculate the value of “big G, ” the universal gravitational constant, were published this month—and they’re incompatible with the official value of G, which itself comes from a weighted average of various other measurements that are mostly mutually incompatible and diverge by more than 10 times their estimated uncertainties.
The gravitational constant “is one of these things we should know, ” says Terry Quinn at the International Bureau of Weights and Measures (BIPM) in Sévres, France, who led the team behind the latest calculation. “It’s embarrassing to have a fundamental constant that we cannot measure how strong it is.”
In fact, the discrepancy is such a problem that Quinn is organizing a meeting in February at the Royal Society in London to come up with a game plan for resolving the impasse. The meeting’s title—“The Newtonian constant of gravitation, a constant too difficult to measure?”—reveals the general consternation.
Although gravity seems like one of the most salient of nature’s forces in our daily lives, it’s actually by far the weakest, making attempts to calculate its strength an uphill battle. “Two one-kilogram masses that are one meter apart attract each other with a force equivalent to the weight of a few human cells, ” says University of Washington physicist Jens Gundlach, who worked on a separate 2000 measurement of big G. “Measuring such small forces on kg-objects to 10-4 or 10-5 precision is just not easy. There are a many effects that could overwhelm gravitational effects, and all of these have to be properly understood and taken into account.”
This inherent difficulty has caused big G to become the only fundamental constant of physics for which the uncertainty of the standard value has risen over time as more and more measurements are made. “Though the measurements are very tough, because G is so much weaker than other laboratory forces, we still, as a community, ought to do better, ” says University of Colorado at Boulder physicist James Faller, who conducted a 2010 experiment to calculate big G using pendulums.
What is the Universal gravitation constant?
Universal gravitational constant is the universal constant relating force to mass and distance in Newton's law of gravitation.