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Gravity Probe B

Testing Einstein's Universe

Special & General Relativity Questions and Answers

Does anyone really understand general relativity well enough to have an intuitive grasp of the universe?

It is all a mater of perspective. Physicists and astronomers who spend all of their professional lives amass an enormous amount of intuition about the mathematics of relativity, and through constant contact with the technical details develop, perhaps, the best intuition that is humanly possible. Those who see relativity and cosmology as a recreation, and who never grapel with any of the mathematical details, probably never acheive an intuitive grasp of relativity. Like learning an instrument, there is a wide gulf between the kind of experiences many of us have had in grade school just learning how to sound the notes, and the kind of proficiency enjoyed by professional musicians who practice 4-8 hours EVERY DAY.

To the extent that general relativity is showing us the right way to think about the physical universe, yes, there are in fact many people who have an intuitive grasp of what the universe looks like. How they choose to 'visualize' this world-view may differ from individual to individual, but they all agree about the underlying mathematics.

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All answers are provided by Dr. Sten Odenwald (Raytheon STX) for the NASA Astronomy Cafe, part of the NASA Education and Public Outreach program.