NMU professor Neil Russell may not be as well-known as Albert Einstein, but he has spent the past two summers reworking the famous physicist’s research—not by disproving Einstein’s work but by trying to add to it.


Russell ’s research work was featured as the cover story of the Aug. 16 issue of the New Scientist. In that article, Russell explains the work being done by a group of physicists he’s involved with that could potentially show that all space (including the atmosphere surrounding us) is not completely blank but points in one direction, slightly changing Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity.

“A century of experiments has revealed that Einstein’s theory of special relativity is highly accurate,” Russell said.


But in 1989, Indiana University professor Alan Kostelecky and his colleagues proposed that space might have faint directional effects built into it--somewhat like the pinstripes on a baseball uniform--with everything pointing in one particular direction.


Since then, Kostelecky, Russell and other physicists have done calculations to seek out experiments with enough sensitivity to be able to see the pinstripes. They are using the theoretical framework called the Standard-Model Extension (SME), which is a description of all possible ways in which Einstein’s theory can be modified.


“My part is taking the SME theory and calculating its effect on specific experiments to predict which types of measurements are most likely to show the pinstripes,” Russell said.


One of the proposals of Russell and his collaborators is to compare the ticking rates of high-precision atomic clocks on a satellite. Although such comparisons have been done with Earth-based clocks, the low-gravity environment of orbiting satellites is expected to allow greater precision comparisons. As the satellite—for example the International Space Station—turns, the clocks will point in different directions and according to the SME, their ticking rates may vary. If the rates do not vary, it could either mean there are no pinstripes or the experiment is not precise enough to detect the pinstripes. However, if the ticking rates do vary, this could indicate a previously unknown physical effect.


“It’s speculation, but I think one of the things it could do is help to bring together the theory of relativity and the theory of quantum mechanics,” Russell said. “It could help to unify our picture of physics.”


One of the interesting benefits of such a unification would be new insight about how the universe formed and how nature operates. Currently, according to Russell, one of the reasons why scientists do not fully understand how the universe was formed is that they do not have a theory that combines the theories of relativity and quantum mechanics. The clock experiment may provide a small step on the path to merging the two together.

Prepared by Miriam Moeller.


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Updated: March 10, 2006