The gravitational constant (also known as the "universal gravitational constant", the "Newtonian constant of gravitation", or the "Cavendish gravitational constant"^{[1]}), denoted by the letter G, is an empirical physical constant involved in the calculation of gravitational effects in Sir Isaac Newton's law of universal gravitation and in Albert Einstein's general theory of relativity.
In Newton's law, it is the proportionality constant connecting the gravitational force between two bodies with the product of their masses and the inverse square of their distance. In the Einstein field equations, it quantifies the relation between spacetime topology and energy–momentum.
The measured value of the constant is known with some certainty to four significant digits. In SI units its value is approximately 6.674×10^{−11} N·kg^{–2}·m^{2}.
The modern notation of Newton's law involving G was introduced in the 1890s by C. V. Boys. The first implicit measurement with an accuracy within about 1% is due to Henry Cavendish in a 1798 experiment.^{[2]}
According to Newton's law of universal gravitation, the attractive force (F) between two point-like bodies is directly proportional to the product of their masses (m_{1} and m_{2}), and inversely proportional to the square of the distance, r, (inverse-square law) between them:
The constant of proportionality, G, is the gravitational constant. Colloquially, the gravitational constant is also called "Big G", for disambiguation with "small g" (g), which is the local gravitational field of Earth (equivalent to the free-fall acceleration).^{[3]}^{[4]} The two quantities are related by g = GM_{⊕}/r_{⊕}^{2} (where M_{⊕} is the mass of the Earth and r_{⊕} is the radius of the Earth).
In the general theory of relativity, the Einstein field equations,^{[5]}^{[6]}
Newton's constant appears in the proportionality between the spacetime curvature and the energy density component of the stress–energy tensor. The scaled gravitational constant κ = 8π/c^{4}G ≈ 2.071×10^{−43} s^{2}⋅m^{−1}⋅kg^{−1} (depending on the choice of definition of the stress–energy tensor it can also be normalized as κ = 8π/c^{2}G ≈ 1.866×10^{−26} m⋅kg^{−1}) is also known as Einstein's constant.^{[7]}
The gravitational constant is a physical constant that is difficult to measure with high accuracy.^{[8]} This is because the gravitational force is extremely weak compared with other fundamental forces.^{[a]}
In SI units, the 2014 CODATA-recommended value of the gravitational constant (with standard uncertainty in parentheses) is:^{[9]}^{[10]}
This corresponds to a relative standard uncertainty of 4.6×10^{−5} (46 ppm).
The dimensions assigned to the gravitational constant are force times length squared divided by mass squared; this is equivalent to length cubed, divided by mass and by time squared:
In SI base units, this amounts to meters cubed per kilogram per second squared:
In cgs, G can be written as G ≈ 6.674×10^{−8} cm^{3}⋅g^{−1}⋅s^{−2}.
The gravitational constant is taken as the basis of the Planck units: it is equal to the cube of the Planck length divided by the product of the Planck mass and the square of Planck time:
In other words, in Planck units, G has the numerical value of 1.
Thus, in Planck units, and other natural units taking G as their basis, the gravitational constant cannot be measured as it is set to its value by definition. Depending on the choice of units, variation in a physical constant in one system of units shows up as variation of another constant in another system of units; variation in dimensionless physical constants is preserved independently of the choice of units; in the case of the gravitational constant, such a dimensionless value is the gravitational coupling constant,
a measure for the gravitational attraction between a pair of electrons, proportional to the square of the electron rest mass.
In astrophysics, it is convenient to measure distances in parsecs (pc), velocities in kilometers per second (km/s) and masses in solar units M_{⊙}. In these units, the gravitational constant is:
For situations where tides are important, the relevant length scales are solar radii rather than parsecs. In these units, the gravitational constant is:
In orbital mechanics, the period P of an object in circular orbit around a spherical object obeys
where V is the volume inside the radius of the orbit. It follows that
This way of expressing G shows the relationship between the average density of a planet and the period of a satellite orbiting just above its surface.
For elliptical orbits, applying Kepler's 3rd law, expressed in units characteristic of Earth's orbit:
where distance is measured in terms of the semi-major axis of Earth's orbit (the astronomical unit, AU), time in years, and mass in the total mass of the orbiting system (M = M_{☉}+M_{⊕}+M_{☾}^{[11]}).
The above equation is exact only within the approximation of the Earth's orbit around the Sun as a two-body problem in Newtonian mechanics, the measured quantities contain corrections from the perturbations from other bodies in the solar system and from general relativity. From 1964 until 2012, however, it was used as the definition of the astronomical unit and thus held by definition:
Since 2012, the AU is defined as 1.495978707×10^{11} m exactly, and the equation can no longer be taken as holding precisely.
The quantity GM—the product of the gravitational constant and the mass of a given astronomical body such as the Sun or Earth—is known as the standard gravitational parameter and (also denoted μ). The standard gravitational parameter GM appears as above in Newton's law of universal gravitation, as well as in formulas for the deflection of light caused by gravitational lensing, in Kepler's laws of planetary motion, and in the formula for escape velocity.
This quantity gives a convenient simplification of various gravity-related formulas. For the Sun, GM_{☉} is known to ten digits' accuracy, 1.32712440018(9)×10^{20} m^{3}s^{−2};^{[12]} for the Earth, GM_{⊕} is known to nine digits, 3.986004418(8)×10^{14} m^{3}s^{−2}^{[13]}, i.e. much more accurately than each factor independently.
Calculations in celestial mechanics can also be carried out using the units of solar masses, mean solar days and astronomical units rather than standard SI units. For this purpose, the Gaussian gravitational constant was historically in widespread use, k = 0.01720209895, expressing the mean angular velocity of the Sun-Earth system measured in radians per day. The use of this constant, and the implied definition of the astronomical unit discussed above, has been deprecated by the IAU in 2012.
The gravitational constant appears in Newton's law of universal gravitation in its modern notation, but it is not named or discussed in Newton's Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica, which merely postulates the inverse-square law of gravitation without attempting to estimate the absolute mass of planets.
Newton in Principia considered the possibility of measuring the strength of gravitational attraction by measuring the deflection of a pendulum in the vicinity of a large hill, but thought that the effect would be too small to be measurable.^{[14]} Nevertheless, Newton implicitly estimated the order of magnitude of the constant when he surmised that "the mean density of the earth might be five or six times as great as the density of water", which is equivalent to a gravitational constant of the order G ≈ (7±1)×10^{−11} m^{3}⋅kg^{–1}⋅s^{−2}.^{[15]}
A measurement was first attempted in 1738 by Pierre Bouguer and Charles Marie de La Condamine, in their "Peruvian expedition" (French Geodesic Mission). Bouguer in 1740 downplayed the significance of their results, suggesting that the experiment had at least proved that the Earth could not be a hollow shell, as some thinkers of the day, including Edmond Halley, had suggested.^{[16]}
The Schiehallion experiment, proposed in 1772 and completed in 1776, was the first successful measurement of the mean density of the Earth, and thus indirectly of the gravitational constant. The result reported by Charles Hutton (1778) suggested a density of 4.5 g/cm^{3} (4^{1}⁄_{2} times the density of water), about 20% below the modern value.^{[17]} This immediately led to estimates on the densities and masses of the Sun, Moon and planets, sent by Hutton to Jérôme Lalande for inclusion in his planetary tables. As discussed above, establishing the average density of Earth is equivalent to measuring the gravitational constant, given Earth's mean radius and the mean gravitational acceleration at Earth's surface, by setting
Based on this, Hutton's 1778 result is equivalent to G ≈ 8×10^{−11} m^{3}⋅kg^{–1}⋅s^{−2}.
The first direct measurement of gravitational attraction between two bodies in the laboratory was performed in 1798, seventy-one years after Newton's death, by Henry Cavendish.^{[19]} He determined a value for G implicitly, using a torsion balance invented by the geologist Rev. John Michell (1753). He used a horizontal torsion beam with lead balls whose inertia (in relation to the torsion constant) he could tell by timing the beam's oscillation. Their faint attraction to other balls placed alongside the beam was detectable by the deflection it caused. In spite of the experimental design being due to Michell, the experiment is now known as the Cavendish experiment for its first successful execution by Cavendish.
Cavendish's stated aim was the "weighing of Earth", that is, determining the average density of Earth and the Earth's mass. His result, ρ_{⊕}= 5.448(33) g·cm^{−3}, corresponds to value of G = 6.74(4)×10^{−11} m^{3}⋅kg^{–1}⋅s^{−2}.
Cavendish's result is surprisingly accurate, perhaps by chance, about 1% above the modern value (and thus still outside the cited standard uncertainty of 0.6%).^{[20]}
The accuracy of the measured value of G has increased only modestly since the original Cavendish experiment.^{[21]} G is quite difficult to measure because gravity is much weaker than other fundamental forces, and an experimental apparatus cannot be separated from the gravitational influence of other bodies. Furthermore, gravity has no established relation to other fundamental forces, so it does not appear possible to calculate it indirectly from other constants that can be measured more accurately, as is done in some other areas of physics.
Measurements with pendulums were made by Francesco Carlini (1821, 4.39 g/cm^{3}), Edward Sabine (1827, 4.77 g/cm^{3}) Carlo Ignazio Giulio (1841, 4.95 g/cm^{3}) and George Biddell Airy (1854, 6.6 g/cm^{3}).^{[22]}
Cavendish's experiment was first repeated by Ferdinand Reich (1838, 1842, 1853), who found a value of 5.5832(149) g·cm^{−3},^{[23]} which is actually worse than Cavendish's result, differing from the modern value by 1.5%. Cornu and Baille (1873), found 5.56 g·cm^{−3}.^{[24]}
Cavendish's experiment proved to result in more reliable measurements than pendulum experiments of the "Schiehallion" (deflection) type or "Peruvian" (period as a function of altitude) type. Pendulum experiments still continued to be performed, by Robert von Sterneck (1883, results between 5.0 and 6.3 g/cm^{3}) and Thomas Corwin Mendenhall (1880, 5.77 g/cm^{3}).^{[25]}
Cavendish's result was first improved upon by John Henry Poynting (1891), who published a value of 5.49(3) g·cm^{−3}, differing from the modern value by 0.2%, but compatible with the modern value within the cited standard uncertainty of 0.55%. In addition to Poynting, measurements were made by C. V. Boys (1895)^{[26]} and Carl Braun (1897),^{[27]} with compatible results suggesting G = 6.66(1)×10^{−11} m^{3}⋅kg^{−1}⋅s^{−2}. The modern notation involving the constant G was introduced by Boys in 1894^{[18]} and becomes standard by the end of the 1890s, with values usually cited in the cgs system. Richarz and Krigar-Menzel (1898) attempted a repetition of the Cavendish experiment using 100,000 kg of lead for the attracting mass. The precision of their result of 6.683(11)×10^{−11} m^{3}⋅kg^{−1}⋅s^{−2} was, however, of the same order of magnitude as the other results at the time.^{[28]}
Arthur Stanley Mackenzie in The Laws of Gravitation (1899) reviews the work done in the 19th century. ^{[29]} Poynting is the author of the article "Gravitation" in the Encyclopædia Britannica Eleventh Edition (1911). Here, he cites a value of G = 6.66×10^{−11} m^{3}⋅kg^{−1}⋅s^{−2} with an uncertainty of 0.2%.
Paul R. Heyl (1930) published the value of 6.670(5)×10^{−11} m^{3}⋅kg^{–1}⋅s^{−2} (relative uncertainty 0.1%),^{[30]} improved to 6.673(3)×10^{−11} m^{3}⋅kg^{–1}⋅s^{−2} (relative uncertainty 0.045% = 450 ppm) in 1942.^{[31]}
Published values of G derived from high-precision measurements since the 1950s have remained compatible with Heyl (1930), but within the relative uncertainty of about 0.1% (or 1,000 ppm) have varied rather broadly, and it is not entirely clear if the uncertainty has been reduced at all since the 1942 measurement. Some measurements published in the 1980s to 2000s were, in fact, mutually exclusive.^{[8]}^{[32]} Establishing a standard value for G with a standard uncertainty better than 0.1% has therefore remained rather speculative.
By 1969, the value recommended by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) was cited with a standard uncertainty of 0.046% (460 ppm), lowered to 0.012% (120 ppm) by 1986. But the continued publication of conflicting measurements led NIST to radically increase the standard uncertainty in the 1998 recommended value, by a factor of 12, to a standard uncertainty of 0.15%, larger than the one given by Heyl (1930).
The value was again lowered in 2002 and 2006, but once again raised, by a more conservative 20%, in 2010, matching the standard uncertainty of 120 ppm published in 1986.^{[33]} For the 2014 update, CODATA reduced the uncertainty to 46 ppm, less than half the 2010 value, and one order of magnitude below the 1969 recommendation.
The following table shows the NIST recommended values published since 1969:
year | G ·10^{11}·m^{−3}⋅kg⋅s^{2} |
standard uncertainty (ppm) |
ref. |
---|---|---|---|
1969 | 6.6732(31) | 460 | ^{[34]} |
1973 | 6.6720(49) | 730 | ^{[35]} |
1986 | 6.67449(81) | 120 | ^{[36]} |
1998 | 6.673(10) | 1,500 | ^{[37]} |
2002 | 6.6742(10) | 150 | ^{[38]} |
2006 | 6.67428(67) | 100 | ^{[39]} |
2010 | 6.67384(80) | 120 | ^{[40]} |
2014 | 6.67408(31) | 46 | ^{[41]} |
In the January 2007 issue of Science, Fixler et al. described a new measurement of the gravitational constant by atom interferometry, reporting a value of G = 6.693(34)×10^{−11} m^{3}⋅kg^{−1}⋅s^{−2}.^{[42]} An improved cold atom measurement by Rosi et al. was published in 2014 of G = 6.67191(99)×10^{−11} m^{3} kg^{−1} s^{−2},^{[43]} below the recommended 2014 CODATA value by 1,200 ppm, with non-overlapping standard uncertainty intervals.
As of 2018, efforts to re-evaluate the conflicting results of measurements are underway, coordinated by NIST, notably a repetition of the experiments reported by Quinn et al. (2013) .^{[44]}
A controversial 2015 study of some previous measurements of G, by Anderson et al., suggested that most of the mutually exclusive values in high-precision measurements of G can be explained by a periodic variation.^{[45]} The variation was measured as having a period of 5.9 years, similar to that observed in length-of-day (LOD) measurements, hinting at a common physical cause which is not necessarily a variation in G. A response was produced by some of the original authors of the G measurements used in Anderson et al.^{[46]} This response notes that Anderson et al. not only omitted measurements, they also used the time of publication not the time the experiments were performed. A plot with estimated time of measurement from contacting original authors seriously degrades the length of day correlation. Also taking the data collected over a decade by Karagioz and Izmailov shows no correlation with length of day measurements.^{[46]}^{[47]} As such the variations in G most likely arise from systematic measurement errors which have not properly been accounted for. Under the assumption that the physics of type Ia supernovae are universal, analysis of observations of 580 type Ia supernovae has shown that the gravitational constant has varied by less than one part in ten billion per year over the last nine billion years according to Mould et al. (2014).^{[48]}
Since Cavendish first measured Newton's Gravitational constant 200 years ago, "Big G" remains one of the most elusive constants in physics
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