Wiggling metal beams offer a new way to test gravity’s strength

The fundamental constant “Big G” is poorly known

apples falling with motion blur

Newton’s gravitational constant — or “Big G” — determines the strength of gravity, affecting how objects like these apples fall. But Big G is hard to precisely pin down. A new technique could eventually help cut down on that wiggle room.

nastenkapeka/iStock/Getty Images Plus, adapted by E. Otwell

In the quest to measure the fundamental constant that governs the strength of gravity, scientists are getting a wiggle on.

Using a pair of meter-long, vibrating metal beams, scientists have made a new measurement of “Big G,” also known as Newton’s gravitational constant, researchers report July 11 in Nature Physics. The technique could help physicists get a better handle on the poorly measured constant.

Big G is notoriously difficult to determine (SN: 9/12/13). Previous estimates of the constant disagree with one another, leaving scientists in a muddle over its true value. It is the least precisely known of the fundamental constants, a group of numbers that commonly show up in equations, making them a prime target for precise measurements.

Because the vibrating beam test is a new type of experiment, “it might help to understand what’s really going on,” says engineer and physicist Jürg Dual of ETH Zurich.

The researchers repeatedly bent one of the beams back and forth and used lasers to measure how the second beam responded to the first beam’s varying gravitational pull. To help maintain a stable temperature and avoid external vibrations that could stymie the experiment, the researchers performed their work 80 meters underground, in what was once a military fortress in the Swiss Alps.

Big G, according to the new measurement, is approximately 6.82 x 10-11 meters cubed per kilogram per square second. But the estimate has an uncertainty of about 1.6 percent, which is large compared to other measurements (SN: 8/29/18). So the number is not yet precise enough to sway the debate over Big G’s value. But the team now plans to improve their measurement, for example by adding a modified version of the test with rotating bars. That might help cut down on Big G’s wiggle room.

Physics writer Emily Conover has a Ph.D. in physics from the University of Chicago. She is a two-time winner of the D.C. Science Writers’ Association Newsbrief award.

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