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Gravity, or gravitation, is a natural phenomenon by which all things with mass are brought toward (or gravitate toward) one another, including objects ranging from atoms and photons, to planets and stars. Since energy and mass are equivalent, all forms of energy (including light) cause gravitation and are under the influence of it. On Earth, gravity gives weight to physical objects, and the Moon’s gravity causes the ocean tides. The gravitational attraction of the original gaseous matter present in the Universe caused it to begin coalescing, forming stars – and for the stars to group together into galaxies – so gravity is responsible for many of the large scale structures in the Universe. Gravity has an infinite range, although its effects become increasingly weaker on farther objects.
Gravity is most accurately described by the general theory of relativity (proposed by Albert Einstein in 1915) which describes gravity not as a force, but as a consequence of the curvature of spacetime caused by the uneven distribution of mass. The most extreme example of this curvature of spacetime is a black hole, from which nothing—not even light—can escape once past the black hole’s event horizon. However, for most applications, gravity is well approximated by Newton’s law of universal gravitation, which describes gravity as a force which causes any two bodies to be attracted to each other, with the force proportional to the product of their masses and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them.
Gravity is the weakest of the four fundamental forces of physics, approximately 1038 times weaker than the strong force, 1036 times weaker than the electromagnetic force and 1029 times weaker than the weak force. As a consequence, it has no significant influence at the level of subatomic particles. In contrast, it is the dominant force at the macroscopic scale, and is the cause of the formation, shape and trajectory (orbit) of astronomical bodies. For example, gravity causes the Earth and the other planets to orbit the Sun, it also causes the Moon to orbit the Earth, and causes the formation of tides, the formation and evolution of the Solar System, stars and galaxies.
The earliest instance of gravity in the Universe, possibly in the form of quantum gravity, supergravity or a gravitational singularity, along with ordinary space and time, developed during the Planck epoch (up to 10−43 seconds after the birth of the Universe), possibly from a primeval state, such as a false vacuum, quantum vacuum or virtual particle, in a currently unknown manner. Attempts to develop a theory of gravity consistent with quantum mechanics, a quantum gravity theory, which would allow gravity to be united in a common mathematical framework (a theory of everything) with the other three forces of physics, are a current area of research.
Where F is the force, m1 and m2 are the masses of the objects interacting, r is the distance between the centers of the masses and G is the gravitational constant.
Newton’s theory enjoyed its greatest success when it was used to predict the existence of Neptune based on motions of Uranus that could not be accounted for by the actions of the other planets. Calculations by both John Couch Adams and Urbain Le Verrier predicted the general position of the planet, and Le Verrier’s calculations are what led Johann Gottfried Galle to the discovery of Neptune.
A discrepancy in Mercury’s orbit pointed out flaws in Newton’s theory. By the end of the 19th century, it was known that its orbit showed slight perturbations that could not be accounted for entirely under Newton’s theory, but all searches for another perturbing body (such as a planet orbiting the Sun even closer than Mercury) had been fruitless. The issue was resolved in 1915 by Albert Einstein’s new theory of general relativity, which accounted for the small discrepancy in Mercury’s orbit.
Although Newton’s theory has been superseded by Einstein’s general relativity, most modern non-relativistic gravitational calculations are still made using Newton’s theory because it is simpler to work with and it gives sufficiently accurate results for most applications involving sufficiently small masses, speeds and energies.
The equivalence principle, explored by a succession of researchers including Galileo, Loránd Eötvös, and Einstein, expresses the idea that all objects fall in the same way, and that the effects of gravity are indistinguishable from certain aspects of acceleration and deceleration. The simplest way to test the weak equivalence principle is to drop two objects of different masses or compositions in a vacuum and see whether they hit the ground at the same time. Such experiments demonstrate that all objects fall at the same rate when other forces (such as air resistance and electromagnetic effects) are negligible. More sophisticated tests use a torsion balance of a type invented by Eötvös. Satellite experim