General Relativity without the Equivalence principle?

I have skimmed through this book Handbook of Spacetime:



The following represents my impressions formulated after reading the sections about the equivalence principle.

I read this paper:




However, Einstein did not write this wonderful passage in the letter to Robert Lawson. Here is the letter to Lawson (Einstein to Lawson, 22 January 1920):


Einstein writes to Lawson in the above letter: “The article for Nature is almost finished, but it has unfortunately become so long that I very much doubt whether it could appear in Nature“. Indeed, in a 1920 unpublished draft of a paper for Nature, “Fundamental Ideas and Methods of the Theory of Relativity, Presented in Their Development”, Einstein wrote the above long paragraph describing him in 1907 sitting in the Patent Office. He was brooding on special relativity, and suddenly there came to him the happiest thought of his life:




Let us analyze this passage. The man in free fall (elevator experiments): Special relativity is incorporated into general relativity as a model of space-time experienced by an observer in free fall, over short times and distances (locally):

Between 1905 and 1907, Einstein tried to extend the special theory of relativity so that it would explain gravitational phenomena. He reasoned that the most natural and simplest path to be taken was to correct the Newtonian gravitational field equation. Einstein also tried to adapt the Newtonian law of motion of the mass point in a gravitational field to the special theory of relativity. However, he found a contradiction with Galileo’s law of free fall, which states that all bodies are accelerated in the gravitational field in the same way (as long as air resistance is neglected). Einstein was sitting on a chair in my patent office in Bern and then suddenly a thought struck him: If a man falls freely, he would not feel his weight. This was the happiest thought of his life. He imagined an observer freely falling from the roof of a house; for the observer there is during the fall – at least in his immediate vicinity – no gravitational field. If the observer lets go of any bodies, they remain relative to him, in a state of rest or uniform motion, regardless of their particular chemical and physical nature. The observer is therefore justified in interpreting his state as being (locally) at rest. Einstein’s 1907 breakthrough was to consider Galileo’s law of free fall as a powerful argument in favor of expanding the special principle of relativity to systems moving non-uniformly relative to each other. Einstein realized that he might be able to generalize and extend special relativity when guided by Galileo’s law of free fall. The Galilean law of free fall (or inertial mass is equal to gravitational mass) became known as the weak principle of equivalence.

Lewis Ryder explains: “Some writers distinguish two versions of the equivalence principle: the weak equivalence principle, which refers only to free fall in a gravitational field and is stated… as The worldline of a freely falling test body is independent of its composition or structure; and the strong equivalence principle, according to which no experiment in any area of physics should be able, locally, to distinguish a gravitational field from an accelerating frame”.

There are several formulations of the weak and the strong principles of equivalence in the literature. By far the most frequently used formulation of the strong principle of equivalence is Einstein’s 1912 local principle of equivalence: In a local free falling system special relativity is valid. (See my book General Relativity Conflict and Rivalries. Einstein’s Polemics with Physicists, 2015, for further details).

Nick Woodhouse explains:


in the chapter:


Hence Joshi says:


in the chapter:


Lewis Ryder


writes in the above paper:


(i.e. Einstein 1911 paper: “On the Influence of Gravitation on the Propagation of Light”). He formulates the equivalence principle in the following way: “In a freely falling (non-rotating) laboratory occupying a small region of spacetime, the local reference frames are inertial and the laws of physics are consistent with special relativity”. He then writes:


The equivalence principle enables us to find just one component g00 – of the metric tensor gmn. All components can be found (at least in principle) from the Einstein field equations. Ryder thus concludes that the equivalence principle is dispensable. I don’t quite agree with Ryder.

In my 2012 paper, “From the Berlin ‘Entwurf’ Field equations to the Einstein Tensor III: March 1916”, ArXiv: 1201.5358v1 [physics.hist-ph], 25 January, 2012 and also in my 2014 paper,  “Einstein, Schwarzschild, the Perihelion Motion of Mercury and the Rotating Disk Story”, ArXiv: 1411.7370v [physics.hist-ph], 26 Nov, 2014, I demonstrate the following:  On November 18, 1915, Einstein found approximate solutions to his November 11, 1915 field equations and explained the motion of the perihelion of Mercury. Einstein’s field equations cannot be solved in the general case, but can be solved in particular situations. Indeed, the first to offer an exact solution was Karl Schwarzschild. Schwarzschild found one line element, which satisfied the conditions imposed by Einstein on the gravitational field of the sun, as well as Einstein’s field equations from the November 11, 1915 paper. Schwarzschild sent Einstein a manuscript, in which he derived his exact solution of Einstein’s field equations. In January, 1916, Einstein delivered Schwarzschild’s paper before the Prussian Academy, and a month later the paper was published. In March 1916 Einstein submitted to the Annalen der Physik a review article, “The Foundation of the General Theory of Relativity”, on the general theory of relativity. The paper was published two months later, in May 1916. The 1916 review article was written after Schwarzschild had found the complete exact solution to Einstein’s November 18, 1915 field equations. Even so, Einstein preferred not to base himself on Schwarzschild’s exact solution, and he returned to his first order approximate solution from November 18, 1915. In the final part of the 1916 review paper Einstein demonstrated that a gravitational field changes spatial dimensions and the clock period:


This equation is further explained in my 2012 paper (page. 56):


Neither did Einstein use the Schwarzschild solution nor was he guided by the  equivalence principle. He was rather using an approximate solution and the metric, the line element to arrive at the same factor he had obtained by assuming the heuristic equivalence principle. He thus demonstrated that the equivalence principle was a fundamental principle of his theory, because in 1912 he formulated an equivalence principle valid only locally  (see my book: General Relativity Conflict and Rivalries. Einstein’s Polemics with Physicists, 2015, p. 184). I further explain it below.

Ryder then explains: The equivalence principle is local (a complete cancelation of a gravitational field by an accelerating frame holds locally). However, over longer distances two objects in free fall at different places in a realistic gravitational field move toward each other and this does not happen in an accelerating elevator. The cancelation of the gravitational field by an accelerating field is thus not complete. According to general relativity this effect (tidal effect) is a consequence of the curvature of space-time:


Although the equivalence principle might have been a heuristic guide to Einstein in his route to the fully developed theory of general relativity, Ryder holds that it is now irrelevant.

I don’t agree with Ryder’s conclusion which resembles that of John Lighton Synge (and Hermann Bondi). Indeed the equivalence principle is not valid globally (i.e. for tidal effects). Although the strong equivalence principle can at best be valid locally, it is still crucial for the general theory of relativity:

  1. Einstein formulated an equivalence principle which is valid only locally. Special relativity is valid locally and space-time is locally the Minkowski space-time.
  2. The principle of equivalence is fundamental for a metric theory and for our understanding of curved space-time: Freely falling test bodies move along geodesic lines under the influence of gravity alone, they are subject to an inertio-gravitational field . The metric determines the single inertio-gravitational field (affine connection), and there is breakup into inertia and gravitation relative to the acceleration. According to the equivalence principle, the components of the affine connection vanish in local frames. John Stachel quotes a passage from Einstein’s letter to Max von Laue:


Stachel, John, “How Einstein Discovered General Relativity: A Historical Tale with Some Contemporary Morals”, Einstein B to Z, 2002.

Indeed Ryder quotes J. L. Synge :


Einstein’s equivalence principle was criticized by Synge:


Synge, J. L. (1960). Relativity: The General Theory (Amsterdam, The Netherlands: North Holland Publishing Co).

And Hermann Bondi reacted to Einstein’s principle of equivalence:


Bondi also said (‘NO SUCCESS LIKE FAILURE …’: EINSTEIN’S QUEST FOR GENERAL RELATIVITY, 1907–1920, Michel Janssen):



Other authors contributing to the Handbook of Spacetime write the following:

Graham S. Hall in his paper:


writes the following:


“The choice of a geodesic path (Einstein’s principle of equivalence) reflects the results of the experiments of Eötvös and others, which suggest that the path of a particle in a pure gravitational field is determined by its initial position and initial velocity”. This is not Einstein’s equivalence principle. This is the Galilean principle of equivalence or the weak equivalence principle.

And according to Vesselin Petkov:


the geodesic line is indeed a manifestation of Galileo’s free fall law:


Ryder presents tests for the equivalence principle. The operation of the global positioning system, the GPS, is a remarkable verification of the time dilation. The GPS system consists of an array of 24 satellites, which describe an orbit round the earth of radius 27,ooo km, and are 7000 km apart, and every 12 hours travel at about 4km/s.  Each satellite carries an atomic clock, and the purpose is to locate any point on the earth’s surface. This is done by sensing radio signals between the satellites and the receiver on the earth, with the times of transmission and reception recorded. The distances are then calculated. Only three satellites are needed to pinpoint the position of the receiver on the earth. Relativistic effects must be taken into account arising both from special relativity (time dilation: moving clocks on the satellites run slower than clocks at rest on the surface of the earth) and from general relativity (gravitational time dilation/gravitational frequency shift: when viewed from the surface of the Earth, clocks on the satellites appear to run faster than identical clocks on the surface of the earth). The combined effect (the special relativistic correction and the general relativistic correction) is that the clocks on the satellites run faster than identical clocks on the surface of the earth by 38.4 microseconds per day. The clocks thus need to be adjusted by about 4 x 10-10s per day. If this factor is not taken into account, the GPS system ceases to function after several hours. This provides a stunning verification of relativity, both special and general.

Neil Ashby dedicates his paper to the GPS:


and gives a critical reason why the equivalence principle is indeed relevant. Consider again the GPS (global positioning system) or generally, Global navigation satellite systems (GNNS). For the GPS or GNNS, the only gravitational potential of significance is that of the earth itself. The earth and the satellites fall freely in the gravitational field of the sun (and external bodies in the solar system). Hence, according to the equivalence principle one can define a reference system which is locally very nearly inertial (with origin at the earth’s center of mass). In this locally inertial coordinate system (ECI) clocks can be synchronized using constancy of the speed of light (remember that special relativity is incorporated into general relativity as a model of space-time experienced locally by an observer in free fall):


One writes an approximate solution to Einstein’s field equation and obtains that clocks at rest on earth


run slow compared to clocks at rest at infinity by about seven parts in 1010.

Unless relativistic effects on clocks [clock synchronization; time dilation, the apparent slowing of moving clocks (STR); frequency shifts due to gravitation, gravitational redshift(GTR)] are taken into account, GPS will not work. GPS is thus a huge and remarkable laboratory for applications of the concepts of special and general relativity. In addition, Shapiro signal propagation delay (an additional general relativistic effect) and spatial curvature effects are significant and must be considered at the level of accuracy of 100 ps of delay. Ashby mentions another effect on earth that is exactly cancelled:


Wesson in this paper:


presents the standard explanation one would find in most recent textbooks on general relativity:


The Christoffel symbols are also used to define the Riemann tensor, which encodes all the relevant information about the gravitational field. However, the Riemann tensor has 20 independent components, and to obtain field equations to solve for the 10 elements of the metric tensor requires an object with the same number of components. This is provided by the contracted Ricci tensor. This is again contracted (taking its product with the metric tensor) to obtain the Ricci curvature scalar.  This gives a kind of measure of the average intensity of the gravitational field at a point in space-time. The combination of the Ricci tensor and the Ricci scalar is the Einstein tensor and it comprises the left hand-side of Einstein’s field equations.

At every space-time point there exist locally inertial reference frames, corresponding to locally flat coordinates carried by freely falling observers, in which the physics of general relativity is locally indistinguishable from that of special relativity. In physics textbooks this is indeed called the strong equivalence principle and it makes general relativity an extension of special relativity to a curved space-time.

Wesson then writes that general relativity is a theory of accelerations rather than forces and refers to the weak equivalence principle:


As said above, Einstein noted that if an observer in free fall lets go of any bodies, they remain relative to him, in a state of rest or uniform motion, regardless of their particular chemical and physical nature. This is the weak principle of equivalence: The worldline of a freely falling test body is independent of its composition or structure. The test body moves along a geodesic line. The geodesic equation is independent of the mass of the particle. No experiment whatsoever is able, locally, to distinguish a gravitational field from an accelerating system – the strong principle of equivalence (see Ryder above). A freely falling body is moving along a geodesic line. However, globally space-time is curved and this causes the body’s path to deviate from a geodesic line and to move along a non-geodesic line. Hence we speak of geodesics, manifolds, curvature of space-time, rather than forces.

José G. Pereira explains the difference between curvature and torsion (and force) (see paper here):


General relativity is based on the equivalence principle and geometry (curvature) replaces the concept of force. Trajectories are determined not by force equations but by geodesics:


How do we know that the equivalence principle is so fundamental?  Gravitational and inertial effects are mixed and cannot be separated in classical general relativity and the energy-momentum density of the gravitational field is a pseudo-tensor (and not a tensor):


General relativity is grounded on the equivalence principle. It includes the energy-momentum of both inertia and gravitation:


In 1928 Einstein proposed a geometrized unified field theory of gravitation and electromagnetism and invented teleparallelism. Einstein’s teleparallelism was a generalization of Elie Cartan’s 1922 idea. Picture20

According to Pereira et al: “In the general relativistic description of gravitation, geometry replaces the concept of force. This is possible because of the universal character of free fall, and would break down in its absence. On the other hand, the teleparallel version of general relativity is a gauge theory for the translation group and, as such, describes the gravitational interaction by a force similar to the Lorentz force of electromagnetism, a non-universal interaction. Relying on this analogy it is shown that, although the geometric description of general relativity necessarily requires the existence of the equivalence principle, the teleparallel gauge approach remains a consistent theory for gravitation in its absence”.

See his paper with R. Aldrovandi and K. H. Vu: “Gravitation Without the Equivalence Principle”, General Relativity and Gravitation 36, 2004, 101-110.

Petkov explains in his paper: (see further above)


the following:


The bottom line is that classical general relativity is fundamentally based on the equivalence principle. One cannot reject Einstein’s route to the theory of general relativity.









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