Newton’s Universal Gravitational Constant is Troubling Me

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gcNewton’s universal gravitational constant is troubling me. His formula works across 13.7 billion light years of space and time — to explain the interaction of bodies throughout the entire universe (thus its “universal” status). But it troubles me nonetheless.

Newton’s Universal Gravitational Constant

Here is Newton’s famous equation:

F = G \frac{m_1 m_2}{r^2}\

  • F is the force between the masses;
  • G is the gravitational constant (6.674×10−11 N · (m/kg)2);
  • m1 is the first mass;
  • m2 is the second mass;
  • r is the distance between the centers of the masses.

Please understand, I am not suggesting the formula is “wrong,” because that would be asinine. It has clearly survived innumerable bouts of falsification — so many, in fact, that we can (and do) rely on it for so much of our modern world — from engineering, to architecture, to flight. In fact, this would be a good time for me to inject my normal disclaimer: I am no physicist, and I know many smarter people than me have examined the very issue I am raising here. And I am sure that I will be ridiculed (probably deservedly so) for even sharing my discomfort.

Nonetheless, the so-called gravitational constant seems almost foreign in the equation. It seems to be inadequately explained.

“Mass” is easy. It makes sense. When we talk about the mass of an object, it is relatively simple to describe, mathematically — and even epistemologically — what we mean. Likewise, the “distance between objects” is so conceptually simple that it’s almost self-evident — if not completely satisfactorily explicable.

Here’s my trouble (and I will have to digress a little): I am religiously agnostic, on the verge of atheism. But the reason I cannot so cavalierly plunge into the abyss of absolute creator-denial is that there is too much order in the universe. There is too much consistency. Plus, atheism is as dogmatic as any organized religious explanation, so there’s that.

Our universe is almost 14 billion years old, and yet it is consistently binary. The rules governing it — at both the quantum and traditional levels — may seem chaotic, but they are consistent in their chaos. Even entropy is rigidly consistent (chew on that one a while).

I’ll give you this thought experiment: if I were the designer of our universe, I would use properties of that universe to elegantly create rules of animation and action. I would use things like mass, distance, and velocity to construct universal rules that would make things… well… work. Because if things need to work consistently, well then they’re going to need these rules. And that seems to be precisely the way our universe is built.

Concepts like the mass of two objects, and their distance from one another would be perfectly elegant properties to use to create this thing we describe as “gravity.” And yet, they aren’t enough. No, in order to explain gravity, we mere mortals are forced to add the gravitational constant — every, single time. Why? And what is it?

And this is where I start to come apart at the seams. Why would an engineer of the universe give us simple concepts like “mass” and “distance between objects,” and yet throw in this totally inexplicable and problematic necessary constant? It’s inelegant, and it doesn’t seem to fit, until we realize gravity doesn’t work without it.

If we must have a gravitational constant, can’t we make it something reasonable — like 10, or 100? Does it have to be 6.674×10−11 N · (m/kg)2?

Here’s where my arrogance takes over. What if the gravitational constant is elegant? What if it is just our base-ten interpretation of the universe that makes it inelegant? What if the great engineer was working from a much simpler mathematical base when it (notice its genderless quality) made the rules? What if we simply haven’t yet discovered this less complex set of tools?

Here’s another thought I’ll surely be denigrated for: what if the gravitational constant does describe some simple, elegant property of our universe — a property similar to “mass” or “distance between two objects?” What if we just haven’t discovered it yet?

At this juncture, I’m going to throw out the phrases “dark energy” and “dark matter,” and then I am going to move on. Really, I’m unqualified to be discussing any of this. But I am certainly beyond my qualification when we begin exploring these two relatively new concepts. I’m just putting all of this out there with the distant hope I’ll inspire a truly intelligent person to take it to some unanticipated level.

Defying Gravity

I am not the first person to posit that creating a negative “F” in the equation above would be “anti-gravity.” Easy, right? Just multiply one of the terms on the right side of the equation by negative one, and voila! Anti-gravity!

Obviously, it’s not that simple. I suspect that at some point, we will learn that we can create (or discover) such properties as “negative distance” or “negative mass.” We are embryonic in our knowledge, and as ludicrous as these two ideas sound to us right now, when I think about the implications and mysteriousness of dimensions beyond the four or so we readily comprehend (especially at the quantum level), it becomes easier for me to at least accept the potential of such things as “negative distance” or “negative mass.”

If you have spent any time at all in the strange and contradictory world of quantum mechanics, you understand what I’m talking about. Nothing makes sense, and everything we think we know is up for grabs at this point. So why not “negative mass” or “negative distance?” Indeed, at the subatomic level, they might be the norm.

But I want to go back to this strangely out-of-place gravitational constant. Again, far be it from me to make any crazy suggestions that others have almost certainly considered and adequately exhausted, but what if this constant really does represent some solid, knowable quality of our universe that we have yet to identify? And what if that property could easily be manipulated into a “negative” state?

Our description of gravity — above the Newtonian boundary — works, and it works well. It certainly wouldn’t be crazy to suggest that negating and/or altering the magnitude of one of its constituent parts shouldn’t allow us to defy the mysterious property that keeps us bound to our earth. Should it?

As you snort and roll your eyes, remember my own admission of my limitations in this field. And also remember a certain patent clerk who wrote a paper at the turn of the last century that was ridiculed by mainstream academia for several years before it changed our world.

I’m not claiming to be the next Einstein (or even the next Jules Verne), but sometimes the most powerful ideas come from the most unexpected places. And isn’t it okay to dream a little — even if the results ultimately offer little more than science fiction?

I’m just looking for a little leniency, and maybe a pat on the head. I could use a pat on the head. Even if it’s patronizing.

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