The second part of relativity is the theory of General Relativity and lies on two empirical findings that Einstein elevated to the status of basic postulates. The first postulate is the relativity principle: local physics is governed by the theory of special relativity. The second postulate is the equivalence principle: there is no way for an observer to distinguish locally between gravity and acceleration.
The general theory of relativity derives its origin from the need to extend the new space and time concepts of the special theory of relativity from the domain of electric and magnetic phenomena to all of physics and, particularly, to the theory of gravitation. As space and time relations underlie all physical phenomena, it is conceptually intolerable to have to use mutually contradictory notions of space and time in dealing with different kinds of interactions, particularly in view of the fact that the same particles may interact with each other in several different ways–electromagnetically, gravitationally, and by way of so-called nuclear forces.
Newton’s explanation of gravitational interactions must be considered one of the most successful physical theories of all time. It accounts for the motions of all the constituents of the solar system with uncanny accuracy, permitting, for instance, the prediction of eclipses hundreds of years ahead. However, Newton’s theory visualizes the gravitational pull that the Sun exerts on the planets and the pull that the planets in turn exert on their moons and on each other as taking place instantaneously over the vast distances of interplanetary space, whereas according to relativistic notions of space and time any and all interactions cannot spread faster than the speed of light. The difference may be unimportant, for practical reasons, as all of the members of the solar system move at relative speeds far less than 1/1,000 of the speed of light; nevertheless, relativistic space-time and Newton’s instantaneous action at a distance are fundamentally incompatible. Hence Einstein set out to develop a theory of gravitation that would be consistent with relativity.
Proceeding on the basis of the experience gained from Maxwell’s theory of the electric field, Einstein postulated the existence of a gravitational field that propagates at the speed of light, ‘c’, and that will mediate an attraction as closely as possible equal to the attraction obtained from Newton’s theory. From the outset it was clear that mathematically a field theory of gravitation would be more involved than that of electricity and magnetism.
Whereas the sources of the electric field, the electric charges of particles, have values independent of the state of motion of the instruments by which these charges are measured, the source of the gravitational field, the mass of a particle, varies with the speed of the particle relative to the frame of reference in which it is determined and hence will have different values in different frames of reference. This complicating factor introduces into the task of constructing a relativistic theory of the gravitational field a measure of ambiguity, which Einstein resolved eventually by invoking the principle of equivalence.
Einstein discovered that there is a relationship between mass, gravity and spacetime. Mass distorts spacetime, causing it to curve. Gravity can be described as motion caused in curved spacetime .
Thus, the primary result from general relativity is that gravitation is a purely geometric consequence of the properties of spacetime. Special Relativity destroyed classical physics view of absolute space and time, general relativity dismantles the idea that spacetime is described by Euclidean or plane geometry. In this sense, general relativity is a field theory, relating Newton’s law of gravity to the field nature of spacetime, which can be curved.
Gravity in general relativity is described in terms of curved spacetime. The idea that spacetime is distorted by motion, as in special relativity, is extended to gravity by the equivalence principle. Gravity comes from matter, so the presence of matter causes distortions or warps in spacetime. Matter tells spacetime how to curve, and spacetime tells matter how to move (orbits).
The second test is that general relativity predicts a time dilation in a gravitational field, so that, relative to someone outside of the field, clocks (or atomic processes) go slowly. This was confirmed with atomic clocks flying airplanes in the mid-1970’s.
The general theory of relativity is constructed so that its results are approximately the same as those of Newton’s theories as long as the velocities of all bodies interacting with each other gravitationally are small compared with the speed of light–i.e., as long as the gravitational fields involved are weak. The latter requirement may be stated roughly in terms of the escape velocity. A gravitational field is considered strong if the escape velocity approaches the speed of light, weak if it is much smaller. All gravitational fields encountered in the solar system are weak in this sense.
Notice that at low speeds and weak gravitational fields, general and special relativity reduce to Newtonian physics, i.e. everyday experience.