Physicists from around the world converged on the Maldives together with astronomers and the simply curious to watch the spectacular eclipse on the weekend.
While most spectators were content with the dramatic sight of the rare annular eclipse – not to be repeated for another thousand years – these scientists were out to rewrite the laws of gravity.
Professor Hector Munera and Ed Oberg, two of the seven scientists known as ‘pendulum specialists’, gave a talk to the Maldives Science Society at Mandu College last night about the work they have conducted during their visit to the Maldives.
Colombian University scientist Munera, from the International Centre for Physics in Bogota, describes himself as a “classical Newtonian physicist”. But here in the Maldives his work is anything but classical – in fact, it goes against mainstream science.
In 1954 a French scientist and economist called Maurice Félix Charles Allais noticed that pendulums behaved oddly during a partial eclipse.
“Suddenly the pendulum jumped to another plane – the direction of oscillation changed abruptly,” explained Munera. “This was the first time the effect was observed.”
Similar pendulum behaviour was noticed during subsequent eclipse events. It became known as the Allais effect, and it developed a small following of scientists determined to prove that the strange behaviour of the pendulum meant that some component was missing from the accepted physics used to calculate the effect of gravity.
“We know a pendulum’s period should be constant. If the period changes during some kind of event, such as an eclipse, then that’s a gravitational anomaly,” Munera told the audience.
“Nobody had noticed that the position of the sun relative to the pendulum when eclipse began affected the pendulum’s behaviour. It was a significant finding because unlike mathematics, physics is not theoretical; it has to reflect the real world and good experiments demand modification of the theory.”
The scientists came to the Maldives before the latest eclipse and established ‘Pendulum house’ on Feydhoo island in Addu atoll. They installed five high-tech pendulums mounted in a rigid tripod, with a ball that is stopped, latched and released every 12 minutes and measured by laser range-finders. The contraption is capable of measuring the movement of the pendulum to one millionth of a metre.
The scientists are still analysing the data, “but what we think may possibly happen,” says Oberg, a mechanical engineer with 35 years of keen interest in celestial mechanics, “is that a miniscule component may have to added to the equation used to calculate the force between two celestial bodies. It could ruffle a lot of feathers.”
Acceleration due to gravity is measured in ‘gals’. The acceleration due to the Earth’s gravity on the surface is 976 to 983 gal, while the eclipse effect being observed by the pendulum scientists is no more than about five ‘microgals’ – millionths of a gal.
It might be miniscule but in this field of physics, size doesn’t matter.
“Tides are caused by 60 microgals – 60 millionths of a gal affecting every drop of water on the planet. Five microgals might not seem like much but it doesn’t just stop at pendulums – it affects everything, including tectonic plates,” says Oberg.
Ahid Rasheed, founding member of the Maldives Science Society (MSS), said the society was honoured to host the scientists while they conducted their work in the Maldives, “although it’s very frustrating for us because they are all working on their papers [and won’t share their results],” he joked.
He said he hoped the high level of public interest in the eclipse would foster an interest in science in the Maldives.
“Science used to be very popular here [as a subject],” he said. “But in the 90s people began to think that business and economics were better for the Maldives and business studies courses began to dominate the curriculum. Now some atoll and island schools don’t even have a science stream.”
Pictures courtesy of the Maldives Science Society. Eclipse image courtesy Nabeel Hilmy.