Scientists say they may have defied one of Newton’s fundamental laws of physics: the conservation of momentum

Scientists say they may have defied one of Newton's fundamental laws of physics: the conservation of momentum

Sir Isaac Newton first stated the laws of motion in Principia Mathematica in 1687 and today these laws are considered facts: when something moves, it must push something else.

But a new study may have fundamentally challenged the law of conservation of momentum, at least in curved space.

Researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology in the US have published a research paper that seems to prove the opposite: when bodies exist in curved spaces, they can move without pressing on anything.

The peer-reviewed findings are published in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

In the paperresearchers led by Zeb Rocklin created a robot that confines itself to a spherical surface with what they describe as “unprecedented levels of isolation from its environment” so that only the effects of the sphere would be in action.

“We let our shape-changing object move in the simplest curved space, a sphere, to systematically study motion in curved space,” said Mr. Rocklin.

“We learned that the predicted effect, which was so counterintuitive that some physicists dismissed it, did occur: as the robot changed shape, it moved around the sphere of a way that could not be attributed to environmental interactions.”

The discovery will certainly not immediately lead to perpetual motion machines: the effects are extremely small.

However, the curvature-induced effect could have enormous practical value in the field of precision robotics, similar to how the discovery of gravity changes the frequency of satellite communications.

But as Einstein’s research showed, space itself is curved, and the researchers believe that “ultimately, the principles of how the curvature of space can be harnessed for locomotion may allow spacecraft sail through the highly curved space around a black hole.”

Experimental realization of a swimmer on a sphere with motors driven on a boom arm that rotates freely. Image: Georgia Tech

What did the experiment really involve?

It is extremely difficult, to put it mildly, to examine an object on a sphere without the object exchanging momentum with its surroundings.

To do this, the scientists allowed a series of motors to run on curved tracks in a system that was attached to a rotating shaft, so that the motors always moved on a sphere.

The shaft itself was supported by bearings and air bearings to minimize friction and then even aligned to align with Earth’s gravity to further minimize this residual force.

They found that these motor robots moved with gravity and friction exerted slight forces on them, but these forces appeared to combine with curvature effects “to produce strange dynamics with properties that neither could induce on their own.”

“The research provides an important demonstration of how curved spaces can be achieved and how it fundamentally challenges the physical laws and intuition designed for flat space,” the scientists said.

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