Gravity Probe B
THE RELATIVE PROOF
Stanford Puts Einstein to the Test
By Robert Lee Hotz
October 2000, as the last
days of the 20th century count down, a sleek Delta II rocket will roar
into a polar orbit from a seaside launch pad at Vandenberg Air Force
Base. It will carry aloft a daring challenge to modern physics conceived
more than 37 years ago by three naked Stanford scientists musing between
laps at a men's swimming pool.
The result of that poolside encounter between William M. Fairbank,
Robert Cannon and Leonard Schiff is methodically taking shape at
Stanford today as a remarkable three-ton, trumpet-nosed spacecraft
called Gravity Probe B. It is the focus of a unique $500-million NASA
experiment designed to probe the invisible forces that weld together
space, time and gravity.
What happens if
you prove me wrong? What will it mean for modern science?
In the generation since that poolside brainstorming session, a growing
cadre of university scientists, engineers and students led by principal
investigator Francis Everitt and program manager Bradford Parkinson has
labored to create what is widely considered the most precise,
sophisticated - and controversial - test yet of a scientific
vision of gravity that has shaped our century's understanding of how the
universe works: Albert Einstein's Theory of General Relativity.