Einstein'stheory of relativity may be only relative

Einstein's theory of relativity is a brilliant piece of work, which showed that it doesn't matter where you are in the universe, or what speed you're travelling, because all frames of reference are equally valid. The trouble is, it seems to be wrong.

That at least is the conclusion of a Norwegian researcher at the University of Rochester, New York, who has spent the past four years analysing radio waves from distant galaxies up to 7 billion light years away.

Borge Nodland found that some of the radio waves had been "twisted" as they crossed the universe but that others, from equally distant galaxies in other parts of the universe, had not.

The finding suggests that the universe really has an orientation, in which some directions really are more important than others for observing this effect. "Our observational data suggests that there is a mysterious axis, a kind of cosmological North Star, that orients the universe," said Professor John Ralston who worked with Dr Nodland in the study. "A simple interpretation of what we found is that light may travel at different speeds due to some interaction."

That, though, would throw down the gauntlet to theories about electromagnetism and especially relativity which have stood repeated tests. These state that light and other electromagnetic waves always travel at the same speed in any frame of reference, regardless of the velocity of the measurer, and that the universe has no centre or direction of movement.

The new calculations, reported in next Monday's issue of the journal Physical Review Letters, followed computer analysis of results published by other radio-astronomers in previous years. After subtracting the effects of intergalactic radiation, which can also twist the radio waves, they found a residual rotation. "It depended just on the direction of travel of the radio wave, and the total distance travelled," said Dr Nodland. "It's greater when it's travelled a long distance."

However, he thinks that this may not be the death knell for relativity. "I think the theory can be extended, though we would have to investigate whether it can explain this," he said.

What about the other possibility - that his work was wrong? "I'm really confident about the analysis of the data," Dr Nodland insisted.

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