Einstein's Theory of Relativity
Chapter 6 Curved Spacetime

Chapter 6: Curved Spacetime

In the preceding chapters, we have seen how the special theory of relativity revolutionized our understanding of space and time, uniting them into a four-dimensional Minkowski spacetime. We then saw how the principle of equivalence and the lessons of special relativity led Einstein to his general theory of relativity, in which gravity is no longer a force, but a manifestation of curved spacetime. In this chapter, we will dive deeper into the mathematical description of curved spacetime provided by Riemannian geometry and tensor calculus. We will see how this formalism leads to Einstein's field equations, the master equation governing the dynamics of spacetime curvature. Finally, we will explore some of the key solutions to these equations, which provide us with models for understanding phenomena ranging from black holes to the evolution of the universe as a whole.

The Mathematics of Curved Spacetime

The key insight of Einstein's general theory of relativity is that gravity is not a force in the usual sense, but rather a manifestation of the curvature of spacetime. In the presence of matter and energy, spacetime becomes curved, and this curvature is what we experience as gravity. To give a precise mathematical description of curved spacetime, Einstein turned to the tools of Riemannian geometry and tensor calculus, developed in the 19th century by mathematicians like Gauss, Riemann, Ricci, and Levi-Civita.

In Riemannian geometry, a curved space is described by a metric tensor, usually denoted as $g_{\mu\nu}$. The metric encodes all the information about the geometry of the space, allowing us to compute distances, angles, and volumes. In a four-dimensional spacetime, the metric is a 4x4 matrix, with indices $\mu$ and $\nu$ running from 0 to 3 (with 0 usually reserved for the time dimension). The metric is symmetric, meaning $g_{\mu\nu} = g_{\nu\mu}$, so it has 10 independent components.

The metric allows us to compute the spacetime interval $ds$ between two nearby events, generalizing the Minkowski interval of special relativity:

$$ds^2 = g_{\mu\nu} dx^\mu dx^\nu$$

Here, $dx^\mu$ represents an infinitesimal displacement in the $\mu$-th coordinate. The Einstein summation convention is used, meaning that repeated indices are summed over.

The metric also allows us to define the notion of parallel transport, which is how we compare vectors (and tensors) at different points in a curved space. In flat space, parallel transport is trivial - a vector maintains its direction as it is moved along a path. But in a curved space, parallel transport is path-dependent, leading to phenomena like the geodetic effect (the rotation of a vector being parallel transported along a closed path).

The curvature of spacetime is encoded in the Riemann curvature tensor $R_{\mu\nu\rho\sigma}$, which is constructed from the metric and its derivatives. The Riemann tensor measures the non-commutativity of parallel transport, i.e., how much a vector changes when parallel transported along two different paths. If the Riemann tensor is zero everywhere, the space is flat (Euclidean or Minkowskian). Non-zero components of the Riemann tensor indicate the presence of curvature.

From the Riemann tensor, we can construct the Ricci tensor $R_{\mu\nu}$ by contracting (summing over) two of the indices:

$$R_{\mu\nu} = R^\rho_{\mu\rho\nu}$$

The Ricci tensor, in turn, can be contracted to give the Ricci scalar $R$:

$$R = g^{\mu\nu} R_{\mu\nu}$$

The Ricci tensor and scalar provide a measure of the local curvature at each point in spacetime.

With these tools in hand, we can now write down Einstein's field equations, the master equation of general relativity.

Einstein's Field Equations

Einstein's field equations provide a dynamical description of how the curvature of spacetime is related to the presence of matter and energy. The equations, in their most compact form, read:

$$G_{\mu\nu} = 8\pi T_{\mu\nu}$$

Here, $G_{\mu\nu}$ is the Einstein tensor, defined as:

$$G_{\mu\nu} = R_{\mu\nu} - \frac{1}{2}Rg_{\mu\nu}$$

The Einstein tensor encodes information about the curvature of spacetime. On the right-hand side, $T_{\mu\nu}$ is the stress-energy tensor, which describes the density and flux of energy and momentum in spacetime. The constant $8\pi$ is chosen to match the Newtonian limit of the theory.

The stress-energy tensor $T_{\mu\nu}$ is a symmetric 4x4 tensor, with components that have physical interpretations:

  • $T_{00}$ represents the energy density
  • $T_{0i}$ and $T_{i0}$ represent the momentum density (energy flux)
  • $T_{ij}$ represents the stress (pressure)

For a perfect fluid, the stress-energy tensor takes the form:

$$T_{\mu\nu} = (\rho + p)u_\mu u_\nu + pg_{\mu\nu}$$

where $\rho$ is the energy density, $p$ is the pressure, and $u^\mu$ is the four-velocity of the fluid.

Einstein's field equations are a set of 10 coupled, nonlinear partial differential equations for the metric components $g_{\mu\nu}$. The equations are notoriously difficult to solve in general, requiring sophisticated mathematical techniques and often numerical methods. However, a number of exact solutions have been found, which have provided deep insights into the nature of gravity and the structure of the universe.

Solutions to Einstein's Equations

The first exact solution to Einstein's equations was found by Karl Schwarzschild in 1916, just months after Einstein published his theory. The Schwarzschild solution describes the spacetime geometry outside a spherically symmetric mass, like a non-rotating star or black hole. The metric for the Schwarzschild solution is:

$$ds^2 = -\left(1-\frac{2M}{r}\right)dt^2 + \left(1-\frac{2M}{r}\right)^{-1}dr^2 + r^2(d\theta^2 + \sin^2\theta d\phi^2)$$

Here, $M$ is the mass of the central object, and $(r,\theta,\phi)$ are spherical coordinates. The Schwarzschild solution has several remarkable features:

  • At $r=2M$, the metric appears to become singular. This radius, called the Schwarzschild radius or event horizon, is where the escape velocity equals the speed of light. If the mass is compressed within this radius, it forms a black hole.
  • For $r<2M$, the roles of $r$ and $t$ are switched. Moving to smaller $r$ is like moving forward in time, meaning that once inside the event horizon, one cannot avoid reaching the central singularity at $r=0$.
  • The Schwarzschild solution predicts the existence of black holes, one of the most exotic and fascinating predictions of general relativity.

Another important solution is the Kerr metric, found by Roy Kerr in 1963. The Kerr solution describes the spacetime around a rotating black hole. It is significantly more complex than the Schwarzschild metric, but has some similar features, like an event horizon and a central singularity. The Kerr solution also predicts the existence of an "ergosphere", a region outside the event horizon where spacetime is dragged along with the rotation of the black hole, an effect known as frame-dragging.

On cosmological scales, the most important solutions to Einstein's equations are the Friedmann-Lemaître-Robertson-Walker (FLRW) metrics. These metrics describe homogeneous and isotropic universes, which expand or contract over time. The FLRW metrics are characterized by a scale factor $a(t)$, which describes how distances between galaxies change with time, and a curvature parameter $k$, which can be positive (closed universe), negative (open universe), or zero (flat universe).

The FLRW metrics lead to the Friedmann equations, which describe the evolution of the scale factor $a(t)$ in terms of the energy density $\rho$ and pressure $p$ of the matter and energy in the universe:

$$\left(\frac{\dot{a}}{a}\right)^2 = \frac{8\pi G}{3}\rho - \frac{k}{a^2}$$

$$\frac{\ddot{a}}{a} = -\frac{4\pi G}{3}(\rho + 3p)$$

Here, dots denote time derivatives, and $G$ is Newton's constant. The Friedmann equations, combined with equations of state relating $\rho$ and $p$, provide the basis for the standard Big Bang model of cosmology. They predict that the universe began in a hot, dense state, and has been expanding and cooling ever since. The model has been spectacularly successful in explaining a wide range of cosmological observations, from the expansion of the universe to the cosmic microwave background radiation.

However, the standard Big Bang model is not without its problems. The model predicts that the early universe would have had to be extremely uniform, with regions that could not have been in causal contact having nearly identical properties. This is known as the horizon problem. The model also predicts the existence of magnetic monopoles, which have never been observed. These and other issues led to the development of the theory of cosmic inflation in the 1980s.

Inflation posits that the very early universe underwent a period of exponential expansion, driven by the energy of a scalar field called the inflaton. This rapid expansion would have smoothed out any initial inhomogeneities, solving the horizon problem. It would also have diluted any magnetic monopoles to unobservable levels. Inflation makes several predictions, such as a slightly non-flat universe and a specific spectrum of primordial density fluctuations, which have been confirmed by observations of the cosmic microwave background.

Another major development in cosmology has been the discovery of dark energy in the late 1990s. Observations of distant supernovae showed that the expansion of the universe is accelerating, contrary to the expectations of the standard Big Bang model with matter and radiation alone. This acceleration is attributed to a mysterious component called dark energy, which acts like a negative pressure, pushing the universe apart. The simplest model for dark energy is the cosmological constant, originally introduced by Einstein as a modification to his equations to allow for a static universe. The cosmological constant is equivalent to the energy of the vacuum, and is characterized by an equation of state $p=-\rho$.

The current standard model of cosmology, known as the Lambda-CDM model, includes both dark energy in the form of a cosmological constant ($\Lambda$) and cold dark matter (CDM), a form of matter that interacts only gravitationally, and which is needed to explain the formation of galaxies and the large-scale structure of the universe. The Lambda-CDM model has been extremely successful in fitting a wide range of cosmological data, but the physical nature of both dark matter and dark energy remains one of the greatest mysteries in physics.


Einstein's general theory of relativity provides a beautiful and profound description of gravity as the curvature of spacetime. The mathematical formalism of Riemannian geometry and tensor calculus allows us to quantify this curvature and its relation to the presence of matter and energy. Einstein's field equations, the master equation of the theory, have been solved in a number of important cases, leading to predictions of phenomena like black holes and the expansion of the universe.

The application of general relativity to cosmology has led to the development of the Big Bang model, which describes the evolution of the universe from a hot, dense initial state to its current expansive phase. The discovery of dark matter and dark energy has required extensions to this model, leading to the current standard model of cosmology, the Lambda-CDM model.

Despite its successes, general relativity is not the final word on gravity. The theory breaks down at the center of black holes and at the very beginning of the universe, where quantum effects become important. Unifying general relativity with quantum mechanics remains one of the great challenges of theoretical physics. Candidates for a quantum theory of gravity, such as string theory and loop quantum gravity, are active areas of research.

Moreover, the mysteries of dark matter and dark energy suggest that our understanding of gravity and the contents of the universe is far from complete. Ongoing and future observations, from gravitational wave detectors to satellite missions studying the cosmic microwave background, promise to shed new light on these mysteries and to test general relativity in ever more extreme conditions.