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Free fall and self-force: an historical perspective

May 03, 2010

Free fall has signed the greatest markings in the history of physics through the leaning Pisa tower, the Cambridge apple tree and the Einstein lift.

The perspectives offered by the capture of stars by supermassive black holes are to be cherished, because the study of the motion of falling stars will constitute a giant step forward in the understanding of gravitation in the regime of strong field. After an account on the perception of free fall in ancient times and on the behaviour of a gravitating mass in Newtonian physics, this chapter deals with last century debate on the repulsion for a Schwarzschild black hole and mentions the issue of an infalling particle velocity at the horizon. Further, black hole perturbations and numerical methods are presented, paving the way to the introduction of the self-force and other back-action related methods. The impact of the perturbations on the motion of the falling particle is computed via the tail, the back-scattered part of the perturbations, or via a radiative Green function. In the former approach, the self-force acts upon the background geodesic; in the latter, the geodesic is conceived in the total (background plus perturbations) field. Regularisation techniques (mode-sum and Riemann-Hurwitz z function) intervene to cancel divergencies coming from the infinitesimal size of the particle. An account is given on the state of the art, including the last results obtained in this most classical problem, together with a perspective encompassing future space gravitational wave interferometry and head-on particle physics experiments. As free fall is patently non-adiabatic, it requires the most sophisticated techniques for studying the evolution of the motion. In this scenario, the potential of the self-consistent approach, by means of which the background geodesic is continuously corrected by the self-force contribution, is examined.

Link to paper