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In 1887, physicists Albert Michelson and Edward Morley performed one of physics’ most famous experiments (at Case Western Reserve University, coincidentally, across the street from where this article was written). Unlike other important experiments, they didn’t find what they were looking for, but unexpectedly their “null” result prepared the way for the theory of relativity.

Sometimes researchers deliberately set out to generate null results—while on the lookout for something new. One type of experiment is looking for deviations from Einstein’s general theory of relativity.

“General relativity has been the staple of gravitational understanding for 100 years,” says Katie Chamberlain, a physics student at Montana State University. “We have to rule out the potential for other existing theories to come in and replace [it].”

Many alternative theories of gravity are out there, designed to explain various phenomena or fix general relativity’s famous incompatibility with quantum theory. Some of these predict differences in the behavior of gravity that can be tested in the lab.

One experiment examined precision measurements of the distance between Earth and the moon. Another recent test involved superconducting gravimeters, which measure how strong gravity is in various places on Earth’s surface. If there are gravitational effects not described by general relativity, they might show up in those experiments: the highly coveted results known as “new physics.”

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Category: Science