The profound change comes with general relativity (GTR). The central discovery of GR, can be enunciated in three points. One of these is conceptually simple, the other two are tremendous. First, the gravitational force is mediated by a field, very much like the electromagnetic field: the gravitational field. Second, Newton’s spacetime, the background stage that Newton introduced introduced, against most of the earlier European tradition, and the gravitational field, are the same thing. Third, the dynamics of the gravitational field, of the other fields such as the electromagnetic field, and any other dynamical object, is fully relational, in the Aristotelian-Cartesian sense. Let me illustrate these three points.
First, the gravitational field is represented by a field on spacetime, gμν(x), just like the electromagnetic field Aμ(x). They are both very concrete entities: a strong electromagnetic wave can hit you and knock you down; and so can a strong gravitational wave. The gravitational field has independent degrees of freedom, and is governed by dynamical equations, the Einstein equations.
Second, the spacetime metric ημν disappears from all equations of physics (recall it was ubiquitous). At its place – we are instructed by GTR – we must insert the gravitational field gμν(x). This is a spectacular step: Newton’s background spacetime was nothing but the gravitational field! The stage is promoted to be one of the actors. Thus, in all physical equations one now sees the direct influence of the gravitational field. How can the gravitational field determine the metrical properties of things, which are revealed, say, by rods and clocks? Simply, the inter-atomic separation of the rods’ atoms, and the frequency of the clock’s pendulum are determined by explicit couplings of the rod’s and clock’s variables with the gravitational field gμν(x), which enters the equations of motion of these variables. Thus, any measurement of length, area or volume is, in reality, a measurement of features of the gravitational field.
But what is really formidable in GTR, the truly momentous novelty, is the third point: the Einstein equations, as well as all other equations of physics appropriately modified according to GTR instructions, are fully relational in the Aristotelian-Cartesian sense. This point is independent from the previous one. Let me give first a conceptual, then a technical account of it.
The point is that the only physically meaningful definition of location that makes physical sense within GTR is relational. GTR describes the world as a set of interacting fields and, possibly, other objects. One of these interacting fields is gμν(x). Motion can be defined only as positioning and displacements of these dynamical objects relative to each other.
To describe the motion of a dynamical object, Newton had to assume that acceleration is absolute, namely it is not relative to this or that other dynamical object. Rather, it is relative to a background space. Faraday, Maxwell and Einstein extended the notion of “dynamical object”: the stuff of the world is fields, not just bodies. Finally, GTR tells us that the background space is itself one of these fields. Thus, the circle is closed, and we are back to relationalism: Newton’s motion with respect to space is indeed motion with respect to a dynamical object: the gravitational field.
All this is coded in the active diffeomorphism invariance (diff invariance) of GR. Active diff invariance should not be confused with passive diff invariance, or invariance under change of coordinates. GTR can be formulated in a coordinate free manner, where there are no coordinates, and no changes of coordinates. In this formulation, there field equations are still invariant under active diffs. Passive diff invariance is a property of a formulation of a dynamical theory, while active diff invariance is a property of the dynamical theory itself. A field theory is formulated in manner invariant under passive diffs (or change of coordinates), if we can change the coordinates of the manifold, re-express all the geometric quantities (dynamical and non-dynamical) in the new coordinates, and the form of the equations of motion does not change. A theory is invariant under active diffs, when a smooth displacement of the dynamical fields (the dynamical fields alone) over the manifold, sends solutions of the equations of motion into solutions of the equations of motion. Distinguishing a truly dynamical field, namely a field with independent degrees of freedom, from a nondynamical filed disguised as dynamical (such as a metric field g with the equations of motion Riemann[g]=0) might require a detailed analysis (for instance, Hamiltonian) of the theory. Because active diff invariance is a gauge, the physical content of GTR is expressed only by those quantities, derived from the basic dynamical variables, which are fully independent from the points of the manifold.
In introducing the background stage, Newton introduced two structures: a spacetime manifold, and its non-dynamical metric structure. GTR gets rid of the non-dynamical metric, by replacing it with the gravitational field. More importantly, it gets rid of the manifold, by means of active diff invariance. In GTR, the objects of which the world is made do not live over a stage and do not live on spacetime: they live, so to say, over each other’s shoulders.
Of course, nothing prevents us, if we wish to do so, from singling out the gravitational field as “the more equal among equals”, and declaring that location is absolute in GTR, because it can be defined with respect to it. But this can be done within any relationalism: we can always single out a set of objects, and declare them as not-moving by definition. The problem with this attitude is that it fully misses the great Einsteinian insight: that Newtonian spacetime is just one field among the others. More seriously, this attitude sends us into a nightmare when we have to deal with the motion of the gravitational field itself (which certainly “moves”: we are spending millions for constructing gravity wave detectors to detect its tiny vibrations). There is no absolute referent of motion in GTR: the dynamical fields “move” with respect to each other.
Notice that the third step was not easy for Einstein, and came later than the previous two. Having well understood the first two, but still missing the third, Einstein actively searched for non-generally covariant equations of motion for the gravitational field between 1912 and 1915. With his famous “hole argument” he had convinced himself that generally covariant equations of motion (and therefore, in this context, active diffeomorphism invariance) would imply a truly dramatic revolution with respect to the Newtonian notions of space and time. In 1912 he was not able to take this profoundly revolutionary step, but in 1915 he took this step, and found what Landau calls “the most beautiful of the physical theories”.