MIGHTY oaks from little acorns grow. In the 1840s an astronomer called Urbain Le Verrier noticed there was something wrong with the orbit of Mercury. The main axis of the planet’s orbital ellipse shifts each time it goes round the sun. That was well known, and is caused by the gravitational pull of Venus. Le Verrier, however, realised that the orbit was shifting too fast. The excess was a tiny fraction of a degree. But it was a disturbing departure from the purity of Newton’s majestic clockworkâ€”a departure that was explained only 70 years later, when Einstein’s general theory of relativity swept Newton away by showing that gravity operates by distorting space itself.
Even Einstein, however, may not have got it right. Modern instruments have shown a departure from his predictions, too. In 1990 mission controllers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, which operates America’s unmanned interplanetary space probes, noticed something odd happen to a Jupiter-bound craft, called Galileo. As it was flung around the Earth in what is known as a slingshot manoeuvre (designed to speed it on its way to the outer solar system), Galileo picked up more velocity than expected. Not much. Four millimetres a second, to be precise. But well within the range that can reliably be detected.
Once might be happenstance. But this strange extra acceleration was seen subsequently with two other craft. That, as Goldfinger would have put it, looks like enemy action.
Oh man, if the scientific method finds a flaw in current thinking, it means we have to return to the default position that gravitation is actually a bunch of industrious elves moving things around.
Forget everything we have learned to date! Be gone, evil anti-elf secularism!
Very smart, very fast – and surprisingly magical – elves.