General relativity: gravitation and curvature of space-time

Is Newton’s apple attracted to the Earth by a force or does it follow a “straight line” in the space-time curved by the Earth? How can a photon, which has no mass, be deflected by gravitation? And why do objects of different masses fall at the same speed?

In this context, how did Galileo’s discoveries guide Einstein to the theory of special relativity, and then to the theory of general relativity? Does the latter encompass the former? And in what cases are these theories applicable?

What if the most visible force in our everyday lives was not a force but a property of space-time?

These are all questions that the pre-university week participants will try to answer during one week. From Newton’s first law of motion to special relativity, and then from Newton’s second law of motion to general relativity, the high school students will follow the footsteps that led to discoveries at the basis of today’s work on the origin of the Universe, gravitational waves, and black holes.

Conferences as well as visits of EPFL labs complete the program of this pre-university week.

In order to explain the conceptual trajectory that will lead us from Galileo-Newton space-time to the space-time of special relativity and then general relativity, the pre-university week will very much rely on mathematics, which are at the very heart of our modern understanding of physics. No prerequisites are required beyond 2 years high school background, and the desire to follow the reasoning that laid the foundations for modern physics in its original and universal language. Furthermore, the participants will have the opportunity to choose a group research project among several topics (some involving mathematics and others not).

Practical information

When and where
April 8-12, 2024 at EPFL (Lausanne)
From 9:00 to 17:00 (to be confirmed); a detailed program with the final schedule will be sent to the participants.
High school students from 2nd year onwards. A strong interest in cosmology, theoretical physics and mathematics is required.
Teaching staff
Dr Nicolas Michel, EPFL graduate in physics and mathematics and high school teacher, accompanied by several EPFL students
CHF 50.- (excluding VAT).
Lunch on the first day will be provided. Lunch on the other days and any accommodation costs are at the charge of the participants.
Online registration is closed.

Each student may register for one pre-university week per school year.
Exceptions may be considered if sufficient places are available.
Please contact the Education Outreach Department for any question: [email protected]

Optional readings

No specific prerequisites are necessary to attend this pre-university week beyond a keen interest in astrophysics, cosmology and epistemology. Therefore, the reading of one of the three books mentioned below could be interesting in the context of this pre-university week:

  • Hawking, Stephen. Une brève histoire du temps. Flammarion, 2018
  • Schutz, Bernard. Gravity from the Ground Up: An Introductory Guide to Gravity and General Relativity. Cambridge University Press, 2003
  • Weinberg, Steven. Les Trois Premières Minutes de l’univers. Nouvelle éd. Paris: Seuil, 1988

This pre-university week is offered jointly by EPFL’s Education Outreach Department and the Swiss Study Foundation.