General relativity, also known as the general theory of relativity and Einstein's theory of gravity, is the geometric theory of gravitation published by Albert Einstein in 1915 and is the current description of gravitation in modern physics. General relativity generalizes special relativity and refines Newton's law of universal gravitation, providing a unified description of gravity as a geometric property of space and time or four-dimensional spacetime. In particular, the curvature of spacetime is directly related to the energy and momentum of whatever matter and radiation are present. The relation is specified by the Einstein field equations, a system of second order partial differential equations.
Newton's law of universal gravitation, which describes classical gravity, can be seen as a prediction of general relativity for the almost flat spacetime geometry around stationary mass distributions. Some predictions of general relativity, however, are beyond Newton's law of universal gravitation in classical physics. These predictions concern the passage of time, the geometry of space, the motion of bodies in free fall, and the propagation of light, and include gravitational time dilation, gravitational lensing, the gravitational redshift of light, the Shapiro time delay and singularities/black holes. So far, all tests of general relativity have been shown to be in agreement with the theory. The time dependent solutions of general relativity enable us to talk about the history of the universe and have provided the modern framework for cosmology, thus leading to the discovery of the Big Bang and cosmic microwave background radiation. Despite the introduction of a number of alternative theories, general relativity continues to be the simplest theory consistent with experimental data.
Reconciliation of general relativity with the laws of quantum physics remains a problem, however, as there is a lack of a self-consistent theory of quantum gravity. It is not yet known how gravity can be unified with the three non-gravitational forces: strong, weak and electromagnetic.
Einstein's theory has astrophysical implications, including the prediction of black holes—regions of space in which space and time are distorted in such a way that nothing, not even light, can escape from them. Black holes are the end-state for massive stars. Microquasars and active galactic nuclei are believed to be stellar black holes and supermassive black holes. It also predicts gravitational lensing, where the bending of light results in multiple images of the same distant astronomical phenomenon. Other predictions include the existence of gravitational waves, which have been observed directly by the physics collaboration LIGO and other observatories. In addition, general relativity has provided the base of cosmological models of an expanding universe.
In the preface to Relativity: The Special and the General Theory, Einstein said "The present book is intended, as far as possible, to give an exact insight into the theory of Relativity to those readers who, from a general scientific and philosophical point of view, are interested in the theory, but who are not conversant with the mathematical apparatus of theoretical physics. The work presumes a standard of education corresponding to that of a university matriculation examination, and, despite the shortness of the book, a fair amount of patience and force of will on the part of the reader. The author has spared himself no pains in his endeavour to present the main ideas in the simplest and most intelligible form, and on the whole, in the sequence and connection in which they actually originated."
Widely acknowledged as a theory of extraordinary beauty, general relativity has often been described as the most beautiful of all existing physical theories.