History of gravitational theory
Scientific revolutionModern work on gravitational theory began with the work of Galileo Galilei in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. In his famous (though possibly apocryphal) experiment dropping balls from the Tower of Pisa, and later with careful measurements of balls rolling down inclines, Galileo showed that gravitation accelerates all objects at the same rate. This was a major departure from Aristotle's belief that heavier objects accelerate faster. Galileo correctly postulated air resistance as the reason that lighter objects may fall more slowly in an atmosphere. Galileo's work set the stage for the formulation of Newton's theory of gravity.
Newton's theory of gravitationIn 1687, English mathematician Sir Isaac Newton published Principia, which hypothesizes the inverse-square law of universal gravitation. In his own words, “I deduced that the forces which keep the planets in their orbs must [be] reciprocally as the squares of their distances from the centers about which they revolve: and thereby compared the force requisite to keep the Moon in her Orb with the force of gravity at the surface of the Earth; and found them answer pretty nearly.”
Newton's theory enjoyed its greatest success when it was used to predict the existence of Neptune based on motions of Uranus that could not be accounted for by the actions of the other planets. Calculations by both John Couch Adams and Urbain Le Verrier predicted the general position of the planet, and Le Verrier's calculations are what led Johann Gottfried Galle to the discovery of Neptune.
A discrepancy in Mercury's orbit pointed out flaws in Newton's theory. By the end of the 19th century, it was known that its orbit showed slight perturbations that could not be accounted for entirely under Newton's theory, but all searches for another perturbing body (such as a planet orbiting the Sun even closer than Mercury) had been fruitless. The issue was resolved in 1915 by Albert Einstein's new theory of general relativity, which accounted for the small discrepancy in Mercury's orbit.
Although Newton's theory has been superseded, most modern non-relativistic gravitational calculations are still made using Newton's theory because it is a much simpler theory to work with than general relativity, and gives sufficiently accurate results for most applications involving sufficiently small masses, speeds and energies.