In popular science books and articles, I keep running into the claim that the total energy of the Universe is zero, "because the positive energy of matter is cancelled out by the negative energy of the gravitational field".

But I can't find anything concrete to substantiate this claim. As a first check, I did a calculation to compute the gravitational potential energy of a sphere of uniform density of radius R using Newton's Laws and threw in $E=m{c}^2$ for energy of the sphere, and it was by no means obvious that the answer is zero !

So, my questions:

  1. What is the basis for the claim – does one require general relativity, or can one get it from Newtonian gravity ?

  2. What conditions do you require in the model, in order for this to work ?

  3. Could someone please refer me to a good paper about this ?

  • $\begingroup$ A good question for astronomyoverflow.net, if it exists. $\endgroup$ – Victor Protsak Sep 14 '10 at 7:56
  • $\begingroup$ I've been searching the astronomy and physics blogs, but they all seem to state the result without further backup. Plus, the conditions under which this holds are nowhere clarified. It made me think this may be a question for mathematical physicists. $\endgroup$ – Cosmonut Sep 14 '10 at 8:02
  • $\begingroup$ I'm not sure but I think this notion became popular in the context of renormalization, where it was tempting to interpret the somewhat ad hoc technique of 'subtracting the infinities' as correctly setting arbitrary constants to match the correct total energy content. There is a brief mention of the idea you refer to in the preface to the Feynman Lectures on Gravitation. Perhaps there are some other pointers there but I don't recall. $\endgroup$ – Q.Q.J. Sep 14 '10 at 8:26
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    $\begingroup$ Energy (in classical physics) is only defined up to constants... Let's normalize it to $0$... q.e.d. $\endgroup$ – Helge Sep 14 '10 at 8:48
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    $\begingroup$ Crossposted to physics.stackexchange.com/q/2838/2451 $\endgroup$ – Qmechanic Aug 4 '15 at 19:20

In fact, two very well-known mathematicians, Schoen and Yau, in a much quoted paper, proved the long standing conjecture that the ADM mass is always POSITIVE (except for flat space). Here is the reference and abstract:

Commun. math. Phys. 65, 45--76 (1979)
On the Proof of the Positive Mass Conjecture in General Relativity
Richard Schoen and Shing-Tung Yau
Abstract. Let M be a space-time whose local mass density is non-negative everywhere. Then we prove that the total mass of M as viewed from spatial infinity (the ADM mass) must be positive unless M is the fiat Minkowski space-time. (So far we are making the reasonable assumption of the existence of a maximal spacelike hypersurface. We will treat this topic separately.) We can generalize our result to admit wormholes in the initial-data set. In fact, we show that the total mass associated with each asymptotic regime is non- negative with equality only if the space-time :is fiat.

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    $\begingroup$ And a very well-known mathematical physicist (Edward Witten) gave a beautiful proof of the Schoen-Yau theorem using spinorial methods which have since proved extremely useful: A new proof of the positive energy theorem, Comm. Math. Phys. 80, 381-402 (1981). $\endgroup$ – José Figueroa-O'Farrill Sep 14 '10 at 16:40
  • $\begingroup$ Curiouser and curiouser ! The claim that the total energy of the Universe is zero is usually used to make the grander claim that "hence, the Universe could spontaneously arise from Nothing without violating conservation of energy". But Shing-Yau result suggests that the zero energy claim and its corollary is nonsense !! Thanks. Let me post this on some physics blogs and see what they have to say. $\endgroup$ – Cosmonut Sep 14 '10 at 17:11
  • $\begingroup$ You're welcome. That's one of my favourite papers! $\endgroup$ – José Figueroa-O'Farrill Sep 15 '10 at 21:18
  • $\begingroup$ @Cosmonut: at some point you should stop reading popular science books and actually study the physics. There you'll find out that (1) quantum gravity is not solved, and it is not clear whether it necessarily obeys "conservation of energy" (2) the concept of an "energy" is not well defined for gravity. For the latter you may want to consult relativity.livingreviews.org/Articles/lrr-2009-4 $\endgroup$ – Willie Wong Sep 21 '10 at 17:36
  • $\begingroup$ @Willie: Yes, I am aware that quantum gravity is not solved. But I got intrigued when Sean Carroll mentioned the "zero energy" result the Cosmic Variance blog, giving the impression that it was an established consequences of classical general relativity. Learning the actual physics is definitely on the cards - but so much to do, so little time... $\endgroup$ – Cosmonut Sep 25 '10 at 18:16

In the context of general relativity, the universe is described as a lorentzian spacetime subject to a coupled system of PDEs konwn as the Einstein field equations. These relate the curvature of the spacetime to a tensor field depending on the matter distribution. More precisely, the Einstein field equations say that in some units the Einstein tensor of the spacetime equals the energy-momentum tensor of the matter distribution. The claim you have come across is probably just a paraphrase of the Einstein field equations.

The truth lies elsewhere, as usual. In a gravitational theory energy is tricky to define. The reason is that it is not a function, but simply a component of a tensor and as such it does not have an invariant meaning and depends on a choice of coordinates.

The way relativists get around this problem (in some cases) is the so-called ADM energy. Essentially for spacetimes with "nice" asymptotics, by which one means spacetimes which are asymptotically flat, or more generally asymptotically to a spacetime of constant sectional curvature, one can define a notion of energy (often called mass) by subtracting off the energy of the asymptotic geometry.

The wikipedia article on mass in general relativity goes into more detail and has some links.


When people claim that total energy is zero in a gravitational theory, they usually mean something kind of trivial. In an ordinary field theory, we can define the stress-energy tensor by varying the Lagrangian with respect to the metric. But in a gravitational theory, the metric is a dynamical field, so this variation just gives an equation of motion for the metric that should be zero on a classical solution.

What I've just said sounds fairly classical; the Wheeler-DeWitt equation is a version of this idea in the quantum context.

At low energies, where gravity is weak, you can of course just talk about the energy of a configuration of matter, independent of gravity, but this will not be conserved in general relativity. (A cosmological constant is a standard example where you can see that it's hard to make sense of energy conservation in the presence of gravity.)

As the others have said, the ADM energy is sometimes a more useful definition of energy in GR.


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