In the context of classical theories of gravitation, the speed of gravity is the speed at which changes in a gravitational field propagate. This is the speed at which a change in the distribution of energy and momentum of matter results in subsequent alteration, at a distance, of the gravitational field which it produces. In a more physically correct sense, the "speed of gravity" refers to the speed of a gravitational wave.
The speed of gravitational waves in the general theory of relativity is equal to the speed of light in vacuum, c. Within the theory of special relativity, the constant c is not exclusively about light; instead it is the highest possible speed for any physical interaction in nature. Formally, c is a conversion factor for changing the unit of time to the unit of space. This makes it the only speed which does not depend either on the motion of an observer or a source of light and/or gravity. Thus, the speed of "light" is also the speed of gravitational waves and any massless particle. Such particles include the gluon (carrier of the strong force), the photons that light waves consist of, and the theoretical gravitons which make up the associated field particles of gravity (a theory of the graviton requires a theory of quantum gravity, however).
The speed of physical changes in a gravitational or electromagnetic field should not be confused with "changes" in the behavior of static fields that are due to pure observer-effects. These changes in direction of a static field, because of relativistic considerations, are the same for an observer when a distant charge is moving, as when an observer (instead) decides to move with respect to a distant charge. Thus, constant motion of an observer with regard to a static charge and its extended static field (either a gravitational or electric field) does not change the field. For static fields, such as the electrostatic field connected with electric charge, or the gravitational field connected to a massive object, the field extends to infinity, and does not propagate. Motion of an observer does not cause the direction of such a field to change, and by symmetrical considerations, changing the observer frame so that the charge appears to be moving at a constant rate, also does not cause the direction of its field to change, but requires that it continue to "point" in the direction of the charge, at all distances from the charge.
The consequence of this, is that static fields (either electric or gravitational) always point directly to the actual position of the bodies that they are connected to, without any delay that is due to any "signal" traveling (or propagating) from the charge, over a distance to an observer. This remains true if the charged bodies and their observers are made to "move" (or not), by simply changing reference frames. This fact sometimes causes confusion about the "speed" of such static fields, which sometimes appear to change infinitely quickly when the changes in the field are mere artifacts of the motion of the observer, or of observation.
In such cases, nothing actually changes infinitely quickly, save the point of view of an observer of the field. For example, when an observer begins to move with respect to a static field that already extends over light years, it appears as though "immediately" the entire field, along with its source, has begun moving at the speed of the observer. This, of course, includes the extended parts of the field. However, this "change" in the apparent behavior of the field source, along with its distant field, does not represent any sort of propagation that is faster than light.
Famous quotes containing the words speed of, speed and/or gravity:
“The terror of the atom age is not the violence of the new power but the speed of mans adjustment to itthe speed of his acceptance.”
—E.B. (Elwyn Brooks)
“Life is too short to waste
In critic peep or cynic bark,
Quarrel or reprimand:
Twill soon be dark;
Up, heed thine own aim, and
God speed the mark!”
—Ralph Waldo Emerson (18031882)
“Here I sit down to form characters. One I intend to be all goodness; All goodness he is. Another I intend to be all gravity; All gravity he is. Another Lady Gish; All Lady Gish she is. I am all the while absorbed in the character. It is not fair to sayI, identically I, am anywhere, while I keep within the character.”
—Samuel Richardson (16891761)