The equations were first published by Einstein in 1915 in the form of a tensor equation which related the local spacetime curvature (expressed by the Einstein tensor) with the local energy, momentum and stress within that spacetime (expressed by the stress-energy tensor).
Analogously to the way that electromagnetic fields are related to the distribution of charges and currents via Maxwell's equations, the EFE relate the spacetime geometry to the distribution of mass-energy, momentum and stress, that is, they determine the metric tensor of spacetime for a given arrangement of stress-energy-momentum in the spacetime. The relationship between the metric tensor and the Einstein tensor allows the EFE to be written as a set of non-linear partial differential equations when used in this way. The solutions of the EFE are the components of the metric tensor. The inertial trajectories of particles and radiation (geodesics) in the resulting geometry are then calculated using the geodesic equation.
As well as implying local energy-momentum conservation, the EFE reduce to Newton's law of gravitation in the limit of a weak gravitational field and velocities that are much less than the speed of light.
Exact solutions for the EFE can only be found under simplifying assumptions such as symmetry. Special classes of exact solutions are most often studied since they model many gravitational phenomena, such as rotating black holes and the expanding universe. Further simplification is achieved in approximating the spacetime as having only small deviations from flat spacetime, leading to the linearized EFE. These equations are used to study phenomena such as gravitational waves.
The Einstein tensor is defined as
The EFE can thus also be written as
In standard units, each term on the left has units of 1/length2.
The expression on the left represents the curvature of spacetime as determined by the metric; the expression on the right represents the matter-energy content of spacetime. The EFE can then be interpreted as a set of equations dictating how matter-energy determines the curvature of spacetime.
The EFE is a tensor equation relating a set of symmetric 4 × 4 tensors. Each tensor has 10 independent components. The four Bianchi identities reduce the number of independent equations from 10 to 6, leaving the metric with four gauge-fixing degrees of freedom, which correspond to the freedom to choose a coordinate system.
Although the Einstein field equations were initially formulated in the context of a four-dimensional theory, some theorists have explored their consequences in n dimensions. The equations in contexts outside of general relativity are still referred to as the Einstein field equations. The vacuum field equations (obtained when T is everywhere zero) define Einstein manifolds.
The equations are more complex than they appear. Given a specified distribution of matter and energy in the form of a stress-energy tensor, the EFE are understood to be equations for the metric tensor g, since both the Ricci tensor and scalar curvature depend on the metric in a complicated nonlinear manner. When fully written out, the EFE are a system of ten coupled, nonlinear, hyperbolic-elliptic partial differential equations.
The third sign above is related to the choice of convention for the Ricci tensor:
With these definitions Misner, Thorne, and Wheeler classify themselves as (+ + +), whereas Weinberg (1972) is (+ - -), Peebles (1980) and Efstathiou et al. (1990) are (- + +), Rindler (1977), Atwater (1974), Collins Martin & Squires (1989) and Peacock (1999) are (- + -).
Authors including Einstein have used a different sign in their definition for the Ricci tensor which results in the sign of the constant on the right side being negative:
The sign of the cosmological term would change in both these versions if the (+ - - -) metric sign convention is used rather than the MTW (- + + +) metric sign convention adopted here.
Taking the trace with respect to the metric of both sides of the EFE one gets
where D is the spacetime dimension. Solving for R and substituting this in the original EFE, one gets the following equivalent "trace-reversed" form:
In D = 4 dimensions this reduces to
Reversing the trace again would restore the original EFE. The trace-reversed form may be more convenient in some cases (for example, when one is interested in weak-field limit and can replace g in the expression on the right with the Minkowski metric without significant loss of accuracy).
In the Einstein field equations
the term containing the cosmological constant ? was absent from the version in which he originally published them. Einstein then included the term with the cosmological constant to allow for a universe that is not expanding or contracting. This effort was unsuccessful because:
The inclusion of this term does not create inconsistencies. For many years the cosmological constant was almost universally assumed to be zero. More recent astronomical observations have shown an accelerating expansion of the universe, and to explain this a positive value of ? is needed. The cosmological constant is negligible at the scale of a galaxy or smaller.
Einstein thought of the cosmological constant as an independent parameter, but its term in the field equation can also be moved algebraically to the other side and incorporated as part of the stress-energy tensor:
where it is assumed that ? has SI unit m-2 and ? is defined as above.
The existence of a cosmological constant is thus equivalent to the existence of a vacuum energy and a pressure of opposite sign. This has led to the terms "cosmological constant" and "vacuum energy" being used interchangeably in general relativity.
General relativity is consistent with the local conservation of energy and momentum expressed as
which expresses the local conservation of stress-energy. This conservation law is a physical requirement. With his field equations Einstein ensured that general relativity is consistent with this conservation condition.
The nonlinearity of the EFE distinguishes general relativity from many other fundamental physical theories. For example, Maxwell's equations of electromagnetism are linear in the electric and magnetic fields, and charge and current distributions (i.e. the sum of two solutions is also a solution); another example is Schrödinger's equation of quantum mechanics, which is linear in the wavefunction.
The EFE reduce to Newton's law of gravity by using both the weak-field approximation and the slow-motion approximation. In fact, the constant G appearing in the EFE is determined by making these two approximations.
If the energy-momentum tensor T is zero in the region under consideration, then the field equations are also referred to as the vacuum field equations. By setting T = 0 in the trace-reversed field equations, the vacuum equations can be written as
In the case of nonzero cosmological constant, the equations are
The solutions to the vacuum field equations are called vacuum solutions. Flat Minkowski space is the simplest example of a vacuum solution. Nontrivial examples include the Schwarzschild solution and the Kerr solution.
is used, then the Einstein field equations are called the Einstein-Maxwell equations (with cosmological constant ?, taken to be zero in conventional relativity theory):
Additionally, the covariant Maxwell equations are also applicable in free space:
where the semicolon represents a covariant derivative, and the brackets denote anti-symmetrization. The first equation asserts that the 4-divergence of the 2-form F is zero, and the second that its exterior derivative is zero. From the latter, it follows by the Poincaré lemma that in a coordinate chart it is possible to introduce an electromagnetic field potential A? such that
in which the comma denotes a partial derivative. This is often taken as equivalent to the covariant Maxwell equation from which it is derived. However, there are global solutions of the equation that may lack a globally defined potential.
The solutions of the Einstein field equations are metrics of spacetime. These metrics describe the structure of the spacetime including the inertial motion of objects in the spacetime. As the field equations are non-linear, they cannot always be completely solved (i.e. without making approximations). For example, there is no known complete solution for a spacetime with two massive bodies in it (which is a theoretical model of a binary star system, for example). However, approximations are usually made in these cases. These are commonly referred to as post-Newtonian approximations. Even so, there are several cases where the field equations have been solved completely, and those are called exact solutions.
One can also discover new solutions of the Einstein field equations via the method of orthonormal frames as pioneered by Ellis and MacCallum. In this approach, the Einstein field equations are reduced to a set of coupled, nonlinear, ordinary differential equations. As discussed by Hsu and Wainwright, self-similar solutions to the Einstein field equations are fixed points of the resulting dynamical system. New solutions have been discovered using these methods by LeBlanc and Kohli and Haslam.
The nonlinearity of the EFE makes finding exact solutions difficult. One way of solving the field equations is to make an approximation, namely, that far from the source(s) of gravitating matter, the gravitational field is very weak and the spacetime approximates that of Minkowski space. The metric is then written as the sum of the Minkowski metric and a term representing the deviation of the true metric from the Minkowski metric, ignoring higher-power terms. This linearization procedure can be used to investigate the phenomena of gravitational radiation.
Despite the EFE as written containing the inverse of the metric tensor, they can be arranged in a form that contains the metric tensor in polynomial form and without its inverse. First, the determinant of the metric in 4 dimensions can be written
using the Levi-Civita symbol; and the inverse of the metric in 4 dimensions can be written as:
Substituting this definition of the inverse of the metric into the equations then multiplying both sides by a suitable power of det(g) to eliminate it from the denominator results in polynomial equations in the metric tensor and its first and second derivatives. The action from which the equations are derived can also be written in polynomial form by suitable redefinitions of the fields.