Relativity and the Priesthood of Science

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A major turning point in the public's understanding of science came about a century ago, with the introduction of Einstein's special and general theories of relativity. Before then, educated laymen were expected to and usually could understand new developments in science, at least in outline. After Einstein this changed. Science moved beyond the ken of educated laymen. You didn't understand what these new arguments were about? Then stick to your poetry, or perhaps your knitting. Science was becoming a private party to which you weren't invited. (Except that, increasingly, your taxes were expected to pay for it.)

Newton's laws of motion and gravity always were intelligible to the layman, and could be expressed in plain language. Einstein's relativity changed that, in the direction of reduced clarity, intelligibility and vastly increased complexity. I shall go further and say that relativity failed to improve on Newtonian physics in terms of accuracy.

Recently I wrote a book about relativity, Questioning Einstein: Is Relativity Necessary? It was based on the research and arguments of Petr Beckmann, who taught electrical engineering at the University of Colorado after defecting from Czechoslovakia in 1963. He wrote books that were both popular (A History of Pi) and obscure (The Scattering of Electromagnetic Waves from Rough Surfaces), and late in life he published Einstein Plus Two (1987).

He argued that the facts that led to relativity could more easily be explained by classical physics — without relativity. His book was in many ways technical, but before he died (in 1993) he reviewed it for my benefit in a series of tape-recorded interviews.

I was already familiar with his newsletter Access to Energy. An excellent popularizer of science, Beckmann could have written a popular anti-relativity book himself and had considered doing so. But he believed that it would be ignored. A technical one just might be accepted, he thought. He was wrong about that. His book was neither attacked nor even reviewed. It sold quite well, however, because he advertised it. I told him that I would write the popular account myself.

I still have my tapes, in which he talks not just about relativity but about his high school education in England, Czechoslovakia's postwar tumble into Communism and much else. The son of secular Jews in Prague, he was among the refugee children, known as Kinder-Transport, who were brought to England in 1939.

He died long before I could write my book. But by then Howard Hayden, with the Physics Department at the University of Connecticut, had accepted Beckmann's arguments. Today Hayden is retired, and the publisher of a newsletter, The Energy Advocate. The help he gave me in writing my book was indispensable.

It came out in 2009. I am glad to say that it just received a favorable review in The Physics Teacher [Feb 2011 issue].

In the course of writing the book I found that many physicists are uncomfortable discussing relativity theory. They believe it is true, but they doubt their ability to explain it. Few can respond to questions if they have not actually taught relativity at the university level. And that is a tiny subset of all physicists.

Special relativity theory (1905) has a special difficulty. It baffles almost everyone, yet nothing more than high school algebra is involved. So it's not the math. It's that we must accept something that is impossible to believe — except on Einstein's authority. If Petr Beckmann is right, we should reject that authority, as indeed we should reject authority in all fields of science.

I'll try to explain that difficulty. But first let me make a simple clarification. What about E = mc2, you might ask. Surely that must be true, and was it not based on relativity? It is the one thing that laymen know about relativity. And here we come to something that the Easy Einstein books (and most of the not-so-easy ones) never tell you. Yes, the famous equation was derived from relativity theory, but Einstein himself also derived it, years later (in the 1940s) without relativity.

A similar adjustment, in which relativity can be shown to be unnecessary, applies across the entire field.

It was the Michelson-Morley experiment of 1887 that launched special relativity. It involves only unaccelerated, linear motion. If curved motion, acceleration, or gravity, are involved, then we must turn to general relativity (1916), where the math gets much more difficult.

Albert Michelson, the first American to win the Nobel Prize in Physics, attempted to detect the passage of the orbiting earth through the ether (sometimes spelled aether). It is the medium in which light waves travel. Just as sound travels in its medium, air, so light waves need a medium, too. As the earth orbits the Sun at a speed of about 48 miles per second, it should be possible, using an interferometer — an instrument that Michelson had perfected — to detect the Earth's passage through that ether.

Michelson's idea was that there should be a difference in the measured speed of the to-and-fro motion of a light beam within the interferometer — the difference being caused by the forward motion of the earth during the light beam's time of transmission. The difference in light speed would cause a "fringe shift" to be seen in the interferometer, which was sensitive enough to detect such an effect. But no such fringe shift could be detected.

This "null result" threw the world of theoretical physics into turmoil. Michelson, incidentally, never accepted relativity theory.

Einstein postulated — assumed — that the speed of light is a constant irrespective of the motion, not just of the light source, but also of the observer. And that "observer" part was very hard to accept. A sound wave travels at a constant speed in air (of a given temperature and density) whatever the motion of the sound source. Sound from an airplane travels forward at a speed that is unaffected by the speed of the plane. But if you travel toward that approaching sound wave then you must add your speed to that of the plane's sound wave if you are to know the speed with which it approaches you.

But Einstein decreed that the simple "addition of velocities" that applies to sound does not hold true for light. Light waves approach us at the same speed whether we travel toward or away from that light beam. It's important to note that Einstein didn't observe that in any experiment. He postulated it. He said: "Let's assume it is true."

What follows from it?

Well, speed is distance divided by time. When you move toward that light beam, which (Einstein said) always approaches at a constant speed irrespective of how you (the observer) move, then space must contract, and time must dilate to exactly the extent that is needed to ensure that the light approaches at an ever-constant speed. It's a bizarre claim. What Einstein did was take the fundamentals of physics, space and time, and argue that they must be subordinated to a velocity. Yet velocity is a mere derivative — it is space divided by time.

Einstein had resorted to a desperate measure — turning physics inside out. He also decided in 1905 that the ether could be dispensed with. It was "superfluous."

Observed from a moving reference frame, then, space should be observed to contract and time to slow down. Let's go over this with those spaceships sometimes used to illustrate Easy Einstein books (Martin Gardner's Relativity Simply Explained, for example). You are inside your spaceship, so from your point of view nothing about it is moving. So space and time are not affected within your ship.

But if you look out of a window you see a replica space ship passing you and (in accordance with relativity theory) it looks foreshortened because it is moving fast relative to you. Clocks as you see them in the other spaceship are running slowly. By the same token, observers within that spaceship see your ship as compressed, and your clocks running slowly, even though your clocks and structures look perfectly normal to you.

Notice that these weird outcomes are simply deductions from Einstein's postulate about the speed of light. They are not dictated nor confirmed by any observation or experiment. In subsequent experiments, no space contraction has ever been observed. No time dilation has been seen either — although that is a more controversial claim. What has been observed is that when atomic clocks travel at high speed through the Earth's gravitational field, they slow down. But clocks slowing down and time slowing down are two very different things. Only the former has been observed.

And this brings us to Beckmann's alternative. He amends Albert Michelson's worldview in a simple way. Following Clerk Maxwell's lead, Michelson assumed that the ether, the luminiferous medium, was made of a fine-grained substance that fills the entirety of space uniformly. The emphasis is on the last word. The ether was thought to be a uniform entity — equal in density everywhere.

Petr Beckman made a different claim. He argued that the ether is equivalent to the gravitational field, which of course is non-uniform. It is denser at the earth's surface than it is near the moon, for example. The Sun's gravitational field is much denser near the Sun than it is in outer space (where it is still not zero). The light medium, then, is non-uniform.

Obviously, we are predominantly in the Earth's field. Jump up, and you come back down again. To leave that field requires an almighty push — from Saturn rockets. When Michelson did his experiment, with the help of Edward Morley (at the Case School in Ohio) he assumed that his interferometer was moving through the ether at the Earth's orbital velocity. But if the ether is the local gravitational field, then that field is moving right along with us. In the same way, a man's shadow accompanies him as he runs. So the "fringe shift" that Michelson expected to see would not be there, because the relative velocity of the Earth and the ether would be . . . what, zero?

Here we encounter a twist — literally. The Earth also rotates on its axis, and it rotates within its gravitational field. Analogously, if a woman wearing a hoop skirt does a pirouette — assume she has a circular waist and friction is minimal — she will rotate within her skirt. It won't swing around with her.

If this analogy applies to the Earth's field, then a fringe shift should indeed appear in Michelson's interferometer, but it will be much smaller than he anticipated. It so happens that the Earth's orbital velocity is close to 100 times greater than its rotational velocity in the latitude of Cleveland and, for reasons that need not detain us, that figures has to be squared. It follows that the fringe shift that the Michelson experiment generated — a function of the Earth's rotation — would be one ten thousandth of what he expected to see.

There was no way that so small an effect could be detected using 19th century equipment. But modern interferometers and laser beams can do so. In fact the most sensitive interferometer experiment ever conducted, by John Hall in 1979, did detect a fringe shift of the correct magnitude, confirming Beckmann's theory of the ether. Ironically Hall's experiment was done at Petr Beckmann's home base, the University of Colorado in Boulder, and while he was there. But he didn't know about the experiment and Hall didn't know of Beckmann's theory (still unpublished at that point).

Hall was not expecting to see this fringe shift and he assumed the effect was "spurious" — the artifact of a design error in his own equipment. In an interview with me in 2004, Hall (who won the Nobel Prize in Physics but not for this experiment) agreed that his 1979 experiment should be redone. But he is unable to repeat it for two reasons. First, the rotating interferometer that he used had been stored away in the Rocky Mountain Arsenal where the Federal government was making nerve gas; they won't return his machine for that reason. Secondly, interferometer design has changed. The new ones are "fixed" in a particular direction and use the Earth's rotation to sweep across the heavens. What is needed is an interferometer that rotates in the laboratory, as Michelson's did in 1887 and Hall's did almost a hundred years later.

Beckmann's theory, that the luminiferous ether is equivalent to the local gravitational field, accounts for the observations that confirmed general relativity, but does so far more simply. Amazingly, Einstein himself revived Beckmann's idea about the ether in 1916. (For details see Ludwik Kostro's Einstein and the Ether [2000], the first book on the subject). Some of Einstein's allies criticized him for restoring the ether, having abolished it a decade earlier, so it was downplayed.

Beckmann's theory accounts for the bending of light rays from a distant star as they pass close by the Sun — the 1919 observation that made Einstein world famous. If a medium in which a wave travels is non-uniform, it will slew the wave front around in accordance in Fermat's Principle — known since the 17th century. (Waves take the path that minimizes the time of transmission.) We do not need Einstein's "curvature of four dimensional space-time," which, as Edward Teller told me, is not an intelligible idea, no matter how much we may pretend we do understand it.

Finally, we come to the equation giving the perihelion of Mercury's orbit. Einstein derived it in 1915 using general relativity. But Beckmann points out that this equation had already been published by a high school teacher named Paul Gerber in 1898, well before relativity theory was known. Gerber assumed that gravity propagates with a finite speed, not instantaneously as Newton had argued. Gerber's result was publicized by Ernst Mach in his widely read textbook Mechanics. Einstein said that he hadn't seen Gerber's derivation, which anyway was "wrong through and through," he said.

Howard Hayden believes that Beckmann's theory gives the same results as Einstein's general relativity, but by a far simpler method. For various reasons, Einstein's special relativity should be discarded. It gives the wrong results for stellar aberration, among other defects. There is also a real question whether any experiment done on the surface of the Earth (a "spinning ball," as John Hall told me) fits the requirements of special relativity. On the surface of any spinning ball, the effects of acceleration will always appear as long as the experiment is sufficiently sensitive.

At present, the world of orthodox physics is unwilling to reexamine Einstein's relativity, whether special or general. It would fall apart if subjected to real scrutiny, I believe. But in science (and perhaps everything else) the simple should always be preferred to the complex — all else being equal. Such a revision, if it ever came to pass, would also constitute a serious challenge to the priesthood of science. Perhaps that's why the relativists are hanging tough.

Tom Bethell [send him mail] is a senior editor of The American Spectator. His latest books are Questioning Einstein: Is Relativity Necessary? and The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science.

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