Relativity and the Priesthood of Science
by Tom Bethell: The
Scientific Approach to Budget†Cuts
A major turning
point in the publicís understanding of science came about a century
ago, with the introduction of Einsteinís 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 didnít 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 werenít invited.
(Except that, increasingly, your taxes were expected to pay for
of motion and gravity always were intelligible to the layman, and
could be expressed in plain language. Einsteinís 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.
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 Ė 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, Czechoslovakiaís 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
Beckmannís 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.
theory (1905) has a special difficulty. It baffles almost everyone,
yet nothing more than high school algebra is involved. So itís not
the math. Itís that we must accept something that is impossible
to believe Ė except on Einsteinís authority. If Petr Beckmann is
right, we should reject that authority, as indeed we should reject
authority in all fields of science.
Iíll 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)
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.
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 Ė an instrument
that Michelson had perfected Ė to detect the Earthís passage through
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
Ė the difference being caused by the forward motion of the earth
during the light beamís 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.
result" threw the world of theoretical physics into turmoil.
Michelson, incidentally, never accepted relativity theory.
Ė assumed Ė 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 planeís
sound wave if you are to know the speed with which it approaches
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. Itís important to note that Einstein didnít observe
that in any experiment. He postulated it. He said: "Letís assume
it is true."
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. Itís 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 Ė it is space divided by time.
resorted to a desperate measure Ė turning physics inside out. He
also decided in 1905 that the ether could be dispensed with. It
a moving reference frame, then, space should be observed to contract
and time to slow down. Letís go over this with those spaceships
sometimes used to illustrate Easy Einstein books (Martin Gardnerís
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.
these weird outcomes are simply deductions from Einsteinís 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 Ė although that is a more controversial claim. What
has been observed is that when atomic clocks travel at high
speed through the Earthís 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 Beckmannís alternative. He amends Albert Michelsonís worldview
in a simple way. Following Clerk Maxwellís 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 Ė equal in density everywhere.
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 earthís surface than it is near the moon, for example. The
Sunís gravitational field is much denser near the Sun than it is
in outer space (where it is still not zero). The light medium, then,
we are predominantly in the Earthís field. Jump up, and you come
back down again. To leave that field requires an almighty push Ė
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 Earthís 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 manís
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 Ė 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 Ė assume she has a circular
waist and friction is minimal Ė she will rotate within her skirt.
It wonít swing around with her.
If this analogy
applies to the Earthís field, then a fringe shift should indeed
appear in Michelsonís interferometer, but it will be much smaller
than he anticipated. It so happens that the Earthís 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 Ė a function of the Earthís
rotation Ė would be one ten thousandth of what he expected to see.
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 Beckmannís theory of the ether. Ironically
Hallís experiment was done at Petr Beckmannís home base, the University
of Colorado in Boulder, and while he was there. But he didnít know
about the experiment and Hall didnít know of Beckmannís theory (still
unpublished at that point).
Hall was not
expecting to see this fringe shift and he assumed the effect was
"spurious" Ė 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 wonít return his machine for that reason.
Secondly, interferometer design has changed. The new ones are "fixed"
in a particular direction and use the Earthís rotation to sweep
across the heavens. What is needed is an interferometer that rotates
in the laboratory, as Michelsonís did in 1887 and Hallís did almost
a hundred years later.
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
Beckmannís idea about the ether in 1916. (For details see Ludwik
and the Ether , the first book on the subject). Some
of Einsteinís allies criticized him for restoring the ether, having
abolished it a decade earlier, so it was downplayed.
theory accounts for the bending of light rays from a distant star
as they pass close by the Sun Ė 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 Fermatís Principle
Ė known since the 17th century. (Waves take the path
that minimizes the time of transmission.) We do not need Einsteinís
"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.
come to the equation giving the perihelion of Mercuryís 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. Gerberís result
was publicized by Ernst Mach in his widely read textbook Mechanics.
Einstein said that he hadnít seen Gerberís derivation, which anyway
was "wrong through and through," he said.
believes that Beckmannís theory gives the same results as Einsteinís
general relativity, but by a far simpler method. For various reasons,
Einsteinís 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.
the world of orthodox physics is unwilling to reexamine Einsteinís
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 Ė 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 thatís why the relativists are hanging tough.
[send him mail] is a
senior editor of The American Spectator. His latest books
Einstein: Is Relativity Necessary? and The
Politically Incorrect Guide to Science.
© 2011 by LewRockwell.com. Permission to reprint in whole or in
part is gladly granted, provided full credit is given.