If you’re tired of hearing about creationists and the war against Darwinism, you might be surprised to learn that another pillar of modern science, Einstein and his theory of relativity, is under attack.
An underground of “dissident” scientists and self-described experts publish their theories in newsletters and on the Web, exchanging ideas in a great battle against “the temple of relativity.” According to these critics, relativity is not only wrong, it’s an affront to common sense, and its creator, Albert Einstein, was a cheat.
A review of anti-relativity proponents and their publications reveals a plethora of alternative theories about how the universe really works. In spite of their many differences, common themes do emerge: resentment of academic “elites,” suspicion and resentment of the entire peer-review process in the mainstream scientific journals and a deep strain of paranoia about government involvement in scientific projects.
Some, like Ruggero Santilli, an Italian physicist, have published hysterical attacks on mainstream science. Santilli maintained in his book “Il Grande Grido: Ethical Probe on Einstein’s Followers in the U.S.A.” that physicists Sidney Coleman, Sheldon Glashow and Steven Weinberg (the latter two are Nobel laureates) conspired to frustrate his attempts to conduct research on his theories to disprove relativity while he was at Harvard. The late Petr Beckmann, a professor of electrical engineering at the University of Colorado, self-published his theory about why relativity is wrong and started a newsletter called Galilean Electrodynamics, which has been carried on by his followers (although it isn’t clear from recent issues that they still believe in their founder’s theory).
The list goes on. Is this a new front in the war on science? Does the Kansas State Board of Education now need to take a vote on relativity?
The anti-relativity movement started as soon as Einstein’s first paper on special relativity was published, in 1905; some scientists disputed its assertion that the old Newtonian concepts of absolute space and time — never scientifically established — were superfluous. Indeed, the attempt to restore these concepts to mainstream physics forms the essential foundation of almost every crank theory since.
Even more enraging to some scientists and engineers was the worldwide fame Einstein attained with the publication in 1916 of his general theory of relativity, which extended special relativity and offered a radically new explanation for gravity.
A number of Germans, many of them anti-Semites, despised Einstein’s socialist views and envied his fame. In 1920, for example, an unseemly demonstration by a right-wing group at the Berlin Philharmonic Hall denounced Einstein’s theory as “scientific dadaism” and a publicity stunt. They also accused him of plagiarizing the formula of a hapless German schoolmaster for his own benefit.
Outside Germany, however, Einstein’s theory also met resistance. Albert Michelson, the American who devised the famous failed experiment to detect the ether, the absolute medium that 19th century scientists supposed responsible for the propagation of light waves through space, never accepted relativity. He politely admitted this to Einstein when they met. The Michelson Morley experiment is popularly (and inaccurately) taken to be the inspiration for Einstein’s special relativity.
After his retirement in the 1930s Herbert Ives, a respected engineer for Bell Telephone Laboratories who helped develop television in the United States, spent years conducting his own experiments to try to prove the existence of the ether. He denigrated Einstein in his personal letters as “a great paradox swallower” and a bungler who stumbled onto the right answers using wrong methods.
More recently, astronomer Tom Van Flandern, who once worked for the U.S. Naval Observatory in Washington and who conducts eclipse expedition tours and runs a Web site with a newsletter that promotes interest in scientific ideas “outside of the mainstream of theories in Astronomy,” claims to have discovered a dirty secret. Van Flandern was hired to do some consulting work for the physics department at the University of Maryland on the global positioning system (GPS), the ring of 24 satellites circling the Earth, which, among other convenient attributes, will be able to pinpoint precise locations for befuddled automobile drivers anywhere on the planet. According to him, the confusing “rigmarole” of relativity isn’t needed to maintain the GPS, even though it clearly should be.
Van Flandern has argued that because of Einstein’s theory of relativity, clock rates on GPS satellites should need to be adjusted continuously to keep them in sync with users on Earth. But they’re not, he told the American Spectator (April 1999). The GPS programmers don’t need relativity. “They have basically blown off Einstein,” Van Flandern says.
Is this true? Could this be a real crack in the “temple” of Einstein’s theory?
I asked Neil Ashby, a professor of physics who works at the University of Colorado and specializes in theoretical general relativity with practical applications. “I am acquainted with Tom Van Flandern and his view,” he told me. “It is incorrect to claim that no relativistic corrections are used after launch. Actually because GPS satellites are in eccentric orbits, they suffer frequency variations due to their varying speeds and varying heights above the Earth’s surface. Information is transmitted down to the receivers from each satellite, which enables receivers to make a relativistic correction which accounts for these effects.”
He added: “Einstein has not been ‘blown off.’ On the contrary, a great deal of thought has gone into the problem and all of the known special and general relativistic effects have been accounted for if they are predicted to be big enough to be important.”
Other gravitation specialists, such as Charles Misner at the University of Maryland, Lawrence Mead of the University of Southern Mississippi, Clifford Will of the University of Washington in St. Louis and Steve Carlip of the University of California at Davis, confirm that special and general relativity are built into the software for GPS.
But the most interesting aspect of Van Flandern’s objections to relativity bears directly on Einstein himself and his professional integrity. According to Van Flandern, Einstein cheated.
Van Flandern told the American Spectator’s Washington correspondent, Tom Bethell, that he had reason to believe Einstein manipulated his field equations for one of his most momentous predictions: the advance of the perihelion of Mercury, the point in orbit where a planet is closest to the sun. Astronomers have long observed that this point, like the oval end of an ellipse drawn with a spirograph, is itself subject to motion, and over the years revolves around the sun just like the planet itself. In the case of Mercury, this effect is pronounced. It was assumed to be due to gravity and the closeness of the planet to the sun, but Newtonian theory could never predict its advance accurately. It was a classic problem by the time Einstein came along, and his general theory of relativity solved it immediately.
Too brilliantly, for some.
According to the Spectator’s account, Van Flandern “asked a colleague at the University of Maryland, who as a young man had overlapped with Einstein at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study, how, in his opinion, Einstein had arrived at the correct multiplier. This man said it was his impression that, ‘knowing the answer,’ Einstein had ‘jiggered the arguments until they came out with the right value.’”
Curious why the source for this remarkable claim was never named, I contacted Bethell, who told me he was not given permission to name the source. Van Flandern was even more mysterious: “There’s a reason,” he wrote, “why that person was not quoted by name.” He then suggested I send him any queries, which he could forward to this source for consideration.
Instead, I went to the University of Maryland on the Web, where a search revealed five working physicists who got their doctorates from Princeton within the decade after Einstein’s death.
One of them is Carroll Alley, who received his degree in 1962. When I called him to ask about the mysterious quote, he told me he had indeed hired Van Flandern to do some work in celestial mechanics. As for knowing Einstein personally, Alley recounted how he had had the pleasure of attending the last lecture given by the great physicist before his death in 1955.
When asked about the claim that Einstein manipulated his equations to get a correct prediction, Alley, acknowledging that he was indeed the mystery man quoted in Bethell’s article, told me, “That was not an accurate quote.”
What he did say was that Einstein knew that Mercury’s observed perihelion was 43 arc seconds per century more than predicted by Newton’s theory. “A lot of people say that he didn’t know it, but he did,” said Alley. This is no surprise to anyone familiar with the history of astronomy or the various biographies of Einstein written by Ronald Clark, Abraham Pais and Albrecht Fvlsing.
Indeed, the burning question at the time Einstein was working on general relativity was not what the perihelion figure was, but how to account for it without making special assumptions. This is a key point, because cranks offer all sorts of counter theories that rely on nothing but special assumptions.
In short, to say that Einstein knew what the correct prediction should be and that he “jiggered” his multipliers to get it are two very different statements, the latter of which Alley disavowed in our conversation.
I contacted Van Flandern for clarification about the quote he had given to the Spectator regarding Einstein’s alleged tampering. “Basically,” he answered, “the choice of coefficients of potential phi in the space-time metric is arbitrary. Einstein knew the unmodeled perihelion motion of Mercury, and therefore confined his attention to metrics that predicted this quantity correctly.”
I asked Carlip whether this made any sense.
“No, it makes no sense at all. Van Flandern seems to have invented a free parameter where none exists. There is one free parameter, but it’s just Newton’s gravitational constant, G, and is fixed completely by the requirement that the theory reduce to Newtonian gravity in the weak-field, low-velocity limit. Once you’ve fixed that, everything else is completely determined.” According to Carlip, “Van Flandern seems to be under the impression that there are a bunch of adjustable parameters in general relativity that can be fiddled with. This is certainly not true.”
“As far as I can tell,” he added, “Van Flandern simply doesn’t understand the Einstein field equations.”
Other physicists I queried also flatly reject the notion that Einstein ever fooled with his figures. “I doubt very much that Einstein had any problem calculating [the perihelion],” wrote Ted Jacobson, a gravitation specialist at the University of Maryland. Ashby agreed, as did Lee Smolin, a specialist in general relativity at the University of Pennsylvania and author of “The Life of the Cosmos”: “I have also personally checked the calculations about the perihelion of Mercury, as have I’m sure thousands of other people.”
Michel Janssen and John Stachel have been working on the Einstein Papers Project at Boston University, reviewing the letters and papers of Einstein for publication in a new series. Janssen in particular worked closely on a review of Einstein’s Mercury paper, and he was not amused about the accusation of fudging.
“Not to put too fine a point on it,” he said, “that is crap.”
I began with a reference to creationists. Could these attacks on Einstein be related to the Christian right’s opposition to Darwin? A cursory search through creationist Web sites shows that a few actually embrace relativity as a tool in their speculations about the true age of the universe. Earlier opposition to relativity did show strains of Christian reaction to the idea that God’s absolute space and time had been somehow dethroned. But classical Christian tradition is more in line with Einstein, if St. Augustine’s ruminations can be taken as indicative.
As to politics, it can’t be said with any confidence that anti-relativity types are registered Republicans either. For example, the editor of Beckmann’s anti-relativity newsletter told me that her contributors cover the entire political spectrum.
On the other hand, Brad DeLong, professor of economics at the University of California at Berkeley, points out that for many conservatives, “The admission that measurements of time and space depend on the motion of the observer is in their minds somehow tied up with the erosion of traditional cultural ‘absolutes,’ and scientific truth should be sacrificed to cultural order whenever necessary.” He cites the writings of Bethell as an example.
According to Smolin, cranks are just a fact of life for working physicists. “Several of us have speculated that there must be a particular psychosis that results in people believing that they have disproved relativity,” he said. “Any of us who are in relativity and at all visible get several communications a month from such people, sometimes in the form of self-published books, sometimes letters, sometimes e-mail.” He added, “Usually they are innocuous, but a few times I have been threatened.”
Owen Gingerich, professor of astronomy and the history of science at Harvard, told me about a character who used to stalk around the Harvard physics department some years ago. “He was a giant hulk of a guy who really put the fear of physical harm into some of the folks over there. I wish I could remember his name, but he was really exercised about special relativity being wrong, and since he has left here he has organized several conferences that seem widely attended by anti-relativity nuts.”
Gerald Holton, Gingerich’s colleague and author of “Einstein, History and Other Passions,” told me: “Yes, I recall the fellow, as described, but happily have suppressed the memory of his name, and not seen him for years.”
Smolin describes another dissenter: “There is presently someone in San Francisco who sends me hate mail often, full of bizarre sexual innuendoes and threats, together with insulting messages about how I am not as smart as I claim to be … but there is never a return address.”
Still, he said, such examples are unusual. “In most cases it is a sad story; sometimes someone has been working for many years on an idea, and has clearly a huge investment in it. Sometimes it literally comes from someone living on a park bench in Rio or in a homeless shelter in New York.
“In all cases it is easy to distinguish them from other members of the public who are interested in science and even from the occasional layperson who has their own theory about physics … Such people are not surprised when you tell them their idea is wrong, and are genuinely interested to have the reasons explained to them.”
Not so with most cranks. Indeed, a perusal of Internet discussion groups reveals just how thin-skinned and obtuse many can be. Beckmann was a case in point. Disappointed when his self-published book “Einstein Plus Two” attracted no attention among physicists, he took to visiting the newsgroups on the Internet and starting “flame wars,” baiting other physicists about shopworn “paradoxes” in relativity — and always dodging specific challenges about his own work.
According to Robert Low, a physicist at Coventry University in England, “I did have some correspondence with Beckmann a few years back; [this] came to an abrupt end when he took exception to something I said … I never once seemed to be able to get him to see the point of any objections to his work.”
Carlip, John Baez of the University of California at Riverside, Tom Roberts at Lucent and other physicists who still visit the discussion groups to answer questions about relativity have had similar experiences. Cranks only want validation of their theories, and often plainly don’t even respond to objections raised by the physicists they approach. Indeed, after perusing the various threads in the discussion group, one can only admire the patience physicists show in the face of the flagrantly insulting jibes and non sequiturs thrown at them. Van Flandern has been a regular visitor to the newsgroups, contending for years that the “speed” of gravity must exceed that of light — in violation of relativity — despite several patient, detailed refutations put to him by Carlip, Baez and Chris Hillman, a mathematician from the University of Washington.
In his book “Cranks, Quarks and the Cosmos,” science writer and physicist Jeremy Bernstein points out that one of the criteria that always defines crank science is its lack of correspondence with the body of scientific knowledge that has gone before it. “I would insist that any proposal for a radically new theory in physics, or in any other science, contain a clear explanation of why the precedent science worked,” he wrote. Einstein did this, as the first page of his paper on special relativity, “On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies,” illustrates perfectly.
In contrast, “The crank,” Bernstein wrote, “is a scientific solipsist who lives in his own little world. He has no understanding nor appreciation of the scientific matrix in which his work is embedded … In my dealings with cranks, I have discovered that this kind of discussion is of no interest to them.”
It doesn’t seem to make any difference to point out to anti-relativists that, second to quantum mechanics, relativity is the most tested theory on the books. In fact in one famous case, as Oxford physicist Roger Penrose pointed out, it meets predictions to an accuracy “to one part in 1014 (and this accuracy has apparently been limited merely by the accuracy of clocks on Earth).”
This is the famous case of the Hulse-Taylor binary pulsar, PSR 1913+16, whose orbital decay met predictions based on the general theory of relativity, to the accuracy quoted above, during a period of 20 years. Both scientists who conducted this long-term experiment, Russell Hulse and Joseph Taylor, were awarded Nobel prizes in 1993.
And the testing hasn’t stopped. None of the physicists I spoke to pretend that relativity is somehow sacrosanct, as cranks complain. Indeed, Smolin, for one, is working on a theory of gravity that will fit seamlessly into quantum mechanics, as is physicist Carlo Rovelli of the University of Pittsburgh and Baez to name just a few. This will require modifying Einstein’s theory to a considerable degree. A debate is being carried on about it now, with theories and arguments being put forward through the normal channels of mainstream journals.
As it stands, relativity is essential to quantum physics, as Harvard astrophysicist David Layzer told me. And quantum electrodynamics, which accounts for electromagnetic interactions at the atomic level, is not possible without the special theory of relativity. To say nothing of the other daily confirmations of the theory’s consequences provided by atomic accelerators, the GPS and, of course, the equivalence of mass and energy derived from special relativity in Einstein’s most famous equation, E=mc2.
But this makes no impression on crackpots. They insist it all can be explained with an ether theory or some fiddling with Newton’s gravitation. A review of any of these theories (for example, on the sci.physics.relativity newsgroup) always reveals a plethora of special assumptions that must be called upon to get the same results as Einstein. Apparently this is to be preferred at all costs. It is interesting that cranks almost never dispute the accuracy of relativity’s predictions; they just insist there must be a “simpler” way.
Whatever motivates the anti-relativity fringe, it certainly isn’t science. When Isaac Newton first advanced the idea of space and time as entities existing absolutely and independently of matter, his arch rival, Gottfried Leibnitz, challenged him to prove it. Newton couldn’t. His spokesman, the Rev. Samuel Clark, tried to cover for his master with the contention that space and time were absolute in the mind of God. Leibnitz replied that such a statement was scientifically meaningless.
Not to anti-Einstein cranks. They have no trouble hopscotching between philosophy and science whenever it suits them. They remain stubbornly nostalgic for what they believe is a “simpler world,” one where space and time are hallowed absolutes. And they are happy to subordinate science at whatever cost to the limits of a mirage.