13 April 2007

Was Einstein a fake?

There's nothing quite like Einstein and his theories of relativity to bring out the doubters, the cranks and the outright crackpots. Do they have a point? Was Einstein a fake?
Was Einstein a fake?

If you’re tired of hearing about ‘Intelligent design’ creationists and the court wars against Darwin’s theory in the U.S., you might be surprised to learn that another pillar of modern science, Einstein and his Theory of Relativity, is under attack.

A burgeoning underground of ‘dissident’ scientists and self-described experts publish their theories in newsletters and blogs on the Net, 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 no less than a cheat.

A quick glance at anti-relativity proponents and their publications reveals a plethora of alternative theories about how the universe really works – very few of them in agreement with each other. But despite their many differences, common themes among these self-described iconoclasts do emerge: resentment of academic ‘elites’, suspicion of the entire peer-review process in mainstream scientific journals and a deep-seated paranoia about the extent of government involvement in scientific projects.

An aethro-kinematics website (www.aethro-kinematics.com) claims to refute relativity by resurrecting René Descartes’ theory that the Earth and all the planets are carried around the Sun by an “Aether vortex”. Another site points to the work of one Stefan Marinov, a self-described dissident, who apparently threatened to immolate himself in front of the British Embassy in Vienna, Austria, because he was so incensed by the refusal of the respected journal Nature to publish his ‘proofs’ against relativity.

This is just a taste. A visit to Google reveals the extent of the phenomenon. Is this a new front in the war on science? Can we expect a new Discovery Institute, armed with millions of dollars from eccentric fundamentalists, spoiling for a rematch in school boards across the U.S. — this time attacking Einstein and not Darwin?

Hopefully not, according to Bryan Gaensler, a professor of physics at the University of Sydney. “The anti-relativity cranks are not nearly as well-organised as the creationists. Probably none of them would get along well enough to form a serious threat to science.”

Having said that, he adds, “there has just begun a new series of conferences, held by anti-relativity cranks, called ‘Crisis in Cosmology’. I think the first one was held in Spain and they’re planning another. It looks exactly like a legitimate scientific conference, with the difference that everyone delivering a talk there is insane.”

The conference planners sent out invitations to Gaensler and hundreds of other physicists. “Before registering,” he says, “you had to fill out this 10-point, bulleted manifesto, agreeing to all sorts of propositions from the start. For example, ‘I do not accept that the universe is expanding’, and so on, the kind of thing you would never see at a real scientific conference. It was hilarious.”

The anti-relativity movement got underway 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 — which had never been scientifically established — were superfluous. Indeed, the attempt to restore these concepts to mainstream physics has been 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 1916 publication 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. Outside Germany, however, Einstein’s theory also met resistance. Albert Michelson, famous as the American who devised the failed Michelson-Morley experiment to detect aether, the invisible medium that 19th century scientists supposed responsible for the propagation of light waves through space, never accepted relativity and he politely admitted this to Einstein when they met.

Like many physicists and astronomers, Gaensler routinely hears from individuals claiming to have proven Einstein’s theory false. “I have a boxload of material from cranks,” he says, “but currently it’s in storage aboard a ship somewhere between the U.S. and Sydney.” A native Australian, Gaensler has just completed an eight-year stint in Boston, teaching at Harvard University and conducting research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Harvard-Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics.

“But there is a pattern,” he says. “They’re always male — never female. Normally professionals of some kind, doctors, pilots, engineers. And they’re always retired and have years to spend on their pet theory.

“Whenever the observatory sends out a press release, they read it and send out mass-mailings to every scientist listed as having anything to do with the event.”

Anti-relativity agitators even call the front office at the observatory, and the unspoken general practice for many institutes is to have the grad students field the calls. According to Gaensler, it gives them a chance to deal with cranks and also to get experience explaining the scientific method to would-be Einsteins.

“What’s common to all of them, I find,” says Gaensler, “is their failure to appreciate the distinction between cosmologists and astronomers. Now, I’m an astronomer, and I work on stars and gases inside the galaxy. And when they talk to me, present their theory, and then ask me, ‘Don’t you care that your field could be completely undermined by my theory?’ They don’t understand that, whether the Big Bang turns out to be misguided or wrong, it has little to do with objects I study inside the galaxy. They fail to appreciate that.”

Most of those arguing against Einsteinian relativity are simply not trained in the scientific method. “And they’re not interested in hearing what their mistakes are … so they don’t get it,” says an exasperated Gaensler.

Some anti-Einstein crusaders do have professional scientific training, and this makes them more interesting, even if no more convincing, than the general lot. Over the past few years, for example, American astronomer Tom Van Flandern, who once worked for the U.S. Naval Observatory in Washington and runs a website (www.metaresearch.org) 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, are able to pinpoint precise locations for befuddled automobile drivers and bushwalkers anywhere on the planet. According to him, the confusing “rigmarole” of relativity isn’t needed to maintain the GPS, even though in theory it should be.

Einstein’s theory of relativity says that, for something moving very fast, such as a satellite, time would seem to move more slowly compared with something standing still on the Earth. Van Flandern has argued that clock rates on GPS satellites should therefore need to be adjusted continuously to keep them synchronised with users on Earth. But they’re not, he told Tom Bethell, a senior editor of The American Spectator magazine and author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science. The GPS programmers don’t need relativity. “They have basically blown off Einstein,” Van Flandern said.

Is this true? Could this be a real crack in the ‘temple’ of Einstein’s theory? Neil Ashby, a professor of physics who works at the University of Colorado and specialises in theoretical general relativity with practical applications, doesn’t think so.

“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 adds: “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.”

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 Bethell that he has reason to believe Einstein manipulated his field equations for one of his most momentous predictions.

Astronomers have long observed that Mercury’s orbit is elliptical and that the point where the planet draws closest to the Sun moves, like the oval end of an ellipse drawn with a spirograph. Over the years this ‘perihelion’ point revolves around the Sun just like the planet itself. It was assumed to be due to gravity and the proximity 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 Bethell’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 as to 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 emailed, “why that person was not quoted by name.” He then suggested I send him any queries, which he could forward to the source for consideration.

Instead, I went to the University of Maryland website, where a search revealed five working physicists who received their doctorates from Princeton within a decade of Einstein’s death. One of them was Carroll Alley, who received his degree in 1962. He told me he had once 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.” He went on to say that Einstein knew that Mercury’s observed perihelion was 43 arc seconds per century more than Newton’s theory predicted. “A lot of people say that he didn’t know it, but he did,” said Alley.

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 allegations. When I contacted Van Flandern for clarification about the quote he had given to the Spectator regarding Einstein’s alleged tampering, he answered, “Basically, the choice of coefficients of potential phi in the space-time metric is arbitrary. Einstein knew the unmodelled perihelion motion of Mercury, and therefore confined his attention to metrics that predicted this quantity correctly.”

I asked Steve Carlip at the University of California at Davis to explain this statement to me. “It makes no sense at all,” he said. “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.” He added, “As far as I can tell, 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.

Michel Janssen and John Stachel both worked on the Einstein Papers Project at Boston University, reviewing the letters and papers of the scientist 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 that there may have been fudging: “Not to put too fine a point on it, that is crap.”

Lee Smolin, a specialist in general relativity at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Canada and author of The Life of the Cosmos, goes so far as to vouch for the figures, “I have … personally checked the calculations about the perihelion of Mercury, as have, I’m sure, thousands of other people.”

According to Smolin, enthusiastic proponents of eccentric theories 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 says. “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 email.” He adds, “usually they are innocuous, but a few times I have been threatened.”

Owen Gingerich, professor of astronomy and the history of science at Harvard University, 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 organised 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.”

“In most cases it is a sad story,” says Smolin. “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. 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 writes. 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 writes, “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 dissenters typically complain. Smolin, for example, is working on a quantum theory of gravity. But 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 can all be explained with an aether theory or some fiddling with Newton’s gravitation. A review of any of these theories (for example, on the sci.physics.relativity newsgroup) inevitably reveals an array 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.

Bryan Gaensler notes what appears to be the largely American nature of the anti-relativity phenomenon. “I mean, you have some nutters over here in Australia, too, but nothing like what you find in the United States. And you don’t really find them in Europe either.”

It would be a mistake, however, he adds, to draw a connection between the anti-Einstein types and the anti-Darwin Intelligent Design movement in the States, “which is definitely more sinister, with more organised financial backing and a religious motivation for their attacks on evolution”.

In the end, Gaensler says, “I feel sorry for these people — because, after all, there might be someone out there now like Einstein, working in obscurity, who does have some truly new insight, but scientists just won’t take him seriously because of all these other crackpots we’ve had to deal with.”

John Farrell is a writer and media producer in Boston and the author of The Day Without Yesterday: Lemaitre, Einstein and the Birth of Modern Cosmology.

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