April 25, 2011 | David F. Coppedge

Was Einstein Wrong?

Relativity and quantum mechanics are among the weirdest ideas that educated people have taken seriously.  They required suspending belief in the most intuitive concepts we have of time, space, and matter.  But just because they appear to work does not necessarily mean they are true.  In fact, physicists continue to beat on one or the other with alternative theories, though not as yet successfully.
    One example of a challenge was entertained on PhysOrg today.  Amrit Sorli, Dusan Klinar, and Davide Fiscaletti have published a paper in Physics Essays that claims Einstein was wrong about time (this is not the same as saying “it’s about time Einstein was wrong”).  Students of relativity are familiar with Minkowski diagrams that show time as a fourth dimension along with three spatial dimensions.  Sorli et al claim that time is not independent of space; it is a spatial dimension.  Time is measured not by clocks, but by movement of objects in space.  They claim their model solves Zeno’s paradox and has more explanatory power (see PhysOrg and abstract of paper).
    This is not unusual; many papers are submitted to journals and to open-source forums like arXiv.org all the time.  Some of them reach media level, some are forgotten.  Why did this one by Sorli et al gain 15 minutes of fame on PhysOrg?  And why did a premature rumor about the “God particle” being discovered leak from CERN (see PhysOrg), when rigorous checks must be done before a claim like that can even be made tentatively?  To what degree are social factors steering the science?  If a majority of physicists end up accepting the claim, will that make it true with a capital T?
    Verifying relativity and quantum phenomena experimentally is often difficult, yielding ambiguous results.  Even observations are often “theory laden” – which means that theory dictates what is observed – the experimental apparatus used to measure the phenomenon, and the criteria for success, are not always independent of the theory itself.  Observations are sometimes matters of likelihood – statistical or probabilistic, rather than either-or.  Even a definitive observation can have multiple explanations, depending on the assumptions used and the model of space or time employed.  Falsification is not an easy criterion to judge complex theories managed by strong personalities or institutions adept at supplying auxiliary hypotheses to maintain their paradigms.
    Those who assume a theory must be true if it works or makes predictions should disabuse themselves of that notion by considering that in the history of civilization, many notions were very useful and widely accepted, but are now thought to be wrong.  The wave theory of light is one example; absolute space and time are others.  The Egyptians made supreme achievements in architecture with erroneous notions of physics.  Ptolemaic astronomy and Newtonian physics were masterpieces of theoretical insight that stood for centuries.  Pragmatism cannot be equated with realism, nor notoriety with validity.  Even today, our best theories of relativity and quantum mechanics cannot be reconciled, suggesting that our understanding of the physical world remains incomplete.

Physicists sometimes get frustrated with philosophers, thinking they don’t understand the rock-solid reliability of their methods.  But the philosophers are their equals in rebuttal, arguing that scientists make na�ve assumptions about verification and explanatory power, or the correspondence of their models (that invoke unobservable realities, like charm quarks) with observable reality.  Perhaps we’re all na�ve; some are just more sophisticated in covering up their na�vet� than the rest of us.  David Berlinski took cynical glee in exposing the pretensions of cosmologists to thinking they understood the material universe (see The Deniable Darwin and Other Essays, Discovery Institute, 2009).
    The headline, “Was Einstein Wrong?” cannot be answered without metrics more reliable than “what works”.  The point is not to take sides, or to accept the claims of Sorli et al any more than the hundreds of other claims that pile up in journals year in and year out.  Pragmatism offers solace from na�vet�, but not escape.  Same for endless model-making and model-challenging.  The only escape from our shadow-cave would be to have someone with ultimate knowledge and wisdom, who was also an eyewitness of the origin of the universe, tell us about reality.  Now Who could that be?

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