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Isaac Asimov posed the same question about shrinking sticks and lagging clocks in 1966: “Which [observer] is really ‘right’? The answer is neither and both,” he wrote.
Many such examples could be given. There is something unsatisfactory about such a theory, surely. Experts cannot agree whether its most famous predictions — that time goes more slowly and lengths contract in things that move with respect to an observer — are real or not.
Here’s a simpler answer to the above question: Length contraction has never been measured at all. Not once. Sticks “really must” behave in this odd way, says Mermin, but only in the sense that it follows mathematically from the two postulates on which Einstein’s special theory was based. But it has not yet been observed.
As to time dilation, it has been shown that particles moving at high speed through the Earth’s gravitational field survive longer than slower-moving particles, and this has been construed as evidence for time dilation. But it is a very weak confirmation, with a simpler explanation. Saying that atomic clocks (or particles) slow down under certain conditions is not the same as saying that time slows down.
MAYBE YOU CAN SEE WHERE this is going. The consensus among physicists is that Einstein erred in his stubborn and “conservative” resistance to the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics. It was with relativity, in his gloriously rebellious youth, that he scored his great triumph. This is Isaacson’s view. In all things he quietly sides with the consensus, brings diplomacy to bear on every controversy, promotes no novel interpretation, upsets no apple carts, and is at all times moderate and balanced. Given his position, and the book’s ambition, this is to be expected. We don’t expect a work that aspires to be (and is) authoritative to adopt controversial positions.
To me, however, Isaacson’s Einstein unexpectedly reinforces a contrarian view that I have long entertained. It is this: that Einstein was right about quantum mechanics, and will eventually be vindicated. Furthermore, sooner or later his much admired notions about relativity will have to be discarded.
This is not just cussedness, although it may betray a conservative bias. Science, I believe, can be radical (in the sense of going to the roots) and it must be innovative. But it can hardly be “revolutionary”; it cannot dig up those roots and overthrow the fundamentals, as special relativity did with space and time.
The emeritus Caltech professor Carver Mead writes in his book Collective Electrodynamics that new researchers (he mentions several unfamiliar names) “have put us in a position to finally settle the Einstein-Bohr debate — with a resounding victory for Einstein.” Mead also said in an interview that Bohr & Co. “took the limitation of their cumbersome experiments as evidence for the nature of reality.” Likewise, Einstein’s views about space and time were based on experiments using 19th-century equipment.
Einstein’s position on the quantum was so mild that it surely has to be vindicated. The theory was “incomplete,” he said. I believe also that in holding out, almost alone, against a powerful consensus Einstein was doing exactly what scientists are supposed to do but usually lack the courage to do.
Here’s something else. Edwin T. Jaynes, one of the dissenters cited by Carver Mead, said that when he studied physics at Berkeley in 1947, his thesis director, J. Robert Oppenheimer, would never countenance any retreat from the Copenhagen position, and derived “some great emotional satisfaction from just those elements of mysticism that Schrodinger and Einstein had deplored.” Enthusiasm for that blend of mysticism and science survives to this day.
AS FOR THE NEW ETHER, Robert B. Laughlin, winner of the 1998 Nobel Prize in physics, discusses it in his book A Different Universe (2005). He notes the irony that Einstein’s most creative work, his general theory of relativity, “should boil down to conceptualizing space as a medium when his original premise was that no such medium existed.” The modern conception of the vacuum of space, he writes, “is a relativistic ether. But we do not call it that because it is taboo.”
How Einstein came to conclude that space was a medium “is a fascinating story,” Laughlin continues, but he does not tell it. It has been told (in part) in Ludwik Kostro’s Einstein and the Ether, issued by a dissident publisher in Montreal, and not listed in Isaacson’s bibliography. The topic needs a fuller treatment.
As for general relativity, it seems to give the right results, but by an extraordinarily complicated method. It is like Ptolemaic astronomy. You could navigate by it, but there was a simpler way. As the late Edward Teller said to me in an interview, who can understand the curvature of four-dimensional spacetime? Petr Beckmann, who taught at the University of Colorado, proposed a great simplification of Einstein’s relativity by replacing the old ether of Lorentz and Maxwell with one that is equivalent to the local gravitational field. And unless I am much mistaken, that is precisely Einstein’s new ether. Yet I believe Beckmann did not know about Einstein’s adoption of this same idea.
If relativity theory ever is replaced, Einstein himself will have pointed us in the most promising new direction. Meanwhile, we can all learn a great deal from Isaacson’s excellent book.
A man of faith in a godless age is hitting Americans where it hurts.
Mr. and Mrs. American Spectator Reader, let P.J. O’Rourke talk sense to your kids.
In Britain, defending your property can get you life.
The debacle of this president’s administration is both a cause and a symptom of the decline of American values. Unless Congress impeaches him, that decline will go on unchecked. An eminent jurist surveys the damage and assesses the chances for the recovery of our culture.
It won’t take long for conservatives to scratch this presidential wannabe off their 2008 scorecard.
The American Christmas, like the songs that celebrate it, makes room for everybody under the rainbow. Is that why so many people seem to be hostile to it?
Was the President done in by the economy, or by the politics of the economy?
H/T to National Review Online