Sunday, October 26, 2008

Relativity Still Works - As If We Didn't Already Know That

There were two kinds of physicists in Berlin: on the one hand there was Einstein, and on the other all the rest. ~Rudolph Ladenburg

News Item: Einstein's Relativity Survives Neutrino Test.

This is news? Well, of course it is, to the legion of scientists-trying-to-make-a-name-for-themselves by "disproving" relativity. In fact, in this case, that's precisely what the scientists were trying to do -- disprove relativity.

Of course, I have made note on more than one occasion, like here and here, that Einstein's theories have stood the test of time. Even the cosmological constant that Einstein thought was his "greatest mistake" may yet turn out to have some sort of validity. While Newton's theories of motion and gravitation were considered sacrosanct for centuries, the time since 1905 to 1915, when Einstein published his landmark papers, has been spent by one scientist after another trying to show that somehow the frizzy-haired genius was off the mark.

Seems to be a bit of an absurd use of one's time.

It's not that people shouldn't be out there testing relativity or even the photoelectric effect whenever the opportunity arises. It's that all such experiments always seem to be an attempt, not to verify, but to disprove. Negative science is rarely successful in the long run.

Consider the reactions of these researchers who are the most recent to fall on their collective faces: "Einsteinian relativity lives to see another day."

"That doesn't mean we'll stop looking."

"It may be that the field's effects are so exceedingly small that you'd need extraordinary tools to detect it."

Or perhaps your theory is just plain wrong, Roscoe.

I'll admit it. I have an enduring admiration for Albert Einstein's genius. I've been reading Einstein, His Life and Universe, by Walter Isaacson, and am more convinced than ever that the man operated on an intellectual plane that has not been approached since, with the possible exception of Stephen Hawking's work. In fact, I recommend the book highly to anyone who wants to understand both how Einstein's mind worked and to understand the man himself.

A small digression: These days it also is popular to denigrate Dr. Hawking's work as well and to relegate him to a minor position among the "great" modern physicists. I'm beginning to see a pattern here.

Back to Einstein. Albert Einstein was not always a nice person. He was capable of philandering and being cold and distant in relationships. He was selfish, putting his work above everything, setting conditions in the way even his first and second wife fit into his life. He could also be generous and caring and actually tried to be a good father in his own way. In other words, Einstein the man was very human.

But, as a physicist, he was capable of looking at the world in ways no one had ever considered. His thought experiments are legendary, not only for the beauty and simplicity of the methodology but for their originality. It's not that no one ever thought about riding along on a beam of light before; surely someone must have considered the idea. What set Einstein apart was that he drew conclusions from that thought experiment, then provided the mathematics to back those conclusions.

Interestingly, Einstein was no experimentalist, but he always suggested ways to test his theories. And those tests have rung true time after time.

Was Einstein always right? Nope. His famous battles with Neils Bohr and the other quantum theorists are legendary. Quantum theory works; Einstein was wrong to fight it. But, his battles with Bohr forced the quantum theorists to fix their own theories, which, frankly needed a lot of fixing.

If one wishes to pick a quibble with Einstein, it might be in his single-minded pursuit of his Unified Theory, that would unify gravity and the quantum electrodynamic forces. He was so single-minded about it that he stopped following progress in physics. He was still working to overthrow the Copenhagen Model, whose work had already been refined and, in some cases, superseded.

Ultimately, Einstein was a prisoner of his own deterministic philosophy, which is ironic given that so many philosophers have taken Relativity as a jump-off point to a completely non-deterministic view of the world. In essence, one of Einstein's enduring lessons is the cost of continuing to charge down blind alleys -- like trying to disprove relativity.

I don't understand the desperate desire of modern physicists to make a name for themselves by trying to find a loophole in Einstein's work. Perhaps, I hit on it in the paragraph above concerning Stephen Hawking. It may be that modern theorists are math-bound theorists of mediocre talents who simply can make the kind of intellectual leaps that a Galileo, Newton, Einstein, or Hawking have made. The best they can do is to waste time and resources carping and nitpicking at what greater minds than theirs have wrought.

Strikes me that a change of focus might be in order.