virus: In Defense of Relativity

C. David Noziglia (
Fri, 15 Mar 1996 21:22:39 -0800

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C. David Noziglia
Wellington, New Zealand

"Blessed are those who have no expectations, for they will never be disappointed." Kautiliya Shakhamuni Sidhartha Gautama Buddha

"Things are the way they are because they got that way."


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Up to the time I began extensively reading the postings in the addressed e-mail groups, I would have had little reason to write the following essay. Ever since I was first introduced to the elegance and logic and pure workability as a high school student taking an advanced Summer Science Program course in 1969, the power and rightness of Einstein's great achievement had, I thought, needed no defense.

When I read R. Emmett Tyrrell, jr.'s offhand dismissal of relativity and evolution in a 1994 editorial in _The American Spectator_, my jaw dropped. I had difficulty believing that even someone of such Medieval political beliefs as Tyrrell could so cavalierly dismiss the past five centuries of scientific discovery. Reading through the postings in sci.skeptic especially, however, has convinced me that ignorance and scientific illiteracy are all too common, and lead me to compose what I hope is an explanation of Einstein's achievement that will place it in perspective, and may even force the Luddites who reject him to recognize that their attacks are not just wrong, but have been aimed at targets that do not even exist.

In saying that Tyrrell and his fellow travelers are rejecting five hundred years of scientific enterprise, do not suppose that I am exagger- ating. Einstein's two theories did not "revolutionize" or "overthrow" the theories of Newton, or of any other successful scientific thinker who had gone before. His achievement was to extend, to refine, and in a very profound way to explain, the theories of other great scientists who had gone before. That, indeed, is the greatness of his accomplishment.

Relativity as a concept began not with Einstein, but with Galileo Galilei. When Galileo argued that the Earth orbited the sun, he was told that if the Earth moved, then that motion would cause great disruption, so it could not be so that it moved. Galileo answered with a brilliant scenario for his day, explaining that if one drops a ball in the cabin of ship that is moving through the waves, the ball drops straight down relative to the moving cabin, as if the cabin were "standing still," instead of following a trajectory that would be a straight line in the world outside the cabin, but a curve to those observing the ball drop within the ship.

This first introduction to the world of the idea of "relative frames of reference," developed in the seventeenth century, was rewarded by the religious leaders of his day offering Galileo his choice of death by torture or recantation and retirement from public life. Galileo wisely chose the later, for after all, "It still moves." Einstein stands in direct line of descent from Galileo, and those who reject him in direct line of descent from the Inquisition.

The postings I have read in the newsgroups have led me to the conclusion that those who reject Relativity do so for two reasons (beyond the fact that they simply do not understand it). The first is religious; saying that one cannot exceed the speed of light is placing a limitation on the omnipotent God, and that cannot be. The second is the wish I share that the Star Trek world of spaceships zipping about the galaxy -- vacations on Arcturus, work on Centauri, retirement on Mars -- be real or at least possible. Religious rejection of the work and results of science has a long history, we know. The sense of wonder and joy of discovery science fiction has long fostered is a precious thing, and I hope that it survives learning that FTL drives are impossible.

Indeed, ninety per cent of the postings I have seen on this topic attack the idea that "c" is a universal speed limit. Somehow, they have discovered the "truth" that hundreds of other experimental scientists have missed, and have "proved" that light, or a signal of some sort, can travel faster than "c." Then they sit back smugly and claim that this shows Einstein got it all wrong, now let's go back to reading the Bible like good little boys and girls.

Sorry. Such proof doesn't exist. If it did, we'd be in a lot of trouble. And measuring the speed of light or other signals has zero impact on the vast, grand, stable edifice of Relativity. Einstein neither "proved" nor "showed" that the speed of light was a constant. Indeed, what he did was explain the empirical evidence from the Michaelson/ Morely measurements and other experiments, as well as the calculations from Maxwell's equations done by H.A. Lorentz, of the speed of light, that such is the case.

What Einstein did with his Special Relativity Theory paper in 1905 was START with two assumptions: a) that the laws of physics are everywhere and at all times invariant, and b) that the speed of light is a constant and a limit. These can be considered the two unproven "axioms" upon which the rest of the Theory was built. Although Einstein was resting his case for these two axioms on solid emperical and logical ground, at this point, it is legitimate to ask, "Are they reasonable?"

One way to answer them is to state their alternatives. The alternative to the first assumption is that the laws of physics -- and by this Einstein meant not vague statements like "apples fall," but the precise, mathematical formulae, from Pythagorus' Theorum to the grand beauties of Newton's Laws of Motion, Maxwell's Laws of Electromag- natism, and all the other successful means we have discovered to explain the way the world works -- can change, somehow, according to who or where or when is making an observation. If you believe that heavier objects fall faster than lighter, they do. Galileo didn't, so for him they all fall at the same rate. Since he gave a mathematical formula for the rate of acceleration in the Earth's gravitational field, he convinced the rest of us, and that's what happens. (Of course, he was wrong, as Newton showed. The gravitational attraction between two bodies depends upon the mass of BOTH bodies. It's just that the difference between two objects on a human scales is miniscule compared to that of the Earth, so can be ignored in practise.)

This is perfectly acceptable to those who believe in an omnipotent, ever-present Creator and diety, who can change the rules whenever He wishes. To those who believe that the universe can and should be understood, it is rediculous. IMHO, you either believe that Einstein's first assumption is obvious, or believe in a fickle, capritious, in many ways vindictive God playing cruel games with his creation. I prefer the former.

Many believe that the second statement, that "c" is a universal speed limit, is much less obvious and defensible. Even without the empirical support for this position, however, we can defend this assumption, again simply by considering the alternative. What Einstein was saying, in other words, was that instantaneous action at a distance is impossible. In order for an observer, or an object, at point B to know what has happened at point A, SOMETHING, not necessarily light, but it so happens that light speed is the fastest that message can travel, has to pass from point A to point B through every point in between.

The alternative to Einstein, clearly, is what could only be called magic. If you believe in magic, the literal ability to perform acts without any reference to cause and effect or any other rules of behavior, then you can easily reject assumption two. Otherwise, the alternative is so unacceptable that Einstein's assumption, as it should, becomes obvious.

What Einstein then did was combine these two assumptions with Galileo's relative frames of reference, and let reason lead him where it would without prejudice. Clearly an impossible feat for his critics. Without losing you in the mathematics -- which is amazingly simple, or at least it was years ago when I wanted to be a scientist and could still do it -- let me simply say that Einstein discovered (and that is the right word to use) that if the speed of light is constant for all observers, then the means they use to measure that speed -- the metrics of length, time, and mass -- must vary. I find it highly ironic that Einstein's religious critics often play word games about questioning assumptions, when Einstein based his Special Theory upon rejection of an assumption so basic that few would have even thought it could be overturned: the idea that space and time are invarient and fixed.

The means by which Einstein reached this conclusion, the often playful thought experiments by which he performed his marvels, have been written about it many books, and I have no wish to repeat them here. I can say that when I was learning it, it was so clearly obvious and true (remember how you feel when someone tells you the answer to a riddle?) that, as I said above, I could not see how anyone could reject them. A young man at the time, I had little appreciation of the power of prejudice. I still remember the pleasure of doing the math -- not that hard, not involving the tensor calculus of the General Theory, only basic algebraic operations -- that resulted in the derivation of the most famous physical formula of all time, E=mc2.

Now that formula, for those of you who don't know, is important. If it ain't true, then nuclear power plants don't work, those bangs at Trinity and Hiroshima and Bikini didn't happen, and the sun and all the other stars in the universe would not still be shining as they are. And the fact that this simple, elegant, beautiful formula emerged so directly and necessarily from the reasoning and calculations of Einstein's Special Relativity Theory tells me and all other reasonable people that the whole of the reasoning that led to it must be true, as well.

Of course, in 1905, such direct evidence as Trinity provided was not available to physicists. Einstein's paper was considered by some to be "radical" because of the counterintuitive results of its reasoning that still exercise so many newsgroups posters today. But this paper, from a patent clerk with no degrees, no prior history of publications, no reputation whatsoever, did, indeed, get accepted by the scientific establishment and more. And, despite the doubts that lead to his being awarded the Nobel Prize for his paper (published in the same journal) on the photoelectric effect, Einstein and his Theory was accepted.

Why? If Joe Bloggs and his theory of transmigrations of gonfal- loons isn't accepted so readily, why was Einstein's? Why did he become the most famous scientist of his day? Because not only did the Theory work, it was entirely consistent with Newton and all other science before it. It worked, in fact, better than Newton, but it did NOT contradict Newton's Laws of motion or gravity or anything else; it just showed that they applied to special cases, and that in other cases, there was a better way.

Relativity is a foundation stone of the grand ediface of modern science, an ediface whose every part fits together in an exciting, creative, magnificant whole. Yes, quantum theory, evolution, thermodynamics, all of the twentieth century's great synthesis of understand forms a whole that will more than stand up to the petty carping of the midaevil ignoramouses who seem to populate Internet newsgroups in numbers far too great to represent the rational, reasonable population of the real world. The rest of us are too busy living in the real world to have the time to post so much ignorance.

And that structure of scientific discovery and explaination is beautiful, as well as useful. It is exciting to know how much of the complex beauty of the universe we can now say we understand, from the wondrous chemistry of a cell to the way sunlight sparkles off the waves in a harbor to the grand dance of the stars and galaxies. Do we have all the answers? Of course not, and thanks to Godel and his wonderful Incompleteness Theorum, we can be mathematically certain that we never will. Whatever you may say, the confidence that we will always have more to learn and understand makes me excited and glad.

I know that many of you will read my words with no intention of understanding what I am trying to say. I am sorry for you. Sorry that you will never know the excitement and joy of learning about the marvelous uncertainties of quantum theory, chaos theory, and complexity. Sorry that you are still stuck in the old belief that only if we can predict everything can we understand anything. Sorry that you won't allow yourselves to know the joy and wonder of the science I've tried to introduce you to, because you are stuch with the dry, hollow shell given you by mere faith in an all-knowing God.

I know that you won't stop believing that your God has all the answers, and I wish you all the best in your belief. All I ask is that you look at these words, know that your arguments are useless, and that you won't change anyone's mind through them, and ask you to just stop bothering us! --------------91343F87310--