The Jewish Journalism of Joel Shurkin

Monday, August 30, 2010

Einstein, Relativity and Wingnuts

"The difference between stupidity and genius is that genius has its limits"--Albert Einstein. --First it was evolution, then global climate change. Now it’s the Theory of Relativity and it’s iconic formula, E=mc2.

Conservative bloggers are attacking Einstein’s theories as a “liberal conspiracy,”claiming they are controversial outside of “liberal universities.” Puzzled physicists, who consider relativity to be a seminal discovery of their science, seem as unsure how to react as did biologists when first confronted with modern creationists.

While relativity has always had rejectionists--mostly anti-Semites—the new dispute draws the denial into the realm of American politics, where it doesn’t belong.

The debate became public when a conservative website, Conservapedia, posted a definition of relativity making the charge it was part of an ideological plot, and then added a list of counter examples it claims disprove the theories. The postings were picked up by the liberal blog TPMuckraker and went, in the jargon of the internet, “viral.”

Conservapedia was created by Andrew Schlafly, the 49-year-old lawyer son of Phyllis Schlafly, the antiabortion activist. He studied engineering physics from Princeton and law at Harvard, and founded Conservapedia three years ago because he felt Wikipedia, the dominant online encyclopedia and one of the most visited websites in the world, had a liberal, anti-Christian, anti-American bias. Among other things, it accepts evolution as a fact and will occasionally use British spelling.

(Schlafly did not respond to repeated attempts to interview him for this article).

Einstein, a notorious liberal, would be amused but hardly surprised.

Isaac Newton
Isaac Newton defined modern physics in 1666, with his laws of motion and energy and his description of how the planets circle the sun. His universe was beautiful, rational, deterministic. His laws still dominate how we think about the mechanics of the world. In 1905, the 26-year-old Einstein, working as a patent clerk (even brilliant physicists need a day job) in Bern, had a very good year. He published four papers, any one of which would have made him famous, but the first cinched it: the Special Theory of Relativity. The famous formula is in that paper: energy equals mass times the speed of light squared. Energy, the mass of an object, and the speed of light, all seemingly disparate attributes are entwined. The mass of any object can be converted into energy, as the world subsequently found out to its horror.

Ten years later, he added gravity to space and time in the General Theory of Relativity. Every time you feel heavier when an elevator you are riding in accelerates upward or lighter going down, you are feeling effects described in the General Theory.

The theories were radical for their time. They did not contradict Newton as much as they complemented Newton. Einstein had pulled off a rare thing in science, what the historian-physicist Thomas Kuhn called a paradigm shift. There aren’t many in the history of science, and as Kuhn wrote, one sure initial reaction was disbelief, which is certainly how Einstein’s papers were first greeted.

In 1919, Sir Arthur Eddington, observing the stars around the sun during a solar eclipse. The light from the stars was deflected as it passed by the sun just as Einstein predicted. It made Einstein world famous.

(Asked what would he think if Eddington came up with a different answer, Einstein replied, “Then I would feel sorry for the dear Lord. The theory is correct anyway.”)

For most of the 20th century, scientists fanned out around the world to test the predictions inferred from relativity. Many--perhaps most--hoped they would be the ones to disprove Einstein. Unlike evolution, which takes millions of years to well, evolve, relativity can be proven in laboratories within minutes, and has. Einstein’s theories have been verified going back now nearly 100 years.

“There is no controversy,” says historian and physicist Michael Riordan, adjunct professor of physics at the University of California Santa Cruz. “The theory isn’t wrong, it’s incomplete and has refinements that might or might not be true.”

Andrew Schlafly
A second paradigm shift overtook Einstein, the theories of quantum mechanics, a concept Einstein never accepted. Quantum mechanics, created by a slew of physicists led by the Dane Niels Bohr, did to Einstein what Einstein did to Newton--complemented his theories. Like relativity, quantum mechanics also has passed every test.

No serious physicist doubts relativity or quantum mechanics any more than any serious biologist doubts evolution.

Which brings us to Andrew Schlafly.

Schlafly is obvious very bright. He was accepted at both Princeton and Harvard Law. He is obviously very well educated. He graduated both after a distinguished academic career.

That creates a puzzle: how could someone as bright and as well-educated produce web entries so perfectly inane.

Schlafly’s main argument appears to confuse relativity, an abstraction in physics, with relativism, a philosophical argument having nothing to do with physics.  He believes that accepting relativity leads to moral and religious relativism, which is like saying growing apples leads to giraffes.

What seems to have triggered it was a 1989 Harvard Law Review article, now all over the internet, written by liberal law professor Lawrence Tribe, using relativity as a metaphor for understanding constitutional law. Tribe thanked Barack Obama in the footnotes (which isn’t surprising since Obama was then editor of the Review), hence it must be a liberal conspiracy.

Some of the statements in his relativity entries (I haven’t bothered to look at other pages) makes me wonder if he is underestimating his readership or whether he is pandering to them, knowing what he is writing is nonsense but they’ll never figure that out because he is feeding their prejudices.

For instance, Schlafly claims that “virtually no one who is taught and believes relativity continues to read the Bible,” but doesn’t say how he knows that. Has he polled them all? Are there any data to support that?” No one as educated as Schlafly can write that with a straight face. I was taught relativity and read the Bible every Saturday morning. A world famous astrophysicist in our synagogue also believes in relativity and reads the Bible. I can match Schlafly’s anecdotes with mine, and none of them prove anything. As a trained engineer from Princeton, he knows better.

He also uses examples from the Christian Bible as evidence the theories are wrong, which of course is religion, not science.

Perhaps there is something else going on.

After the physics community learned to accept Einstein’s theories, attacks continued from less reputable sources, anti-Semites, apparently upset that a Jew was credited with producing something that important. They called it “Jewish science.” Nazis proposed that Germans should do better and came up with an alternative construct, totally incoherent, called Deutsche Physik. German physics didn’t recover until after World War 2.

While there is no overt anti-Semitism in the Conservapedia, the entries on relativity echo the old arguments. For instance, Schlafly writes: “The theory... is heavily promoted by liberals who like its encouragement of relativism and its tendency to mislead people in how they view the world.”

Forget for a moment that he is assuming everyone who believes in relativity is a liberal. Greg Gbur, assistant professor of physics at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte points out in his blog Skulls in the Stars that if you “replace ‘liberals’ with ‘Jews’ in [that] sentence, the words might well have been written by a Nazi circa 1930s-era Germany.”

The attacks on Einstein, overtly anti-Semitic or otherwise, take two forms, and Schlafly repeats them both: that Einstein plagiarized the theory and that the theory is is known to be wrong.

All scientists base their work on that of their predecessors, “standing on the shoulders of giants,” as Newton put it. Deniers point to the work of Jules Henri Poincaré, and Hendrik Lorentz which preceded Einstein’s publication by several years. These men were superb physicists (Lorentz won a Nobel Prize) and had thought about relativity, but neither made the huge leap in imagination Einstein did, although Poincaré came close and probably did influence him.

Another claim is that the theories originated with Einstein’s first wife, the Serbian physics student, Mileva Marik. She may well have served as a sounding board, but there exists no serious evidence she made any substantive contribution. Einstein biographer Ronald Clarke wrote that Einstein didn’t think her bright enough to understand what he was working on. She was an Einstein in name only.

No scientist has had his life probed by more respected biographers and historians than Einstein, and none of them have discovered any proof that the credit for relativity is misplaced.

To prove that the theories wrong, Schlafly provides a list of about two dozen “counterexamples.” The list changes regularly so you can’t come up with a solid numberr. Some are irrelevant, confusing relativity with quantum physics; some misinterpret the science, and many are demonstrably completely wrong.

Schlafly claims that “The lack of useful devices developed based on any insights provided by the theory; no lives have been saved or helped, and the theory has not led to other useful theories and may have interfered with scientific progress.”

The sound you hear is jaws dropping.

First of all, just because nothing useful came out of the discovery of a law of nature doesn’t make the discovery wrong. Everything does not have to have a practical application. But his premise is erroneous.

Everyone who has had a PET scan in a hospital, many who have undergone radiation therapy for cancer or turned on a particle accelerator has used Special Relativity, says Riordan. If you have a GPS navigation system in your car, Einstein is guiding you. If your electricity comes from a nuclear power station, Einstein is lighting your home. That E=mc2 is wrong surely would have surprised the physicists at the Manhattan Project who used it to destroy two cities, not to mention the citizens of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The GPS issue is interesting. Schlafly says a Navy research office denied the GPS satellites made use of relativity and that there is nothing about the satellites relevant to Einstein. The navy office he quotes said no such thing and scientists who programmed the satellites had to program relativity into the four clocks in each satellite or the satellites would be useless. Every physicist knows this, and I know at least one of the physicists who actually did the programming. Can Schlafly, with his Princeton engineering really degree not?
GPS satellite

Perhaps the most bizarre of Schlafly’s counterarguments involves what Einstein called “spooky action from a distance” which Schlafly uses to disprove relativity. He uses Jesus to back him up.

Start with the premise (I do) that quantum physics makes no sense at all. Einstein would agree with that sentiment. One of the foundations of relativity is that there is a cosmic speed limit--nothing can move faster than the speed of light.

In a thought experiment with Boris Podolsky and Nathan Rosen, published in 1935, he postulated that if you took a molecule containing two atoms, you could describe the two atoms with one formula. They shared attributes, a wave function. If you then separated the two atoms, they would still share the same wave function so that if you altered one, the other would reflect the change instantaneously even if it was now across the galaxy.

Nothing, Einstein wrote in his relativity papers, could go faster than the speed of light, so of course this is impossible. This isn’t as funny as Schrödinger’s Cat, but nonetheless proved, so Einstein believed, that quantum mechanics was nothing but solipsism.

But quantum physicists can prove that actually happens, something they call “entanglement.” Forty years after Einstein died, the French physicist Alain Aspect used a pair of entangled photons he created with lasers and proved that a change in one instantaneously changed other, speed of light be damned.

Other experiments have verified Aspect’s work. No one has the remotest idea how that works. As is usual, however, Shlafly uses that as evidence relativity is wrong. Einstein, who thought relativity was right, used it to show quantum mechanics was wrong. In fact, it proves neither. Just because we don’t understand something doesn’t make it wrong; it just makes it mysterious. And quantum mechanics doesn’t contradict relativity, it adds to it. We are just not sure how.

Which brings us to Jesus.

Shlafly quotes John 4:46-54, where Jesus, fresh from turning wine into water, cures a child in a remote geographic location. Schlafly never explains in detail (one gets the feeling he just wanted a Biblical reference to please his audience) but the book says it happened instantly which would defy Einstein. But we doesn’t know how fast the cure happened since the kid was elsewhere and more important, if Jesus is who Schlafly thinks he is, why can’t he perform miracles? Miracles are acts that defy the law of nature.

And what the hell does that have to do with science?

Here’s where Schlafly’s rhetorical technique comes to play.

Gbur says that Schlafly uses a technique known in rhetoric as the “Gish Gallup” (named for a creationist debater who employed it), which can be defined as: throw as much crap out there as possible and give the appearance you know what you are talking about and take the chance no one has the energy to dig through it all. Schlafly piles statement after statement, footnote after footnote. and even stacks impressive mathematical formulas with jargon. Some of the references refer to himself and some have nothing to do with the argument, and few deal with outside sources.

Physicists have mixed feelings about how to react. Several refused to comment for this story because they did not want to give Schlafly credibility. But Clifford Will, professor of physics at Washington University, in an email from Paris, wrote:

“The internet world is full of kooks and crackpots who put out all kinds of drivel.  It is pointless to attempt to refute these people with evidence, because they don't believe in evidence.

“…People may not like relativity, but the experimental and observational evidence that supports it is so overwhelming that it is a now fact of the universe,” he wrote.

Einstein himself, who got the first word above, gets the last word:

“Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I’m not sure about the former.”

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