Questioning Relativity 6: Perplexion

· physics, theory of relativity

Most physicists are ready to pay lip service to relativity theory by stating that they do not understand it, but there are quite a few dissidents who are critical because they do not understand. Below are some examples of these attitudes. More of the same is given in Many-Minds Relativity.

R. Feynman (Nobel Prize in Physics 1965):

  • I still can’t see how Einstein thought of general relativity.

S. Weinberg (Nobel Prize in Physics 1979):

  • I am inclined to believe that the astronomers of the 1919 expedition had been carried away with enthusiasm for general relativity in analyzing their data…..Nevertheless it gave general relativity worldwide acclaim and became cocktail party conversation everywhere.
  • The important thing for the progression of physics is not the deci- sion that a theory is true, but the decision that it is worth taking seriously–worth teaching to graduate students, worth writing text books about, above all, worth incorporating into one’s own research.
  • I believe that the general acceptance of general relativity was due in large part to the attractions of the theory itself– in short, to its beauty.
  • By the beauty of a physical theory, I certainly do not mean merely the mechanical beauty of its symbols on the printed page…. Simplicity is part of what I mean by beauty…
  • The equations of general relativity are notoriously difficult to solve except in the simplest situations, but this does not detract from the beauty of the theory itself….In Einstein’s theory there are fourteen equations, In Newton’s three…

H. Alfven (Nobel Prize in Physics 1970):

  • Many people probably felt relieved when told that the true nature of the world could not be understood except by Einstein and a few other geniuses who were able to think in four dimensions. They had tried to understand science, but now it was evident that science was something to believe in, not something which should be understood.

E. Wigner (Nobel Prize in Physics 1963):

  • It is now (after Einstein) natural for us to try to derive the laws of nature and to test their validity by means of the laws of invariance, rather than to derive the laws of invariance from what we believe to be the laws of nature.

B. Greene in The Fabric of Cosmos:

  • The relativity of space and time is a startling conclusion. I have known it for more than 25 year, but even so, whenever I quietly sit and think it through, I am amazed.
  • Einstein believed that reality embraces past, present, and future equally and that the flow of time we envision is illusory.
  • Over the course of a few intense weeks in the spring of 1905, Einstein determined that space and time are not independent but are enmeshed in a manner that flies in the face of common experience.
  • Most discussions of special relativity focus on what would happen if we traveled at speeds near that of light. 
  • Physicists spend a large part of their lives in a state of confusion.
  • Features of space and time that for many of us are second nature have turned out to be figments of false Newtonian perspective.
  • Many of today’s leading physicist suspect that space and time, although pervasive, may not be truly fundamental. 
  • Physicists sometimes sum up this possibility by saying that spacetime may be an illusion.
  • It is not the depth of mathematics that makes Einstein’s relativity challenging. It is the degree to which the ideas are foreign and ap- parently inconsistent with our everyday experience.

R. Geroch in General Relativity from A to B (1978):

  • One might very well be left with the impression that the theory (of general relativity) itself is rather hollow.: What are the postulates of the theory? What are the demonstrations that else follows from these postulates? Where is the theory proven? On what grounds, if any, should one believe the theory? ….One’s mental picture of the theory is this nebulous mass taken as a whole…..One makes no attempt to derive the rest of the theory from the postulates. (What, indeed, could it mean to “derive” something about the physical world?). One makes no attempt to “prove” the theory, or any part of it.

W. Wien:

  • No Anglo-Saxon can understand relativity. 

M. Born:

  • Length contraction and time dilation are ways of regarding things and do not correspond to physical reality.
  • It is hardly possible to illustrate Einstein’s kinematics by means of models.

H. Lorentz:

  • A transformation of the time was necessary. So I introduced the conception of a local time which is different for all systems of ref- erence which are in motion relative to each other. But I never thought that this had anything to do with real time. This real time for me was still represented by the old classical notion of an absolute time, which is independent of any reference to special frames of coordinates. There existed for me only this true time. I considered my time transformation only as a heuristic working hypothesis. 
  • It is certainly remarkable that these relativity concepts, also those concerning time, have found such rapid acceptance.

J L Synge (1960):

  • .. the general theory of relativity. The name is repellent. Relativ- ity? I have never been able to understand what the word means in this connection. I used to think that this was my fault, some flaw of my intelligence, but it is now apparent that nobody ever understood it, probably not even Einstein himself.

V. Fock (1959)

  • Thus we can sum up: general relativity can not be physical, and physical relativity is not general.

T. Kuhn in Structure of Scientific Revolutions:

  • To make the transition to Einstein’s universe, the whole conceptual web whose strands are space, time, matter, force and so on, had to be shifted and laid down again on nature whole. Only men who had together undergone or failed to undergo that transformation would be able to discover precisely what they agreed or disagreed about….Even today Einstein’s general relativity theory attracts men principally on aesthetic grounds, an appeal few people outside of mathematics have been able to feel.

B. Hoffman in Albert Einstein, Creator and Rebel (1973):

  • Nothing could reveal (space contraction) more strikingly the revolu- tionary boldness of Einstein’s ideas compared with those of his elders Lorentz and Poincar ́e. All three had the Lorentz transformation in which the startling consequences were implicit. But, when interpreting it, neither Lorenz nor Poincar ́e dared to give the principle of relativity full trust. Poincar ́e, one of the greatest mathematicians of his time, …had early sensed the probable validity of a principle of relativity. Yet when he came to the decisive step, his nerve failed him and he clung to old habits of though and familiar ideas of space and time. If this seems surprising, it is because we underestimate the boldness of Einstein in stating the principle of relativity as an axiom and, by keeping faith with it, changing our notions of space and time.

Einstein (1949):

  • You imagine that I look back on my life’s work with calm satisfaction. But from nearby it looks quite different. There is not a single concept of which I am convinced that it will stand firm, and I feel uncertain whether I am in general on the right track.
  • I was sitting in a chair at the patent office at Bern when all of a sudden a thought occurred to me: “If a person falls freely he will not feel his own weight”. I was startled. This simple thought made a deep impression on me. It impelled me toward a theory of gravitation.

H. Dingle:

  • It is ironical that, in the very field in which Science has claimed su- periority to Theology, for example – in the abandoning of dogma and the granting of absolute freedom to criticism – the positions are now reversed. Science will not tolerate criticism of special relativity, while Theology talks freely about the death of God, religion-less Christianity, and so on. 

Eddington to Einstein (1919):

  • …all of England has been taken by your theory. It has made a tremen- dous sensation…It is the best possible thing that could have happened for scientific relations between England and Germany. 

Einstein to Chaplin:

  • Do not worry about your difficulties in Mathematics. I can assure you mine are still greater. Chaplin to Einstein: People are applauding me because everybody understands what I say, and you because nobody understands what you say.

1 Comment

Comments RSS
  1. Richard T. Fowler

    Wow. That quote by Dingle is worth reading twice.

    Where did you find that, Claes?


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