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Were there objections to Einstein's theory of relativity?

  1. Feb 10, 2015 #1

    blue_leaf77

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    Dear friends,
    There is something related to the history of theory relativity that has been bothering me this whole time. This is about the two postulates of special relativity. At the time of its invention, probably even up to now (I'm not sure since I'm not theoretical physicist), there had been no firm proof that lightspeed in vacuum is the same for all inertial reference frame. My question is why did it seem like there had been no notable objections from other scientists to this radically new assumption at the time? Or is there actually such heavy objection, only that I simply dont know it?

    I bring this up because I notice there are a couple of cases where a new idea in science was proposed followed by mocks by other scientists because it sounded stupid, too radical, or lacking evidence. Examples would be the first proposal that earth was round, which leads to the death sentence of the inventor if I remember it correctly and the proposal of the concept of quanta by Max Planck. I'm sure there are still more to those. But again why did Einstein seem to gain a smooth acceptance for his theory from physics community at the time?
     
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  3. Feb 10, 2015 #2
    There were many objections to Relativity at first by prominent physicists. You'll only read about this in biographies of Einstein. It's not the type of thing that gets included in texts. Texts almost never provide history.

    I recently found a very interesting book on the life of Volta. You'll never find this out from texts, but his discoveries created extreme controversy, perhaps even uproar, and were hotly debated. On the other hand, I have not ever encountered any history of controversy over Faraday's work. Quibbles and discussion at most, no severe objections I've seen.

    You may be interested to find out there were some mathematicians who condemned calculus as unsupportable crackpotism at first. It was actually many decades before their objections were put to rest.
     
  4. Feb 10, 2015 #3

    blue_leaf77

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    What I think is that for such a famous theories coming from a man who has been claimed as the most genius man, it's quite strange that interesting stories such as existing heavy objections or the likes are rarely or probably even never brought up in text books. I heard the story of Max Planck's proposal of quanta getting derision both from books and my teachers' speech. And I think, the fact that theory of relativity is one of the most popular theories in physics (ask random passers-by if they are more familiar either with ## F = ma ## or ## E=mc^2 ##, they will most likely choose the second), it should have gained more interest from people on its story of rejections or objections.
     
  5. Feb 10, 2015 #4
  6. Feb 10, 2015 #5
    It was all very political. After World War I all the countries that fought against Germany were, of course, still rabidly anti-German. A group of British physicists lead by Sir Arthur Eddington, however, had become aware of Einstein's famous five papers, and wanted to work with him. Eddington arranged the famous first test of GR during the eclipse of the sun, and when it supported GR he set about making Einstein famous. He had to spin him positively to the British public, and although Einstein had Swiss citizenship, he lived in Germany and only spoke German, so would be perceived as German. Eddington spun him as a magnanimous German scientist who bore no grudge against England and wanted to share his discoveries despite the recent war. Science was the venue, Eddington promised, where by Germany and England would start to heal from their conflict and begin to co-operate again. Science was beyond politics, so to speak.

    This played extremely well (though it confused Einstein a bit since he knew himself to be Swiss and wasn't sure why he couldn't simply be represented as such). Regardless, the politically correct element in British society jumped on this bandwagon, and it became socially and academically desirable to support Einstein and his theories, because this was an important step in putting the Great War into the past. He became extremely famous.

    Those among physicists who had objections to Relativity did not voice them too loudly, but in a low key way, in places the general public wasn't likely to read. The habit of not being too vocal or vociferous was reinforced when the Nazis came to power and condemned Relativity as "Jewish Science." No one who was anyone wanted to be perceived as siding with the Nazis against anyone.

    So, the circumstances put a kind of damper on potential criticism. Had they been different, we might have a richer history of controversy.
     
  7. Feb 10, 2015 #6

    russ_watters

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    That isn't true. Prior to Relativity, Maxwell's equations predicted it and the Michelson-Morley experiment demonstrated that it was true.
    As the above should imply, it was accepted fairly quickly because it fixed a known flaw in prevailing theory at the time.
    That isn't true either. I'm afraid you've fallen prey to popular crackpot myths.
     
  8. Feb 10, 2015 #7

    Bandersnatch

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    The roundness of Earth was empirically shown (as opposed to philosophical musings) by Eratosthenes around the 3rd century B.C.E:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eratosthenes#Measurement_of_the_Earth.27s_circumference

    The death sentence you're probably confusing him with is that of Giordano Bruno in 1600 - he had many fanciful, unsubstantiated ideas which included Earth not being the centre of the universe. However, this was not a scientific dispute. He was sentenced for heresy because the fanciful ideas were in conflict with core Catholic ideas about Holy Trinity, virgin Mary and Jesus AND he was highly critical of the Church.
    He is often touted as the martyr for science, but the reality is that his cosmological ideas were as unscientific as they go, largely irrelevant to the sentencing, and only by pure chance do they resemble modern cosmology.

    As for Planck, he was never criticised for the discovery of quanta - in fact, he was largely unaware of the consequences of his contribution. He did not think much of the formalisms used in the explanation of black body radiation, and is known to not being fond of the idea that it represented anything fundamental. It was other physicists later on that had to convince him otherwise.
    You can read a bit on the history of his (or was it really his?) discovery here:
    http://physicsworld.com/cws/article/print/2000/dec/01/max-planck-the-reluctant-revolutionary
    (you need to register to read - but it's free and with no strings attached)

    The constancy of light misconception was covered by russ_watters above.
     
    Last edited: Feb 10, 2015
  9. Feb 11, 2015 #8

    blue_leaf77

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    I know that MM experiment had shown a sign the justification of Einstein's postulate, but I don't think scientific community had already come to a conclusion that light speed is constant out of the result of that experiment. There might be following speculations, that's why I said "firm proof". Given that, I can imagine if I were to live at that time, I would perhaps pose objection to that, since what people at that time knew from Newtonian mechanics was that velocity is relative to its observer. The theories might fix what was unexplained from the already existing ones, but again since that was a completely new idea, I would imagine people from that time still demanded experimental verification beyond MM experiment to completely come to agreement with Einstein's postulate.
     
  10. Feb 11, 2015 #9

    russ_watters

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    Right: Einstein is the one who reconciled the contradiction. That was SR's contribution to the issue. Prior to Einstein, the thought was: "Wait - the speed of light should not be constant. How do we reconcile this result with how we think the universe works?"
    Once Einstein wrapped a bow around it, the proof became pretty firm. Yes, there were a few notable holdouts, but it was just too good of a theory to be seriously rejected.
    MMx was "only" the best -- there were a good dozen experiments in the 1800s (and up to 1905) that gave similarly perplexing results. So while Einstein's resolution was new, the idea that there was a major flaw in Newtonian relativity that needed to be fixed was not. Basically, the scientific community was prepped and waiting for someone like Einstein to resolve the problem. You seem to think that the scientific community thought everything was fine and then Einstein came along and flipped the table over on them (so why didn't they get mad?). That isn't what happened because the table was already flipped over.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Luminiferous_aether#First_order_experiments

    I would almost go so far as to say that the scientific community was primed for a change and Einstein got a little lucky in being the first to see it.
     
    Last edited: Feb 11, 2015
  11. Feb 11, 2015 #10

    blue_leaf77

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    Yeah, that's more or less what I was thinking.
    Actually in my first get-to-know with SR I found my self hard to agree with the underlying postulates, the reason was simply because I couldn't find experimental results (which might already exist but I never heard of it at that time) which can convince me that SR can be very close to be true. That's why I, which at that time was very interested in understanding space-time structure, decided to jump from theoretical physics to another field of physics in a hope that I can find more agreeable theories about space-time. But now I feel like I wont be able to find what I seek in my current field, seems like for now space-time structure can only be studied through GR, unless someone else devises a new theory.
     
  12. Feb 11, 2015 #11

    lavinia

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    As I remember, Born's book on Special Relativity recounts the history of the wave theory of light. It's been a long time since reading it, but I think in the 19'th century waves were thought of as propagating through a medium. All known examples did, e.g. water waves and sound waves. Scientists naturally hypothesized a medium for light and set out to detect it. They tried various interference experiments that came out negative but they realized that their experiments lacked sufficient accuracy to be definitive. Finally, the Michelson - Morely experiment - which was yet another variation on the previous interference experiments - was done because it had the required accuracy. When it came up negative - that is no medium for the propagation of light waves was detected- people sought more abstruse reasoning to explain it but finally scientists began to think that maybe there was no medium. I think that was a difficult intellectual step to take. How can a wave propagate without a medium?What does that even mean?
     
    Last edited: Feb 11, 2015
  13. Feb 11, 2015 #12

    ZapperZ

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    First of all, there is no such thing as a "proof" in physics. Experiments can verify the validity of a concept, theory, idea, etc., but it can never be a proof the same way there are logical proofs in mathematics. So ALL of physics has no proofs. Experimental verification strengthens the validity of it, and to varying degree of certainties.

    Secondly, I'm not sure where you get your sources from with regards to the history of Relativity. There were A LOT of skepticism for when it was introduced. Banesh Hoffman bio of Einstein has a very good detail on the initial reaction to Einstein's ideas. The very fact that Einstein received the Nobel Prize NOT for Special Relativity is already ample indication of the skepticism that was still prevalent at that time.

    Zz.
     
  14. Feb 11, 2015 #13

    russ_watters

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    It isnt necessary to use the mathematical/absolute definition here: The word "proof" can be read as a synonym for "quality evidence" and "proven" just means "proven beyond reasonable doubt".
     
  15. Feb 11, 2015 #14
    You make an important point here. SR did not prove the speed of light was the same for all observers in all inertial frames. It assumed it, as a postulate. This assumption being made, the 'theory' consists of Einstein's proposed explanation of why it might be so.

    Physics can't prove anything is always the case like math can. The two postulates of SR do not stand as 'proven'. They stand as 'not disproved'. Pythagorean Theorem, on the other hand, has been proven in over 300 different ways.
    I got that you meant it this way, but a suggested general softening of the term is not a good idea. Theories never constitute proof. They are tentative assertions that can be disproved if they turn out not to be true.
     
  16. Feb 11, 2015 #15

    PeroK

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    What about the theory that the heart pumps blood round the body? Is that merely a "tentative assertion" that may be disproved one day?
     
  17. Feb 11, 2015 #16
    I can't find any evidence that the heart as a blood pump was ever a mere theory. It was observed to be a blood pump and its function as a blood pump was taken to be axiomatic.

    Regardless, in that same arena, the existence of capillaries was at one time 'theoretical,' proposed by Ibn al-Nafis to explain how blood got from one side of the heart to the other. So let's shift to that. Cut to the chase: eventually Marcello Malpighi physically observed capillaries with the aid of the newly invented microscope.

    So, the capillary "theory" of Ibn al-Nafis was not, itself, a proof of anything. It was a tentative assertion that could have been disproved if it were not true.
     
  18. Feb 11, 2015 #17

    PeroK

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    So, you would say that the two postulates of SR stand as "not disproved"?

    But, that the heart is a pump and the capillary theory are "true"? Does "true" mean proven in this context?

    So, some theories (e.g. capillary theory) can be proved with sufficient evidence; whereas, others such as SR can never be proved?
     
  19. Feb 11, 2015 #18

    mathwonk

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    "Physics can't prove anything is always the case like math can."

    even in math methinks there are axioms and hypotheses.
     
  20. Feb 11, 2015 #19
    Here is what I'm referring to (and what I assume ZZ was referring to):

    '"Empirical induction' in the natural sciences proceeds from a particular series of observations of a certain phenomenon to the statement of a general law governing all occurrences of this phenomenon. The degree of certainty with which the law is thereby established depends on the number of single observations and confirmations. This sort of inductive reasoning is often entirely convincing; the prediction that the sun will rise tomorrow in the east is as certain as anything can be, but the character of this statement is not the same as that of a theorem proved by strict logical or mathematical reasoning.
    In quite a different way mathematical induction is used to establish the truth of a mathematical theorem for an infinite sequence of cases, the first, the second, the third, and so on, without exception..."

    What Is Math? Courant and Robbins, p.10 1978 edition

    In the natural sciences the best you can do is say, "No one has ever observed an exception to this assertion." In math, you can demonstrate some assertions are attached to an infinite sequence, and so will always be true for all members of that sequence. In other words, you lock out the possibility anyone can ever find an exception. The former (natural sciences) argument was not enough to prove Fermat's Last Theorem. No one had ever found an exception to it, yet it remained classified as unproved for a couple centuries.

    The problem with the natural science method is that it is vulnerable to the unexpected appearance of the Black Swan, while the math proof is not. The natural sciences cannot attach to an infinite sequence. No matter how many white swans you observe in succession without exception you can't prove them to be part of an infinite series that excludes the possible existence of black swans.

    It is my understanding that SR has been experimentally verified to a high degree of certainty. "Capillary theory" if we assume a theory that asserts it is always the case, has been disproved by the discovery of the arterio-venous malformation. Some creatures are born with some small percentage of of their arteries communicating directly to their veins without the capillary interface.
     
  21. Feb 11, 2015 #20
    I find it fascinating that relativity suggested the existence of singularities, which Einstein considered to be prohibited by the laws of classical physics. He never excepted their existence. So, Einstein didn't exactly disagree with his theory, but something "resulting" from his theory.
     
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