Friday, September 30, 2011

Neutrinos and the Einstein myth

Saswato R. Das writes in a NY Times op-ed:
Was Einstein Wrong?

The results of a recent experiment at CERN, the giant particle accelerator near Geneva, seem to attack one of physics’ sacred cows: Albert Einstein’s postulate that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light. ...

Einstein’s near-mythic fame rests on his theory of relativity, which says that the speed of light in a vacuum, approximately 186,282 miles per second, is the ultimate speed limit. Nothing in the universe can travel faster. ... Physicists everywhere are scratching their heads. Could it be that another scientific revolution is at hand? Are we witnessing a paradigm shift?

Testing theories through experimentation has always been the basis for scientific progress. The philosopher Karl Popper called this the notion of falsifiability of scientific theories.

Einstein himself was motivated by an experiment that disproved a 19th century scientific belief. Back then, it was widely held that light, like sound, needed a medium in order to travel. Physicists called it the “luminiferous ether.” Since the Earth revolved around the Sun and the Sun revolved around the center of the galaxy, they reasoned that the presence of ether would cause the speed of light to be different in different directions. Albert Michelson and Edward Morley set out to measure this difference. Instead they found that the speed of light was the same in every direction. In 1887, they published a paper, which then influenced Einstein.
The trouble with this story is that it is directly contrary to what the academic Einstein worshipers say about him. They say that Einstein's famous relativity work was not motivated by Michelson–Morley experiment at all. Einstein himself, in his later life, denied that he even knew about the experiment.

Furthermore, the dominant academic philosophy of science rejects falsifiability in favor of Kuhnian paradigm shifts. That is where some young turk like Einstein cooks up a new theory that catches on without experimental evidence. Einstein is supposed to be a good example because he ignored the experimental evidence.

This is all nonsense, of course. The inventors of relativity were indeed motivated by the experiment that falsified previous ideas. Then Einstein just summarized their theory. The paradigm shift philosophy is garbage. This is all documented in my book.

Here is a slightly edited version of a recent Wikipedia discussion:
Colin Howson [5]: "Lorentz was justified in asserting that: ... the chief difference [is] that Einstein simply postulates what we have deduced ..."

Credit is usually given to the person making the initial deduction rather than some randomly selected scholar using it as a postulate later.

Yes, that is a funny thing about relativity. There are historians and philosophers who have written entire essays on how, in Einstein's case only, it is better to credit the one who postulated what others proved.

I think the both of you are precisely missing the entire point here. ... Since you insist, the point you are missing is this: "As to the ether... though the conception of it has certain advantages, it must be admitted that if Einstein had maintained it he certainly would not have given his theory, so we are grateful to him for not having gone along old-fashioned roads." (Lorentz, 1922). Lorentz seems to know who gets the credit. Resting case. [Quote is from Hendrik Antoon Lorentz, "Problems of Modern Physics; a course of lectures delivered in the California Institute of Technology," Edited by H. Bateman, _Ginn_, 1927.]

That quote is from 1922, and by then Einstein had reversed himself. In 1920, he said, "More careful reflection teaches us, however, that the special theory of relativity does not compel us to deny ether."
So Einstein's main contribution was to postulate what Lorentz and Poincare had proved, but we are supposed to credit Einstein anyway because of some vague kind remark that Lorentz made in his old age.

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