Monday, August 6, 2012

Einstein’s Jewish Science

George Johnson writes a NY Times book review:
“Jewish physics.” With Einstein’s theories now at the bedrock of modern science, the Nazi’s words have been justly forgotten. It seems almost perverse that Steven Gimbel, the chairman of the philosophy department at Gettysburg College, would want to bring back the old epithet and give it another spin. In his original new book, “Einstein’s Jewish Science: Physics at the Intersection of Politics and Religion,” he considers the possibility that the Nazis were on to something. If you can look past the anti-Semitism, he proposes, “maybe relativity is ‘Jewish science’ after all.” What he means is that there might have been elements of Jewish thinking that gave rise to what is now recognized as one of the deepest insights of all time. ...

What gives Einstein’s work a Jewish flavor, Gimbel believes, is an approach to the universe that reminds him of the way a Talmudic scholar seeks to understand God’s truth. It comes only in glimpses. ...

“The heart of the Talmudic view is that there is an absolute truth, but this truth is not directly and completely available to us,” Gimbel writes. “It turns out that exactly the same style of thinking occurs in the relativity theory and in some of Einstein’s other research.”

From our blinkered perspective we see qualities called space and time. But in relativity theory, the two can be combined mathematically into something more fundamental: a four-dimensional abstraction called the space-time interval. Time and space vary according to the motion of the observer.
The trouble with this view is that Poincare was the one to put space and time together into a four-dimensional space-time in 1905, and Einstein did not even understand or accept it until Minkowski made Poincare's theory popular in 1908.

Wikipedia says:
The leading theoretician of the Deutsche Physik type of movement was Rudolf Tomaschek who had re-edited the famous physics textbook Grimsehl's Lehrbuch der Physik. In that book, which consists of several volumes, the Lorentz transformation was accepted as well as quantum theory. However, Einstein's interpretation of the Lorentz transformation was not mentioned, and also Einstein's name was completely ignored.
The term "Lorentz transformation" was Poincare's 1905 terminology, and his interpretation was that the transformations formed a symmetry group of space-time, with Maxwell's equations for electromagnetism being covariant. Poincare's interpretation is the one popular one today, not Einstein's. So the German physics book could have described relativity accurately.

Gimbel quotes Einstein repeatedly:
Jews are a group of people unto themselves. You can see their Jewishness in their physical appearance and notice their Jewish heritage in their intellectual work and perceive a profound connection between their nature and the numerous interpretations they give to that which they think and feel in in the same way. [p.4,69; alternate translation]

Any analysis of how Einstein's relativity work might be Jewish science must be based on what Einstein actually contributed to special relativity. The consensus among historians is that Einstein ignored experiments like Michelson-Morley, and that he had no new formulas or testable ideas. Einstein is usually praised for obscure terminological differences that have no physical significance. For example, Einstein if praised for not using terms like "local time" or "aether", but no one has ever been able to explain why Einstein's terms like "stationary system" are any better.

My view of science is that it is based on experimental truths, and that advances in science should have some demonstrable superiority to previous knowledge. Those who idolize Einstein have a paradigm shift view where great science is when some hero makes some profound pronouncement based on what he thinks ought to represent some enlightened truth, even tho it is not better in any measurable way. T. Kuhn said that the paradigm shifts are incommensurable.

So was Einstein's view a Talmudic view? I cannot answer that, but I certainly think that it was legitimate for some German physicists to insist on hard evidence to back up theories.

Gimbel makes some analogies between Einstein and Freud, who was also a “secular Jew”, identified with the Jews, and had a Jewish influence on his work. I don’t know how this analogy helps Einstein. Freud was a crackpot who never did any scientific work.

Gimbel acknowledges:

Bjerknes traces elements of the theory of relativity to Lorentz and Poincare, figures we know influenced Einstein's thoughts, as well as Woldemar Voight [sic, Voigt] ... Einstein regularly fails to cite those who influenced his thought and his works, something that is definitely a scholarly no-no. ...

With respect to the special theory of relativity, Bjerknes undertakes the task of showing that each element was presented by someone somewhere before Einstein's 1905 paper. His line is that you do not deserve credit for making the salad if you did not grow the lettuce and pick the tomatoes yourself. ...

The phrase "Copernican Revolution" has come to mean a radical shift in worldview. What Copernicus did was not to invent the sun-centered picture of the solar system but rather to express it in away that make us see the world around us in a different way. ...

But, of course, Einstein at first didn't completely understand the worldview that came from the special theory of relativity. It was Minkowski's geometric interpretation of the theory that took us to the next step. [p.201-202]
The flaw in Gimbel's argument is that Poincare had it all in 1905, including the geometric interpretation that Einstein did not even understand until years later. Someone who buys lettuce and tomato and makes a salad has made something new. Einstein did not make anything new or take us to the next step.

I say that Poincare had the geometric interpretation in 1905 because he had the 4-dimensional spacetime, the Minkowski metric, the Lorentz group of transformations preserving the metric, and the covariance of electromagnetic variables and equations. These concepts are the core of the geometric view, and Einstein had none of it.

One dictionary defines Talmudic as:
characterized by or making extremely fine distinctions; overly detailed or subtle; hairsplitting.
I don't doubt that the Talmud makes sense to those who study it. But to non-Jews, it is just an old obscure book of incomprehensible rules. The only analogy I see here is that you have to make some meaningless hairsplitting distinctions to give credit to Einstein.

It is curious that Gimbel mentions the phrase "Copernican Revolution", a phrase that Kuhn popularized for paradigm shifts. Poincare's long 1905 paper explicitly makes the analogy. It says that Lorentz is to Poincare as Ptolemy is to Copernicus. Thus Poincare boldly declared a new view. Einstein could not explain how his view differed from Lorentz's.

For full disclosure, I should mention that Gimbel has several pages criticizing the Conservapedia Counterexamples to Relativity, where my brother is an editor. I think that the list would be better called paradoxes and anomalies.

1 comment:

  1. I've studied the Talmud for years and I'm Jewish. It is not just incomprehensible for nonJews but for Jews as well. You have to learn it from a good teacher to understand just a little bit of it.

    I doubt Einstein ever learned Talmud from a serious teacher.