Monday, October 3, 2011

Path from experiment to theory

I just found this quote attributed to Einstein:
A theory can be proved by experiment; but no path leads from experiment to the birth of a theory.
The quote is common, but it may be false, as it is also attributed to the German chemist Manfred Eigen.

The quote is crazy. There is a path from experiment to theory in every scientific theory I know.

Einstein and his idolizers have long maintained that he invented special relativity without paying attention to experiment. They say that such scientific revolutions come by a paradigm shift.

The History of special relativity says that all of the important equations were derived to explain the Michelson-Morley experiment. Textbooks have explained relativity this way for a century.

The current Economist magazine says:
In 1887 physicists were feeling pretty smug about their subject. ... a strange observation made that year by two researchers called Albert Michelson and Edward Morley that the speed of light was constant, no matter how fast the observer was travelling. ...

As every schoolboy (and journalist with access to Wikipedia) knows, this flies in the face of special relativity, a theory devised by Albert Einstein precisely to explain the observation of Michelson and Morley.
Yes, every schoolboy knows that special relativity was devised from Michelson-Morley, and thinks that Einstein did it. What they do not realize is that Einstein paid no attention to Michelson-Morley because he was not the one to make the leap from that experiment to special relativity. Einstein just copied Lorentz's conclusions without fully understanding his reasoning.

If this is confusing, I have written a book to explain it.

Quotes are erroneously attributed to Einstein all the time. Today's UK newspaper Globe and Mail starts:
If as Albert Einstein observed insanity is “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results,” then the latest proposal for resolving the euro zone debt crisis requires psychiatric rather than financial assessment.
Einstein never said it.

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