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Open letter to science editors


Einstein's Relativity Theory
Wal Thornhill

A challenger of Relativity theory wrote and asked:

A clock reads 12:00. An observer moving away from the clock at the speed of light will see the clock reading 12:00 forever, because the light showing 12:01 cannot catch him. Thus, at the speed of light time stops.  Another famous Paradox that leads from the theory is the twins that age at different rates because one is traveling at high speed while the other stays home. When the traveler returns, he has not aged as much.  This leads to a problem in logic, because the bases of the theory is that all motion is relative. If this be so, how can we state which twin actually traveled and which remained at rest? Are not the acceleration and deceleration balancing so that in the end both twins age together? Perhaps someone can clarify this.

Wal Thornhill Replies:

The simple problem is obscured when light sources and observers are introduced. Professor Herbert Dingle, who in his early career wrote the entry for the Encyclopedia Brittanica on Einstein's Special Theory of Relativity, in 1972 published a book titled 'Science at the Crossroads', detailing the problems he encountered in getting a simple response to a simple question which, if unanswered, means that Einstein's theory is incorrect. I reproduce sections of the book's Introduction which give some background and Dingle's still unanswered question:

".... the theory of relativity is believed to be so abstruse that only a very select body of specialists can be expected to understand it. In fact this is quite false; the theory itself is very simple, but it has been quite unnecessarily enveloped in a cloak of metaphysical obscurity which has really nothing whatever to do with it; the physical theory itself, indeed, is much simpler than many physical theories familiar to most educated non-scientific but interested persons in the nineteenth century; it is wholly devoid of any mystical significance. ..... But the consequences of those illusions are the vitally important matter for the general public. They are, briefly, that the great majority of physical scientists, including practically all those who conduct experiments in physics and are best known to the world as leaders in science, when pressed to answer allegedly fatal criticism of the theory, confess either that they regard the theory as nonsensical but accept it because the few mathematical specialists in the subject say they should do so, or that they do not pretend to understand the subject at all, but, again, accept the theory as fully established by others and therefore a safe basis for their experiments. The response of the comparatively few specialists to the criticism is either complete silence or a variety of evasions couched in mystical language which succeeds in convincing the experimenters that they are quite right in believing that the theory is too abstruse for their comprehension and that they may safely trust men endowed with the metaphysical and mathematical talents that enable them to write confidently in such profound terms. What no one does is to answer the criticism.

"It would naturally be supposed that the point at issue, even if less esoteric than it is generally supposed to be, must still be too subtle and profound for the ordinary reader to be expected to understand it. On the contrary, it is of the most extreme simplicity. According to the theory, if you have two exactly similar clocks, A and B. and one is moving with respect to the other, they must work at different rates, i.e. one works more slowly than the other. But the theory also requires that you cannot distinguish which clock is the 'moving' one; it is equally true to say that A rests while B moves and that B rests while A moves. The question therefore arises: how does one determine, consistently with the theory, which clock works the more slowly? Unless this question is answerable, the theory unavoidably requires that A works more slowly than B and B more slowly than A which it requires no super-intelligence to see is impossible.  Now, clearly, a theory that requires an impossibility cannot be true, and scientific integrity requires, therefore, either that the question just posed shall be answered, or else that the theory shall be acknowledged to be false. But, as I have said, more than 13 years of continuous effort have failed to produce either response. The question is left by the experimenters to the mathematical specialists, who either ignore it or shroud it in various obscurities, while experiments involving enormous physical risk go on being performed.

"It cannot be too strongly emphasised that this question is exactly what it appears to be, with every word and phrase bearing its ordinary, generally understood, meaning; it is not a profoundly complicated question, artificially simplified to bring it within the scope of the non-scientific reader's intelligence. It is presented here in its full scientific reality, and the ordinary reader is as fully competent to understand whether a proffered answer is in fact an answer or an evasion as is the most learned physicist or mathematician--though, of course, he may not be able to judge whether the suggested answer is true or not. For instance, the statement: 'the slower-running clock is that judged by a chosen body of experts to be the more beautiful' would be an answer, though it is not likely to be acceptable to anyone. On the other hand, the statement: 'I cast my vote for the special theory of relativity and the abandonment of Dingle's concept of clocks because the latter is equivalent to Newton's concept of absolute time, and relativistic physics appears to me to represent nature more closely than Newtonian physics does', which is the conclusion reached by one generally considered to be among the most authoritative mathematical experts on relativity, can be seen by anyone to be no answer at all, but a clear evasion of the question. Who can gather from this how to tell which clock works the more slowly ? The question is by-passed, and the reader is led into a slough of metaphysical concepts which have nothing whatever to do with it. Nevertheless, the statement serves to confirm the experimenters' conviction that the matter is beyond their understanding but has been competently dealt with by an expert authority, so they need give it no further attention." (pp.16-18)

Dingle later makes some comments which I subscribe to and which have assumed even greater importance with the explosive rise of computer modelling over the 25 years since his book was printed and the dominance of mathematics over physics:

"I cannot leave this subject without bringing to attention an aspect of it which has very serious general implications. I think it is impossible for anyone who reflects on the few examples I have given, and realises that they are not exceptional in their general character but typical of most mathematical physics of the present day, to doubt that, as a general rule, the practice of mathematical physics goes hand in hand with lack of elementary reasoning power and of that normal form of human wisdom, somewhat misleadingly called commonsense, that provides its own corrective of premature judgment and never allows the requirements of reason and experience to be overcome by the seductions of attractive speculations. I repeat that I am no psychologist, and it is with diffidence that I admit an unwillingness to conclude that this is an inescapable psychological necessity; it is more comforting to hope that it denotes a failure of our educational system to recognise an ever-present danger and to take precautions against it. It is usually taken for granted that the processes of mathematics are identical with the processes of reasoning, whereas they are quite different.

"The mathematician is more akin to a spider than to a civil engineer, to a chess player than to one endowed with exceptional critical power. The faculty by which a chess expert intuitively sees the possibilities that lie in a particular configuration of pieces on the board is paralleled by that which shows the mathematician the much more general possibilities latent in an array of symbols. He proceeds automatically and faultlessly to bring them to light, but his subsequent correlation of his symbols with facts of experience, which has nothing to do with his special gift, is anything but faultless, and is only too often of the same nature as Lewis Carroll's correlation of his pieces with the Red Knight and the White Queen - with the difference that whereas Dodgson recognised the products of his imagination to be wholly fanciful, the modern mathematician imagines, and persuades others, that he is discovering the secrets of nature.  The processes of mathematics are to be contrasted rather than identified with the process of rational thought."  (pp.127-128)

Dingle later writes of "...the extraordinary manner in which the clay mingled with the gold in Einstein's remarkable intellectual make-up." (p.200).

Wal Thornhill

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