From Chapter 11: The Virtue of Heresy
A few years ago, I had the great privilege of sharing a supper table with some of the finest scientific minds of my era. Directly opposite me sat Professor Huseyin Yilmaz, formerly of the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton University, a hallowed and ivy-decked place where Albert Einstein had spent his later, introspective years. To his left sat the larger-than-life Professor Carroll Alley, Yilmaz’s experimentalist colleague from the University of Maryland. On my right was the quietly spoken, amiable Professor Harold Puthoff, a director of the Institute for Advanced Studies at Austin in Texas. Dr Puthoff has achieved a fair measure of notoriety for his work on anti-gravity and the Zero Point Field, but that doesn’t frighten me in the least. What did overawe me was the enormous scientific stature of these gentlemen, but I needn’t have worried. They were to a fault courteous and accommodating, and entertained my dumb questions with remarkable patience. The conversation, once we had come to terms with the unfamiliar cuisine, was about Relativity. For purposes of clarity, I will spell relativity as a principle or effect with a lower case “r”, and the theory authored by Dr Einstein, “Relativity.”
It dazzled me. Here were people discussing with great insight and authority the mathematical implications of the field equations in General Relativity. What’s more (to my great astonishment) it sounded distinctly like they were suggesting improvements to the Gospel! I could contain myself no longer. “Professor Yilmaz,” I said, glancing furtively around the room and then dropping my voice to a whisper, “does that mean Einstein was wrong?” All three gentlemen laughed spontaneously at my obvious discomfort, and Hal Puthoff put his hand good-naturedly on my shoulder. “Hilton,” he said, “you don’t have to hide under the table. It’s no longer controversial to say that Einstein made mistakes. Most physicists accept that quite openly now.” I had learned one of the most valuable lessons of my life. Let’s talk Relativity.
I think the best approach to a very touchy subject would be to try to identify what exactly the problem was that Dr Einstein was trying fix. What was broken? The target that Albert Einstein had fixed firmly in his crosshairs was the entrenched, common sense approach to the physical world as we experience it called Newtonian Mechanics, a system of knowledge proven so astoundingly accurate in our measurable environment that it is still used today to determine the intricate trajectories of interplanetary spacecraft. It’s actually not that easy to find out precisely why—in a practical sense—Einstein objected to Newtonian physics, or whether in the cold light of day he made any real improvement to the situation.
- He was concerned with the propagation of light in the absence of a physical medium, but that notion had already been answered in Maxwell’s equations.
- He had a big problem with “action-at-a-distance” (especially gravitation), but his proposed field solution still acts on objects at a distance from each other.
- He was understandably puzzled by wave-particle duality in light, but could not suggest a workable solution; it is still today one of the most vexing questions in physics.
- The crucial objection he raised was to the notion of absolute, universal time and simultaneity of events. We shall shortly see that in this regard Albert Einstein was being idealistically fanciful.
So why was he complaining? Why did Albert Einstein think that the world of science critically needed the Special and General Theories of Relativity? It’s almost impossible to answer those questions. Some suggest it was because Maxwell’s equations of electromagnetism cannot be set mechanically, that is, with rigid spatial axes. I believe that it was because of the astounding but physically baseless vision that came to him during the extensive nightly intellectual wrangling that the then youthful patents clerk and his friends conducted at his apartment in Berne. It seems to me that he was inspired by those discussions to create a dream so attractive to the enquiring mind that he simply could not let it die. Despite the testing and blatant obstacles that physical reality put in his path, he just had to make it work. The really clever part of this story is how he achieved that goal. The astounding part is how famous it made him.