Einstein’s sceptics: relativity deniers??

Wazeck ignores legitimate scientific criticisms of GR

Irrational critics of radical changes in scientific thinking are to be expected – and
as scientists we have to address them with patience and forbearance. 

But the example of Einstein’s 1915 general relativity is more complex. True, most of
Einstein’s peers welcomed it, as did most articulate and educated people after the 1919 success over the solar eclipse. But the refusal of the Nobel committee to award the prize for relativity showed scientific criticism remained.

Allvar Gullstrand’s referee report criticised the absence of dynamic solutions (gravitational waves) which related to the ‘ambiguity’ (non-unique) objection published in 1922 by Whitehead – that light paths and travel times depend on the chosen reference frame. These unresolved criticisms led to his Nobel prize being awarded in 1922 not for relativity but for the photoelectric effect (Einstein’s Nobel
prize, review
).

Einstein’s biographer, Abraham Pais, wrongly dismissed Gullstrand and his colleagues as lacking expertise. Such brushing aside of scientific criticisms exemplified the over-reaction of physicists to the irrational contemporary critics. While gravitational waves are widely accepted today, the rival computational teams in black-hole merging still dispute the frame-dependence of their results.

Of course, Einstein’s theory has been accurately validated, perhaps best by the
orbital decay of close binary pulsars due to gravitational radiation. Vladimir Fock, Steven Weinberg and others have reformulated the theory to remove the ambiguity. The equivalence principle is just locally valid, they argue, and conclude unlike Einstein that gravity is not solely geometry.

Milena Wazeck’s article on ‘relativity deniers’ (New Scientist, 13 Nov. p. 48) is unbalanced, because it fails to recognise the legitimate scientific criticisms. Consequently it fails to see the complex interplay of the rational and irrational in reactions to novel scientific concepts.

[submitted to New Scientist, 19 Nov. 2010, but not published]

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