joke or swindle ?
Essen re-states his view that Einstein's theory of relativity
contains basic and fatal flaws.
L (1988): Electronics & Wireless
World, p. 126-127, February 1988
Some of your
contributors find it difficult to accept my contention (WW October,
1978) that Einstein's theory of relativity is invalidated by its
internal errors. Butterfield for example (WW February, 1987) denies
that there is any duplication of units or any harm in obtaining
results from thought-experiments. Moreover, if my contention is
correct, the new experimental work described by Aspden (EWW, August,
1987 ) is not required to disprove the theory, although it might
confirm that his assumptions were wrong. This is not to suggest that
experimental results are not important but they should be considered
as steps in the development of new theories.
about the theory tend to be very involved and your readers may be
interested in a brief history of the subject which I wrote some time
ago for a friend who wanted to know what the controversy was about
and in particular what was the significance of the clock paradox.
The theory was an attempt to explain the result of an
experiment which had been made to measure the velocity of the earth
through space. Scientists reasoned that, since light is an
electromagnetic wave travelling through space with a velocity denoted
by the symbol c, and the earth is travelling through space with a
velocity v, it should be possible to measure v by an optical
experiment carried out in the laboratory. Michelson and Morley
designed and used an interferometer for this purpose. A beam of light
was split into two parts which were directed along the two arms of
the instrument at right angles to each
other, the two beams being reflected back to recombine and form
interference fringes. The instrument was turned through a
right angle so that, if one of the arms was initially parallel to
earth's motion, it became at right angles to this direction. It was
expected that there would be a movement of the fringes, from which
the velocity of the earth could be calculated, but no change at all
- There have
always been ... critics: Rutherford treated it as a joke; Soddy
called it a swindle; Bertrand Russell suggested it was all contained
in the Lorentz transformation equations; and many scientists
commented on its contradictions.
- Fitzgerald and Lorentz
pointed out that this result would be obtained if the arm of the
interferometer which was moving parallel with the earth was, in
consequence of this movement, reduced in length by the amount
Such an arbitrary assumption did not constitute a satisfactory
explanation and scientists tried to think of a more fundamental
Einstein came to the conclusion that the answer
rested on the way time was measured and the simultaneity of two
events was defined; and on the basis of these ideas and two
additional assumptions he developed his theory, published in 1905.
It was essentially the electromagnetic theory of Maxwell and Lorentz
modified to incorporate the Michelson-Morley result. Later, in 1907,
he extended the theory to include gravitational effects and
predicted that light would be deflected as it passed near the sun.
The prediction could be tested only by observing the path of the
light from stars during an eclipse of the sun and in 1919 Eddington
led an expedition to the island of Principe, where the eclipse was
total; and when the results had been studied, announced that the
prediction was confirmed. The theory was then gradually accepted,
eventually being regarded as a revolution in scientific thought.
But there have always been its critics: Rutherford treated
it as a joke; Soddy called it a swindle; Bertrand Russel suggested
that it was all contained in the Lorentz transformation equations;
and many scientists commented on its contradictions. These adverse
opinions, together with the fact that the small effects predicted by
the theory were becoming of significance to the definition of the
unit of atomic time, prompted me to study Einstein's paper. I found
that it was written in imprecise language, that one assumption was
in two contradictory forms and that it contained two serious errors.
... he concluded
that, at the end of the journey, the time recorded by the moving
clock was less than that recorded by the stationary clock. The
result did not follow from the experiment, but was simply an
assumption slipped in implicitly during the complicated procedure.
- The essential feature of
science is its dependcnce on experiment. Results of experiment are
expressed in terms of units which must not be duplicated if
contradictions are to be avoided and units of measurement are the
only quantities which can be made constant by definition. When
Einstein wrote his paper, two of the units were those of length and
time. Velocity was measured in terms of these units. Einstein
defined the velocity of light as a universal constant and thus broke
a fundamental rule of science.
One of the predictions of the
theory was that a moving clock goes more slowly than an identical
stationary clock. Taking into account the basic assumption of the
theory that uniform velocity is purely relative, it follows that
each clock goes more-slowly than the other when viewed from the
position of the other. This prediction is strange but not logically
impossible. Einstein then made his second mistake in the course of a
thought-experiment. He imagined that two clocks were initially
together and that one of them moved away in a number of straight
line paths, at a uniform velocity, finally returning to the starting
point. He concluded that on its return the moving clock was slower
than the stationary clock.
Moreover, since only uniform
motion is involved there is no way of distinguishing between the two
and each clock goes more slowly than the other. This result is known
as the clock paradox or, since the clocks are sometimes likened to
identical twins, one of whom ages more slowly than the other, the
- ... I do not
think Rutherford would have regarded (the theory) as a joke had he
realised how it would retard the rational development of science.
Einstein defined the velocity of light as a universal constant and
thus broke one of the fundamental rules of science.
- Hundreds of thousands of
words have been written about the paradox but the explanation is
simple, arising from Einstein's use of the expression, "as
viewed from". Clearly if the time of one clock is viewed to be
slower than the other even when it has returned to the same position
as the other then it must indeed be slower. But the rates of distant
clocks are not compared by viewing them. Ticks from them are
received and counted on a separate dial, a process now carried out
continuously throughout the world for the synchronization of atomic
time. It is the reading on this subsidiary dial which would be less
and not that on the dial of the clock itself. If the
thought-experiment is carried out correctly, the result is that the
time of the moving clock as measured at the position of the
stationary clock is less than that of the stationary clock. This is
the same as the initial prediction, which is as it should be since a
thought-experiment cannot give a result differing from the
information put into it.
Einstein's use of a
thought-experiment, together with his ignorance of experimental
techniques, gave a result which footed himself and generations of
scientists. He convinced himself that the theory yielded the result
he wanted, because the contraction of time is accompanied by the
contraction of length needed to explain the Michelson-Morley result.
The round trip could not have been made without
accelerations being applied, but Einstein ignored their possible
effect on the rate of the clock, thus implicitly assuming that they
had no effect. Some years later, in 1918, he used another
thought-experiment in an attempt to answer criticisms of the paradox
result. One of the clocks again made a round trip, the changes of
direction being achieved by switching gravitational fields on and
off at various stages of the journey, the time recorded by the
moving clock was less than that recorded by the stationary clock.
The result did not follow from the experiment, but was simply an
assumption slipped in implicitly during the complicated procedure.
The slowing down of clocks which he had previously attributed to
uniform velocity, acceleration having no effect, he now attributed
to acceleration, a line of argument followed in many textbooks.
Claims frequently made that the theory is supported by
experimental evidence do not withstand a close scrutiny. There are
grave doubts about Eddington's claim, both as regards the predicted
value which was increased by a factor of 2 from that first given by
Einstein and the way the results were analysed some of the
readings being discarded. The same criticism applies to a more
recent experiment performed, at considerable expense, in 1972. Four
atomic clocks were flown round the world and the times recorded by
them were compared with the times recorded by similar clocks in
Washington. The results obtained from the individual clocks differed
by as much as 300 nanoseconds. This absurdly optimistic conclusion
was accepted and given wide publicity in the scientific literature
and by the media as a confirmation of the clock paradox. All the
experiment showed was that the clocks were not sufficiently accurate
to detect the small effect predicted.
Why have scientists
accepted a theory which contains obvious errors and lacks any
genuine experimental support? It is a difficult question, but a
number of reasons can be suggested. There is first the ambiguous
language used by Einstein and the nature of his errors. Units of
measurements, though of fundamental importance, are seldom discussed
outside specialist circles and the errors in clock comparisons are
hidden away in the thought experiments.
Einstein's use of a
thought experiment, together with his ignorance of experimental
techniques, gave a result which fooled himself and generations of
- Then there is the
prestige of its advocates. Eddington had the full support of the
Royal Astronomical Society, the Royal Society and scientific
establishments throughout the world. Taking their cue from
scientists, important people in other walks of life referred to it
as an outstanding achievement of the human intellect. Another
powerful reason for its acceptance was suggested to me by a former
president of the Royal Society. He confessed that he did not
understand the theory himself, not being an expert in the subject,
but he thought it must be right because he had found it so useful.
This is a very important requirement in any theory but it does not
follow that errors in it should be ignored.
Insofar as the
theory is thought to explain the result of the Michelson-Morley
experiment I am inclined to agree with Soddy that it is a swindle;
and I do not think Rutherford would have regarded it as a joke had
he realised how it would retard the rational development of science.
Dr. Louis Essen,
D.Sc., F.R.S., has spent a lifetime working at the NPL on the
measurement of time and frequency. He built the first caesium clock
in 1955 and determined the velocity of light by cavity resonator, in
the process showing that Michelson's value was 17km/s low. In 1959,
he was awarded the Popov Gold Medal of the USSR Academy of Sciences
and also the OBE.