Monday, February 23, 2009

Was Einstein Wrong?

Albert Einstein, who probably wasn't right about everything all the time.
Image Credit: Owen Jack Turner / Library of Congress
Thanks to Public Domain Clip Art for the tip!

The short answer: probably yes and no.

We astronomers get lots of email from all sorts of people about all sorts of topics. Most of those emails are quite legitimate questions or comments. But a small subset of the email we receive comes from people who think they have come up with a new theory; these ideas usually involve disproving Einstein's theories of relativity. And these ideas are invariably not grounded in scientific basis, but are based on taking a little bit of (often incorrect) knowledge and thinking way to hard about the consequences, all the while not worrying about major issues like experimental evidence or mathematical proofs. (See here for a satirical summary of typical mailings.) Most of us learn quickly not to even acknowledge any such correspondence, because many of the authors quickly become belligerent and threatening rather than taking the opportunity to learn a little bit about science.

As I said, Einstein is a frequent target of these misguided ideas, probably because if someone proves Einstein was wrong, then that person will be famous and potentially lauded as a genius the way Einstein is now.

So, it is always with some amount of worry when I see articles in the popular media questioning Einstein. And this has happened twice in the past couple of weeks. An article in Scientific American talks about the implications of "quantum entanglement" (one of the spookier aspects of quantum mechanics) on Einstein's special relativity, and a news release involving data from NASA's Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope talks about how there may be evidence from a gamma ray burst that calls parts of relativity into question.

First, let me say that Einstein has not been disproven. Both articles present new arguments and some new evidence that need to be considered. But the conclusions of both articles are that a lot of work needs to be done to verify the suppositions and results. The gamma-ray observation, in particular, has a lot of potential holes that need to be investigated before this claim can even be considered as evidence in a case against relativity. Still, the observations are tantalizing.

But we need to be cautious with our wording. I think most physicists and astronomers realize that Einstein's theories of relativity are incomplete. This doesn't mean that they are wrong. After all, general relativity has predicted some pretty bizarre effects before they were discovered (like black holes, the expansion of the Universe, and gravitational lensing). Our GPS systems are required to make use of general relativity in order to function, and they do indeed function quite well. Any theory that can do all of this is not completely wrong.

Where Einstein's theories run into problems are on the subatomic level. Quantum mechanics, the physics involved on atomic scales, is incompatible with relativity on the smallest scales. For example, quantum mechanics says there is a fundamental length known as the Planck length, below which little or nothing can be known (this length is tiny, about 1/100,000,000,000,000,000,000 the size of an atomic nucleus). Relativity has no such limit. While this sounds like no big deal, it is a fundamental difference between the theories that hasn't been overcome.

Or take the "quantum entanglement" that the Scientific American article talks about. Remember that relativity claims that no information can be sent faster than the speed of light. But it is possible to use quantum mechanics to put two subatomic particles in a state called "entanglement," sort of like a constant interaction. You can send one particle one direction and the other particle another direction. Say you have laboratories on two planets that are 2 light years apart, and you have a third laboratory exactly in between. That third lab makes an entangled particle and sends one to each lab. On one lab there is a machine that can force the particle to jiggle either up and down or left and right (for those who don't like the word "jiggle", I mean have a certain polarization). So, when the particle reaches the first lab, they force it to jiggle in one direction. Meanwhile, in the other lab 2 light years away, the second particle arrives at the same time as the first particle in the first lab. Because the two particles were entangled, this second particle is forced to jiggle in the same direction. The second lab can measure the direction of jiggling and know exactly what the scientists in a lab two light-years away are doing right at that instant; no two-year delay like Einstein would insist there had to be. And we've done this experiment here on Earth, and it works like I said.

To me, this is just saying that either Einstein's relativity or quantum mechanics (or, most likely, both) are not the last word in physics theories. There's something deeper going on. That doesn't mean that Einstein and/or quantum mechanics are wrong, in my opinion, just that they are partial, incomplete explanations of reality.

This is not unprecedented. Consider Isaac Newton, who in the 1600s was able to figure out laws of motion and gravitation. We still teach these laws today, and we even use them to send spaceships throughout our solar system. But Newton's laws are incomplete; they don't take relativity into account. Still, we don't consider Newton to be an idiot for not foreseeing a need for relativity, and in fact one of the requirements for relativity was that it reproduce Newton's Laws under "normal" situations.

Any ultimate theory uniting gravity with particle physics will have to reproduce quantum mechanics, special relativity, general relativity, and even Newton's Laws, at least in the conditions under which we've tested all of these theories. And, when we develop such a theory, I doubt that every physicists' plaster busts of Einstein will end up in the garbage.

Even if ultimately incomplete, Einstein's relativity made some amazingly correct predictions. Even when we study atomic-scale physics, we have to make corrections for special relativity in our models of atoms like iron. General relativity's concept of the equivalence of matter and energy (E=mc2) is at the root of our nuclear fission and fusion reactors (and bombs).

So, was Einstein wrong? Perhaps you could call it that. But given how relativity has pervaded and has shaped physics and technology over the last century, it has to be one of the best wrong answers a scientist could ever hope to make.


  1. Anonymous12:42 AM

    "Onerock" was definitelly wrong. See here

    There are other approaches to disproving Einstein, some can be found on the net.

  2. "As I said, Einstein is a frequent target of these misguided ideas, probably because if someone proves Einstein was wrong, then that person will be famous and potentially lauded as a genius the way Einstein is now."

    You are wrong about this. If some one want to become famous they won't choose become another einstein by the way disproving einstein's theory. There is many way to become famous more easier than this way.

    And about mathematics , it is just a tool of the human to visualize the natural. So that mean there is no need mathematics the human still can understand the natural.

    And i disproved the theory of einstein in the way it explaining time. In my opinion, Time is just a produce from mathematic, it is not physical exist. So time travel and some other concept about time is impossible

  3. Call me if five years.


  5. Einstein was in fact wrong. There is a place in a black hole where there is a singularity, which is where Einstein's general relitivity theory brakes down and becomes useless. The Mathematics just dont work.

  6. wow their big fella

  7. Anonymous3:02 AM

    Use of words like "incomplete" and references to atomic bombs only serves to display your ignorance about relativity. You missed one that is used by most followers of Einsteinien creed GPS.

  8. Please read my ether-gravity theory of gravitoethertons published in ASTRONOMY.NET in year 2002 where I have proved Einstein wrong.

  9. Please read my theory to confirm the inappropriateness of special relativity.

    Sapcetime definition is faulty.

    time dilution is incorrect.

  10. Anonymous6:21 PM

    "And these ideas are invariably not grounded in scientific basis." And this universal theory is a sure method to miss a breakthrough.

    "Any theory that can do all of this is not completely wrong." Wrong theories can predict things very well. We can predict lung cancer from the color of the fingers.

    "That doesn't mean that Einstein and/or quantum mechanics are wrong, in my opinion, just that they are partial, incomplete explanations of reality." In my opinion "partial, incomplete" is wrong. A true theory is neither partial nor incomplete.

    "But Newton's laws are incomplete; they don't take relativity into account. Still, we don't consider Newton to be an idiot for not foreseeing a need for relativity, and in fact one of the requirements for relativity was that it reproduce Newton's Laws under "normal" situations." Do you ever use the word "wrong" in science? Do you have a zeal for truth? Do you even assume that truth exists?

  11. Anonymous10:56 PM

    There is no absolute truth exists in this universe. All the knowledge we explore, gather or believe is relative knowledge.If you call the truth for material part of the universe(i,e what we see, feel , believe)that is nothing but illusion.True knowledge can't be violated in reality or in theory.I hope you understand what I ment to say.

  12. Anonymous6:29 PM

    Einstein was totally wrong.


  13. Anonymous4:39 PM

    People its almost impossible to prove Einstein to be 'totally' wrong because experiment backs him up for most of his thoeries and we have seen his thoeries at work like atom bomb, the workings of the TV and more. Personally I'd like to refer to all theories as models, models that help us better understand the universe we live in and that is what Einstein's and Newtons theories are just models I hope we all see them as such and that they are not absolute they just explain a small part of this great machinery called the universe...

  14. Anonymous10:24 AM

    If you worship Einstein right out of college what they taught you in college, you will always think he was right, and will never see anything else. And Einstein worshippers will of course always use any excuse to not read anything that contradicts or dismisses his work. Today scientists are desperate to connect GR and QM and find it is just not possible, but that doesn't dismiss most of them still believing firmly both theories are right. Then someone comes along and shows gravity is an entropic force, and they turn their heads away. But the more you keep playing in the same sandbox, the less breakthroughs will come along to lead in a better direction.

  15. Anonymous10:32 AM

    It is possible for a theory to predict certain things for the wrong reasons, even if it seems right and the predictions seem to be met with accuracy. Said another simpler way, the theory in words is not necessarily married to the math or vice-versa. This is why belief that a theory is right because it makes apparently right predicions, is faulty. A faulty theory could still make right predictions. Remember, theory is theory after all.

  16. Anonymous1:12 PM

    What r we fighting for? Fighting for Universe?
    We don’t need any super human to tell us how our Universe is?
    Whatever is there in the Universe that is there inside every one of us.
    Just concentrate your mind between your two eyebrows, which is the secret of knowing the universe. This is known for hundreds of thousands of years.
    Why painful 11 dimensional complicated mathematics to derive the universe?

  17. Albert Einstein borrowed from the ideas of Fitzgerald, Lorentz and Voigt to create a new concept of the universe. His first work in this regard later came to be known as Special Relativity and contained many controversial ideas which today are considered axiomatic. Amongst these are Length Contraction, Time Dilation, the Twin Paradox and the equivalence of mass and energy summarized in the equation E=mc2.

    This equation became the shining capstone of the new theory along with its first & second postulates, namely, that the laws of nature are the same from all perspectives and that the speed of light 'c' is constant in a vacuum regardless of perspective. Further, the theory also predicted an increase in mass with velocity. Numerous examples have been given of the 'proof' of the validity of Special Relativity.

    However, is Albert Einstein's Special Relativity incompatible with the very equations upon which science's greatest theory is built? New observations made by scientists and engineers appear to contradict the great German scientist's ideas. Apparently there are implicit contradictions present within Relativity's foundational ideas, documents and equations.

    One individual has even pointed that quotations from the 1905 document and Einstein's contemporaries as well as interpretations of the Relativity equations clearly and concisely describe a confused and obviously erroneous theory. It is time therefore, for science to update its thinking on this theory with a comprehensive analysis of the history leading up to, during and after that revolutionary year of Special Relativity.

    Michael Strauss is an engineer and author of a serious critique on the fallacies of Special Relativity. To contact the author visit: special relativity or relativity

  18. Both Newton and Einstein was not aware that our space is gravitoethertons soup of variable field density . Space they thought as empty medium and as such of no material importance. But in coulombs law we see that a space permeability factor exists. Now DURGADAS DATTA in year 2002 wrote an article in ASTRONOMY.NET --misjudgement by Newton and Balloon inside Balloon theory of matter and antimatter producing gravitoethertons at common spherical boundary by annihilation of matter and antimatter and injected into our universe as space or dark energy. So now we see empty space is variable field density and we live in variable strength gravitoetherton soup. We can not ignore now the space permeability factor and should revise Newtons law F=P.G.M.m/R.R WHERE P IS PERMEABILITY FACTOR. Einstein talked of cosmology constant but was not very clear in ideas. He unnecessarily postulated all universal laws and universal speed constantcy of light in vacua which can not be assumed in so non unoform and non isotropic variable density universe. BOTH HAVE GONE VERY MUCH WRONG IN THEIR THORIES AND WE MUST COME OUT NOW TO SAVE PHYSICS FOR A NEW REVISED PHYSICS AS PER THEORIES OF DURGADAS DATTA.

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  20. Anonymous10:12 PM

    To claim that Einstein is wrong, without providing conclusive Unambiguous evidence, is to be deluded. To claim that Einstein is correct beyond doubt is to be "brain-washed".

    The beauty of theory is that, given one interpretation (such as that offered by Einstein) science can make, verify and design predictions (which allows for other sciences, such as engineering, to emerge).

    However, any interpretation will almost certainly meet a great challenge in the future under which it may fail, in which case a different interpretation is required. For example, the greatest of the challenges faced by Newton and Einstein's formulations is the COSMOS PARADOX.

    Simply because a theory has made good predictions does not mean it is correct beyond doubt. Much of the evidence collected in support of special and general relativity, quantum theory, the big bang theory, dark matter and energy, and many others, is ambiguous, and can be used to prove many other theories given a different interpretation.

    In his talk on ted, Richard Dawkins states: "We are evolved denizens of middle world, and that limits what we are capable of imagining". A theory is a direct product of our imagination. And, if there is a limit to what we can imagine, then there must be a limit to what we can theorize.

  21. The OPERA recorded speed of Neutrino which is more than light. Before 23 years, I had proved mathematically that relative velocity may be more than light velocity. CERN proved experimentally that velocity of Neutrinos may be more than light, if this news will be confirmed then that will be new beginning of physics. So, it is necessary to think different than old concept of science.
    Please read paper "What is matter & dark matter is made up of?" on my web site This paper may help to find solution to this problem & other problems like what is dark matter? & about true relativity. I also proved E= mc^2 without referring Einstein’s relativity. I strongly oppose special theory of relativity

  22. Anonymous11:52 AM

    Einstein was absolutly right. However, his Special Theory of Relativity was incomplete. My name is Stephen Tuck and I have finished Einstein's work on the Theory of Everything. I theorized that matter falling into black holes converted in space, causing the accellerated expansion of the universe (Dark Energy). Then I developed the Tuck-Einstein Equation (an equation of Special Relativity) that combines E=mc^2 with the Lorentz transformations of Mass-Inrease and Time-Dilation (since c^2 stood for the variables of Space and Time). My full equation in text form is quite simply E = (Space * Mass * Time) / (1 - v^2/c^2)^0.5. A black hole doesn't breakdown the laws of physics, it is only a transformation of them. The Equation of Everything is the only major part of my work that needs completed. It is an expansion of the Tuck-Einstein Equation that mathematically unites all the fundamental forces of nature and physical laws of the universe. You can read of my work bylooking up Tuck's Theory of Everything!