How I found glaring errors in Einstein’s calculations

Call me radical, call me a maverick. Rather than slavishly swallowing the scientific orthodoxy from establishment textbooks, I decided to go back to the original papers. I have identified several embarassing errors of mathematics and physical reasoning in Einstein’s original 1905 paper on the “Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies”, the alleged beginning of “special relativity”, one of the main tenets of standard modern physics (despite its manifest absurdity). Once Einstein’s errors are corrected, we can establish a new foundation for physics that is consistent with commonsense experience, and does not require fancy mathematical tricks. Not surprisingly, I have been thwarted in all my attempts to publish these findings in scientific journals, which is why I have decided to post them on the Internet.

Or rather, I have not, but I know lots of people who have. For some time now, I have been an avid reader and collector of webpages created by crackpot physicists, those marginal self-styled scientists whose foundational, generally revolutionary work is sadly ignored by most established scientists. These are the great heroes, at least in their own eyes, of alternative science. In pre-Internet ages, these people routinely sent sheaves of notes and articles to established physicists and mathematicians, warning them that the papers contained proofs of Goldbach’s conjecture or Fermat’s theorem, or revolutionary models of gravitation and the atom. Scientists would just as routinely consign all this brilliant stuff to the wastepaper basket.

But then a miracle happened – CERN and DARPA created the Internet… and crackpots now all have their webpages! The whole world can benefit from exposure to alternative science.

Not all nuts are good crackpots
There is of course a practically infinite amount of drivel on the net. Only serious crackpots are interesting – and relevant to your common cognitive anthropologist. In my informal ethnography I have ignored many sources of Internet nonsense that are of no relevance to important epistemological questions. I have no time for religious fanatics, for people who find proof of the Bible/Qur’an in particle physics/Fermat’s theorem (or vice-versa), or for New Age crystals, waves, mental energy, spiritual forces, auras, quantum consicousness and hidden dimensions of being. No, the really interesting crackpots are the ones trying to really, seriously do science, because their productions and their failures tells us important things about science itself.

Most of my “informants” are committed to the standard scientific way of doing things. They accept that their theories should be coherent, clearly expressed, grounded in explicit mathematics, consistent with the evidence, compatible with other established (and empirically grounded) frameworks, etc. They accept that theories should be discussed, tested, and discarded if they are redundant or trivial.

And then something goes terribly wrong…
I emphasize the crackpots’ commitment to the procedures of science (apart form publication in peer-reviewed journals) because the results of their efforts are dismal. Alternative science is very much like alternative medicine – if it worked it would not be “alternative” anymore. The grandiose claims invariably accompany theories that most physics undergraduates can puncture in a few minutes. The new particles proposed are of no explanatory value. The new forces postulated are generally irrelevant to experimental phenomena. To the extent that the crackpot’s contributions are congruent with established science, they are redundant. And when they diverge from it, they are generally grounded in nothing more than the author’s intuition that this must be the miraculously simple solution that the benighted scientists failed to see.

Are they simply deranged?
One may consider that these people fail in their scientific work, and fail to understand their own failure, simply because they are unhinged. In which case there would be no point in studying them. Like most (good) null hypotheses, this one has a lot of prima facie support. Signs of pathology are everywhere to be found – which of course is part of the fun of crackpot-watching. Consider some fairly representative examples of alternative scientists giving us a candid assessement of their work:

The ideas in these pages are extremely revolutionary. I am asking the world to throw out long established beliefs. Men have been born, become professors of physics and died within the time span that these errors that have been perpetuated. A large number of Nobel prizes of have been awarded for work which history may one day come to regard as the twentieth century's great blind alley of science. [Source here]

All the proposals I have made in the last thiry years were muffled by censors […] To anyone who knows sciences and the history of science, it is quite obvious that each one of my discoveries would have been worth a Nobel prize – if its author had been a recognized member of the scientific community. But there’s the snag. I am not in the circle, they keep me out because I am a gadfly… [my translation, original source here]

Since May of 1965, I have known that there is a form of physics based upon something which has been denied by the physics community for over a century. It is not really a theory, but a working truth. It successfully explains all forms of physics and chemistry. [Source here]

The "Holy Grail" of physics has been to unify all areas of physics into one simple equation just one inch long. I believe I have successfully done just that. [Source here]

But I think there is more to physics crackpottery than just folie de grandeur and assorted psychoses. To some extent, crackpots are delusional, to be sure, but psychiatric labelling does not purchase much of an explanation, especially in cases of intellectual pathology, for which it is not quite clear what norm of reason is being violated or what process is dysfunctional. Also, narcissistic personality disorder is common – but it is the scientific version of it that is of interest here, its specific features.

Features of crackpot science
To get further, let me list some common aspects of the phenomenon:

1    All crackpottery is foundational. Crackpots do not go for the small problems, for what Kuhn called the puzzle-solving of normal science, they invariably shake the foundations of modern physics. They provide a new structure for the atom, a new unified theory of field and energy, a complete alternative to general relativity, an entirely novel cosmology, etc.

2    Most physics crackpots are engineers. More than 95% of my sample boast engineering degrees, or combine an undergraduate maths/physics degree followed by an engineering PhD or equivalent. This is not too surprising, as this may be the only kind of cursus that provides one with enough math background to understand the equations and formulae in the textbooks without actually studying maths and physics – which would show the crackpot why he’s misguided.

3    All crackpots are male. There used to be the one lady valiantly posting ‘quantum physics disproved’ webpages but she recently died. Perhaps this extraordinary sex-ratio is explained by point [2] above.

4    Crackpots ignore other crackpots. For a long time, physicists pursued by cranks used the time-honored strategy of forwarding those messages to other ones, in the hope that the cooks would exhaust their energies in reciprocal refutations. In fact, practically none of the websites in my collection makes any mention of any other one. In the crackpot’s worldview, there is ego (with an enormously important discovery) vs. the monolithic community of “establishment physics”, and that’s it.

5    The crackpot theory is invariably more intuitive than the standard one. The alternatives to special relativity (which is a favourite crackpot target – about 4/5 of my sample are about that) are invariably “better”, at least in the eyes of the authors, in that they do not result in deeply non-intuituive notions, eg time-dilation. Similarly, alternatives to general relativity eschew the notion of time-space distortion as an account of gravitation. Alternative to the standard model of elementary particles are generally fonded on material particles with known or knowable position and velocity, rather than the standard uncertainty picture.

6    In the same way, the crackpot alternative is, almost universally, less mathematically challenging than the standard account. For instance, tensors and other complicated tools of SR are replaced with college-level calculus, and in many cases with high-school algebra.

7    The crackpot theory is based on textbooks. Most of my cranks cite virtually no recent publications in physics. Almost all of them rely, for their understanding of modern physics, on what is in the textbooks. This explains some quaint, often comical aspects of their prose. For instance, the sites I observed contain extensive and meticulous analyses of the famous Michelson-Morley experiment, demonstrating identical speed of light in all directions, often cited as the princeps refutation of the notion of ether and vindication of relativistic models. The cranks go on and on about possible aspects of that particular study that standard physics may have neglected. Or they fill pages with the 1919 eclipse and the demonstration of Einsteinian “light-bending” by gravity, trying to show that the observation was not so conclusive, etc. The reason for this obsession with particular studies is that those are invariably cited by textbooks – and that is where the cranks get their scientific training.

Science beyond the textbooks

As I said, crackpots are all committed to the principles of sound science – and they have done their homework. So where did it all go wrong? The textbook problem is in my view the crucial clue. Crackpots devote entire sites to discussing the Michelson-Morley experiment. To most physicists, such discussions are largely irrelevant, as these classic experiments were only the first ones in a long series of tests that showed the complete agreement between observations and predictions from special relativity. Also, the crackpots are generally not aware that every day, in thousands of labs all over the world, people are performing experiments that require special relativity, and that these experiments turn out all right because relativistic principles are included in people’s computations.

So the specific dysfunction of crackpottery points to the notion that you cannot do science by just studying the right books, having the right mathematics and being commited to (some form of) “scientific method”. What you ned, over and above all that, is constant social interaction with other practising scientists. Oral tradition and daily exposure to other scientists’ everyday decisions are indispensable, and only a very small fragment of that makes it way to the scientific journals. This, incidentally, may be why cranks do not read the journal articles – simply because most of these must be totally opaque to them. Understanding them requires not just technical expertise but also all the implicit assumptions that are shared by the community at a particular point in time. (That is also why it is so difficult to understand old articles – try reading cognitive psychology from the 1970s…)

Where is the cognitive anthropology of scientists?

I have been (repeatedly) told that the above point is utterly banal:  “we all know that social interaction is crucial to the making of science”, “were you asleep in the last twenty years when ‘science studies’ developed?”

Well, up to a point, my lord. What I am talking about is a complicated epidemiological process (what else?) whereby people’s perception of what makes sense, what is the right problem to pursue, what is sound and unsound in one’s reasoning, largely depend on assumptions that are widespread but only indirectly communicated. I am not aware of many meticulous studies of this particular cognitive process from “science studies”. Indeed, most of that field seems focused on power relations, social forces, institutional arrangements that are common to science and other social phenomena. But that’s the easy part. Of course science interactions are in many ways like other social interactions. Much more difficult is to understand how specific epidemiological processes lead to productive science, to more knowledge.

There but for fortune…
Why are crackpots fascinating (well, to some of us)? The poor fellows I mentioned here are of course outliers – but that is mostly because the field they wish to join is so compact, so highly consensual. Now consider psychology or other social science fields. Obviously, we do have our our own fully-fleged cranks. A few years ago, Sokal and Bricmont could make fun of such luminaries as Regis Debray telling us about the “Gödel theorem of society” (entirely sic) and other egregious examples of (mostly French) high idiocy. But these are peripheral to serious scholarship.

More interesting is the fact that there is something crackpottish in any attempt to push the envolope of not-so-succesful science. In the understanding of human behavior, many of the established models are somewhat ropey. The cumulative progress, inasmuch as it occurs, is generally obscured by endless definitional disputes and frequent paradigm clashes. It is quite clear that beneficial change will probably come from new foundations, or new general causal models for observed phenomena. In this context, even modest proposals may sound to most practitioners very close to crackpottery…

Further reading (for the really committed crackpot watcher)
Your first stop on the road to crackpot collecting should be John Baez’s crackpot index, a wonderfully funny instrument for evaluating the crackpottishness of your own revolutionary physics. A great website is www.crank.net, unfortunately a bit out of date. The D-Moz open directory for alternative physics will point you to the main players, so to speak, in the field.

5 Comments

  • Olivier Morin
    Olivier Morin 1 April 2009 (13:44)

    Thanks a lot, Pascal, that’s a fascinating issue, and post ! My first encounter with scientific crackpots was through an unlikely source : writer Raymond Queneau’s work on “litterary madmen”. On the face of it, you would not guess that Queneau’s work actually deals, for the most part, with scientific madmen, and that his scholarship is not bad at all. He unearthed an impressive collection of circle-squarers, alternative cosmologists, conquerors of Fermat’s theorem, climatology-foundationalists, etc. from the French XIXth century. My personal favorite is the mathematician who built a sort of model that explained how waves and tides are caused by the oscillations of fishes’ tails and fins (obvious, once you think of it; one wonders how scientists could have neglected such obvious causal factors, and favored obscure notions that smell of astrology, like the influence of the moon, instead). There is also a remote cousin of aquatic-ape theorists who showed that Man was descended from frogs. And many, many more. Queneau’s analysis has many affinities with yours (if you except his occasional fit of psychoanalytical speculation) : according to Queneau, being a crackpot is almost entirely a matter of sociological integration. Your average crackpot is ingenious, talented even, and appeals to evidence and objectivity in a sincere and somewhat honest way. According to Queneau, what defines a “litterary nuttie” is the fact that he does not belong to any current, movement or subculture, does not look for any kind of interaction with fellow-mavericks – and to wrap it up, is utterly and completely alone. And of course, they’re all males, but in the context of XIXth century France, this is not exactly a surprise. (bibliographical note): Queneau’s study on “litterary madmen” took place at the Bibliothèque Nationale in the 1930s (at the time, he was hoping to unearth some unknown geniuses), but it was only recently published. Some fragments of the book he was intending to write on the topic are included in his excellent novel, “Les Enfants du Limon”. His work was pursued by his friend André Blavier, who published an Encyclopédie des Fous Littéraires, devoting large sections of it to scientific cranks.

  • Dan Sperber
    Dan Sperber 4 April 2009 (23:59)

    Great post! Here is a minor observation. Pascal writes: “[i]Most of my cranks cite virtually no recent publications in physics. Almost all of them rely, for their understanding of modern physics, on what is in the textbooks[/i].” This could be an essential traits of these cranks that coheres with the other traits Pascal mentions. Or it could be that those cranks who happen to go on and read recent publications and in particular journal articles are overwhelmed and give up, thereby vanishing, not quite as dinosaurs did, but still for almost accidental reasons.

  • Christophe Heintz
    Christophe Heintz 8 April 2009 (21:24)

    Pascal’s post is, once more, raising an issue that is at the heart of my own interests: here, the development and prospects of an epidemiology of scientific representations (I cannot abstain from saying that this was the topic of my Ph.D dissertation). I just wanted to write a note on science studies, which Pascal dismisses, I think, too quickly. Science studies is generally underestimated by those who do not want to buy the relativist position that it is supposed to convey. Yet, there are many kinds of relativisms in science studies, some of them not so appalling as one might think. It is worth shopping around science studies, since there is a good probability that one will find some important and relevant work even outside of the power relations thematics. I would even think that a cognitive anthropology of scientists and of science could not do well without a careful look at what’s already been done in science studies. For instance, here is an old list (not updated since 1996) of key references on “assumptions [in science] that are widespread but only indirectly communicated” (quote from Pascal’s post). These are references on tacit knowledge: Collins (1974), (1985); Collins & Kusch (1995), (1998); Collins and Pinch (1993); Kuhn (1962); MacKenzie (1990), (1996); MacKenzie and Spinardi (1995); Pinch (1986); Polanyi (1958); Ravetz (1971); Rouse (1987) (1995); Shapin and Schaffer (1985); Turner (1994). The list has been compiled by M. Kusch and is available, with full references, here: [url]http://www.hps.cam.ac.uk/research/ssk.html[/url] Note also that the very notion of ‘paradigm’ appeals to the existence of implicit assumptions. Admittedly, the psychological underpinning of tacit knowledge is not given due attention in social studies of science. But the psychological underpinning of all social phenomena is not given due attention according to cognition and culture research. Another point in favour of social studies of science: Although one can study the personality of crackpots (personality psychology of scientists is a ‘standard’ field of research), social studies of science would also want to look at the ways through which crackpots come to be labeled as such and what are the consequences. It is doubtful that there are necessary or sufficient conditions for being a crackpot. So how are these judgments done? The issue is all the more important that, as Pascal Boyer says, “there is something crackpottish in any attempt to push the envelope of not-so-successful science”. Newtonian mechanics did enjoy a huge amount of confirmation before it was cracked up with the theory of relativity. And yes, cranks are right: there is also a question of power there. Cranks are deprived from the means of communication that are reserved to successful scientists. But this does not mean that it is bad for science! This depends on the answer you give to questions such as: should we be grateful that the journals Science and Nature do not publish crackpots? Or should we promote a ‘let a thousand flowers bloom’ epistemology? However, independently of this normative question, there is the research that can be done on the epidemiology of ‘crackpot’ as a stigmatizing term. In order to do that, a touch of methodological relativism may be needed: one need to abstain from letting one’s judgment about who is a crackpot enter into the causal analysis and describe how the agents themselves come to form their judgments. My guess is that the citation pattern is, indeed, an important cue used by scientists when judging works that claim to be scientific. Finally, it seems to me that the goal of understanding “how specific epidemiological processes lead to productive science, to more knowledge” falls outside of an epidemiology of scientific representations. Methodologically, it is better not to have prejudice about what is productive science and what is not. One main achievement of science studies was to distinguish normative epistemological judgment from the naturalistic enterprise of describing how science is done and evolves. The subjects of study, therefore, are those processes that are deemed scientific by the scientists themselves. And be prepared to consider that the basis of the judgments may vary over time and across disciplines.

  • Stuart Brown 24 April 2009 (15:45)

    Bizarrely received a link to this in my mailbox the day after reading this entry: [url]http://voicespec.com/board.cgi?id=test2&action=view&gul=47&page=1&go_cnt=0[/url] [quote]I now find that current/modern world/university phonetics is naively primitive/fake and that most theories of linguistics can’t help being inevitably equal to or not above the level of concocted/adorned unreasonableness/absurdity/fake. Believe (it) or not, the vocabularies and grammar(s) of all (modern and Inca/Maya-like-disappeared-antique) languages (including their dialects) are already stored in human brain at birth (and now in your/my brains also). That is, I mean not that POTENTIAL to learn any language is there as an innate HUMAN ABILITY, but that your brain now has the vocabulary and grammar of Korean language (and Chinese, Japanese, etc. included) and my brain also now has the vocabulary and grammar of *** language (and German, French, etc. included). We only do not have effective/efficient experience/chance to use them. That is, ALL FOREIGN LANGUAGES with their words (except some special words/neologisms like “NATO”) and grammars are inside a newborn’s head. [/quote] I think he successfully ticks all your crank boxes.

  • Steven Bryant 10 February 2010 (13:09)

    Thanks for your article, which I found very interesting. I think that it is easy to label anyone who challenges established theories as “crackpots.” Unfortunately, this labeling can often bias us against seeing any positive merits of their messages. Even if 99% of what they say is wrong, 1% could be very interesting and lead us to new and significant discoveries. However, by labeling someone as a crackpot, we must inherently say that there is nothing of value that they can do to extending the body of accepted scientific knowledge. This is a bias I think we should actively guard against. Your article mentioned the Internet as a preferred communication channel, but fails to mention that independent researchers are making inroads by having their material published in peer-reviewed journals and by speaking at scientific conferences; such as those sponsored by AAAS. These are important findings to share, since it has been traditionally very hard for most of these authors to share their findings using traditional channels. Lastly, you offer John Baez’s Crackpot Index as a reference to those looking to identify possible crackpots. In response to his index, I offer 39 Rules For Being a Scientific Change Agent to anyone who is serious about their research and communication: http://www.relativitychallenge.com/archives/597. As a parting thought; I suggest we agree on the rules we will use to “judge” emerging scientific proposals. When possible, the criteria should be straight forward: Does it (the proposed model) produce mathematically better results? That’s all. (Note: “Better” means smaller error or it means the ability to make an accurate expeimental prediction that the prevailing model cannot make.) If yes, then it should be considered for further investigation; regardless of whether it agrees with the prevailing theories. If it does not produce better results, then he who crossed the finish line first won; and that would be the prevailing theory. I think that “crackpots” would do well to understand that their findings will be judged using this criteria, and “crackpot hunters” would do well to explore new possibilities when an emerging model meets this threshold.