“Einstein” must mean a really stupid person

xkcd as usual gets it right.

If you judged from my email inbox and Twitter feed, you might think that Albert Einstein was a stupid person, wrong about everything. You might also think that Einstein was the only physicist of the 20th century, the one against whom all our achievements are measured, one way or another. Press releases announce “Was Einstein wrong?”, “Einstein survives another test”, and the like; crackpots tell me that “Einstein was never right to begin with”.

That’s why I feel I could use the accompanying xkcd comic on many of my blog posts. Einstein was arguably the single biggest contributor to modern physics, having established or helped develop several different major theories. However, the theories stand or fall on other things than Einstein’s connection to them. If Einstein had never been born, we’d still have quantum mechanics, both theories of relativity, and his approach to the statistical treatment of photons and materials. Sure, the general theory of relativity might have taken a few more years, but it’s hubristic to think it never would have happened without Einstein.

To punish me for my contempt for authority, fate made me an authority myself.
–Albert Einstein

A famous Zen koān states, “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.” In Zen, that idea means that even the great teachers can be blocks to enlightenment. In science, holding on to cherished heroes—or even making it all about people and personality, rather than evidence and its interpretation within the framework of theory.

The recent specific tests of gravity in the strong regime are in a regime that, as far as I can tell, Einstein was personally uninterested. (I deliberately wrote this article without mentioning Einstein, even though every press release and most of the other stories did.) He didn’t really accept black holes as a possibility, and was mostly unconcerned with the practical application of his theories. At best, Einstein should be considered the first word on relativity, not the last.

Even more: every theory should be considered provisional. Almost nobody thinks general relativity is the final theory of gravity we’ll ever have. It’s almost certainly going to break down somewhere, either where gravity is very strong, or at microscopic scales, or (perhaps) at very large scales, if dark energy is an aspect of gravity not previously suspected. (I kind of like that idea myself, but it’s not a given!) That’s not a problem with science—it’s simply the way things are, in a Universe where we must map our thinking onto a reality we didn’t construct.

It’s a common mistake to think that theories are a binary, right or wrong. The reason we can say the geocentric model is wrong is because, though it describes the motion of some things in the Solar System, it breaks down too quickly in the face of accumulated evidence. However, while Newtonian physics gives incorrect predictions for small things, high speeds, and strong gravity, it still works remarkably well on the scale of the everyday. More than that, it still has explanatory power: forces, momentum, and even Newton’s law of gravity give us a very good—albeit provisional—way of understanding a lot of things on the human scale. Sure, relativistic physics and quantum mechanics are more “accurate”, but it would be foolish and unnecessary to use them to describe the trajectory of a baseball. I could (and may) write another blog post about how quantum mechanics shows us why Newtonian physics works. We won’t abandon Newton’s laws, even as we understand their applicability isn’t universal.

Einstein was wrong about many things, and right about others—from the perspective of today. In the next few centuries, we’ll no doubt refine, extend, and otherwise restrict the validity of Einstein’s work, showing him to be wrong about more things. Scientists of the far future may mock us for holding what seems to them as ridiculous views of things, but they’d be mistaken to do so. All we can do is our best, like Newton, like Einstein.

"Cul de Sac" comic by Richard Thompson
“Cul de Sac” comic by Richard Thompson

7 responses to ““Einstein” must mean a really stupid person”

  1. Very good post. I especially liked:

    “It’s a common mistake to think that theories are a binary, right or wrong.”

    Not only do people misunderstand the word “theory”, they think that improving our understanding of the universe (by modifying a theory) somehow means that we actually understand it less. They say things like “Ya, well scientists USED to believe that _______”. They want an absolute truth from science from the beginning, which we just can’t give.

  2. Fantastic post. More than anything this explains how we should approach thinking about physics and in general life.

    But it is a tortured life.

    We may have theory A, which we think explains the world (in some sense) fairly well. From experiments it may be proven wrong and such and suddenly we see how foolish we were! Then a new theory, B, is created. And suddenly we think it makes sense. Of course B may be wrong and suddenly A may look credible in some other sense.

    Chad sums it up perfectly: “They want an absolute truth from science, which we just can’t give”. I would ask two questions related to this: Is there an absolute truth (and just by asking shows how unsure we really are)? And if there is, where does it fit in the scheme of things? There is so much that we do not understand.

    1. “Truth” is not really a matter science can address, any more than science can address the meaning of life. That’s why it’s best for scientists to avoid that kind of language.

    2. Torbjörn Larsson, OM Avatar
      Torbjörn Larsson, OM

      If you want absolute facts, there are such now, here is how and why http://www.preposterousuniverse.com/blog/2010/09/23/the-laws-underlying-the-physics-of-everyday-life-are-completely-understood/ .

      Simple examples are composition of water as 1 oxygen and 2 hydrogen, or the universal speed limit, et cetera.

  3. I thank this post for explaining a zen koan I did not previously understand. (Though it was given to me slightly differently.)

    I have always though of theories being more or less right. (With truly terrible theories being ‘not even right’).

  4. “Almost nobody thinks general relativity is the final theory of gravity we’ll ever have. It’s almost certainly going to break down somewhere, either where gravity is very strong, or at microscopic scales, or (perhaps) at very large scales, if dark energy is an aspect of gravity not previously suspected.”

    I’m starting to wonder.

    – If we take the large scales first, the cosmological constant has simpler explanations that are needed (vacuum energy) and leave GR as is.

    – Small scales: So far primordial fluctuations are inflationary, not even the expected large scale ringing of gravity shows up in the CMB. And supernova timing and perhaps polarization (if supersymmetry) says spacetime is smooth below Planck scales.

    – Strong gravity: Well inside BHs perhaps, but I’m not sure it is necessary. And eternal inflation may well prevent similar strengths associated with the early universe.

    Does a macroscopic system need a QM description that breaks down on some scale? Doesn’t seem to be the case. Maybe macroscopic GR and its spacetime is similar.

  5. […] drive”, my critique of alternatives to dark matter, my critiques of people making every story about Einstein, etc. Even my most recent article in Slate is a reaction to some reporting on an unpublished theory […]

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