It is not clear to me from Bethell's column whether Beckmann understands
relativity or not; it is clear that Bethell does not understand what he
is attacking--and that he is attacking it because of what he presumes are
the moral and political implications of relativity physics. He is thus
in the position of saying the opposite of Galileo--instead of "And
yet it moves," he is closing his eyes to a huge amount of experimental
evidence and saying, earnestly if incoherently, "and yet it stands
But there are unfunny parts to the column as well.
<[>Opposition to relativity for politico-cultural reasons and opposition
to relativity as a legacy of anti-semitism are usually inextricably mixed.
Neither is attractive. In Bethell's article, you can see: (i) the hint
that Einstein's purpose in proposing his obviously absurd theory was to
attack traditional cultural and aesthetic forms; (ii) the hint of a conspiracy
of silence among physicists to prop up Einstein's reputation for sinister
purposes; (iii) the claim that relativity's attraction to "intellectuals"
arises because it is "abstruse... deliciously disrespectful... marvelously
baffling to the bourgeoisie." All three of these have roots in anti-semitic
visons of the secret conspiracy of over-clever but deceptive Jews--"rootless
cosmopolitans" who lack the earthy common sense and grounding in the
soil of the
--out to undermine the faith and social order of
the simple Christian folk.
Second, Bethell spends most of his time as a political columnist--and
his political judgment is as bad as his scientific.
I've attached the bulk of the column below. Statements that are simply
wrong are in red.
...[a] solitary genius [Petr Beckmann]... publish[ing] his own ideas
and discoveries at a time of growing intellectual corruption in the academy.
Above all, he is likely to be remembered for having undermined Einstein's
theory of relativity, and for showing how physics could be returned to
the classical foundation from which it was dislodged at the beginning of
the twentieth century.
Ever since he learned relativity theory, Beckmann felt there must be
something wrong with it. when he retired from teaching, he returned to
the subject, spending several years on a book called Einstein Plus Two.
He now believes that relativity theory "has
been confirmed only in a narrow sector of physics, leads to logical contradictions,
and is unable to derive results that must be postulated, though they are
derivable by classical methods." He also believes that the theory is definitely falsified by the aberration of
light from binary stars....
The problem that Einstein tried to solve, the new problems that arose
with his solution, and Beckmann's brilliant resolution of all these difficulties,
are not so difficult as they may sound. In fact, mystification has greatly
enhanced Einstein's reputation. I hasten to add that Beckman is a great
admirer of Einstein, whose famous equation of energy and mass, E=MC-squared,
is unaffected by all this; in fact, it was derived
independently of relativity.
By the mid-nineteenth century, the evidence that
light travels in waves had become overwhelming [in
fact, light travels in particles--individual packets--photons*];
wave theory accounted for refraction, polarization, and many other phenomena
of light. The great puzzle was to understand what medium it travels in.
Sound needs air; light needs... what? It can travel through a vacuum, through
interstellar space. But if it is a wave, there must
be an oscillating medium, [but because it
isn't a wave, the problem doesn't arise] however rarified. The medium
was called the "ether" and the great challenge for nineteenth-century
physicists was to detect it.
The most famous experiment was carried out by Michelson and Morley in
1887. Since the earth must be moving through this ether in its orbit around
the sun, it should be possible to detect an "ether wind," just
as it is possible to feel the wind by putting your hand out a moving car.
Albert Michelson, the first American to win the Nobel Prize in physics,
designed the apparatus to measure it. But despite repeated attempts, no
ethereal breeze could be detected.... This "null result" threw
the world of physics into disarray. A wave without a medium!
Enter Einstein, fresh from the Bern patent office. He posited that there
was no medium, and that the speed of light is the same in all directions
irrespective of the motion of any apparatus set up to detect it. His famous
1905 paper, setting forth the special theory of relativity, demonstrated
that if these odd assumptions are made, everything can be shoe-horned in
mathematically. But it was odd. If a sound wave moves toward you at 750
miles an hour, and you walk towards it at 5 mph, you
will detect the sound approaching at 755 miles an hour [you
will not: the speed will be slower than 755 mph because of relativistic
effects, but only infinitesimally slower because your speed is infinitesimal
(one six hundred millionth or so) relative to the speed of light]. Observation
agrees with common sense. The same is true of all other waves one can think
of. But not electromagnetic phenomena (including
light), said Einstein [relativity applies
to all relative motion, whether involving electromagnetism or not].
The velocity of light was accorded a privileged, absolute status. Move
toward the light source, and you will detect the light approaching you
at the same speed as someone who is standing still.
That was where the absurdity came in. To preserve the absolute nature
of the speed of light, space and time had to be distorted. Two twins are
the same size: If A moves, he see B smaller than himself. But B likewise
sees A as smaller than himself. Which is absurd. Reality
becomes observer-dependent, [reality is still
there, and is unchanged: any observer can easily figure out what the time
and space perceptions of any other observer are] in opposition to
the most basic precepts of science. The alpha and omega of the material
world--the irreducible character of time and space--were sacrificed in
order to preserve an absolute velocity [how would
anyone know that intuitions about the irreducible character of time and
space acquired while always moving at velocities so low that relativistic
effects are infinitesimal would still apply to high-velocity situations?].
But velocity is nothing but space (distance) divided by time! This was
Dada Physics. (It's interesting that the Dada movement "having as
its program the discovery of authentic reality through the abolition of
traditional cultural and aesthetic forms," came right after the general
relativity theory .)
Beckmann says that most students of physics shrug and accept relativity
theory--theirs is not to quarrel with the sainted genius of the twentieth
century. Some have private reservations. Among intellectuals in general,
the theory has been much admired: so abstruse, so deliciously disrespectful
of the eternal verities, so marvelously baffling to the bourgeoisie. It
doesn't interfere with the daily routine, makes no
practical difference to the Newtonian world. [it
makes a big difference: to understand why a magnetic field exerts a force
on a moving but not a stationary electron requires special relativity].
But it does upset its theoretical underpinnings. Wonderful! The Muddled
Majority who fell so reassured by their common-sense understanding of the
world just don't realize that things aren't what they seem to be at all.
Pondering the theory in the late 1950s at Prague's Institute of Radio
Engineering, Beckman concluded that there had to be a medium for light,
and in an offhand comment, a student named Pokorny,
a (then) devout Communist, suggested the correct answer, as Beckmann
is now convinced: the
medium for electromagnetic waves is the local gravitational field--dense
near the sun, attenuated in outer space [this
does give rise to a problem: there are gravitational waves: what is their
"oscillating medium"?]. On Earth, the local field is that
of the Earth itself. The point is, the Earth's gravitational field moves
along with the earth. So that was why Michelson-Morley could detect no
ether wind. It was like sitting in a jet as it goes down the runway, holding
a toy propeller in your lap and expecting the wind to turn the blades.
Absurd--the air in the cabin is moving forward with the plane.
But wait! The earth also rotates on the axis, and there is good reason
to think that the gravitational field does not go around with the Earth.
Imagine this field as a hoop skirt on a woman with a circular waist. As
she walks forward the skirt moves with her. But then, as she walks, she
pirouettes, and now her body will slip around inside the skirt.
If this analogy is correct, the Michelson-Morley experiment might have
been able to detect a fringe-shift after all--but a much smaller one....
It could easily be detected on the space shuttle, because the shuttle goes
through the gravitational field much faster than the Earth....**
* There is a quantum amplitude associated with each photon's possible
paths and interactions: there is a quantum amplitude associated with every
particle's possible paths and interactions. The propagation and interference
of the quantum amplitude give rise to interference, and other "wave-like"
phenomena. But there is nothing special about the behavior of light as
opposed to, say, electrons.
** Bethell goes on to say that the fact that light travels from New
York to San Francisco faster (by about 40 nanoseconds) than from San Francisco
back to New York is experimental disproof of relativity. He is, of course,
This "puzzle" is, however, of some interest because it
shows that our instruments are now so sensitive that even the rotation
of the earth leads special relativity to make a difference that we can
measure. In the frame of reference of the center of the earth light
travels from New York to San Francisco faster than from San Francisco to
New York because the earth is spinning: in the time it takes light to go
from New York to San Francisco, the earth's rotation has carried San Francisco
about twenty feet toward New York. In the frame of reference of the
center of the earth light travels from New York to San Francisco faster
than back the other way because the New York to San Francisco leg covers
a shorter distance.
In a frame of reference moving with New York and San Francisco
during the 1/30 of a second that it takes light to go from one to the other
and back, the two journeys take equal times and cover equal distances.
How is this possible? Because for any "now" in New York, the
corresponding "now" in San Francisco is an event that takes place--has a time coordinate--about
20 nanoseconds earlier in the moving frame of reference than is the "now"
in the center-of-the-earth reference frame. In 20 nanoseconds a modern 200-megahertz
computer chip processes four instruction cycles.
So does light go from New York to San Francisco in a shorter time than
it comes back, or doesn't it? From the perspective of the global positioning
system--which uses a center-of-the-earth based frame of reference--the
answer is "yes." From the perspective of the frame of reference
of the guy-in-New York, the answer is "no."