Einstein's sceptics: Who were the relativity deniers?

Einstein's sceptics: Who were the relativity deniers?
18 November 2010 by Milena Wazeck

When people don't like what science tells them, they resort to conspiracy theories, mud-slinging and plausible pseudoscience – as Einstein discovered

"THIS world is a strange madhouse," remarked Albert Einstein in 1920 in a letter to his close friend, the mathematician Marcel Grossmann. "Every coachman and every waiter is debating whether relativity theory is correct. Belief in this matter depends on political affiliation."

Einstein's general theory of relativity, published in 1915, received an overwhelming public response - not all of it positive. Numerous accounts which appeared during the 1920s claimed to show relativity was wrong, and Einstein received many letters from laypeople who claimed to have found the ultimate refutation of his theory.

Many of today's physicists and astronomers (not to mention science journalists) continue to receive this kind of mail. On densely written pages - and, increasingly, in rambling emails, blog posts and online comments - self-proclaimed scientists keep trying to foist their astonishingly simple solutions to much-discussed problems upon genuine academics. Yet what flourishes today on the fringes of the internet was much more prominent in the 1920s, in the activities of a movement that included physics professors and even Nobel laureates.

Who were Einstein's opponents? Why did they oppose one of the most important scientific theories of the 20th century? And was Einstein right in saying "political affiliation" was responsible for the fierce opposition to relativity theory?

A few years ago, I had the opportunity to access papers belonging to the physicist Ernst Gehrcke, one of the most outspoken critics of Einstein in Germany. As I delved into the material he had neatly collected in banana boxes, a whole world of anti-relativity emerged from hundreds of pamphlets, thousands of newspaper clippings, and piles of letters from Einstein's opponents across Europe and the US.

I discovered ( that the group opposing relativity was much broader than many historians believed till now, and that their tactics had much in common with those used by creationists and climate-change deniers today. Their reasons for countering relativity were also more complex and varied than is usually thought. Even Einstein misjudged the motivations of many of his opponents.
Don't mess with time

Gehrcke was an experimental physicist at the Imperial Technical Institute in Berlin. Like many experimentalists of that era, he felt uncomfortable with the rise of a theory that demanded a reformulation of the fundamental concepts of space and time. Relativity messes with these to the extent that events which one observer deems simultaneous are no longer simultaneous as viewed by observers moving in different frames of reference.

Gehrcke could not imagine such a scenario. In 1921 he argued that giving up the idea of absolute time threatened to confuse the basis of cause and effect in natural phenomena.

What's more, the theory of relativity abandoned one of the most important concepts of 19th-century physics: that light waves and electric and magnetic forces were carried in a medium called the ether. For a classical physicist like Gehrcke, giving up this notion was akin to someone today claiming that sound waves travel in a vacuum.

These objections were first raised in scholarly journals, with discussion restricted to academia. But after a key prediction of general relativity was confirmed during an eclipse in 1919, Einstein was transformed into a media star and the debate acquired a much broader public impact. In 1919, The New York Times published an article headlined "Lights all askew in the heavens. Men of science more or less agog over results of eclipse observations", while a German magazine celebrated Einstein as "A new giant of world history". In the years that followed, the newspapers reported on everything from his clothing and Jewish background to his affection for music.

People were also troubled by more fundamental questions. In December 1921, the letters pages of The Times of London carried a lively discussion of whether space is actually endowed with physical qualities as general relativity required. Opinion was clearly divided.

The controversy in Germany intensified in August 1920 with the launch of a series of public lectures against Einstein at the Berlin Philharmonic hall. The event included a lecture by Gehrcke, who repeated the arguments he had been raising unsuccessfully for years, as well as an impassioned speech by the anti-Semitic activist Paul Weyland, who had organised the series. The event made a clear impact, prompting Einstein to think seriously about leaving Germany.

Gehrcke's papers show that opposition to Einstein extended well beyond a handful of sidelined physicists and politically motivated troublemakers. Gehrcke was in touch with physics Nobel laureates Johannes Stark and Philipp Lenard, and an international network comprising not just physicists, astronomers and philosophers, but also engineers, physicians and schoolmasters.

One of Gehrcke's boxes contained documents from a mysterious organisation called the Academy of Nations, whose title and letter-headed paper contrived to give it the aura of a scholarly academy. In fact, it served as a home for an international network of Einstein's opponents. Its founder was Arvid Reuterdahl ( ) , then dean of the faculty of engineering and architecture at the University of St Thomas in St Paul, Minnesota. He was also a devoted theist who attempted to reconcile religion and science in what he termed "new science".

Concerned that science was becoming ever more specialised, the Academy of Nations aimed to reconnect different branches of knowledge by integrating scientific findings into a unified, religious account of nature. To Reuterdahl, nothing better symbolised the modern specialisation and incomprehensibility of science than relativity. Almost half the Academy of Nations' founding declaration consisted of polemics against Einstein's theory. "We are emerging from a period of material and intellectual chaos. Nations have clashed in war. The intellectual world is still in conflict on the fields of knowledge. Never before has the demarcation between intellectual camps been so clearly defined... Einstein has served as a chemical reagent which has precipitated relativity from the present content of knowledge as a mass insoluble to the average man."

Reuterdahl was eager to establish contact with Einstein's opponents all over the world, and the American section of the academy united some prominent anti-Einstein figures. One of these was the astronomer Thomas J. J. See of the US Naval Observatory at Mare Island, California, who in the early 1920s published several harsh articles in which he accused Einstein of plagiarism and denounced his theory as "a crazy vagary". Though popular with the broader public, See was largely isolated from his colleagues because of the eccentric theories he advanced on the evolution of the solar system and almost every phenomenon in the universe.

Other members included Charles Lane Poor, professor of celestial mechanics at Columbia University, New York, who published several articles discounting the experimental confirmation of general relativity, and the inventor Charles Francis Brush, a pioneer of the commercial development of electricity, who espoused a kinetic theory of gravitation that stood in opposition to general relativity.

When Reuterdahl approached Gehrcke in 1921 with the idea of setting up a German branch of the Academy of Nations, Gehrcke immediately welcomed this new forum for activities against Einstein. His first recruits were German physicists who argued that there was no need for relativity because classical physics could explain all astronomical observations. Philosophers, engineers, physicians and even a retired major general joined too. A partial membership list from 1921 included 30 members from 10 countries.

But why did this ramshackle alliance between laymen and scientists emerge? What did it take to get a conservative physicist like Gehrcke involved with American theists?

The chance to cooperate with allies in the fight against relativity was obviously one reason. Einstein's opponents found themselves in the unenviable position of outsider, their arguments dismissed as "old crop" by most physicists. Scholarly journals and scientific associations closed their doors to them. The establishment of a self-governing academy and journal must have come as a welcome opportunity to break out of this marginalised position.

Another motivation was more noble. Einstein's opponents were seriously concerned about the future of science. They did not simply disagree with the theory of general relativity; they opposed the new foundations of physics altogether. The increasingly mathematical approach of theoretical physics collided with the then widely held view that science is essentially simple mechanics, comprehensible to every educated layperson.

This way of thinking can be traced back to the 19th-century heyday of popular science, when many citizens devoted their leisure to the pursuit of scientific understanding, and simple theories of gravity or electricity were widely discussed in scientific magazines. Relativity represented a quite different way of understanding the world. It was a theory that "only 12 wise men" could comprehend, The New York Times declared in 1919.

The increasing role played by advanced mathematics seemed to disconnect physics from reality. "Mathematics is the science of the imaginable, but natural science is the science of the real," Gehrcke stated in 1921. Engineer Eyvind Heidenreich, who found relativity incomprehensible, went further: "This is not science. On the contrary, it is a new brand of metaphysics."

The Academy of Nations therefore saw itself as directed not only against the theory of relativity, but also towards the salvation of what it considered to be real science. Gehrcke insisted that the Academy "must become an alliance of truth".

Compounding all this was the fact that the 1920s was an unsettling decade for Germany. The country was experiencing hyperinflation and political upheavals, as well as radical cultural developments such as Dadaism and expressionism. In a world of uncertainties, some felt science at least should be relied upon to provide firm ground. For Einstein's opponents, relativity theory was endangering not only science but also culture and society.

So was Einstein right to blame political affiliation for the opposition to the theory of relativity? The answer is more complex than a simple yes or no.
Conspiracy theories

For a start, someone's views about whether time could be stretched were not defined by ethnicity, nationality, religion or political convictions. Einstein's opponents included people who held progressive views, and some who were of Jewish descent. So it would be simplistic to characterise the fight against relativity theory in the 1920s as a one-sided nationalistic or anti-Semitic campaign.

Nevertheless, those who opposed the theory were not above attacking Einstein the person - the democrat, the pacifist, the Jew. Lenard, for instance, was an early adherent of Nazism and a proponent of the nationalist and anti-Semitic "German physics". By 1922, he was already ranting about the Jewish "alien spirit" that he claimed the theory of relativity incorporated.

Aware of their marginalised position, many of Einstein's opponents turned to anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. "Our trouble in America is that all scientific journals are closed to the anti-relativists through Jewish influence. The daily press is almost entirely under the control of the Jews," Reuterdahl wrote in 1923. From this position, it was easy for Einstein's opponents to see themselves as victims rather than aggressors. In their interpretation of reality, the mere existence of relativity theory and the non-acceptance of arguments against it qualified as an attack on them.

By the mid-1920s Einstein's opponents were facing overwhelming resistance, and most refrained from taking a public stance against the theory of relativity. Many of them simply gave up, and the Academy of Nations ceased to serve as the central organisation campaigning against Einstein, though it lingered on until the early 1930s.

But the anti-relativists did not revise their opinion. In 1951, Gehrcke was still writing letters about the fight against relativity. "The day will come where everything, but everything about this theory will be abandoned by the world at large, but when will this be?" he asked.

The debate about relativity lingers on today. Though the new generation of Einstein's opponents have mostly moved their protests online, they share some fundamental characteristics with their predecessors. These perhaps show up best on the conservative website Conservapedia ), which uses wiki technology to allow people to document counterexamples to relativity. Conservapedia claims that relativity is "heavily promoted by liberals" and lists 32 reasons ( ) why the theory is wrong. Einstein's critics continue to perceive relativity as a threat to their world view, and often invoke conspiracy theories to explain their marginalised position.

There is a difference, though. The protest against relativity in the 1920s had closer ties to the academic world. This was not because Einstein's opponents back then offered more convincing arguments, but because the paradigm shift that was moving physics onto new foundations was still under way.

The controversy over relativity represents a scientific dispute that is crucially shaped by the participants' world views and draws heavily on metaphysical conceptions of reality. Like those who oppose Darwin's theory of evolution, Einstein's opponents back in the 1920s were impervious to reasoned criticism, just as his critics today are. Physicists do sometimes try to discuss relativity theory with their opponents and point out their misunderstandings, just as physicists did 90 years ago. But this will not resolve the controversy. The opponents' understanding of the very nature of science differs so fundamentally from the academic consensus that it may be impossible to find common ground.

Milena Wazeck is a researcher at New York University. Her latest book, published in German by Campus Verlag, is Einsteins Gegner ("Einstein's Opponents"). It is based on research carried out at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin.
From issue 2786 of New Scientist magazine, page 48-51.
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