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Why Einstein Will Never Be Wrong

Einstein Lecturing

Einstein Lecturing. (Ferdinand Schmutzer, Public Domain)

One of the benefits of being an astrophysicist is your weekly email from someone who claims to have “proven Einstein wrong”. These either contain no mathematical equations and use phrases such as “it is obvious that..”, or they are page after page of complex equations with dozens of scientific terms used in non-traditional ways. They all get deleted pretty quickly, not because astrophysicists are too indoctrinated in established theories, but because none of them acknowledge how theories get replaced.

For example, in the late 1700s there was a theory of heat known as caloric. The basic idea of caloric was that it was a fluid that existed within materials. This fluid was self-repellant, meaning it would try to spread out as evenly as possible. We couldn’t observe this fluid directly, but the more caloric a material has the greater its temperature.


Ice-calorimeter from Antoine Lavoisier’s 1789 Elements of Chemistry. (Public Domain)

From this theory you get several predictions that actually work. Since you can’t create or destroy caloric, heat (energy) is conserved. If you put a cold object next to a hot object, the caloric in the hot object will spread out to the cold object until they reach the same temperature.  When air expands, the caloric is spread out more thinly, thus the temperature drops. When air is compressed there is more caloric per volume, and the temperature rises.

We now know there is no “heat fluid” known as caloric. Heat is a property of the motion (kinetic energy) of atoms or molecules in a material. So in physics we’ve dropped the caloric model in terms of kinetic theory. You could say we now know that the caloric model is completely wrong.

Except it isn’t. At least no more wrong than it ever was.

The basic assumption of a “heat fluid” doesn’t match reality, but the model makes predictions that are correct. In fact the caloric model works as well today as it did in the late 1700s. We don’t use it anymore because we have newer models that work better. Kinetic theory makes all the predictions caloric does and more. Kinetic theory even explains how the thermal energy of a material can be approximated as a fluid.

This is a key aspect of scientific theories. If you want to replace a robust scientific theory with a new one, the new theory must be able to do more than the old one. When you replace the old theory you now understand the limits of that theory and how to move beyond it.

In some cases even when an old theory is supplanted we continue to use it. Such an example can be seen in Newton’s law of gravity. When Newton proposed his theory of universal gravity in the 1600s, he described gravity as a force of attraction between all masses. This allowed for the correct prediction of the motion of the planets, the discovery of Neptune, the basic relation between a star’s mass and its temperature, and on and on. Newtonian gravity was and is a robust scientific theory.

Then in the early 1900s Einstein proposed a different model known as general relativity. The basic premise of this theory is that gravity is due to the curvature of space and time by masses.  Even though Einstein’s gravity model is radically different from Newton’s, the mathematics of the theory shows that Newton’s equations are approximate solutions to Einstein’s equations.  Everything Newton’s gravity predicts, Einstein’s does as well. But Einstein also allows us to correctly model black holes, the big bang, the precession of Mercury’s orbit, time dilation, and more, all of which have been experimentally validated.

So Einstein trumps Newton. But Einstein’s theory is much more difficult to work with than Newton’s, so often we just use Newton’s equations to calculate things. For example, the motion of satellites, or exoplanets. If we don’t need the precision of Einstein’s theory, we simply use Newton to get an answer that is “good enough.” We may have proven Newton’s theory “wrong”, but the theory is still as useful and accurate as it ever was.

Unfortunately, many budding Einsteins don’t understand this.

Binary waves from black holes. Image Credit: K. Thorne (Caltech) , T. Carnahan (NASA GSFC)

Binary waves from black holes. Image Credit: K. Thorne (Caltech) , T. Carnahan (NASA GSFC)

To begin with, Einstein’s gravity will never be proven wrong by a theory. It will be proven wrong by experimental evidence showing that the predictions of general relativity don’t work. Einstein’s theory didn’t supplant Newton’s until we had experimental evidence that agreed with Einstein and didn’t agree with Newton. So unless you have experimental evidence that clearly contradicts general relativity, claims of “disproving Einstein” will fall on deaf ears.

The other way to trump Einstein would be to develop a theory that clearly shows how Einstein’s theory is an approximation of your new theory, or how the experimental tests general relativity has passed are also passed by your theory.  Ideally, your new theory will also make new predictions that can be tested in a reasonable way.  If you can do that, and can present your ideas clearly, you will be listened to.  String theory and entropic gravity are examples of models that try to do just that.

But even if someone succeeds in creating a theory better than Einstein’s (and someone almost certainly will), Einstein’s theory will still be as valid as it ever was.  Einstein won’t have been proven wrong, we’ll simply understand the limits of his theory.


Brian Koberlein is an astrophysicist and physics professor at Rochester Institute of Technology. He writes about astronomy and astrophysics on his blog One Universe at a Time, as well as on Google+. You can follow him on YouTube, and on Twitter @BrianKoberlein.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Fraser Cain January 14, 2014, 7:13 PM

    We don’t know what dark matter is, but it makes a pretty great telescope.

  • BrianFraser January 14, 2014, 9:53 PM

    Einstein’s Special and General Relativity theories are what physicists call “local” theories in that they map all motion into a spatial reference system, and limit the maximum speed of any physical effect to speeds less than that of light. However, experiments have since shown that electric, magnetic, and gravitational fields have effects that occur so rapidly the speed of propagation cannot even be measured. Their actions are essentially instantaneous (i.e., “non-local”) Additionally, numerous experiments of different experimental designs done by different groups over a span of several decades have demonstrated that our physical world is definitely a “non-local” one. This means that Relativity is limited to describing reference system effects only–a useful but not fundamental capability. That is indeed one of “the limits of his theory”.

    A logical HALF of our physics know-how is still stuck back in 1905. Except for quantum mechanics (which has a limited scope), there are no courses taught in non-local physics. Conceptually, non-local physics is simple enough for an overview course at the high school level.

    If we want to get our kids interested in science, why aren’t we teaching it? It is certainly a fascinating and useful subject.

    • Michael Peters January 21, 2014, 10:46 PM

      One of the fundamental propositions of General Relativity is the fact that the interactions are not, in fact, instantaneous, but rather travel at the speed of light. We already know this to be true in electromagnetism – photons are the carriers of the electromagnetic force, and photons obviously travel no faster than the speed of light. But Einstein said it was also true for gravity. This means, for example, that changes in gravity propagate across space as waves. And this, in turn, is why researchers are searching for gravity waves among closely orbiting neutron stars or pairs of black holes.

      • BrianFraser January 22, 2014, 1:12 AM

        The Universe is both local and non-local in its fundamental nature. It is a mistake to try (in general) to map non-local phenomena into a local reference system. This realization was not around in 1905. The only well-known non-local phenomena back then were the action-at-a-distance “fields” of gravitation, magnetism, and electrostatics. The field concept was an attempt to make their non-local behavior more like local behavior, and thus more compatible with human intuition. Arguably, the first “hard-core” contact with non-locality came with
        Quantum Mechanics in the 1920s. Later, came the EPR “paradox” (1935) at Einstein’s own hand, who again argued for a “local” interpretation. The Aharonov–Bohm effect emerged in 1949-1959. Then Bell’s Inequality Theorem in 1964. Then the experiments of John Clauser and Stuart Freedman (1972) and Alain Aspect
        (1981). These experiments (and others) demonstrated non-local behaviors at a fundamental level. Out-of-scope application of Relativity to non-local phenomena at the insistence (tyranny?) of the scientific community has resulted in a lot of misunderstandings (and
        animosity) and has held back advancement of physics for over 100 years. Scientists still insist that the speed of gravity, magnetic, and electric fields are limited to the speed of light.

        • Michael Peters January 22, 2014, 3:02 AM

          As far as electric and magnetic interactions are concerned, there can be no reasonable doubt on the fact that they propagate at a finite speed (c). Maxwell’s equations state that oscillating electric and magnetic fields propagate at the speed of light. Since these oscillating electric and magnetic fields (electromagnetic radiation) are responsible for electromagnetic interactions, the aforementioned interactions must necessarily travel at the speed of light. There are countless experiments confirming the validity of this fact; I’m sure you can find your own favorite one, or even verify it independently if you don’t trust the “tyrannical” scientists.

          The points about the non-locality of the universe (and its alleged mis-application to General Relativity) are irrelevant (although correct; I commend you on your knowledge of fundamental quantum theory). This is because there is already experimental evidence demonstrating the existence of gravity waves (http://arxiv.org/pdf/1208.5051v1.pdf). The pair of white dwarfs mentioned in this article are orbiting each other closely enough that they are actually rapidly slowing down, and emitting gravitational radiation as they do so.

          If the gravitational interaction was instantaneous, there would be no need for gravitational radiation, as the field would propagate instantly. But the pair of white dwarfs mentioned in the above source clearly exhibit orbital decay in the magnitude predicted by General Relativity, so it is at least highly likely (if not certain) that gravity waves are emitted, which necessitates a finite speed for the gravitational interaction.

          In short, your argument basically boiled down to “Gravity is non-local and instantaneous, so Relativity cannot be applied to it.” However, as I have shown, General Relativity predicts that gravity is non-local, but not instantaneous, and there is solid evidence to prove this point true via the existence of gravity waves.

          • BrianFraser January 22, 2014, 3:14 PM

            “no reasonable doubt”?
            “solid evidence of gravity waves”?
            binary white dwarfs with a “12.75-MINUTE orbital period”? Really?

            Makes me wonder what you call “reasonable doubt”.


            “The Sherwin-Rawcliffe Experiment – Evidence for Instant Action-at-a-distance” , Thomas E. Phipps, Jr., Apeiron Vol. 16, No. 4, October 2009 http://redshift.vif.com/JournalFiles/V16NO4PDF/V16N4PHI.pdf
            From the Abstract:

            “Since the nineteenth century physical theorists have considered that electromagnetic mass must exhibit tensor properties if causal delays characterize the interactions of electric charges. In 1960 Chalmers W. Sherwin and Robert D. Rawcliffe enlisted the help of mentors of the A. O. Nier high resolution mass spectrograph to test this hypothesis, using the predicted mass line-splitting of a football-shaped Lu175 nucleus of spin 7/2 (a highly asymmetrical charge distribution). No line-splitting was observed. This null result showed that mass behaves in just the way Newton thought, as a scalar, never as a tensor. What, then went wrong with the theory? We argue that the basic assumption of retardation of distant action was at fault, and that the null result in fact provides strong inferential evidence of instant action-at-a-distance of a Coulomb field.” (Please read the actual article. It is a real eye-opener on how science operates.)

            Physicist Thomas E. Phipps adds this comment about Sherwin: “In Memory: Chalmers W. Sherwin”, (1998) http://www.worldnpa.org/pdf/abstracts/abstracts_1276.pdf

            “While at Illinois he conceived and caused to be performed the Sherwin-Rawcliffe experiment (“Electromagnetic Mass & the Inertial Properties of Nuclei,” Report 1-92, March 14, 1960, Coordinated Science Laboratory, University of Illinois, Urbana, Illinois), an experiment establishing the lack of tensor properties of nuclear mass that I personally consider to rank in significance with Michelson-Morely, as one of the great, all-encompassing null results of our time. It is a commentary on the prevailing state of the scientific literature that this experiment was never reported in the regular journals.”

            I can see that I am at a disadvantage here at a MAINSTREAM forum, where what most people would call “reasonable doubt” is simply brushed aside. I suppose that this is probably not the place to present the pros and cons about action-at-a-distance, non-locality, scope and applicability of Relativity, etc. As the article said, “How can one even dream of the facts getting a fair hearing?”

          • Michael Peters January 22, 2014, 10:52 PM

            First of all, I would like to have my evidence refuted correctly, if you would do me the honor. Could you please go into the Method section and quote for me specific issues you have with the way they did the experiment? Because if you don’t believe their data is correct, then there must be some specific thing they did wrong in taking the data. And if you can’t tell me anything wrong with the method, then their conclusions, however unbelievable, are valid.

            Now, on to your paper. First of all, if you’re going to quote the Sherwin-Rawcliffe experiment, you should actually find the paper published by Sherwin and Rawcliffe and read it first. Here it is: http://www.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/625706.pdf

            Now that you’ve presumably finished reading the thing, you should know that more than a few things were misinterpreted in the commentary by Phipps that you posted. The paper examines the possibility of extra inertia created by the electromagnetic interactions in the nucleus, and the null result actually works in favor of relativity. I quote, from the abstract:

            “According to the theory of relativity, however,
            (1) the inertial mass of a physical system should be a scalar quantity (no matter how distorted its electromagnetic structure) and
            (2) the “excess” inertial mass of electromagnetic origin, (1/3)?W/c^2, should not be observable.”

            Since, as you said, the inertial mass was found to be a scalar and the extra inertia was not observed, this means that the predictions put forth by relativity were correct.

            All this leads me to the conclusion that this Phipps character has intentionally reversed the findings of the paper, in order to prove his own point (indeed, the article he wrote is clearly an opinion piece, published in a defunct journal mainly focused on attacking relativity; all in all, not the most unbiased place to pull evidence from).

          • BrianFraser January 23, 2014, 2:48 PM


            Thanks for the link to the paper.

            I am not trying to “refute” you. Think of it as trying to establish “reasonable doubt” like on a jury. The Sherwin-Rawcliff paper was in 1960. Phipps paper is 2009. The issue is STILL a problem, and not just for “unreasonable” people but for physicists. That is why I cited the Phipps paper.

            Remember the issue under discussion here is: “Why aren’t the schools teaching BOTH local physics and non-local physics?” Why try to “explain” non-local behavior with a local interpretation? All we are getting is the Einstein version. There seems to be a “localism or bust” doctrine in the scientific community–some kind of Einsteinian “Received Truth”. This also impacts how referees see the papers for mainstream publications. As a non-physicist, I would like to be assured that the other guys, professional physicists with a non-mainstream view, still have non-prejudicial access to publications.

            You are probably familiar with Dr. Tom Van Flandern, who wrote about the speed of gravity and its lack of aberration. He is not just some “character” but a professional astronomer and he published in a legit physics journal. His article, says, in part:

            “The most amazing thing I was taught as a graduate student of celestial mechanics at Yale in the 1960s was that all gravitational interactions between bodies in all dynamical systems had to be taken as instantaneous. . . . Indeed, as astronomers we were taught to calculate orbits using instantaneous forces; then extract the position of some body along its orbit at a time of interest, and calculate where that position would appear as seen from Earth by allowing for the finite propagation speed of light from there to here. . . . That was the required procedure to get the correct answers.” (“The Speed of Gravity – What the Experiments Say” , Tom Van Flandern, Physics Letters A, 250 (1-3) (1998) pp. 1-11)

            I am sure the “Einstein or bust” camp will have plenty to say here. They will probably begin with “assume the Universe acts locally”. Then procede with some further assumptions that are not part of the problem (acceleration seems to be a favorite), apply the appropriate mathematical circumlocution and other “maps of hell” and Presto! Einstein is still correct!

            Whatever. . . . The schools should present BOTH views and let up-and-coming physicists and astronomers decide for themselves. I just don’t believe that is happening. Some quotes from Dr. Halton Arp in Seeing Red: Redshifts, Cosmology and Academic Science (1998):

            “I thought it would be routine to publish in the journal which was carrying most of the European X-ray results of archival value. How wrong I was! The referee’s report came back accusing me of “manipulating the data” and trying to claim an association of quasars with galaxies, which has “long ago been disproved.” The editor forwarded these comments and rejected the paper on the ground that he saw no need to reopen the debate. The extraordinary aspect was that four papers in addition to my own had just appeared in the same journal giving strong additional evidence for just such associations! The figures appear here [in Arp's book] for the first time, and the tabular X-ray data is still unpublished.” (p. 47)

            “I gloomily came to the ironic conclusion that if you take a highly intelligent person and give them the best possible, elite education, then you will most likely wind up with an academic who is completely impervious to reality.” (p. 131)

            “Everyone must make up their own mind on the basis of the evidence and the experts should not be allowed to control the presentation.” (p. 274)

            “The mission of academia should be to explore—not to perpetuate myth and superstition.” (p. 257)

            “. . . it is well justified today that people view institutional claims with skepticism and even hostility. And it is important to always keep in mind who have the vested interests and what they have to gain. (p. 261)

            Arp’s book is full of similar statements. And he too is not just some “character”. Arp received his bachelors degree from Harvard College in 1949 and his Ph. D. from the California Institute of Technology in 1953, both cum laude.

            Again, we want the WHOLE STORY, not just the filtered part that agrees with Einstein. Our scienfific knowledge is not so sure and certain as we are led to believe.

  • bigremo January 15, 2014, 3:39 PM

    There can be a historical Jesus, no problem. There was a historical Jimmy and Billy and Jenny too. Claiming any one of them was the offspring of a deity, however, will take some proving.

    • Pr3Historic . January 16, 2014, 9:33 AM

      I absolutely agree (even though evidence of a healing and supernatural Jesus is somewhat verified historically with people who were Jesus’ enemies talking about Jesus’ miracles). All I was saying is that I have very little faith in God. I do have confidence however, not absolute belief as many Christians would claim they have, but a fairly good level of confidence. (Also, I can’t find any evidence what I believe in is false either)

  • TerryG January 16, 2014, 5:42 AM

    Touché and yet Superstring theory is based on supersymmetry and no
    supersymmetric particles have been discovered.

    • Pr3Historic . January 16, 2014, 9:25 AM

      Although Super-string theory even admits that. I understand that there is no proof yet but it is certainly compelling as it would explain a lot of things and works out mathematically.

  • BrianFraser January 17, 2014, 2:36 PM

    According to Einstein’s Relativity, the photon does not experience the flow of time. It
    therefore cannot have a trajectory. Yet scientists freely manipulate photons as
    though they do have a trajectory. This requires that the trajectory actually be a
    result of the reference system motion (e.g., as found in a laboratory on Earth).

    But for this to work, two conditions must be satisfied. First, the fundamental motion of the Earth must be isotropic (non-directional) in all three dimensions of space. That means that if a guy jumps out of a tree locally, he is in free fall (no forces acting on him) and the Earth rushes up to meet him (as per Einstein), AND the same stunt can be done at ANY location on Earth and produce the same result.

    The other requirement is that the Earth must be moving at the speed of light. This will work out ok too if the claim is made that the Earth is moving at the speed of light in TIME. This causes all things on Earth to move to a new time location, even though the spatial locations remain fixed. Conveniently, temporal motion is non-directional in a spatial reference system. If attached to an object like a planet, it will have a spherical distribution and therefore the motional potential will be proportional to 1/r2
    (just like gravity). Temporal motion is also “non-local” (action-at-a-distance, another characteristic of gravity). Moreover, this kind of motion is non-vectorial and cannot be detected by a Michelson-Morley type of experiment.

    Einstein is “incomplete”.

  • Russell P January 18, 2014, 5:45 PM

    Question: Did Newton devise a theory or a law? Or are those words sometimes used interchangeably? Newton never had an explanation of what caused his equations to be the way they were. But Einstein did…didn’t he? Perhaps a semantic argument….just curious!

  • Curtis Rhodes January 21, 2014, 2:40 PM

    Any theory has to account for the spinning.
    We live on a rotating planet orbiting around a fiercely spinning sun which is moving around in a spinning galaxy which itself is moving at fantastic speed in an orbit along with other local galaxies probably within other even other spinning pivots. Relativity is a good name for his theory though because it vaguely describes how things appear from a selfish arrogant earth bound perspective as if we lived on a flat non spinning surface. Gravity is centripetal force.

  • anyone101 January 22, 2014, 3:02 AM

    Wow! Bring out the Nuts!

  • Esteven Damian Tineo Mateo January 22, 2014, 9:11 PM

    This article is extremely helpful when dealing with all this people who like to argue against theories in general. Like religious and creationist, they say our theories are theories that will never be proven and are all false. Well guess their theories about God are as well proven to be false by the same blade.

  • Mehak Rain January 27, 2014, 4:30 AM

    Don’t know how sane d argument is, I love Einstein. Found this interesting piece about him: http://www.leisuremartini.com/rambling-einstein-ian-brain/