Journal Club – Black Holes Made All The Difference

Today's Journal Club is about a new addition to the Standard Model of fundamental particles.


According to Wikipedia, a journal club is a group of individuals who meet regularly to critically evaluate recent articles in the scientific literature. And of course, the first rule of Journal Club is… don’t talk about Journal Club.

So, without further ado – today’s article is about how turning complex theory into plain English can lead to advances in science.

Today’s article:
Schutz, B. Thoughts about a conceptual framework for relativistic gravity.

This article is a bit on the philosophical side and involves some debatable historical interpretation. For example, it is claimed that Einstein’s general relativity theory, after an initial buzz in the 1920s, sat in the obscurity of backroom physics through the 1930s and up to the mid 1950s. Indeed, as an example of the maxim that you often have to wait for someone to die before the science can move on, it is claimed that only after Einstein’s death in 1955 did something of a revival take place, which then brought relativity physics back into the mainstream.

The author Bernard Schutz can claim some authority here since his thesis supervisor was Kip Thorne whose thesis supervisor was John A Wheeler. Wheeler, quoting from his Wikipedia write up was an American theoretical physicist who was largely responsible for reviving interest in general relativity in the United States after World War II. And according to Kip Thorne’s Wikipedia write up, Thorne is one of the world’s leading experts on the astrophysical implications of Einstein’s general theory of relativity. Bernard F Schutz’s Wikipedia write up just says he is an American physicist, but give him time.

In the article, Einstein is claimed to be partly responsible for keeping general relativity in the boondocks by dismissing some of its more exciting implications such as black holes and gravitational waves. Instead Einstein doggedly pursued his idea of a unified field theory which led relativity science to an apparent dead end.

Wheeler was at Princeton University at the same time as Einstein and is described as a ‘late collaborator’, although much of his earlier work was in quantum physics and he was closely involved in the Manhattan project.

But Wheeler’s later work and teaching was very focused on the implications of the curvaceous space-time geometry of general relativity, which he communicated via plain English heuristic explanations of some of the wilder implications of that geometry. For example, he was responsible for coining the term black hole as well as the term worm hole. And suddenly general relativity got sexy again. There was an explosion of papers from the 1960s on into the 1990s seeking to grapple with the concept of a black hole – which then reached a fever pitch as astronomical evidence of the existence of black holes began to come in.

Schutz’s essential hypothesis is that it was physicists schooled in quantum mechanics taking a fresh look at relativity theory that made the difference. These were physicists schooled in the approach of we have the math, but what does it mean? Suddenly people like Wheeler were back engaging with Einstein-like Gedanken (thought) experiments. This turned the math into plain-English so that non-relativist physicists suddenly got what it was about – and wanted a piece of the action.

So… comments? Was Einstein inadvertently responsible for delaying the incorporation of relativity into mainstream physics? Or is this article just about a bunch of quantum physicists trying to stake a claim in the development of ‘the other side’ of physics? It’s a story of rivalry, jealousy and curvaceous sexiness – I welcome suggestions about an even more controversial article for the next edition of Journal Club.