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The Myth of Matter, p. 7

Orthodoxy in Science

Having learned how harmful it can be to cling to one’s ideology – regardless of how well-reasoned that ideology might be – it may seem puzzling to learn that the ideas of Euclid, Copernicus, Galileo, Newton and Mendeleev gained the same force of orthodoxy in science as the Inquisitors’ words had in Christendom. Looking at the timeline, it is even more astounding that this seemed to occur in the blink of an eye! Here is the story of how it happened.

Einstein: Time Magazine's "Person of the Century"

By the end of the 19th century it appeared to everyone that the physics frontier would soon close.[1] The Newtonian view of a mechanical universe had been reinforced with theories of electromagnetism and chemistry. It seemed that remained only a few details to be nailed down in order that the natural laws could be written in their final form. (These details included inconsistencies in the measured speed of light, the distribution of mass inside atoms, something called “The Balmer Series, and other esoterica.) The giant problem hidden in the details was that the Newtonian model depended on the twin myths of absolute time and absolute space.

The Davidic figure who slew this two-headed Goliath was Albert Einstein. In 1905, what became known as his “miracle year,” Einstein published four articles–

  1. “On a Heuristic Viewpoint Concerning the Production and Transformation of Light” contains Einstein’s proposal that energy is carried by light in discrete quantities.
  2. “On the Motion of Small Particles Suspended in a Stationary Liquid, as Required by the Molecular Kinetic Theory of Heat” finally put an end to lingering doubts about the existence of atoms.
  3. “On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies” introduced Einstein’s theory of relativity.
  4. “Does the Inertia of a Body Depend Upon Its Energy Content?” contains the now universally recognized mass-energy relationship, E = mc2.

How much controversy did Einstein cause? When he was finally awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1921, it was “for his services to Theoretical Physics, and especially for his discovery of the law of the photoelectric effect.”[2] No direct mention was made of the ubiquitous E = mc2!

Further evidence of controversy can be found in the text of the 1921 Nobel Prize Award Speech. “There is probably no physicist living today whose name has become so widely known as that of Albert Einstein. Most discussion centers on his theory of relativity. This pertains essentially to epistemology and has therefore been the subject of lively debate in philosophical circles.”[3] Notice how the speaker, Svante Arrhenius, denigrated Einstein’s physical theory of relativity as being mere philosophy.

One last interesting tidbit is that Einstein did not receive his prize until one year later, in 1922, because the Nobel Committee for Physics decided that none of the nominees met Alfred Nobel’s standards. So they haggled over it for another year before belatedly giving the award to Einstein.[4]

Einstein’s equations forced open once more the closed frontier of physics. They predicted moving clocks ran slower than stationary ones, objects weighed more when they were moving than when they were at rest, and objects experienced a contraction in length – but not height or width – when moving in the direction of their measured lengths.


[1] Stephen Hawking, “A Brief History of Relativity,” http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,993018,00.html, 25 Sep 2011

[2]  “The Nobel Prize in Physics 1921”. Nobelprize.org. 25 Sep 2011 http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/physics/laureates/1921/

[3] “Nobel Prize in Physics 1921 – Presentation Speech”. Nobelprize.org. 25 Sep 2011 http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/physics/laureates/1921/press.html

[4] “The Nobel Prize in Physics 1921”

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3 responses to “The Myth of Matter, p. 7

  1. Paul Abrahams April 23, 2012 at 11:14 PM

    Oh my gosh. I’m trying to understand this. Really.

    • antennaguru April 24, 2012 at 2:14 AM

      Einstein was unorthodox, in a nutshell.

      un·or·tho·dox/ˌənˈôrTHəˌdäks/
      Adjective:
      Contrary to what is usual, traditional, or accepted; not orthodox.

      He was contrary to what was traditional and accepted. He was shunned by the leaders of the scientific community, and they treated him in a similar way that the Catholic Church treated Galileo.

      Sort of like the parable of the beam and the mote

      … or did you mean to say that the writing is unclear, or that the reason for writing is unclear?

  2. Pingback: Albert Einstein « Earthpages.ca

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