Einstein’s Physics Crumbling Like An Old Building
If he had stuck with the Machian approach, Einstein might have attained the all-encompassing “theory of everything” that consumed the last decades of his life. He might have produced a version of his theory of gravity that would not conflict so fundamentally with quantum mechanics,” Barbour notes. But Einstein had lost his nerve. - Zeeya Merali, in “Gravity off the Grid,” Discover, March 2012
Never has science been so devoted to praising a physicist as it has been over the past half century with Albert Einstein. Science’s love affair with Einstein was so pervasive that his philosophical thoughts about life were embraced as if heaven sent.
“e=mc2” may be quoted these days by everyone from school children to factory workers.
As everyone knows, “e” refers to energy, “m” to mass and “c” to the cosmological constant. That constant happens to be the same as the speed of light (in case we have trouble remembering, 186,000 miles per second or 300,000 kilometres per second). It was so easy to remember, only hard if you actually had to do the math for any calculation.
Here’s the catch. Light does not travel at exactly the same speed all the time. Therefore, the “constant” is not constant. Well, bear with me.
Who cares? The Bare Naked Ladies likely won’t change the lyrics of their song that is the theme for the TV series “The Big Bang Theory.” “Nearly 14 billion years ago” might not be accurate any more, but viewers will still keep watching as it’s (arguably) the best sitcom ever.
When Einstein devised his theories (special theory of relativity published first, then general theory of relativity) most people thought that space had nothing in it. It was even called a “vacuum.” The “ether” that was once considered to be out there, that accounted for the odd movement of planets in the earth-centred Newtonian universe, was more imagination than reality.
There was nothing out there, supposedly, between the planets and stars. But that didn’t work with the physics. Einstein’s theories wouldn’t work in nothingness. Then someone figured there must be dust from the original Big Bang, and neutrinos charging around as well. Still not enough.
Einstein must be right, so along came Dark Matter to patch up the theory. Still not enough. Cosmologists calculated that the universe is expanding at an accelerating rate, which didn’t fit with the theory. Let’s throw in Dark Energy. With the matter science knows exists, plug in Dark Matter, that left Dark Energy to make up 85 percent or more of the rest of the known universe, so that Einstein’s theory would work.
After all, as almost everyone agreed, Einstein was a genius--indeed “Einstein” and “genius” came to be synonyms--so any amount of creative imagination to make his theory work must be acceptable. Science hates it when religions tell people to “have faith” but it happily asked the same of people for its creations of imagination so that Einstein could continue to be the ideal of genius.
Here’s where it gets messy. Einstein’s theories depended on a fourth dimension, called space-time. Light--part of the “constant” remember--bends around large objects, just as river water bends around rocks in its way. Does light have to speed up to make up the extra distance required to divert around large objects, or does it slow down, thus throwing off calculations?
Time, as Einstein told us, is flexible. In relatively empty space, it speeds up, whereas in denser stuff such as galaxies it slows down. If light (the constant) travels at 186,000 miles per second and the length of a second can change depending on where it is being measured, what can be constant about the constant?
How accurate is the widely accepted belief that our universe is 13.7 billion years away from the Big Bang? That number was calculated based on the rate that supernovas great distances away were moving. The light from those supernovas bent around galaxies and changed speed as it travelled through larger ones. These were not considered in the calculations.
David Wiltshire, a New Zealand physicist at the University of Canterbury, claims that if the age of the universe were calculated based on light travelling through empty space, the age would be 18 billion years. If the light travelled at the speed it does passing through galaxies, the age would be 15 billion years.
Wiltshire’s “older” universe age results from his beginning from a different set of physical assumptions than those physicists who calculate it at 13.7 billion years.
Assumptions, you say? Exactly. Physical calculations change depending on which set of assumptions you begin with. What then should we believe?
To make things more awkward for Einstein’s legacy, CERN, the European Space Agency’s huge facility for studying super particles, recently reported that it had timed neutrinos travelling faster than light, a phenomenon that does not fit with Albert’s theories. While a few scientists search diligently for weaknesses in the CERN report, there is no doubt that many are still trying to find a way to travel faster than light. Like many other scientific marvels that came out of the original Star Trek classic TV series, time travel and faster-than-light space travel seem destined to come to pass some day.
I still believe in Albert Einstein, though his assumptions might have been inaccurate. I still believe in gravity, though no one at this point has any idea what it is or why objects attract each other--anyone who says he does is overconfident about his guess.
I am not certain what to believe about the age of our universe. Flexible time may be a problem. An undependable constant is troubling. Flexible space is still hard for me to wrap my head around.
Of one thing I have great faith. My wife has just called me to say that supper is ready and if I try to stretch time too much before completing this writing, my supper will be cold. I have confidence in that constant.
Bill Allin is the author of Turning It Around: Causes and Cures for Today’s Epidemic Social Problems, a book of big but simple ideas about how to change the material taught in our schools so we can all live longer, healthier and safer lives. Learn more at http://billallin.com