Rethinking Relativity

By Bethell, Tom | The American Spectator, April 1999 | Go to article overview

Rethinking Relativity


Bethell, Tom, The American Spectator


No one has paid attention yet, but a well-respected physics journal just published an article whose conclusion, if generally accepted, will undermine the foundations of modern physics-Einstein's theory of relativity in particular. Published in Physics Letters A (December 21, 1998), the article claims that the speed with which the force of gravity propagates must be at least twenty billion times faster than the speed of light. This would contradict the special theory of relativity of 1905, which asserts that nothing can go faster than light. This claim about the special status of the speed of light has become part of the world view of educated laymen in the twentieth century.

Special relativity, as opposed to the general theory (1916), is considered by experts to be above criticism, because it has been confirmed "over and over again.' But several dissident physicists believe that there is a simpler way of looking at the facts, a way that avoids the mindbending complications of relativity. Their arguments can be understood by laymen. I wrote about one of these dissidents, Petr Beckmann, over five years ago (TAS, August 1993, and Correspondence, TAS, October 1993). The present article introduces new people and arguments. The subject is important because if special relativity is supplanted, much of twentieth-century physics, including quantum theory, will have to be reconsidered in that light.

The article in Physics Letters A was written by Tom Van Flandern, a research associate in the physics department at the University of Maryland. He also publishes Meta Research Bulletin, which supports "promising but unpopular alternative ideas in astronomy." In the i99o's, he worked as a special consultant to the Global Positioning System (GPS), a set of satellites whose atomic clocks allow ground observers to determine their position to within about a foot. Van Flandern reports that an intriguing controversy arose before GPS was even launched. Special relativity gave Einsteinians reason to doubt whether it would work at all. In fact, it works fine. (But more on that later.)

The publication of his article is a breakthrough of sorts. For years, most editors of mainstream physics journals have automatically rejected articles arguing against special relativity. This policy was informally adopted in the wake of the Herbert Dingle controversy. A professor of science at the University of London, Dingle had written a book popularizing special relativity, but by the 196o's he had become convinced that it couldn't be true. So he wrote another book, Science at the Crossroads (1972), contradicting the first. Scientific journals, especially Nature, were bombarded with his (and others') letters. (See sidebar on opposite page.)

An editor of Physics Letters A promised Van Flandern that reviewers would not be allowed to reject his article simply because it conflicted with received wisdom. Van Flandern begins with the "most amazing thing" he learned as a graduate student of celestial mechanics at Yale: that all gravitational interactions must be taken as instantaneous. At the same time, students were also taught that Einstein's special relativity proved that nothing could propagate faster than light in a vacuum. The disagreement "sat there like an irritant," Van Flandern told me. He determined that one day he would find its resolution. Today, he thinks that a new interpretation of relativity may be needed.

The argument that gravity must travel faster than light goes like this. If its speed limit is that of light, there must be an appreciable delay in its action. By the time the Sun's "pull" reaches us, the Earth will have "moved on" for another 8.3 minutes (the time of light travel). But by then the Sun's pull on the Earth will not be in the same straight line as the Earth's pull on the Sun. The effect of these misaligned forces "would be to double the Earth's distance from the Sun in 1200 years." Obviously, this is not happening. …

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