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In Our Time: Relativity

Thursday 6 June 2013, 17:28

Melvyn Bragg Melvyn Bragg

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Editor's note: In Thursday's programme Melvyn Bragg and his guests discussed Relativity. As always the programme is available to listen to online or to download and keep.

Relativity Relativity


Well, I got through it. People who know more about physics than I do (most of you) will have realised again and again how thin the ice was on which I was attempting to skate. Nevertheless, once again, those who contributed to the programme were not only a safety net and a cradle, but considerate enough to let me say a few words along the way. Martin Rees said afterwards how difficult it was to do this sort of programme without illustrations. "That's why we kept waving our arms around," he said. He also spoke about the number of letters he gets from people who are very interested in physics who sometimes begin "Even Newton was wrong..." Roger Penrose's letters include those that begin by saying how much they admire his books, but then attempt to explain why he's wrong. As a young man apparently Einstein was very dapper and beautifully dressed in the annus mirabilis of 1905, when he produced four papers while not working inside a university or a scientific community – four papers which changed the understanding of the universe. As an older man, the scruffy and bemused-looking mop top (the model for the first Dr Who?). He could have been a refugee from the Marx Brothers. Both Roger Penrose and the producer, Tom Morris, had personal anecdotes transmitted to them down their respective families that although Einstein loved to play the violin, especially in string quartets, and his name commanded only the best people to play with him, he had one grave fault. He couldn't count.

Ruth Gregory said that four dimensions were nothing like as complicated as we thought they were. When we came across a crowd of people and worked out how to navigate our way through them, we were using four dimensions. Martin said that the reason why Einstein's greater theory lay dormant for about forty years at the beginning of the twentieth century was that there were only very crude ways of testing their veracity. They could only come within 10% of establishing the truth. Now they can come within 1/100,000.

Doing this from the train, on the way to Carlisle, to give a talk about my novel in the town in which I was born. The event is being laid on by Gwenda Matthews, an independent bookseller, valiantly and, I hope, successfully continuing in her increasingly lovely occupation. I think it's 400 independent bookshops that have closed down over the last two or three years.

Tunnel, tunnel, tunnel... back in the light again. When I was at a grammar school I used to go into Carlisle sometimes to traipse around the independent bookshops. There was one second-hand bookshop, dug into the castle wall, which was wonderfully ripe for looting, with an extremely benevolent bookseller practically giving them away. Anyway, good luck to Gwenda Matthews and all who share her determination to stay independent.

It's been a John Ball week - filming a BBC documentary on this extraordinary fourteenth century preacher who helped inspire and amplify what has too long been miscalled the Peasants' Revolt. We've been whirling around Kent and Essex; at a wonderful sheep market in Colchester which has been there since at least the twelfth century, to abbey ruins which again – the abbey, that is – date from the twelfth century. Into Chelmsford for an unusual lunch break (i.e. not a sandwich in a car park), beside a river, and young Chelmsford folk wandering in the sunshine while cricket was being played nearby. In and out of churches beside the Essex Marshes, England past and present delighted by the appearance of the sun and leaping out to lap it up.

Best wishes

Melvyn Bragg


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  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    I think not enough emphasis was given to the fact that special relativity was a team effort. In fact, according to Max Born, special relativity should not be connected with a single name or with a single date. It was in the air around 1900. "in 1905 Einstein based the theory on very general principles of a philosophical character". As pointed out by Roger Penrose, the theory was given its final form by Minkowski.The other point perhaps not emphasized enough is that Einstein realized that special relativity and gravity were incompatible. Rather than modifying special relativity he made the revolutionary step of getting rid of gravity as a separate force.That was perhaps his single greatest achievement.

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    What a wonderfully interesting programme earlier today with a magnificent panel! I was hooked from start to finish, the time simply flew by but then it is after all only relative.

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    On a different subject (but interesting in its own right) Melvyn Bragg's programme on Tyndale last night was brilliant - clarity of thought and presentation revealed Tyndale's importance to the English language and democracy. Well worth watching.

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    I was struck by how much said about relativity was wrong. Yet again, the twins paradox was wrongly stated on the show. The paradox is one that Einstein admitted contradicted the principle of relativity, which is based on the principle of symmetry between frames: whatever happens to the one twin, motion-wise, must happen to the other, so they end up both being younger than the other: a paradox (indeed, a logical contradiction).

    Key issues are addressed in Guy Burniston Brown's classic 1967 article in the Bulletin of the Institute of Physics, What it Wrong with Relativity (Googlable). It begins "Genuine physicists—that is to say, physicists who make observations and experiments as well as theories—have always felt uneasy about 'relativity'". It goes on to show how Einstein assumed the Newtonian principles, then proceeded to modify them -- an exercise that is fundamentally offensive to the logician. It also myth-busts many things to do with the history of the theory, such as the emergence of E=mc^2, which was plagiarised -- along with Poincare's work outlining the essential principles of SR -- by Einstein, and (at first, wrongly) derived from classical, not relativistic principles (which is how it was derived by DePretto in 1904).

    The article gives some history of the 1919 eclipse experiments. They were obtained by discarding all photographic plates for which deviation from what was the expected - according to relativity - values were discarded. It says "This must be one of the most extraordinary self-deceptions in the whole history of science (see Poor 1930)".

    All the experiments using clocks that purport to confirm relativity, in fact serve to *disprove* it, because they demonstrate that so-called time dilation is objectively recordable, and not purely relative to frame.

    In the above-cited article, Brown says
    'The general theory has been well summed up by Fock: "It is... incorrect to call Einstein's theory of gravitation a 'General theory of relativity' all the more since 'The general principle of relativity' is impossible under any physical condition."'
    He also says, following a critique of the principle of equivalence (which is easily shown to be false),

    'This contact with the physical world having gone we are left in the general theory only with the principle of covariance—that the laws of physics must be expressed in a form independent of the coordinate system, and the mathematical development of this condition which Einstein did with Grossmann and others. Unfortunately, given sufficient ingenuity, almost any law of physics can be expressed in covariant form, so that the principle imposes no necessary restriction on the nature of these laws. The principle is therefore barren, and Einstein had to regard it as merely of heuristic significance (by considering only the simplest laws in accord with it (Einstein 1959, p. 39)). Also the number of problems which can be completely formulated, let alone solved, is extremely small. Some relativists look on it rather as an encumbrance (Fock 1959).'

    Length contraction can be shown to violate thermodynamics, when one imagines a physical coupling between moving bodies, itself in a rest frame, that is so influenced by the changing lengths of bodies that it becomes distorted (though not length-contracted). This requires a force, which is not considered in relativity.

    Points and co-ordinate systems do not move in mathematics. This is one example of how Einstein is,for some inexplicable reason, granted logical licence. Another is the circularity of the idea that velocity causes time dilation, while velocity is distance divided by time.

    Finally, it is also false that the GPS system uses relativity. Ronald R Hatch, former President of the Institute of Satellite Navigation (and member of the Natural Philosophy Alliance, which is highly critical of relativity), has written peer-reviewed papers explaining how both theories of relativity contradict the operations of satellite clocks. The so-called - as by, as I shall explain, a misnomer - 'equations of general relativity' (which weren't, in fact, derived by Einstein - he said he didn't understand them) themselves *are* used, in some context. However, they don't bear much resemblance to the theory itself. For one thing, they incorporate energy, a phenomenon that causes nothing but trouble -- with issues of energy conservation having to be cast aside -- when used in association with theory of relativity. (To call E=m^2 'relativistic' is, as I have already implied, also a misnomer.)

    All in all, I was sorry that this programme was broadcast in the form it took. It is time to move away from the plethora of fallacies that characterise mainstream physics.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    Rest Assured that ProllyMathic is very much a minority view. To take the case of the twins: it is not a paradox because the situation is not symmetric. One twin has to travel at a certain speed, then turn round, involving accelerations, and come back. He feels these inertial forces, whereas the other twin does not.
    As far as Einstein assuming Newtonian principles, the fact is that it was Newton who assumed (he called it a universal law) that throughout the entire universe, inertial frames of reference move uniformly with respect to each other. That's a big and unwarranted assumption that Einstein aimed to eliminate with General Relativity. Here inertial frames are those where Special Relativity holds. (I assume that even ProllyMathic accepts SR, it has been verified by countless thousands of experiments) . I could go on but I don't have the time.


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