How did a stateless German Jewish physicist become the first pop star of science, asks Joseph Schwartz
Let's get one thing straight. Relativity may be mind boggling, but it is very simple. In fact it is probably the simplest bit of physics there is. It is far more straightforward than the motion of a top, and even easier than rocket science (which after all consists of little more than blowing hot gas out of a big pipe). The burgeoning electrical technology of the 19th century the telegraph, the electric motor, the electric generator and finally, decisively, wireless telegraphy proved that the electric force could be made, at will, to act at a distance. Electric signals could be made to go through space without wires to hold them. But the electric signals took time to get from place to place. More precisely, they travelled with the speed of light.
You can see the effect in action with your TV remote. It takes time for the signal from the device to reach the TV set (roughly five nanoseconds). Ditto for mobile phones. Ditto for wireless broadband. Ditto for transatlantic phone calls. Electrically generated signals all take time to get through space.
Einstein's accomplishment was to recognise this important fact about electrically generated signals and propose that all forces took time to get from place to place.
In fancier language, Einstein guessed that there were no instantaneous interactions at a distance in nature. That is to say, all forces take time to make themselves felt at a distance. This is the basic physics, but Einstein said it nearly gave him a nervous breakdown.
Here's the mind boggling part. If there are no instantaneous interactions in nature, then, as Einstein was the first to insist upon, there must be a maximum possible speed in nature. And this maximum possible speed is the velocity of light. Put more provocatively: nothing can go faster than the speed of light.
This isn't difficult to understand, but it sure is difficult to believe. Our immediate experience tells us that with enough fuel we could easily make a rocket ship go as fast as we like. What do you mean nothing can go faster than the speed of light?
Using an ingenious argument based on a principle proposed by Galileo that all motion is relative Einstein calculated that as an object approaches the maximum possible speed it becomes more and more difficult to increase its velocity. Its inertia its resistance to changes in velocity becomes greater. Finally at the velocity of light its resistance becomes so great that no further increase in velocity is possible. In a later paper, Einstein proved that because energy increased inertia in this way then energy and inertia must be simply proportional to each other: E=mc2.
It is a measure of the mystification that surrounds Einstein that this most famous equation of all time has been equally mystified. It was not the basis of the atom bomb. It does not mean that there is a virtually unlmited source of energy in each bit of matter. In fact it has no practical consequences whatsoever. When you light a match the heat and light carry away a small bit of mass. The mass of the remaining molecules is ever, ever, ever so slightly less than the mass of the wood before burning. But because the energy released in nuclear reactions is a million times greater than the energy released in the chemical reactions of the burning of the match, the mass difference before and after can be measured. It checks. But there is nothing in E=mc2 that predicts how much energy is going to be released in an actual physical reaction. It has to be measured. In fact the massive energies involved in nuclear reactions were discovered and measured in radioactive decays before E=mc2 hit the pages of Einstein's notebook.
This is much too much to digest in a single read. It has to be thought about, line by line. I don't think it is possible really to get it under one's belt unless one teaches it. But if the conclusions are mind boggling, the physics is simple. There are no instantaneous interactions at a distance in nature. All Einstein's conclusions follow logically from this simple fact. That's it. Full stop. Punto.
Now how did Einstein get to be such a figure of mystification?
One hundred years after his 1905 paper, all we have is idolatry. Instead of every educated person having a thorough understanding of one of the greatest cultural achievements of the 20th century, Einstein and his theory have become symbols of the incomprehensible.
So, if this is the case, why is the man behind this supposedly impenetrable concept the most celebrated scientist in history? Why the idolatry? Why should a stateless German Jewish theoretical physicist have become the first great international pop star? If relativity is all that incomprehensible why wasn't the matter dropped? It is as if we are celebrating mystification.
I believe this is exactly the point. In idolising Einstein we are celebrating our mystification. We love the supposed fact that only three people can understand Einstein.We are not alone in our failure to understand.
One of the most striking features of the historical development of science in the 20th century is its increasing remoteness from everyday life. CP Snow's Two Cultures has barely scratched the surface of this astonishing historical development. Science used to represent a triumph of the human capacity to understand, a force for liberation. This is no longer the case. Most importantly, we no longer believe we can understand anything of substance. Understanding is impossible. As theorised by the more militant postmodernists, the world is inherently incoherent. Einstein reminds of how ununderstandable it all is. Einstein has become the god of the incomprehensible. And that is why we worship him.
The dumbing down began in the 1920s, when the trauma of the millions of deaths from the mechanised warfare of WWI, the trauma of intense class conflict and revolution Russia 1917, Germany 1919, Hungary 1919, French General Strike 1922, fascism in Italy 1922, British General Strike 1926 and the trauma of the massive economic transition to a multinational corporatised economy far exceeded the capacities of the intellectual and institutional resources of the times to understand and to change what was happening. Where previously, empirical science was seen as a central part of the common body of knowledge, these huge upheavals made them alien and intimidating to most of the population. This process affected our physics no less than any other institution.
Consider relativity. Keep in mind that Einstein's accomplishment comes from resolving the contradiction between the old 17thcentury experience of mechanical motion theorised by Newton and the new 19thcentury experience of electromagnetism. Now keep in mind that none of us know anything at all about how things like TV remote control devices work. In the course of the 20th century we have become, in the advanced west, almost totally isolated from how our gadgets work, let alone how and where they get made a result both of culturally induced ignorance and the international division of labour: thinking in the west, manufacture in the Third World.
The result is we simply do not have the practical experience to give us a basis to understand the theoretical implications of the TV remote control device. We have created a world where we are as mystified about the environment we ourselves have built as we were about the natural environment in the prescientific era. We do not understand relativity because we do not understand how a TV remote works, and vice versa.
The social development of the west in the 20th century has, to coin a phrase, turned science on its head; great understanding turned into great mystification. This is what CP Snow was speaking about in the 1950s in his description of the split between science and the humanities. And it is this split that has made possible the postmodern excesses well described by Meera Nanda (NH, January/February 05).
Vedic science in India, like creation science in the US, is not simply oxymoronic: it is simply moronic. But these reactionary ideas find it necessary to cloak themselves in the language of science to gain legitimacy. Reclaiming science from its ubiquitous ideological representations has been very well carried out by many postpositivist writers on science such as Andrew Pickering (Constructing Quarks, 1984), Steve Shapin (A Social History of Truth, 1994) and Dick Lewontin (Biology as Ideology, 1991). Sometimes known as social constructivism, it is no more and no less than recognising that science is a labour process and, like everything else in our culture, it is socially constituted in time and place.
But into the gap between the ambient mythology about science and its deconstruction by postpositivists step cultural relativists, whose understanding of the arguments is limited, in my experience, by a desire to validate Third World experience against the hegemony of the west, including its ideology of science and claims to universal truth. If science is socially constructed, they say, then it can be constructed in any way that is appropriate for a given culture. One social construction must be as good as another.
But this just isn't true. Some constructions are much better than others. But of course the superiority of one social construction over another has to be demonstrated. It can't be assumed, which should be the point of a properly disciplined postmodernism. Instead relativism has run wild with phantasmal speculations of what might be the case, bearing no relationship whatsoever to what is actually the case.
The symptoms of our postmodern distance from the world of material production are all around us. But they surface spectacularly in the mystification of Albert Einstein, a man whose clarity of vision and expression has been entirely superseded by an appalling mystification both of him and his accomplishment.