[time 306] Rethinking Relativity

Stephen P. King (stephenk1@home.com)
Tue, 11 May 1999 14:34:36 -0400

Found this

From: Barnstormer (DPENNYBAKER)
    Apr-29 9:40 am
   To: ALL
   Rethinking Relativity

   by Tom Bethell

   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
   mind-bending 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 1990'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
   1960'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

   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. The stability of planetary
orbits tells us that gravity
   must propagate much faster than light. Accepting this reasoning,
Isaac Newton assumed that
   the force of gravity must be instantaneous.

   Astronomical data support this conclusion. We know, for example, that
the Earth accelerates
   toward a point 20 arc-seconds in front of the visible Sun--that is,
toward the true,
   instantaneous direction of the Sun. Its light comes to us from one
direction, its "pull" from a
   slightly different direction. This implies different propagation
speeds for light and gravity.

   It might seem strange that something so fundamental to our
understanding of physics can still
   be a matter of debate. But that in itself should encourage us to
wonder how much we really
   know about the physical world. In certain Internet discussion groups,
"the most frequently
   asked question and debated topic is 'What is the speed of gravity?'"
Van Flandern writes. It is
   heard less often in the classroom, but only "because many teachers
and most textbooks head
   off the question." They understand the argument that it must go very
fast indeed, but they also
   have been trained not to let anything exceed Einstein's speed limit.

   So maybe there is something wrong with special relativity after all.

   In The ABC of Relativity (1925), Bertrand Russell said that just as
the Copernican system once
   seemed impossible and now seems obvious, so, one day, Einstein's
relativity theory "will seem
   easy." But it remains as "difficult" as ever, not because the math is
easy or difficult (special
   relativity requires only high-school math, general relativity really
is difficult), but because
   elementary logic must be abandoned. "Easy Einstein" books remain
baffling to almost all. The
   sun-centered solar system, on the other hand, has all along been easy
to grasp.

   Nonetheless, special relativity (which deals with motion in a
straight line) is thought to be
   beyond reproach. General relativity (which deals with gravity, and
accelerated motion in
   general) is not regarded with the same awe. Stanford's Francis
Everitt, the director of an
   experimental test of general relativity due for space-launch next
year, has summarized the
   standing of the two theories in this way: "I would not be at all
surprised if Einstein's general
   theory of relativity were to break down," he wrote. "Einstein himself
recognized some serious
   shortcomings in it, and we know on general grounds that it is very
difficult to reconcile with
   other parts of modern physics. With regard to special relativity, on
the other hand, I would be
   much more surprised. The experimental foundations do seem to be much
more compelling." This
   is the consensus view.

   Dissent from special relativity is small and scattered. But it is
there, and it is growing. Van
   Flandern's article is only the latest manifestation. In 1987, Petr
Beckmann, who taught at the
   University of Colorado, published Einstein Plus Two, pointing out
that the observations that led
   to relativity can be more simply reinterpreted in a way that
preserves universal time. The
   journal he founded, Galilean Electrodynamics, was taken over by
Howard Hayden of the
   University of Connecticut (Physics), and is now edited by Cynthia
Kolb Whitney of the El
   ...[Message truncated]

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