Even Einstein Wasn’t Einstein

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A piece by Jonathan Chait does effective work excoriating both Charles Krauthammer and George Will on their head-slapping statements about the scientific method and climate change theory. One of the more egregious quotes he culls from Krauthammer’s incoherent spiel is:

“99 percent of physicists were convinced that space and time were fixed until Einstein working in a patent office wrote a paper in which he showed that they are not.”

Chait rightfully points out that this logic could be used to dismiss any scientific theory whatsoever. One little contradictory piece of evidence and a theory blows up. Then you have to start again from scratch, right? In a blog post, Paul Krugman further elaborates on Chait’s point concluding:

“Yes, Einstein showed that space and time were relative concepts. But did he show that everything physicists had been doing up to that point was all wrong? Of course not — classical physics was an incredibly useful and successful field, and almost none of what it said had to change in light of relativity. True, Einstein showed that it was a special case — but one that applied almost perfectly at the speeds and accelerations we encounter in normal conditions.”

An important point, that. In fact, the truth is even less spectacular. Physicists did consider the possibility that space was relative before Einstein, and time was only considered fixed because of tradition, i.e. no one had considered the possible relativity of time before then, therefore no established theory about the nature of time was overturned by Einstein’s work.

In addition to mocking the nonsense spewed by idiotic pundits, this discussion raises another important issue: the myth of revolutionary change in science. Scientific inquiry is characterized primarily by incrementalism, small changes and refinements to existing methods of investigating and explaining the universe we live in. It’s true that elegant theories like relativity and Darwin’s theory of natural selection come along very infrequently, and that these ideas are game changers, to use a phrase. However, they change the direction of scientific inquiry by very little in the end. What they do so well is increase the efficiency and redefine the focus of research in important ways. Understanding that time was relative provided a method for understanding spacetime that did not exist prior to Einstein, but it provided a refinement not a wrecking ball.

The myth of Einstein in popular imagination does not quite fit the true importance of Einstein and his accomplishments. It is that better we realize this, that everything we produce and innovate builds from what came before, scientific or otherwise. No matter the importance we may place on our or other’s part in this great endeavor called life, it is all a tiny thread in a massive tapestry that will be sewn to and sewn to again until the end of time.

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Copyright 2014 by Michael Marsters.
All rights reserved.

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