relativity · science

Tom Bethell and the Romance of Scientific Heresy
Back in November I linked to Stephen Barr’s post spanking American Spectator columnist Tom Bethell for his long held, ideological grudge against Einstein –and further, his irresponsibly uncritical championing of a pet theory devised by his friend and fellow traveler, the late Petr Beckmann–which Bethell has now summarized in a book called Questioning Einstein: Is Relativity Necessary?

Beckmann, who was a professor of electrical engineering at University of Colorado, Boulder, loved to denounce Relativity as being “non-classical”, unfairly eclipsing the eternal absolutes of space and time as they were once understood in Newtonian physics, and apparently sewing confusion among hapless physics undergrads everywhere. (To the contrary, see Professor Edward Teller’s remarks below.) Beckmann’s book, Einstein Plus Two, was an attempt to rewrite relativity (and take a shot at quantum mechanics) in terms of classical physics. A model of self-published folk science, complete with questionable assumptions, surprisingly shoddy math, and an unintuitive grasp of standard physics, the book was published in 1987 by his own small press, Golem Press. (It is no small irony that in spite of Beckmann’s and Bethell’s claims that his alternative theory was ‘simpler’ than Einstein’s, Bethell found the book too technical, and thus vowed to write a more accessible summary for general readers, now out under Vales Lake Publishing, which has taken on distribution of Beckmann’s books. As I said, fellow travelers.)

Einstein Plus Two drew not a peep of interest from anyone in the physics community. And when he pitched his ideas in the relativity forums, Beckmann did not take kindly to physicists such as Robert Low in the UK who pointed out obvious mistakes.

What to do? He turned to a sympathetic friend with a prominent column in a conservative monthly to promote his work to the public and present himself as a lone heretic standing up to the evil corrupt scientific establishment. Bethell, always on the lookout for loners who “stand up” to the establishment, was only happy to oblige.

All of this brings to mind something Sean Carroll wrote in his contribution to Edge’s What Have You Changed Your Mind About.

I find myself cast as a defender of scientific orthodoxy — from classics like relativity and natural selection, to modern wrinkles like dark matter and dark energy.  In science, no orthodoxy is sacred, or above question — there should always be a healthy exploration of alternatives, and I have always enjoyed inventing new theories of gravity or cosmology, keeping in mind the variety of evidence in favor of the standard picture.  But there is also an unhealthy brand of skepticism, proceeding from ignorance rather than expertise, which insists that any consensus must flow from a reluctance to face up to the truth, rather than an appreciation of the evidence. (italics mine)

He goes on:

Heresy is more romantic than orthodoxy.  Nobody roots for Goliath, as Wilt Chamberlain was fond of saying.  But in science, ideas tend to grow into orthodoxy for good reasons.  They fit the data better than the alternatives.  Many casual heretics can’t be bothered with all the detailed theoretical arguments and experimental tests that support the models they hope to overthrow — they have a feeling about how the universe should work, and are convinced that history will eventually vindicate them, just as it did Galileo.

Beckmann and Bethell are just such romantics, and they got away with their anti-Einstein campaign for a while (thanks to the shoddy editorial standards of The American Spectator and National Review when it comes to science). Finally Professor Barr, a practicing physicist who teaches relativity at the grad level and a First Things regular, decided enough was enough.

For the first time faced with direct criticism from a specialist in the field and a fellow conservative in a prominent conservative journal that he himself has written for, Bethell showed up in the comboxes like a shot. And boy, was he ever aggrieved. Some of his statements I think deserve closer scrutiny and I will address them here.

What I would like to do first, however, with Professor Barr’s input, is give a few concrete samples of just how shoddy Beckmann’s science really was. The first complaint cranks make is that no one in the establishment will even look at their work, let alone give it a fair shake. This is simply not true.The harsh reality is that had he taken the trouble, like every other scientist, to submit his theory to peer review, Beckmann’s work would have been considered. It would have been rejected quickly, for reasons that will become evident below–but it would have been considered.

Since the book is out of print, and not easy to find in libraries, and since Bethell was happy to bring it up in the comments –“Has Mr Barr read Beckmann’s book, Einstein Plus Two? Suggest he might look it up.”– I sent Steve Barr my copy of Beckmann’s book for his reaction. His comments follow:

The part of the book that most interested me was [Beckmann’s]  attempt to “derive” the quantum idea that particles have wave motion associated with them from pure classical (i.e. non-quantum) electrodynamics.  First of all, anyone who has a reasonably sophisticated grasp of modern physics knows that this is a non-starter.  To relate particles to waves one needs a fundamental quantity that has the units of “action”,  (i.e. of energy times time, or distance times momentum).  In quantum theory, that quantity is called Planck’s constant “h” — sometimes also called the “quantum of action”.  It appears in the formula E = h times frequency, where E is the energy  of the particle and the frequency is that of the associated wave. In fact, h appears in a fundamental way in all the equations of  quantum theory.

It can be shown very simply (by ‘dimensional analysis’) that in classical electrodynamics the only quantities that can be written  down for a single particle that have the units of action are proportional to  q2/c — i.e. the square of the charge of the particle divided by the speed of light.  Therefore, if one COULD derive the relation  between energy and frequency in classical electrodynamics, one would have to get a relation of the form E = #(q2/c) times frequency. That means that the energy-frequency relation would be different for particles of different charge —- and there is massive evidence that it isn’t.  In other words, one cannot do quantum mechanics without the quantity h, which simply does not exist in classical electrodynamics.

So, without any detailed calculation, one knows that what Beckmann thought he could do — derive the wave nature of particles from purely classical electrodynamics — is quite impossible. Moreover, it is well known to all physicists (and physics undergraduates if they have been properly taught) that the need for a new fundamental constant of nature (Planck’s constant h) to describe quantum phenomena shows indisputably that merely classical mechanics and classical electrodynamics is not enough.  Planck himself realized this right away. Moreover, this is not some deep thing.  It is based on simple “dimensional analysis”  — i.e. consistency of units — which is a very elementary idea.

So this is a ridiculous blunder by Beckmann.

Only one?

But it gets much worse and much funnier.  He claims that he has solved the equations of classical electrodynamics for a charged particle (like an electron) sitting in its OWN electric field, and that what he gets is a solution  in which the electron oscillates back and forth.  I.e. it, in effect, pushes itself back and forth.  If it sounds like a man pulling himself up by his own bootstraps, it is — it is impossible for the very same reason.  Anyone with an ounce of physical intuition — and it is physical intuition that separates a good physicist from a bad one — knows that this is absurd, without even doing the calculation in detail.  The problem with a particle pulling itself back and forth is, of course, conserving energy and momentum.  Such supposed oscillations would obviously involve a changing of the energy and momentum of the particle. Therefore, if total energy and momentum is to be conserved, some other energy and momentum must be involved. And there is, namely the energy and momentum in the electric and magnetic fields, and one could imagine that the particle and its own electromagnetic fields trade energy and momentum back and forth between them in a rhythmic fashion — BUT that is not what happens. Nevertheless, Beckmann tries to show that it does happen by doing a calculation. In the course of this calculation, he makes many unjustified approximations. And he leaves out several enormously important effects: (a) He leaves out radiation.  If the position of a charge oscillates, then it emits radiation, and that radiation would drain energy away from the charge until its oscillations stopped.  So even if an isolated charge did oscillate (which is not the case) its oscillations would cease very quickly anyway. (b) He leaves out of the calculation so-called “retardation” effects, i.e. that the electromagnetic field at one point depends on what charges were doing at an earlier time elsewhere.  This time delay (or in the jargon “retardation”) is all important in dealing with the “self interaction” of a charge with its own field — as everyone knows. (c) In classical electrodynamics one cannot treat the charge as a point, but must spread it out over space — otherwise its “self-energy” is infinite. Beckmann knows this, and does spread the charge out. But once one does that, it is inconsistent to treat the spread-out charge distribution as “rigid”. There must be invoked some kind of non-electromagnetic forces to keep the charge distribution from flying apart.  Those non-electromagnetic forces also contribute to energy and momentum, and that effect has to be taken into account to get a meaningful answer.

Basically, Beckmann does a very naive (and butchered) calculation, and gets the manifestly absurd answer that a single charge can push itself back and forth in rhythmic way. 

This is pretty bad. But it apparently never occurred to Bethell to subject Beckmann’s claims to scrutiny, something he really owed his readers. Instead, he was happy to grind an axe for a pal for ideological reasons. And he continues to, as demonstrated by his comments linked to regarding the Hafele Keating experiment, an experiment which he has managed to convince himself has something to do with east-west light speed measurements that are fatal to Einstein’s theory.

What he can’t do is offer an actual peer reviewed article that supports his contention.  For Bethell, truth is always buried in selective quotes–never complete sources.

As Professor Barr made clear in his responses to Bethell, SRT (special relativity theory) is not going to disappear or be dropped in favor of an aether-train theory based purely on east-west measurements of the speed of light. It would require several reported findings by different teams to raise a serious challenge to any theory. SRT is crucial to quantum electrodynamics, for one thing. It’s clear neither Beckmann nor Bethell had the slightest awareness of this before starting their foolish campaign. And the fact that Beckmann did not derive Dirac’s equation without SRT speaks volumes alone about his ability.

The First Things comments are worth a still closer look. Note, for example, how Bethell was flat out caught by Clifford Will in his ludicrous insinuation that Will tried and failed to win a reward offered by Beckmann. This is what Bethell first wrote: “If Mr. Barr cannot understand the importance of this issue, then he could consult with the famous physicist Clifford M. Will, who addressed it himself and at one point was under the impression that he would be able to collect the reward. He was unable to.” (my emplasis)

Now, if you can read English, you can understand the clear meaning of those words. Famous physicist Clifford Will tried and failed to meet Beckmann’s challenge.

Yet notice, after Will set the record straight, how Bethell backtracks with the excuse that it was a follow up offer sent in the mail to Will by Howard Hayden. “But he never heard back from Mr. Will….If that does not accord with Mr Will’s recollection, perhaps he could let me know.”

Never heard back. Note the switch between his first assertion and then his later one. “He was unable to”, clearly meant to signify that Clifford Will was unable to meet Beckmann’s challenge, now shrivels into “…never heard back”. But this is how Bethell operates. It’s a disgrace.

The same dishonesty is on display in Bethell’s explicit suggestion, fed to him by the late Tom Van Flandern, that Einstein deliberately fudged his field equations to get the perihelion of Mercury.

Bethell’s present admission: “I do mention (and repudiate) in my book the late Tom Van Flandern’s more outre ideas.”

It’s heartening that Bethell has repudiated them in his book. However, if he hasn’t already, he really owes it to readers of American Spectator–whom he’s been misleading for over 20 years– to repudiate them in the pages of the magazine, since it was there in print that Mr. Bethell first grotesquely implied that Einstein was intellectually dishonest.

Bethell has not been afraid to quote selectively from famous physicists before on the subject of relativity, and indeed he did so again in the comments when he implied, based on his interview with Prof. Edward Teller, that the latter also rejects relativity:

“(As Edward Teller told me when I interviewed him at the time of a memorial event for Petr Beckmann in 1993: “What does it mean if three dimensional space, and even more horribly four dimensional space-time, is curved? That you won’t understand very readily.” George Gamow said the same thing.)”

Both Teller and Gamow are conveniently dead. But I will quote now more fully from the eulogy that Professor Teller gave at Beckmann’s funeral and we can see just how opposed to SRT he was (his remarks were reprinted in Access to Energy, October 1993). He clearly agreed with Beckmann on politics, being much more conservative than Einstein and most of his colleagues no doubt, and Teller throughout his eulogy takes pains to make that clear. Nevertheless, he said:

“I am as certain as I can be that Petr Beckmann has been in error when he opposed the theory of special relativity of Einstein. Now I want to qualify that statement, circumscribe it, define it, and make recommendations.”

He goes on to describe his own exposure to the theory as a student:

I struggled with it when I was 18 years old. I failed to understand it until I found a formulation that the time interval between two events appeared different to different people. Einstein knew that and explained it, but the new emphasis of Minkowski was to find a simple quantity which remains the same for all observers. It has been said, and it is true, that relativity is a misnomer. The important thing is not what is relative, but what is absolute. In our old concepts, time intervals have been absolute. In our new concepts, a little more complicated, but not much more, a combination between time and space is absolute. And what that means, is that time and space are much more closely interlinked than was known in the past. That is really what is meant by four dimensional space. Not merely that an event is characterized by four numbers: how far to the right, how far forward, how far up, and at what time. The new thing which is really the center of Einstein’s relativity, that makes the structure very simple is this: out of these quantities, you can compose something that does not change, that is absolute.

This is the accepted view of relativity among physicists. While it was too late for Beckmann, it’s hard to believe Bethell could hear those words–and not make anything of them. Perhaps he was afraid to.

But that’s no excuse.

Virtually everything that Tom Bethell has ever written about relativity is misleading, when it hasn’t been flat out false. He should be ashamed of himself. Conservatives have deserved– and do deserve– better science reporting than this.

2 thoughts on “

  1. The irony is that the absolute nature of space and time was an invention of the Caretesian age. The Thomist/Aristotelian approach held that space and time were the consequence of the existence of matter. Augustine wrote that "with the motion of creatures, time began" and even of the foolishness of asking about "before" creation, "as if there could be time before there was time." Aquinas similarly noted that "time is the measure of change in mutable creatures."

    James Chastek wrote about time and extension from an Aristotelian perspective some time back; but I don't recollect exactly when.

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