The Corner

Re: Einstein, Derb, and Four Spinning Balls

Peter: In answer to your questions, viz. “Assume Einstein was wrong, Derb.

How will that finding (a) Affect your view of the universe, and (b) Affect

your own life?”

(a) It’s not precisely a question of Einstein being wrong. The General

Theory of Relativity, on which all modern ideas about gravitation are based,

has been verified to a very high degree of precision. That makes it a

respectable and useful scientific theory. Think of Newton’s mechanics,

which was likewise verified to a very high degree of precision over 200

years. That was also a respectable and useful scientific theory. And in

fact it still is, notwithstanding the fact that Einstein showed that, at an

even HIGHER degree of precision, it fell apart. Over a wide range of

physical applications — oh, building a tree house, for example — Newtonian

mechanics works just fine. The last time you flew to visit your aunt in

Florida, you were flying on a plane designed and operated according to

Newtonian principles.

It’s just that, in more esoteric applications — designing Global

Positioning Systems, for instance, Newton isn’t quite good enough, and you

need the extra refinement of Einstein. Now, what the Gravity B experiment

will seek to discover is whether Einstein’s equations continue to hold true

at EVEN HIGHER degrees of precision. If they don’t, I guess you could say

that the experiment has “disproved” Einstein; but just as engineers are

stull designing planes on Newtonian principles 90 years after Einstein

“disproved” Newton, so the General Theory of Relativity will go on being a

darn good theory across a wide range of physics, even if Gravity B

“disproves” Einstein.

A scientific theory is “good” not by being infallibly, hermetically,

eternally true. It is “good” if it explains a good range of observable

phenomena, is not flatly contradicted by those phenomena it cannot explain,

and is fruitful in verifiable predictions. Newtonian mechanics is a very

good theory indeed, in spite of the fact that (for example) it cannot

explain the precession of Mercury’s orbit. I personally would vote it the

best scientific theory ever, even though we know it’s not true at high

levels of precision.

Gravitation, I should add, is still a considerable mystery. Isaac Asimov

was a bit optimistic back in the 1960s when he predicted that gravitation

would be to the late 20th century what radioactivity was to the late 19th,

electricity to the late 18th, and combustion to the late 17th: i.e. the

foremost generator of new scientific thinking, inventions, and applications.

It will likely be another century or so before we have a gravitation-based

technology.

(b) I might write a book about it.

It is not true by the way that Freud’s theories are unfalsifiable. As

Martin Gardner pointed out in his column in Skeptical Inquirer a few years

ago, not only is Freudianism falsifiable, it has actually been falsified!

(His reference is to Adolf Gruenbaum’s 1984 book The Foundations of

Psychoanalysis.)

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