Saturday, December 8, 2007

Prepare for a Long One

Reading Pharyngula the other day, I saw a short post in which PZ Myers pointed his readers to an article arguing against special relativity. I thought that might be right up my alley, so I bookmarked the link for future reading.

Today I see that Mark Chu-Carroll at Good Math, Bad Math has read the article and put up a review. I'm sad I didn't read it earlier because this article is just pure fun. I always highly recommend you read the original (or skim at the very least), but in this case I go over so much of it, you'd just be bored. In fact, my response is so long, you might want to grab a snack and a blanket before jumping in. This is going to be a long one and I want you to be comfortable.

Back now? Great. Prepare to dive into a Scrooge McDuck moneybin filled not with gold but with sloppy thinking. Right from the first paragraph we see that author Darrell Williams doesn't know how science works.

Many notable scientists such as the French mathematician, Henri Poincare rejected Einstein’s Theory of Relativity due to it’s lack of sound mathematical procedures, absence of clearness of vision or rigorous arguments.

Wow, Poincare rejected relativity? Really? Hot dog, I guess it must be bunk! Seriously, though, arguments from authority don't mean anything when placed against evidence. Relativity works. It makes predictions that are confirmed. Those predictions are better than other models. Oh, but wait, Darrell doesn't understand models either.

MATHEMATICAL MODELS are abstract, idealized, imaginary models which contain characteristics and assumptions which cannot exist in reality (such as points, lines, triangles, spheres, etc.) These models can be purely logical, purely mathematical, geometric, kinematic, dynamic or electromagnetic. All of these models are based on the LAWS OF MATHEMATICS (symbols, equations, formulas etc.) which only approximate the physical LAWS OF NATURE. These mathematical models produce deductive conclusions which only apply to the idealized mathematical models.

PHYSICAL MODELS are real models composed of physical objects which are used in empirical experiments. By repeating identical (as far as possible) testing with these models, inductive conclusions can be made. These inductive conclusions, because they are the results of physical experiments, are the fundamental method used by science in an attempt to understand the LAWS OF NATURE. Knowledge about the real Universe must come from physics and not from mathematics. Experience has always been the primary guide in human reasoning concerning physical facts.

METAPHYSICAL MODELS are sophistic models which contain both mathematical characteristics and physical characteristics. These are mingled or mixed models. Neither mathematical deductions nor physical inductive conclusions can be produced from these models because they cannot exist in reality. These are pseudoscience models which result from “thought experiments”. These are purely imaginary mental creations. Any conclusions whatsoever that these models produce are completely irrelevant to anything. They cannot produce any valid understanding of reality. A sophist is someone who deceives people based on clever-sounding, but flawed arguments or explanations. However, these fallacious theories do produce popular imaginary science fiction tales about time travel (Back to the Future, motion picture) and spaceships that travel at the speed of light (Star Trek, motion picture).

The distinctions Darrell makes among MATHEMATICAL MODELS, PHYSICAL MODELS, and METAPHYSICAL MODELS are arbitrary and made up. Nothing about what he says is supported in either the philosophy or practice of science. In fact, he's making claims about how science works in a sweeping intellectual sense when he obviously doesn't have a clue how science works in even the most basic, everyday sense.

Physical models are mathematical models. Math is not restricted to an mystical realm of lines and points moving around Euclidean planes. Math is simply a consistent set of rules and definitions. We can apply them to our universe because our universe is also consistent. If reality were not consistent, we could, for instance, have four dollars suddenly becoming fifty dollars; as awesome as that would be, we wouldn't be able to use math in that universe. We do live in a consistent universe, so we can use math as a tool to describe it. Even saying "I have four dollars" is using math.

Typically, when we make physical models, we abstract physical objects into mathematical objects. We can then use the preexisting knowledge of the math to derive greater understanding of the original system. Sometimes the approximations you have to do are good, sometimes they're bad. But we wouldn't be able to understand anything at all without math. To quote Blake Stacey from a comment on the Mark CC article,
When you're driving along the highway and you say, "I can get another hundred miles on this tank of gas," you're using a mathematical model. From the angular position of the gas-gauge needle, you judge how much fuel is remaining in the tank, and based on the assumption that you consume fuel at a fairly constant rate (so-and-so many miles per gallon), you judge how far you can go without stopping to fill 'er up.

So, we've established that insights into math inform our scientific intuition and understanding (the reverse is sometimes true, such as the development of calculus or the Dirac delta function, but often the math comes first). Sadly, Darrell doesn't agree.

False conclusions may be produced by applying the deductive conclusions from the math models to the physical models. This cannot be done legitimately because the two models are intrinsically different. Any analogous comparison between any two models can only suggest possible or speculative outcomes. Only by testing physical models can similar outcomes be verified. Analogous conclusions cannot be assumed.

He's right, if you take out the word "similar," when he says "Only by testing physical models can similar outcomes be verified." But the testing is done with math. First, a mathematical model is constructed to fit observations we have made. Then we make predictions by extending the math to areas about which we haven't made actual observations. We then test the real model and make those new observations. If the prediction is verified, and this process is repeated many times in different ways, we consider the model a good model. Absolutely none of that happens without both math and real-world data.

Let's shift now to Darrell's real point. He starts out attacking models in general, but he's got a special one in mind. He wants to go hunting for the big bad boogey-man of special relativity! Scary, I know.

Prepare for rapid-fire quotes and responses.

In Relativity, there are no rigorous mathematical models.
Wha? This is just nonsensical. Relativity is a mathematical model, so how are there none within relativity? In analogy: in Oak there are no deciduous trees.

[In relativity] there are no relevant physical models which can be tested experimentally. (Real trains don’t travel at the speed of light and apparently no one has yet created a Time Machine, like H. G. Wells imagined).
Straw man. Relativity is perfectly capable of being tested at all speeds. It's just that the slower the speed, the higher the precision we need to test it. Plus, particle accelerators routinely shoot particles around at approximately the speed of light, and relativity is indispensible to their calculations.

In Relativity, all conclusions are derived strictly from imaginary metaphysical models.
Wrong. In relativity, just like in all science, evidence wins the day.

Einstein did not conduct any physical experiments.
Einstein was a theorist. He worked with models and predictions. He used data from other people in creating his model, and left predictions for still others to test. Science is collaborative; one person doesn't have to do everything.

(Fallacies are the most common form of human deception. There are over 174 different ways to create a fallacy).
...and 258 ways to make up a number.

Einstein’s methodology was almost totally based on analogy abuse, metaphors, allegories, unjustified assumptions and metaphysical models.
Perhaps in his public speaking Einstein relied on analogies and metaphors to convey his ideas to nonexperts. However, in his science writing, Einstein was as precise as a person can be. Don't confuse the popular distillation of the subject for the actual subject. And what assumptions were unjustified, pray tell?

The Michaelson-Morley experiment in 1881 was conducted in an attempt to prove [luminiferous ether]’s existence. This experiment failed to detect anything. From these results, Einstein drew a false conclusion. He interpreted the results as proof that there was no privileged frame of reference for the entire Universe. Upon this assumption he constructed the Theory of Special Relativity.
I don't know where Darrell got his history, but this is all wrong. I could go on for pages just about these few sentences, but instead I refer you to the wikipedia article on the history of special relativity. (Interestingly, I read there that Poincare had done most of the work before 1905, and Einstein didn't cite that literature. I don't think that would fly today.)

However, the Big Bang theory implies that there is a fixed (Central) frame of reference in the Universe. This fixed frame of reference for all (Absolute) motion is the physical location of the Big Bang. It is the location from which all universal expansion began.
No. This is wrong. There is no location at which the big bang happened, because there was no space before the big bang. It wasn't anywhere because that concept had no meaning prior to this event. Or, looking at it from our perspective, the big bang happened everywhere. It's hard to visualize, but it's true. There is no center. In every location in the universe you could look out and see stars arrayed around you, apparently evenly distributed. And you'd be right.

It is from this location alone that the constant speed of light can be defined (or any motion of any object).
He really does like the ether, doesn't he? The speed of light is constant with respect to everything. And the motion of objects is defined relative to other objects. That's sort of the point of relativity.

Astronomers have measured the movements of the stars in our Milky Way galaxy in order to approximate the center of the galaxy. Even for our local galaxy, this method only produces an approximate location. This is difficult to do with the billions of galaxies for the entire Universe, but this is the only way to hypothetically predict the center of the Universe.
Well, no, you can't even hypothetically predict the center of the universe that way. We can't see the entire universe, we can only see objects that are at maximum 13.6 billion light years away. But even just looking at the objects we can see, if we were to do this, where do you think the center would be? I'd say odds are it'd be here! And if you were to get into a rocket and perform the same experiment somewhere else in the universe, you'd also see that location as being the center. For a cool pictoral analogy, see here.

Einstein’s observation that the speed of light is constant was probably correct, but without a fixed frame of reference, there is nothing for it to be constant in relation to.
Nothing? I believe the word you're looking for is "everything."

The classical methods of the addition and subtraction of velocities of moving objects was based on inductive conclusions of repeated empirical experiments. These general mathematical laws are only approximations but they also agree with so-called common sense. When the Special Theory was adopted, these inductive conclusions and common sense ideas should not have been so hastily abandoned.
Aww, somebody call the waambulence. Relativity doesn't follow Darrell's common sense, so it must be wrong.
Common sense is of course not always correct...
Damn! Ad hominem foiled again!
...but it is a judgment based on physical experience which should not be discarded without verifiable physical demonstrations. It should not be abandoned solely based on metaphysical models.
Oh, great! Darrell does believe in relativity! It is, after all, heavily supported by actual data. Even everyday experience: if you've ever used a GPS device, you've benefited from relativity. Without relativistic corrections, they wouldn't have the accuracy they do.

I think this is a great place to stop. Darrell managed to convince himself that relativity is correct because it has "verifiable physical demonstrations." Or, at least, he would be thoroughly convinced if he stopped trying to disprove Einstein long enough to read a textbook or ask a damned question.

Oh, what the hell, one last juicy tidbit. I'll let you bask in the glory that is Darrell's concept of science. Quick synopsis: Darrell thinks time is defined by his watch.
Einstein never defined real time, he only discussed mathematical time. Mathematical or isochronal time is an idealistic abstraction in which units, such as minutes, are equal. In reality, no clock can exist which has these characteristics. Also no two clocks can exist which are identical. Any real clock will always either run slower or faster than another clock. In fact, one clock does not even measure identical units itself because like all matter it is continuously changing it‘s molecular structure or aging. (The moving mechanisms of any clock are constantly changing physically.) Einstein’s discussion of both equal units of time and isochronal clocks was totally mathematical and not physical. (Remember, that mathematical deductions cannot be applied to physical objects because the systems are intrinsically different).

7 comments:

Ben said...

You had me almost in tears with your ad hominem line. Seriously though...what is he thinking? It's such an argument from personal ignorance (guess which two logical fallacies I combined) it's kind of sad.

Moose said...

GPS people say they use relativity but in fact they don't. There is a movie coming out on Einstein Wrong and the original funder is a GPS guy with over 10 patents and is respected world-wide. He is one of the few people who admit Einstein's equations are not used for GPS. It is a public relations problem where companies don't want to say this because it spells disaster in the market place. Some physicists are saying special realtivity will be dead within 10-20 years. I'm amazed that this is a "skeptics" group and you have not studied the work done by dissidents who know Einstein to be wrong. http://www.einsteinwrong.com

Flavin said...

Well, part of the reason this is a skeptical organization is that we demand evidence for claims. You present a few claims here, namely that 1.a. GPS does not use relativistic corrections, 1.b. the companies that sell GPS devices know this and cover it up for business reasons, 2. physicists claim that "special realtivity (sic) will be dead within 10-20 years."

I would love to see sources for these claims, if you have them, especially specific names for the people you mention. For instance, who is this person "with over 10 patents [who] is respected world-wide" and what evidence does he present to back up his claims? Which physicists are saying "realtivity will be dead within 10-20 years"? Certainly none I know.

Here's a little reading, if you're interested, on the experimental basis of special relativity (1 and 2), and also how GPS relates to relativity (1 and 2). Plenty more information is available with just a google search.

I have heard of the Einstein Wrong: The Miracle Year, but I'm not expecting it to be worth much. The director, David de Hilster, is a supporter of the special-relativity-denying theory of autodynamics. He is an ideologue, so trusting his scientific standpoint is not advised.

woodstock said...

What about the book he mentioned there:

Einstein's Clocks, Poincare's Maps: Empires of Time

Do you have any opinions or reviews on that?

Flavin said...

I'd actually not heard of it until reading this article, so I don't have any opinions on it.

But I have a break coming up (tantalizingly soon), so maybe I'll read this book when I have some discretionary time.

Flavin said...

The book is currently out of the library and not due until mid-January. I put a request in for it, so I'll get it eventually, but don't expect a review soon. Sorry.

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