Teschler on Topic
Leland Teschler • Executive Editor
On Twitter @ DW_LeeTeschler
You can say one thing for groups that believe in theories such as global warming denial or 9-11-01 conspiracies: Scientific experiments and other evidence that disprove their ideas generally don’t slow them down much. They often beseech non-believers to “keep an open mind” about their claims, but their definition of an open mind seems to entail clinging to ever-more unlikely scenarios in the face of a mountain of evidence proving otherwise.
Surprisingly, climate scientists and NIST investigators on the 9-11 commission aren’t the first researchers to be harassed by fringe groups. In 1931, a digest-sized booklet appeared in Germany with a title that translates as Hundred Authors against Einstein. It identifies 121 authors who opposed Einstein’s theory of special relativity and contains contributions from 28 of them.
Apparently the booklet didn’t get much traction even in Germany. One reason: Most of the material was difficult to read even in its native German, according to University of Texas at Arlington professor of physics Manfred Cuntz. Cuntz recently translated some of the text into English. Similarly, he says getting the entire 104-page publication into English would be super tough.
Students of scientific history might wonder why the booklet only appeared in 1931, a decade after Einstein earned the Nobel prize for his work and 25 years after he proposed special relativity. And by then, experiments well-known among physicists at the time seemed to have confirmed Einstein’s theories.
Cuntz speculates that the motivation for publication was at least in part political. Einstein was Jewish, and the Nazis started controlling the German government and society when it was published. Moreover, Cuntz thinks the publication was assembled from previously presented material. Some contributions, he notes, are only a paragraph long and seem to have been pulled from larger works.
Analyzing the booklet’s content, Cuntz says some of the arguments amount to claims that Einstein was wrong because his work disputed what people believed to know to be valid. “Einstein’s findings about velocities near the speed of light contradict observations you make in daily life,” Cuntz explains. “That might be a fair criticism, but the authors didn’t thoroughly apply the scientific method, so they missed mistakes in their own arguments.”
A few of the authors cited concepts that had been disproven at the time of the booklet’s publication. Among them was the idea that light propagates by means of an ether and that there is an absolute frame of reference for relative motions. One author also ignored the fact that Einstein’s work explained perturbations in the perihelion of Mercury that previously had been a mystery.
Einstein tended to blow off these sorts of attacks. He’s quoted as saying, “It would not have required one hundred authors to prove me wrong; one would have been enough.” But in this age of social media, we can imagine how a publication like Hundred Authors against Einstein might show up on conspiracy theory websites no matter how many times it was debunked.
In that regard, Einstein was probably lucky the internet didn’t exist in his lifetime. Otherwise, he might have spent his final years engaged in exasperating interactions with relativity deniers rather than looking for a unified field theory. DW