Theory (The Scientist, Vol:9, #10, pg 3, May 15, 1995)
In Norman, Okla., this month, about two dozen speakers will gather to challenge dominant paradigms of modern theoretical physics and to discuss alternatives. At the annual meeting of the Southwestern and Rocky Mountain Division (SWARM) of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) on May 22-24, these self-styled dissidents are planning to renew their attack on the special theory of relativity and big-bang cosmology. This is not the first time the group has met in a AAAS forum; one year ago, at a meeting of AAAS's Pacific Division in San Francisco, many of the same dissidents had participated in several days of sessions challenging these bulwarks of modern physics.
Critics of conventional physics include consultants, engineers, mathematicians, historians of science, and an encyclopedia salesman--but few physicists. They claim that they cannot publish their ideas in mainstream journals and that the bias against them is so extreme that, in essence, one cannot become a physicist if one criticizes the special theory of relativity. Indeed, the one exception to the rule- -a physics professor at the University of Connecticut--did not reveal his skepticism of Albert Einstein's theory until after he had tenure.
John Chappell, an unemployed historian of science who says he cannot get an academic job because of his views, has emerged as spokesman for the dissidents, who have adopted the name Natural Philosophy Alliance. Speaking of the mainstream, he comments: "They don't know our objections because they don't listen. They don't come to our meetings, they don't read our journals. When they reject our papers, they don't even bother to review them."
Special relativity is Einstein's 1905 theory that revolutionized notions of space and time. The theory says that the speed of light is constant, but that space and time are relative. According to the big-bang theory, the universe has been expanding for some 10 billion to 20 billion years since it began with an "explosion."
The dissidents, by and large, champion a theory of light popular before Einstein, which has its roots in Newtonian mechanics. In a Newtonian paradigm, the speed of light can vary, depending on the motion of the observer relative to the light. Most of the dissidents argue for the existence of an aether--a medium within which light waves propagate, just as water waves move in water. Physicists say the aether was disproved by the Michelson-Morley experiment a century ago, which did not detect any difference in travel time--as it should have if there is an aether--for two beams of light traveling perpendicular but equidistant paths. Many dissidents also argue for a steady-state universe as opposed to an expanding one.
For as long as there has been a special theory, there have been detractors. But they have not been organized, and Chappell says that no major science organization has allowed them symposia to challenge special relativity--until AAAS's SWARM Division this month. He points to the San Francisco meeting a year ago as an important first step in winning respectability for the dissidents and forcing mainstream physicists to pay attention to them.
"San Francisco was to prove we could do it: We could get together and AAAS would allow us to be on the program," he comments. But because the San Francisco meeting consisted of contributed papers of uniform 20-minute length, with little discussion time, Chappell expects the Norman meeting to be more productive. For one, the dissidents are a featured part of the program, sponsoring six of the 10 symposia. The symposium format allows more flexibility in paper lengths and more time for discussion.
At neither divisional meeting did physicists referee the papers of the dissident group. According to Chappell, Michelle Aldrich, the liaison to the Pacific Division from AAAS's national office and also the chairwoman of its General and Interdisciplinary Sciences Section, promised him no physicist would review the contributed papers for the San Francisco meeting. Aldrich says, "Physicists would have rejected the papers out of hand." She adds that review by physicists was not necessary, since "it wasn't a physics session, but a history of science and interdisciplinary science session.''
AAAS Southwestern and Rocky Mountain Division executive director Donald Nash, a geneticist at Colorado State University, says he "chatted informally with other physicists" about the dissidents' plans for the SWARM meeting. They told him, he recalls, that it would not hurt for the group to be heard, despite being out of the mainstream. "In the long run," Nash maintains, "bad science tends not to win out."
For the most part, mainstream physicists have been unaware of the criticism directed their way at these AAAS divisional meetings. For one, divisional meetings are heavily biological, with little participation by physical scientists typically. Urged by Pacific Division officers to balance the sessions with a response from the mainstream, Chappell sent invitations to many university physics departments. He was ignored.
Clifford Will, a specialist in relativity at Washington University in St. Louis, agrees with Chappell on at least one point: The dissidents cannot publish in mainstream journals. "They are not in mainstream journals [because] they are wrong," he declares.
"Special relativity has been confirmed by experiment so many times that it borders on crackpot to say there is something wrong with it. Experiments have been done to test special relativity explicitly. The world's particle accelerators would not work if special relativity wasn't in effect. The global positioning system"--which uses satellites to help determine the exact location on Earth of anything possessing a special transmitter--"would not work if special relativity didn't work the way we thought it did."
Will, asserts Chappell, is "way off base. The global positioning system provides evidence against special relativity and for the existence of an aether."
At the Pacific Division meeting, Chappell managed to attract two mainstream physicists to serve as discussants. One, Lewis Epstein, a retired physicist with a background in the United States space program and academia, has observed the dissidents for many years. He wrote a popular book, Relativity Visualized (San Francisco, Insight Press, 1981), which he notes was motivated in part to get through to the sort of sophisticated, interested person that many of the dissidents are.
"There are fools mixed in," Epstein says of the dissidents, "but by and large, they are not fools. They can make arguments against relativity . . . [that] can tie up a typical college physics teacher in knots."
Epstein emphasizes that the dissidents do not uniformly support a single theory to replace special relativity. "They all have different theories, and some have two or three. It takes quite an effort to argue them all down," he says. "You argue them down and they'll be back a week later with another theory. It reminds me of the dragon--when you lop off its head, it grows new ones.
"The mainstream won't pay attention to them because it takes a lot of effort to lop off a head of this dragon. [Mainstream physicists] don't have the time. There's no reward in it."
Despite his criticisms, Epstein has a certain respect for many of the dissidents. They "have their heart in the right place," he says, "in some ways more than a typical college professor. These people are generally in love with physics. Their heart has led them astray."
Very few dissidents hold university positions, and most of those that do are in fields other than physics. Domina Spencer, one prominent dissident, is a mathematician at the University of Connecticut. Howard Hayden, also at Connecticut, may be the only tenured physicist among the dissidents. Hayden attended the San Francisco meeting but found it not very useful. "I was happy to make the acquaintance of two or three people," he says, "but the majority of talks were off the wall."
Hayden--who, like most of the dissidents, feels that special relativity has not been properly tested--nevertheless dismisses many of his fellow dissenters as "just rebels against authority."
Chappell says Hayden "is only a partial critic of special relativity and doesn't appreciate all the criticisms [of special relativity]. He doesn't appreciate the philosophical arguments," for example.
In interviews, Chappell seems very attuned to slights from mainstream physics and determined to improve the visibility of the dissidents. His immediate goal is to get on the program of the national AAAS meeting. "We have a reasonable hope to have it known that there is a respectable opposition, that we're not all cranks," he says.
Ultimately, he maintains, the dissidents would like to "reform science and move it ahead. Huge mistakes have been made; physicists are just not talking about the physical world." In Chappell's view, special relativity has nothing to do with the various applications supposed to confirm it, such as the atom bomb or the global positioning system.
Relativist Will doesn't quarrel with the dissidents' presenting their views in contributed paper sessions at AAAS, as they also can at national meetings of the American Physical Society, if they are members. But he expresses doubts about allowing them a symposium that "gives them a stamp of credibility that simply doesn't exist."
Several mainstream physicists interviewed by The Scientist, including some friendly with individual dissidents, comment that there is little of substance to the dissidents' criticisms. Aldrich, Nash, and other nonphysicists involved with the AAAS meetings apparently think that the dissidents are operating at the fringes of physics, where ideas might be unpopular but worth hearing. As Aldrich puts it: "It is interesting to see who goes [to their sessions]. Often it is graduate students, who want to see what is happening at the margins." The physics community, meanwhile, locates the dissidents not at the fringes--but light years away.
Billy Goodman, a freelance science writer based in Montclair, N.J., is online at firstname.lastname@example.org.