Friday, August 25, 2006
Evolution, HIV, Holocaust, and ... Einstein Denial
Now I've seen everything. Apparently Albert Einstein did not develop the Theory of Relativity, but was in fact an "incorrigible" plagiarist who stole his ideas from every prominent scientist of the time. Needless to say, this seemed like an outrageous and unsubstantiated claim. However, this guy Christopher Jon Bjerknes published a book in 2002 detailing Einstein's supposed malfeasance.
Well, check out Mr. Bjerknes' entry on Wikipedia. Not much more info about his theory, other than the fact that he got into a flame war with another science historian, John Stachel, over his controversial thesis (not surprising). Then we find this little tibit:
Bjerknes and Winterberg have spoken up to defend some highly controversial figures, including David Irving and Arthur Rudolph. Despite being lionized in some articles at the White Nationalist Wiki, Bjerknes disavows any antisemitic motivation for his attacks on Einstein. Bjerknes has written himself on the Holocaust for the Holocaust denial "Committee for Open Debate on the Holocaust", claiming that "Racist Zionists" perpetuated the anti-Semitism of the Holocaust, as well as having later used the history of anti-Semitism as "a means to control public opinion in a most corrupt and deplorable fashion". He also claims that "Jewish racists helped to put Hitler into power in order to herd up the Jews of Europe and force them into segregation", that "Jewish racists collaborated with the Nazis to kill off the weakest Jews and preserve the best genetic stock for deportation to Palestine", and that, contrary to mainstream historical opinion, that the Nazis did not plot genocide at the Wannsee Conference.Hmmm... blaming the Jews, ... er, "Racist Zionists," for the Holocaust in some sort of elaborate conspiracy theory and defending the views of Holocaust deniers does a lot to impeach this guy's credibility in my estimation. Sort of seems like this Einstein-denial thing is just a specific manifestation of his general anti-Semitism. Still, I'd be employing the ad hominem logical falacy if I dismissed his arguments solely on the basis of his apparent anti-semitism.
So we turn to reliable source Cecil Adams of The Straight Dope to deliver a balanced view of the subject:
So, it seems there was nothing particularly sinister about Einstein after all (other than that he was left-handed, like me; look up the original meaning of sinister). If you go and John Stachel's critique of Bjerknes' book, you'll also find that Bjerknes employs tactics and arguments that have uncanny parallels to creationist propaganda, such as quote mining, and presenting self-contradictory, inconsistent criticisms.
Questions of priority have long swirled around the theories of relativity, both special and general. Though no one thinks Einstein confected special relativity out of thin air, his 1905 paper had no notes or references, which was odd even for the times. In fact, as Einstein's critics long ago demonstrated, virtually all the better-known elements of the theory--most famously, the equivalence of matter and energy (E = mc²)--had previously been suggested by others. Two men in particular, French mathematician Henri Poincare and Dutch physicist Hendrik Lorentz, are credited with anticipating many of Einstein's discoveries.
Some latter-day writers have seized on these observations as proof that Einstein was a fraud, notably Christopher Jon Bjerknes, author of Albert Einstein: The Incorrigible Plagiarist (2002). The gist of his argument: (a) Einstein got many of his ideas from his first wife, Mileva Maric; (b) Maric herself plagiarized her ideas from others; and (c) the theory is a crock anyway. Clearly, some aspects of Bjerknes's attack operate at cross-purposes--if relativity is fatally flawed, who cares if it was pirated? More importantly, though he seems to have unearthed every remark ever penned that could conceivably be construed as undercutting Einstein's contribution, he never manages to demonstrate that Einstein ventured over the line between building on other people's work and stealing it.
Still, you ask, given that Big Al was just one of a bunch of scientists sniffing around the same turf at the same time, why did the Smartest Person Ever trophy go to him and not one of his contemporaries? Poincare, for instance, gave a prescient lecture in 1904 (Einstein doesn't seem to have been aware of it) that posited many aspects of special relativity, among them the idea that the speed of light was an impassable limit. So illuminatingly did he dilate on the issues that one historian of science professes bafflement that Poincare failed to invent the theory of special relativity himself. But he didn't. His comments make it clear he was still wedded to classical physics, with its comforting notion of space and time as unchanging verities. Einstein alone was able to make the conceptual leap and realize that space and time were about as immutable as Silly Putty, paving the way for our modern view of the cosmos as a profoundly strange place.
While one doesn't want to deprecate Einstein's intellectual boldness, the fact remains that he put together a puzzle all the pieces of which were then in plain sight. He himself conceded that had he not invented the theory someone else would soon have done so. (He thought the theory of general relativity, which he completed in 1915, was a more impressive achievement--although even there, controversy still rages about who first deduced the crucial equations, Einstein or German mathematician David Hilbert.) This is not to say that Einstein was unworthy of the esteem in which he continues to be held--merely that, like every other physicist who ever lived, he stood on the shoulders of giants.
Seth, if you're reading, you might want to add Einstein-denial to your list of crazy belief pathologies.
By the way, if you're wondering how I stumbled onto this little gem, I was looking for a particular science fiction story written by H.G. Wells (no, not The Time Machine), and I did a google search for "H G Wells higher dimensions." Bjerknes' website was the 5th result. However, after this diversion, I did find the story I was looking for eventually. I was looking for the Wells story becuase it was mentioned in a few comments I read on The Panda's Thumb in the Design Challenge thread. Talk about your unexpected detours!
Seriously, I like this theory, but I'm not sure it fits in the HIV/Holocaust/AIDS set. Does the author claim that relativity itself is not a valid theory?
Apparently, it does not bother Bjerknes that the various opponents of the special and general theories that he cites attack relativity from mutually contradictory viewpoints. Nor does he seem to realize the incongruity of endorsing claims that Einstein's theories are wrong as well as claims that they were plagiarized from valid sources! The culmination of Bjerknes's uncritical piling of name upon name is found on pages 231-233, which constitute two full pages of names, ranging from the famous - like Gauss and John Locke - to unknowns like Pavannini and Caldonazzi, all of whom are cited as having made unnamed (but referenced) "contributions toward the general theory of relativity".
And according to Stachel, Relativity-denial has a long history:
The book is of interest as the latest manifestation of an undercurrent of hostility towards Einstein that has run for almost 90 years, surfacing from time to time. Since the inception of the theories of relativity - both special and general - Einstein and his work have been attacked on the basis of numerous physical and philosophical misunderstandings and/or prejudices, quite often tinged with various versions of anti-Semitism.
Relativity has been attacked in the name of US pragmatism, German idealism, English Hegelianism, French Bergsonianism (by fellow Jew Henri Bergson!), Soviet "diamat" (dialectical materialism) and Nazi "Deutsche Physik" (German physics), to name but a few of the high-minded (and not so high-minded) points of the compass from which such attacks have originated over the years.
I wouldn't be surprised that you could find Relativity-deniers on the Web somewhere who try draw a line from Einstein to postmodernism and moral relativism the same way creationists try to draw a line from Darwin to Hitler.
After googling "theory relativity wrong" here's a link to an online book supposedly refuting Einstein's theories. And here's another link to a site that claims that not only was Einstein completely wrong, but Newton as well.
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