Has Einstein failed physics?

The £3.6bn Large Hadron Collider is one of world's most advanced scientific experiments, built to smash protons together at huge speeds, recreating conditions moments after the Big Bang. Unfortunately it doesn't work. Now a new paper by a North East academic presents the intriguing possibility that the Large Hadron Collider didn't work not because of mechanical failure, but because basic theories of physics may be wrong.

Dr Peter Hayes says: "Theoretical physicists have been barking up the wrong tree for the last hundred years - because Albert Einstein's theory of relativity is inconsistent.

"Over the years many people have pointed out that there are logical flaws in the theory. Back in the 1960s Professor Herbert Dingle warned that large scale experiments drawing on relativity theory might end by destroying the world. Perhaps we are lucky that the Large Hadron Collider merely broke down!"

Dr Peter Hayes is senior lecturer in politics at the University of Sunderland. In his latest paper ‘The Ideology of Relativity' Dr Hayes argues that Albert Einstein's theory of relativity - perhaps the most famous scientific theory in history - should be viewed as an ideology, not as a science. He argues that its impact on popular culture and science has been so influential precisely because as a scientific theory it doesn't actually make sense.

Dr Hayes says: "Einstein's theory of relativity contained elementary inconsistencies, but in 1919 when the theory became popularly known, the world had come through a terrible war followed by a flu pandemic. Einstein's ideas were the tonic they needed. In the rush to celebrate them few people stopped to question the obvious logical flaws in the theory.

"Some of Einstein's early critics held extreme right-wing and anti-Semitic views, and this has tended to discredit their technical objections to relativity as being scientifically shallow. This paper investigates an alternative possibility: that the critics were right and that the success of Einstein's theory in overcoming them was due to its strengths as an ideology rather than as a science."

A famous flaw in Einstein's theory is the Clock Paradox. This states that if one clock travels in a spaceship, while the other stays on earth, when the clock in the spaceship returns it will show that less time has elapsed than the clock on earth. This prediction violates Einstein's own ‘principle of relativity', which states that if you are on the spaceship it should be the clock back on earth that slows down. This is a criticism that science has never been able to satisfactorily resolve.

Dr Hayes explains: "The Clock Paradox illustrates how relativity theory does indeed contain inconsistencies that make it scientifically problematic.

"These inconsistencies, however, make the theory ideologically powerful.

"Precisely because Einstein's theory is inconsistent, its supporters have drawn on contradictory principles in a way that greatly expanded their apparent ability to explain the universe.

"Most crazes die out when it becomes obvious that they were overblown. The amazing thing about Einstein's theory of relativity is that it has kept going. It is built on contradictions, but these very contradictions means that almost anything ‘proves' that it is right. It is a bit like a theory where you say 1 + 1 = 2, but also that 1+ 1 = 3."

But Dr Hayes does not believe that describing relativity theory as an ideology, rather than a science, is the same as saying that the theory is worthless.

"Marxism is an ideology, not a science, but Karl Marx still gives valuable insights into the workings of capitalism. Once relativity theory is understood for what it is, an ideology, we can better understand where Einstein's theory of relativity can offer insights for science, and where it can't.

"The triumph of relativity theory represents the triumph of ideology not only in the profession of physics but also in the philosophy of science."

"The Ideology of Relativity: The Case of the Clock Paradox," appeared in Social Epistemology, January 2009.

Full bibliographic information

Social Epistemology, January 2009
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  • Dr Peter Hayes scrutinises Albert Einstein’s legacy

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