Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Newton and Einstein: fundamental problems at the heart of science

As previously discussed, Arthur C. Clarke's First Law is as follows: "When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong." Now there have been many examples of prominent scientists who have been proved wrong but don't want to lose their pet idea - think astronomer Fred Hoyle and the Steady State Theory - or bizarrely negated their own hypothesis, such as natural selection's co-discoverer Alfred Russel Wallace and his supernatural explanation of the human mind.

But although with hindsight we can easily mock when pioneers have failed to capitalise on a theory that later proves canonical (assuming any theory except the second law of thermodynamics can ever be said to be the final word in the matter) there are some scientists who have followed profoundly unorthodox paths of thought. In fact, I would go so far as to as say that certain famous figures would find it almost impossible to maintain positions in major research institutes today. This might not matter if these were run-of-the-mill scientists, but I'm talking about two of the key notables of the discipline: Sir Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein.

The public perception of scientists has changed markedly over the past half century, from rational authority figures, via power-mad destroyers, to the uncertainties of today, when the often farcical arguments surrounding climate change have further undermined faith in scientific 'truth'. But the recognition of Newton and Einstein's achievements has never wavered, making them unassailable figures in the history of science. Indeed, if there were ever to be two undisputed champions of physics, or even for all of science - as chosen by contemporary scientists, let alone the public - this contrasting pair is likely to the among the most popular. Yet underneath their profound curiosity and dogged search for truth there are fundamental elements to their personal research that make the offbeat ideas of Wallace, Hoyle & co. appear mildly idiosyncratic.

1) Sir Isaac Newton
While some historians have tried to pass off Newton's non-scientific work as typical of his age, his writings on alchemy, eschatology and the general occult are at least as numerable as those on physics. Some of the more recent examinations of his work have suggested that without these pseudo-scientific studies, Newton would not have gained the mind-set required to generate the scientific corpus he is renowned for. Although he claimed to have no need for hypotheses or 'occult qualities', preferring to examine natural phenomena in order to gain understanding, much of Newton's surviving notes suggest the very opposite. Whether he was using numerology to research the date of the end of the world, or alchemy to search for the Philosopher's Stone, the real Newton was clearly a many-faceted man. This led economist (and owner of some of Newton's papers) John Maynard Keynes to label him "the last of the magicians". Indeed, key aspects of Newton's personality appear entirely in tune with pseudo-science.

It is well known that Newton was a secretive man, given to hiding his discoveries for decades and not wanting to share his theories. Part of this was due to his wish to avoid having to waste time with the less intelligent (i.e. just about everybody else) and partly to his fear of plagiarism, frequently experiencing conflicts with contemporary natural philosophers. To some extent this unwillingness to publish only exacerbated the issue, such as when Leibniz published his version of calculus some years after Newton had completed his unpublicised 'fluxions'.

Today, establishing scientific priority relies upon prompt publication, but Newton's modus operandi was much closer to the technique of the alchemist. Far from being a non-systematic forerunner of chemistry, alchemy was a subjective discipline, couched in metaphor and the lost wisdom of 'ancient' sages (who, after Newton's time, were frequently discovered to be early Medieval or Ptolemaic Egyptian frauds). The purity of the practitioner was deemed fundamental to success and various pseudoscientific 'influences' could prevent repeatability of results.

In addition, such knowledge as could be discovered was only to be shared between a few chosen adepts, not disseminated to a wide audience for further examination and discussion. In personality then, Newton was far more like the pre-Enlightenment alchemist than many of his contemporaries. He believed in a sense of his own destiny: that he had been chosen by God to undertake the sacred duty of decoding now-hidden patterns in the universe and history. When Descartes postulated a 'clockwork universe', Newton opposed it on the grounds that it had no place for a constantly intervening deity. And surprising as it may seem, in that respect he had a lot in common with Einstein.

2) Albert Einstein
Einstein was in many ways a much more down-to-earth (and fully rounded human being) than Newton. Whereas the latter frequently neglected such basic human activities as food and sleep, Einstein indulged in pipe tobacco and playing the violin (shades of Sherlock Holmes, indeed!) However, he was just as much a determined thinker when it came to solving fundamental riddles of nature. A good anecdote, possibly true, tells of how whilst searching for a makeshift tool to straighten a bent paperclip, Einstein came across a box of new paperclips. Yet rather than use one of the new ones per se, he shaped it into the tool required to fix the original paperclip. When questioned, he replied that once had started a task it was difficult for him to curtail it.

But one of the oft-quoted phrases surrounding him is that Einstein would have been better off spending his last two or three decades fishing, rather than pursuing a unified field theory. The reason for this is that despite being a pioneer in the quantum theory of light, he could not accept some of the concepts of quantum mechanics, in particular that it was a fundamental theory based on probability rather than simply a starting point for some underlying aspect of nature as yet unknown.

Even today there are only interpretations of quantum mechanics, not a completely known explanation of what is occurring. However, Einstein considered these as more akin to philosophy rather than science and that following for example the Copenhagen interpretation prevented deeper thought into the true reality. Unfortunately, the majority of physicists got on the quantum mechanics bandwagon, leaving Einstein and a few colleagues to try to find holes in such strange predictions as entanglement, known by Einstein under the unflattering term of "spooky action at a distance".

Although it was only some decades after his death that such phenomena were experimentally proven, Einstein insisted that the non-common sense aspects of quantum mechanics only showed their incompleteness. So what lay at the heart of his fundamental objections to the theory? After all, his creative brilliance had shown itself in his discovery of the mechanism behind Newtonian gravitation, no mean feat for so bizarre a theory. But his glorious originality came at a price: as with many other scientists and natural philosophers, from Johannes Kepler via Newton to James Clerk Maxwell, Einstein sought answers that were aesthetically pleasing. In effect, the desire for truth was driven by a search for beautiful patterns. Like Newton, there is the concept of wanting to understand the mind of God, regardless of how different the two men's concept of a deity was (in Einstein's case, looking for the secrets of the 'old one').

By believing that at the heart of reality there is a beautiful truth, did Einstein hamper his ability to come to terms with such ugly and unsatisfying concepts as the statistical nature of the sub-atomic world? In this respect he seems old-fashioned, even quaint, by the exacting standards required - at least theoretically - in contemporary research institutes. Critical thinking unhampered by aesthetic considerations has long been shown a myth when it comes to scientific insights, but did Einstein take the latter too far in his inability to accept the most important physics developed during the second half of his life? In some respects, his work after the mid-1920s is seemingly as anachronistic as Newton's pseudo-scientific interests.

As a result of even these minimal sketches, it is difficult to believe that Newton would ever have gained an important academic post if he were alive today, whilst Einstein, certainly in the latter half of his life would probably have been relegated to a minor research laboratory at best. So although they may be giants in the scientific pantheon, it is an irony that neither would have gained such acceptance by the establishment had they been alive today. If there's a moral to be drawn here, presumably it is that even great scientists are just as much a product of their time as any other human being, even if they occasionally see further than us intellectual dwarves.