Did Richards Really Do Away with Einstein?

As Reed Cartwright noted in a short, brilliantly titled essay yesterday, Discovery Institute Senior Fellow Jay Richards thinks he has found a flaw in the theory of relativity. The theory of relativity is one of the most successful scientific theories ever, and it has been verified time and again with remarkable precision. This month’s issue of Discover Magazine, for example, notes that a clock runs measurably faster at a high altitude than at sea level. A nonscientist criticizing relativity is about like a lawyer criticizing evolution; both are in over their heads.

My own knowledge of relativity, while evidently more profound than Mr. Richards’s, is still not up to par, so I contacted my colleague Victor Stenger, author of Has Science Found God? and asked him to comment on Mr. Richards’s essay. Here is the bulk of his reply, beginning with a quotation from Mr. Richards’s essay.

My vague understanding is that time slows down as you go faster. When travelling at the speed of light, [sic] time stops. If you actually could travel at the speed of light, you would – in your own frame of reference – arrive at your destination instantaneously, no matter how long it took in the frame of reference of your home planet.

This is not quite right. The moving clock slows only for an observer in another reference frame. It does not slow down in its own reference frame (my italics).

So, for the hypothetical photon released just after the big bang, the “time since the big bang” is basically 0.

Only in the photon’s rest frame, and a photon is never at rest.

However, I think I see the point he is trying to make. It is true that an observer moving at a speed near the speed of light relative to Earth would in fact measure a very small time since the big bang.

Just picking a number, let

v=0.999 999 999 999 999 999 999 999 999 999 999 998c,

where c is the speed of light. The Lorentz factor gamma = 1/sqrt[1 - (v/c)2] can be well approximated for v near c by 1/sqrt[2(1-(v/c))].

So here,

v/c = 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 002 = 2 x 10-36, and

gamma=1/sqrt(4 x 10-36) = 5 x 1017.

A clock moving at this speed would measure the lifetime of the universe to be

(13.7 x 109 year)/(5 x 1017) = 2.74 x 10-8 year = 0.86 second.

But that’s the whole point of what Einstein said. There is no absolute time. In our reference frame, the universe is 13.7 billion years old.

Mr. Richards is dead wrong when he suggests that thousands of physicists have missed this point. He should learn some physics before he criticizes physicists.

I would add that relativity is conceptually difficult and counterintuitive. It is impossible to understand without knowing the mathematics, and the results often contradict ‘common sense.’ Mr. Richards, who admits to only a ‘vague understanding,’ is simply wrong in saying that the age of the universe is the same everywhere. It is not even the same at the top of Mount Everest as at the shore of the Dead Sea; because clocks run faster on Mount Everest, the universe is older there than on the Dead Sea.

Mr. Richards writes of a subject he does not understand or perhaps chooses not to understand. His essay is of a piece with pronouncements on evolution by Discovery Institute Fellows.

References and notes.

The essay by Mr. Richards may be found at http://www.idthefuture.com/index.php?p=179&more=1&c=1&tb=1&pb=1.

Bob Berman, ‘A Twisted Anniversary,’ Discover, May, 2005, p. 30.

Victor J. Stenger is Professor Emeritus of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Hawaii, and Adjunct Professor of Philosophy at the University of Colorado. He is author of five published books including Has Science Found God? (Prometheus, 2003), with two more on the way. http://www.colorado.edu/philosophy/vstenger.