BALTIMORE — More than a half-century ago, the Nazis dismissed Albert Einstein’s groundbreaking theories as “Jewish science”; in recent years Holocaust revisionists have taken up the anti-Einstein cause. Now the legendary physicist is facing a new wave of attacks, this time from conservative bloggers who say that his theory of relativity and its iconic formula, E=mc2, are part of a “liberal conspiracy.”
The latest debate erupted when a website, Conservapedia, posted a definition of relativity making the charge that it was part of an ideological plot, and then added a list of counter examples it says disprove Einstein’s theories. The postings were picked up by the liberal blog TPMMuckracker and then went viral.
Conservapedia is the creation of Andrew Schlafly, the 49-year-old lawyer son of Phyllis Schlafly, the anti-abortion activist. He has a degree in engineering physics from Princeton University and a law degree from Harvard Law School. Schlafly, who did not respond to repeated attempts to interview him for this article, founded Conservapedia three years ago — reportedly because he feels that Wikipedia, the dominant online encyclopedia and one of the most visited websites in the world, has a liberal, anti-Christian, anti-American bias.
How Einstein and his theories became embroiled in America’s cultural wars is not clear. That his theories represent one of the great leaps in scientific history is.
From 1666 until Einstein’s day, physics — the way humans look at the mechanics of nature — was dominated by the work of Isaac Newton. Then, in 1905, the 26-year-old Einstein published a paper on what he called the special theory of relativity. The famous formula is in that paper: Energy equals mass times the speed of light squared. While physicists can give complex, sometimes poetic explanations for this formula, it essentially means that the mass of any object can be converted into energy.
Ten years later, Einstein added gravity to the mix in his general theory of relativity, which states that time and space are intricately entwined. Every time you feel heavier when an elevator in which you are riding accelerates upward, you are feeling the effects described in Einstein’s general theory.
Initially, many scientists disbelieved these theories, but gradually they came around. Experimenters from around the world set about trying to prove — or better yet, disprove — Einstein’s theories. Now, a century later, his theories are universally accepted in the scientific community.
Schlafly’s argument against Einstein appears to conflate relativity, a theory in physics about time, space and gravity, with relativism, a philosophical argument about morality and human experience having nothing to do with physics. He points to a 1989 article by liberal law professor Lawrence Tribe in the Harvard Law Review. Now widely disseminated on the Internet, Tribe’s article uses relativity as a metaphor for understanding constitutional law. In the footnotes, Tribe thanks the man who was then the editor of the review: a law student named Barack Obama.
Hence, a liberal conspiracy.
Schlafly goes further, claiming that “virtually no one who is taught and believes relativity continues to read the Bible,” but he doesn’t say how he knows that. He also cites passages in the Christian Bible in an effort to disprove Einstein’s theories.
Attacks on relativity have a long and sleazy history. After much of the physics community came to accept the theories, attacks continued from less admirable sources, including anti-Semites who apparently were upset that a Jew was being credited with producing something that important. They called it “Jewish science.” Nazis, believing that Germans should do better, came up with an alternative concept, totally incoherent. Deutsche Physik, it was called, and set back physics in Germany until after World War II.
Now a new generation of Einstein deniers, including some Holocaust revisionists, are launching attacks, simultaneously rejecting Einstein’s science and accusing him of stealing his ideas from others.
They point to the published work of French physicist Jules Henri Poincare and Dutch physicist Hendrik Antoon Lorentz, which preceded Einstein’s publication by several years. These men were superb physicists (Lorentz won a Nobel Prize) and they had thought about relativity, but neither made the huge leap in imagination Einstein did, although Poincare came close and probably did influence him.
Another claim is that the theories originated with Einstein’s first wife, the Serbian physics student Mileva Maric. She may well have served as a sounding board, but respected physicists and historians say no serious evidence exists that she made any substantive contribution.
While there is no overt anti-Semitism in the Conservapedia entries on Einstein, the ones on relativity are redolent with the old arguments. For instance, Schlafly writes: “The theory … is heavily promoted by liberals who like its encouragement of relativism and its tendency to mislead people in how they view the world.”
Greg Gbur, assistant professor of physics at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, argued in his blog, Skulls in the Stars, that if you “replace ‘liberals’ with ‘Jews’ in [that] sentence,” the words might as well have been written by a Nazi circa 1930s-era Germany.
In an effort to discredit Einstein’s theories, Schlafly provides a list of about two dozen “counterexamples.” Scientists looking at the list say many are irrelevant, some misinterpret the science and many are flat wrong. The latter category, they say, includes Schlafly’s claim that no useful devices have been “developed based on any insights provided by the theory; no lives have been saved or helped, and the theory has not led to other useful theories and may have interfered with scientific progress.”
Almost everyone who has had a PET (positron emission tomography) scan in a hospital, or who has undergone radiation therapy for cancer or who has turned on a particle accelerator has used the theory of special relativity, says historian and physicist Michael Riordan, adjunct professor of physics at the University of California, Santa Cruz. If you have a GPS navigation system in your car, Einstein is guiding you, Riordan said.
That E=mc2 is wrong surely would have surprised the physicists at the Manhattan Project who used it to develop the atomic bombs that destroyed two Japanese cities.
“There is no controversy,” Riordan said. “The theory isn’t wrong; it’s incomplete and has refinements that might or might not be true.”
Gbur says that Schlafly uses a technique known in rhetoric as the “Gish Gallop” (named for biochemist Duane Tolbert Gish, a creationist debater who employed it), which Gbur defines as “throw as many claims out there as possible, regardless of the validity, with the realization that most people will be swayed by the amount of evidence and not look too closely at the details.” Schlafly piles on statement after statement, footnote after footnote, and even stacks impressive mathematical formulas and jargon to support his claims. Some of the references are simply self-references, and some have nothing to do with the argument.
Meanwhile, physicists are expressing mixed feelings about how to react. Several refused to comment for this story because they did not want to give Schlafly credibility. But Clifford Will, professor of physics at Washington University in St. Louis, did weigh in.
“The Internet world is full of kooks and crackpots who put out all kinds of drivel. It is pointless to attempt to refute these people with evidence, because they don’t believe in evidence,” Will wrote in an e-mail from Paris.
“…People may not like relativity,” he wrote, “but the experimental and observational evidence that supports it is so overwhelming that it is now a fact of the universe.”