Jan 12th 2013

Science's Sacred Cows (Part 2 -- Absolute Space and Time)

by Dave Pruett

Dave Pruett, a former NASA researcher, is an acclaimed computational scientist and emeritus professor of mathematics at James Madison University (JMU). "Reason & Wonder," his “love letter to the cosmos,” emerged from an award-winning science-religion honors course taught at JMU between 1999 and 2011
"We are to admit to no more causes of natural things than such as are both true and sufficient to explain their appearances." -- Isaac Newton

Science remains most true to itself and of greatest value to humanity when it assiduously avoids unnecessary assumptions. Over the long arc of history, science has initially embraced -- then discarded -- most of the following tacit assumptions: dualism, determinism, reductionism, absolute time, absolute space, the principle of locality, materialism, and most recently, realism. In subsequent posts, we'll examine each ...

Today, let's discuss the notions of absolute space and time.

The publication of Newton's Principia Mathematica in 1687 paved the way for the Age of Reason. Prior to Newton, there were isolated scientists -- Archimedes, Da Vinci, and Galileo, for example -- but there was not yet science. In a single stroke, Newton laid solid foundations for scientific methodology by combining inductive reasoning to infer general laws from experimental observations, mathematical formalism to state those laws concisely, logic to deduce new laws, and deductive reasoning to make predictions based upon those laws.

Principia's first volume formalizes the science of motion. At the onset, Newton assumes time and space to be absolutes. Regarding time, he writes: "Absolute, true, and mathematical time, of itself ... flows equitably without relation to anything external." Similarly for space. In today's lingo, we might say that Newton viewed Euclidean space as a fixed stage upon which physical events occur, that time flows the same for every observer, and that time and space are independent.

And so it remained until 1905, when a lowly patent official in Bern Switzerland examined patent applications by day and plotted the overthrow of Newtonian mechanics by night. Albert Einstein, then 26 years of age, noticed something about the nature of light that the titans of physics had overlooked.

In 1862, the principles of electromagnetism had joined Newtonian mechanics in the Pantheon of classical physics. The brainchild of Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell, Maxwell's equations describe the interaction of electricity and magnetism. Because all manner of phenomena -- light, electricity, and radio waves among them -- are electromagnetic in origin, Maxwell's equations are astoundingly practical.

Maxwell's equations take many forms, all equivalent. When they are expressed in so-called Gaussian units, the velocity of light in vacuo, symbolized by c, appears as a universal constant. In this ostensibly innocuous fact, Einstein sensed that the world is not as it seems.

The long-accepted principle of relativity (not to be confused with the theory of relativity) held that the mathematical expressions of physical laws must retain the same form in all inertial frames of reference (that is, in all non-accelerating coordinate systems). However, the appearance of c as a constant in the equations of electrodynamics suggested that the velocity of light must be independent of the reference frame in which that velocity is measured.

Imagine having a peripatetic friend that you frequently encounter during travels. No matter where you meet your friend, he always passes you by at a velocity of, say, 7 mph. Whether you are flying at 600 mph, walking at 3 mph, or biking at 20 mph, you always measure your friend's velocity at exactly 7 mph in the coordinate system that travels with you. How strange! But that's how light behaves, albeit at the blazing velocity of 186,000 miles per second.

Familiar moving objects -- baseballs, trains, planes, etc. -- don't behave this way. For example, moving sidewalks expedite pedestrian traffic along airport concourses because the velocity of the sidewalk relative to the concourse, say 2 mph, and the velocity of the traveler relative to the sidewalk, say 3 mph, add to yield 5 mph relative to the concourse, a combined rate at which kiosks and sports bars whiz by. But light's velocity does not add to that of its reference frame.

That the subtler implications of Maxwell's equations had escaped the notice of virtually all physicists explains their rapt attention to the Michelson-Morley experiment of 1887. Believing that light -- like sound -- needed a medium in which to propagate, physicists hypothesized the existence of the aether, a weightless, frictionless substance filling the void of space. It was further presumed that the aether remained stationary in an absolute frame of reference, Newton's absolute space still in vogue. Physicists believed that Michelson and Morley would detect slight differences in the velocity of light measured from different directions (i.e. frames), allowing them to extract from these differences the "aether drift" of the earth, the absolute velocity of the earth relative to the stationary aether.

The experiment failed abjectly. The velocity of light was maddeningly consistent. Measurements taken at differing times of day or year and differing orientations of the apparatus showed no appreciable differences in c. Michelson and Morley concluded tersely, "... the result of the hypothesis of stationary aether is thus shown to be incorrect."

Through clever thought experiments, Einstein reasoned that the independence of c from its reference frame must imply -- astonishingly -- the relativity of time: two observers in different frames see one another's clocks ticking at different rates. The "moving" clock is observed to tick more slowly, and the greater the velocity difference of the frames, the greater the discrepancy in the flow of time.

Relativistic time dilation is ordinarily minuscule, and so it escaped notice until the 20th century when the advent of the cesium clock made possible the measurement of time to 14 digits of precision. Using two such clocks in 1971 -- one on earth and one on a round-the-world flight -- two physicists, Joseph Hafele and Richard Keating, confirmed the time dilation predicted by Einstein's theory of relativity.

Time's relativity implies the relativity of space as well, and the interdependence of space and time. Although Hermann Minkowski, Einstein's mathematics professor, once characterized his wayward student as a "lazy dog" for cutting classes, he was smitten by the student's theory. "Henceforth space by itself and time by itself are doomed to fade away into mere shadows," Minkowski enthused, "and only a kind of union of the two will preserve an independent reality."

Newton's assumptions of absolute space and time were reasonable in his era and necessary for the development of classical physics, but relativity forced their abandonment. In the next post, we'll examine the demise of determinism.

(This article is adapted from Chapter 6 -- "A Wrinkle in Time" -- of the author's recent book Reason and Wonder.)

This article was posted on the Huffington Post and is reposted here with the kind permission of the author



Book Introduction:

Reason and Wonder: A Copernican Revolution in Science and Spirit by Dave Pruett

May 8, 2012

Defining a moment in human self-awareness four centuries in the making, Reason and Wonder: A Copernican Revolution in Science and Spirit offers a way to move beyond the either/or choice of reason versus intuition—a dichotomy that ultimately leaves either the mind or the heart wanting. In doing so, it seeks to resolve an age-old conflict at the root of much human dysfunction, including today's global ecological crisis.

An outgrowth of C. David Pruett's breakthrough undergraduate honors course, "From Black Elk to Black Holes: Shaping Myth for a New Millennium," Reason and Wonder embraces the insights of modern science and the wisdom of spiritual traditions to "re-enchant the universe." The new "myth of meaning" unfolds as the story of three successive "Copernican revolutions"—cosmological, biological, and spiritual—offers an expansive view of human potential as revolutionary as the work of Copernicus, Galilleo, and Darwin.




Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Jun 26th 2018
The sights and sounds of Central American children being ripped from their parents by US Border Patrol officers have, by now, spread across the globe. The experience has been traumatizing to its victims and deeply painful to watch. It has also done incalculable damage to the very idea of America. This is June when we are supposed to be celebrating "Immigrant Heritage Month". Each year, I have taken this opportunity to recall my family's immigrant story - the opportunity and freedom they sought, the hardships they endured, and the remarkable progress they made in just one generation. 
Jun 24th 2018
State terrorism comes in many forms, but one of its most cruel and revolting expressions is when it is aimed at children. Even though U.S. President Donald Trump backed down in the face of a scathing political and public outcry and ended his administration’s policy of separating migrant children from their parents, make no mistake: His actions were and remain a form of terrorism.
Jun 22nd 2018
It is now clear that the twenty-first century is ushering in a new world order. As uncertainty and instability associated with that process spread around the globe, the West has responded with either timidity or nostalgia for older forms of nationalism that failed in the past and certainly will not work now. Even to the most inveterate optimist, the G7 summit in Quebec earlier this month was proof that the geopolitical West is breaking up and losing its global significance, and that the great destroyer of that American-created and American-led order is none other than the US president. To be sure, Donald Trump is more a symptom than a cause of the West’s disintegration. But he is accelerating the process dramatically.
Jun 20th 2018
Sessions quoted a line written by the apostle Paul to a small community of Christians living in Rome around 55AD to defend the Department of Justice’s approach. He said: "I would cite you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13, to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order." Sessions used the Bible because one of the most vocal opponents of the crackdown on asylum cases has been the Catholic Church. It’s no surprise that Sessions appealed to Romans chapter 13 verse 1 in response: not only did he hope to undermine Catholic authority by using the Bible against them, he cited a statement so broad that one might use it to defend anything a government does, good or bad. Picture below St Paul writing his epistles, by Valentin de Boulogne, via Wikimedia Commons.
Jun 19th 2018
 

I find it exceptionally irritating when I hear liberals worry about whether Israel will be able to remain a "Jewish and Democratic State" if it retains control of occupied Palestinian lands.

Jun 18th 2018
Daniel Wagner: "My prediction Korean War will be formally ended, the peninsula will be denuclearised, and a lasting peace will be the result."
Jun 14th 2018
Extract: PiS [ the ruling Law and Justice party] has established the most significant addition to the Polish social safety net since 1989: the Family 500+ program. Launched in 2016, Family 500+ embodies the nationalism, traditional family values, and social consciousness that the PiS seeks to promote. The program pays families 500 złoty ($144) per month to provide care for a second or subsequent child...........The program has been enormously popular. Some 2.4 million families took advantage of it in the first two years. The benefit, equivalent to 40% of the minimum wage, has almost wiped out extreme poverty for children in Poland, reducing it by an estimated 70-80%........... Liberal pro-European politicians and policymakers are not convinced. They complain that such a generous family benefit will weaken work incentives and blow up the government budget. But initial evidence suggests that Family 500+ has actually increased economic activity. It has also reversed the post-communist decline in fertility, increased wages (particularly for women), and enabled families to buy school materials, take vacations, buy more clothes for their kids, and rely less on high-priced credit for basic household needs. And, thanks to rapid economic growth, the government deficit has steadily fallen, not grown.
Jun 12th 2018
The depths of hypocrisy of the Republican Party in supporting Trump’s meeting with the North Korean dictator in Singapore are hard to plumb. This is a party whose leading members adopted the Ostrich Foreign Policy Principle for decades. If you don’t like a country’s government or political and economic system, pretend it does not exist.
Jun 12th 2018
US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has spoken out against China’s strategy of “intimidation and coercion” in the South China Sea, including the deployment of anti-ship missiles, surface-to-air missiles, and electronic jammers, and, more recently, the landing of nuclear-capable bomber aircraft at Woody Island. There are, Mattis warned, “consequences to China ignoring the international community.” But what consequences?
Jun 12th 2018
With a general election approaching in September, Swedish voters are being warned that now it’s their turn to be targeted by Russian interference in the democratic process. According to Sweden’s Civil Contingencies Agency (MSB), which is leading the country’s efforts to counter foreign-influence operations, such interference is very likely, and citizens should be on the lookout for disinformation and fake news.
Jun 11th 2018
Extract: "While the presidency has grown stronger over the years, during the Trump administration Congress has been timid and subordinate. That is because the leaders of the Republican Party – which controls both the House of Representatives and the Senate – are frightened of Trump’s base. They cannot afford to alienate the roughly 30-35% of Americans who passionately back him, ignore his personal transgressions, tolerate his degradation of the country’s civil discourse, favor his brutal treatment of immigrant families, and don’t mind that he is leaving the US almost friendless in the world."
Jun 8th 2018
Has North Korea’s ruler, Kim Jong-un, made a strategic decision to trade away his nuclear program, or is he just engaged in another round of deceptive diplomacy, pretending that he will denuclearize in exchange for material benefits for his impoverished country? This is, perhaps, the key question in the run-up to the summit between Kim and US President Donald Trump in Singapore on June 12. Until then, no one will know the answer, perhaps not even Kim himself.
Jun 7th 2018
Some analysts even project that, before long, Facebook will hold more data on its users than any government. Meanwhile, it makes a lot of money from this data. Its advertising revenues came up to around US$40 billion in 2017 (up 50% from 2016). With Google, it holds an 84% market share in online advertising.
Jun 5th 2018
Roseanne Barr is an American comedian whose fictional TV character of the same name is a working-class Trump supporter. For those who remember the show “All in the Family,” she might be usefully compared to Archie Bunker, the crude proletarian patriarch from Queens, New York. Barr’s show was swiftly canceled late last month by the television network ABC, not for anything her “character” said in her show, but for a tweet in which she described Valerie Jarrett, an African-American former adviser to Barack Obama, as the offspring of the Muslim Brotherhood and “Planet of the Apes.”
Jun 4th 2018
 

When Donald Trump was elected, I, like many others feared what his presidency might do to the country. A year and a half into his term in office, our concerns have been justified. 

Jun 1st 2018
Extract from the article: "While the West’s relative decline is almost inevitable, its economic dysfunction is not. Yet pessimism can be self-fulfilling. Why undertake difficult reforms if a dark future seems preordained? As a result, accepting and anxious pessimists tend to elect governments that duck difficult decisions (witness Germany’s grand coalition), while angry pessimists make matters worse (by voting for Donald Trump’s “America First” agenda or for Brexit, for example). It doesn’t have to be this way. As French President Emmanuel Macron has demonstrated, bold leaders can succeed with a message of hope, openness, and inclusion, and by promoting a vision of progress based on credible reforms."
May 30th 2018
It has been nearly two years since the United Kingdom narrowly voted in favor of leaving the European Union. As the march toward Brexit – formally set for the end of next March – proceeds, fundamental questions about the nature of the future UK-EU relationship remain unanswered. Instead, every time a tough decision must be made in the negotiations in Brussels, British ministers kick the can down the road, or even into the long grass. This is somewhat surprising. Apparently, none of the politicians and newspaper editors who plotted for years to get the UK out of the EU thought much about what would happen if their machinations succeeded.
May 30th 2018
Discussions are now underway to establish a system of joint deposit insurance for eurozone banks. Proponents of the scheme, with the European Commission and the European Central Bank (ECB) taking the lead, point out that deposit insurance would avert the danger of a run on banks in times of crisis. While this argument is true, critics emphasize the disparity in risks, owing to the high share of bad loans on the balance sheets of banks in some countries. To address this risk disparity and move ahead with the plan, balance sheets will need to be cleaned up before considering the next step. While the share of bad loans for banks in the stable eurozone countries is just 2%, the most recently published International Monetary Fund statistics, from last April, show a share of 11% for Ireland, 16% for Italy, 40% for Cyprus, and 46% for Greece.
May 29th 2018
Trump’s decision cannot be justified by any breach of the agreement on Iran’s part. It is, rather, a return to the old, largely unsuccessful US policy of confrontation with Iran. The only difference this time is that the Trump administration seems determined to go to the brink of war – or even beyond – to get its way. If the administration has any plans for keeping Iran’s nuclear program in check in the absence of the nuclear deal, then it is keeping them a secret. Judging by some of the administration’s rhetoric, it would appear that airstrikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities are on the table. But bombing would only delay Iran’s nuclear program, not stop it. Would Trump then consider a massive ground war to occupy the country and topple the regime? We know all too well how that strategy worked the last time it was tried.
May 28th 2018
US President Donald Trump’s abrupt decision to cancel his planned June 12 summit with Kim Jong-un represents a diplomatic coup for the North Korean leader, and an even bigger victory for China. In the space of just a few months, Kim’s image has gone from that of international pariah to that of thwarted peacemaker.