Frontiers and Controversies in Astrophysics: Lecture 11 Transcript
February 22, 2007
Professor Charles Bailyn:
We were talking about relativity. And where we ended up last time--we were
talking about special relativity and all the weird things that happen to space and time. And the question arose,
you know, what prompted Einstein to think these thoughts? And we talked a little bit about the fact that the
speed of light is always the same no matter what the velocity of the person observing it and how that--then, if
you take that literally, it tells you that space and time are weird, and are not constant and absolute the way
you might think they are in a Newtonian sense, but vary according to the velocity of the observer and in these
various ways having to do with that parameter gamma.
And so, Einstein's great stroke of genius was not to try and fix up these little problems with the experiment in
some, sort of, patchwork kind of way, or to try and invoke a minor change in the laws of nature, but to
recognize that this was a very big deal, and that would involve changing fundamentally how we think space
and time work.
So, this is a very famous fable of science, you know. This is the thing where Einstein is a young man, and
he's sort of a rebel. And he refuses to take his exam and he pisses off his professors. And the consequence is
he doesn't get a good job. And he gets this job at the patent office right, in Bern, Switzerland, where he labors
away in obscurity. And then, suddenly, in a blaze of glory in 1905, he publishes three papers, one of which is
about relativity, one of which is the start of quantum mechanics, and the other of which proves that atoms
exist. And so, these are three of the greatest papers of all time, published in a single year, by some clown
who's a clerk in a patent office. All right. Very big deal. This happened in 1905, two years ago it was the
hundredth anniversary of this. This was declared Einstein Year, and all sorts of fuss was made about it.
So, there are various morals that can be drawn from this. And I'm going to draw several of them in what you
might call increasing order of sophistication. So, the low sophistication moral, moral number one, here, is,
you know, about the genius in obscurity. A genius in obscurity can revolutionize science.
This is a very dangerous way to approach the Einstein story. Because it--you know, it's really easy to
convince yourself that you are a genius in obscurity. Many people have convinced themselves that they are
geniuses in obscurity. I know about this, because they send me email. And they explain to me in their email
that they send me--and this happens to, you know, any scientist, particularly someone working in astrophysics
or fundamental physics of some kind--they explain to me why Einstein was wrong. And indeed, why all
science known to date is wrong, and they are right. And then, they say, you know, nobody believed Einstein
either--as if that was somehow meant to make you believe them. They tend to write these things all in capital
letters. There's a kind of pathology. When they used to write--when they used to do it on pencil and paper,