Time-saving tips for understanding Einstein

PZ Myers, presumably exhausted from smacking down the same tired arguments from creationists (I know I would be), has tossed one to me. It’s against Einstein instead of Darwin, so it’s my bailiwick, I have to admit. But this little piece of foolishness — a brief piece against special relativity on a website grammatically entitled Intelligent Design the Future — is so thoroughly clueless that’s it’s not even mildly diverting. If these people weren’t taking over the country, they wouldn’t even rise to the level of being amusing.

So, instead of going through the nonsense point-by-point, I thought it would be more useful for me to offer a little set of guidelines to the discerning reader: Signs That You Might Not Be Reading A Sensible Critique of Relativity.

  1. Critic seems to get understanding of Einstein from an article in the New Yorker, rather than from Einstein (or a stylish textbook).
  2. Critic suggests that Einstein “did away with change,” without explaining what that means.
  3. Critic defends notion of simultaneity by repeated reference to stuff going on “right now.”
  4. Critic claims that special relativity did away with Newtonian absolute time, but that it reappeared in general relativity.
  5. That “right now” thing — okay, I just can’t get over that.
  6. Critic wouldn’t recognize the Riemann tensor if it bit him on the nose. (Not explicitly stated in the article, but the signs are clear.)

Each sign, as you may guess, is displayed prominently over at ID the F. Sadly, the list is far from exhaustive; there are numerous ways to demonstrate cluelessness about modern physics that weren’t on display in this particular article. Perhaps we could keep a running tally?

Here’s the truth: Einstein proposed that the amount of time elapsed between two spacetime events depends (in a very definite way) on the path taken between those events. It is not simply a universal constant, as it would be in Newtonian physics. So the notion of “simultaneity” for distant events is just a useful approximation, valid when everyone is traveling slowly compared to the speed of light. And you know what? Einstein was right. It’s been verified over and over again, from the lifetimes of rapidly-moving subatomic particles to the time kept by atomic clocks moving in airplanes. Deal with it.

And here’s a little request for anyone else who wants to point out flaws in Einstein. Whatever else you might think, Einstein was a smart cookie. Nothing he said was sacred (my first published paper proposed a theory that violated some of Einstein’s ideas, as have several of my subsequent papers), but you should at least understand what he said before you claim to improve on it. So take a gander at the problem sets for my course in general relativity, and have a go. If you get an average of over 50% on all the sets (as all of the students in my class did), I’ll give your ideas a respectful hearing. Otherwise, you should go back and hit the books if you expect anyone to take you seriously.

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