Barnett’s “Universe”

by Lincoln Barnett, William Sloane Associates, N. Y., 1948.

There is a popular myth that only Einstein and three others in the world understand the theory of relativity. Lincoln Barnett's book, which made the best seller lists, will give substantial support to this myth, notwithstanding the publisher's blurbs to the contrary. At least, critical readers will be disappointed in their search for basic enlightenment on one of the most important theories in modern physics.

Like so many of its predecessors, this book purports to present a "picture (of the new perspective of the universe which) can be comprehended by the nonscientific layman." And indeed, a superficial reader might be fooled into believing that he has followed derivations of fundamental physical laws, with no more technical equipment being used than a general propensity for a vague sort of "logic" and abstract philosophico-theological reasoning!

Alas, the purpose is laudable but it seems to be demonstrated again that there is no easy road to knowledge; and further, that once you let yourself believe that you have discovered such a magic road, you inevitably fall into the pitfalls of mysticism.

* * *

The Universe and Dr. Einstein presents an account of Einstein's (and some others') major contributions to our understanding of the universe. While it names and in part describes the content of Einstein's theories, it is filled with logical constructions which appear to deduce these theories from common sense, whereas in reality, many of these "derivations" are simply nonsensical; the book is filled with such logical "non sequiturs."

Using the same procedure, all kinds of philosophical generalizations are arrived at presenting a muddle of ideas whose lineage is traceable more directly to religion than to physics. It should be said in behalf of the author, who is a journalist, that many of these notions were first perpetrated on the unsuspecting lay public by physicists themselves!

For example, the author believes that he has demonstrated that quantum physics ". . . demolishes two pillars of the old science, causality and determinism. For by dealing in terms of statistics and probabilities it abandons all ideas that nature exhibits an inexorable sequence of cause and effect. And by its admission of margins of uncertainty it yields up the ancient hope that science, given the present state and velocity of every material body in the universe, can forecast the history of the universe for all time. One by-product of this surrender is a new argument for the existence of free will. For if physical events are indeterminate and the future unpredictable, then perhaps . . ." (pp. 27, 28).

What a jumble of half-baked philosophy strutting as "popular science"!

The "Uncertainty Principle"

Roughly speaking, the "Uncertainty Principle" of Heisenberg, referred to in the quotation above as "its (quantum physics) admission of uncertainty," states that the position and velocity of a single electron cannot be exactly determined at a given moment by a man occupied in its study, because in the process of observing it, its position and velocity are changed. How this principle disproves the existence of cause and effect (or lawfulness in nature) is yet to be demonstrated by any one of the modern mystics, from the physicist-philophasters like Jeans and Eddington, to science-speaking theologians like DuNouy, and popular science journalists such as Mr. Barnett.

It should be noted that most modern scientists search their results for possible sources of error. The statement of "limits of experimental error" in exact figures is an indication of greater, not less, accuracy in observation than in the old practice of simply stating all laws, all equations, and all figures as absolutes. The discovery of the "Uncertainty Principle" was a great step forward in defining with precision the limits of observationa1 error in a field of investigation dealing with ultramicroscopic entities.

All the work of quantum physics has added to our body of laws about the physical universe. We are continually finding more information about what Einstein calls the "uniformity of nature." Rather than concluding that "future events are unpredictable," further developments in science constantly give us more tools (laws) with which to predict more accurately than was ever possible before.

Mr. Barnett, with a journalistic eye for the sensational, borrows more from other schools than that of Einstein in his book on Einstein's ideas, especially when he soars into the realms of philosophy. Either he is ignorant or he chooses to ignore the fact that Einstein is a strict causalist and materialist. There are only a few direct quotations from Einstein in this book, and they give the impression that the great physicist occupies himself largely with God, religion, mystical emotions, and "cosmic religious experience." It must have required truly heroic efforts of scholarship to dig these quotations out of the mass of Einstein's more serious work!

"Popular Science"

It cannot be ignored, however, that many modern physicists seem to have a dual personality in the realm of theory. (This remarkable phenomenon has sociological origins which we shall discuss further below.) In their professional work as experimenters or writers of reports in top level scientific journals, every step involves the strictest rigor in thought and presupposes a monistic-materialistic lawfulness in nature. Then some of these physicists seem to be driven by a kind of social consciousness to explain in "popular" essays and books, in non-scientific terms, just what their scientific work consists of.

The code appears to be: in popular works, anything goes! Rigor is forgotten, normal scientific procedure is anathema (they don't wish to be considered snobs), wild speculation is the vogue. Idealism, agnosticism, God-seeking (none of which have any place in scientific investigation) are all in order here! Mr. Barnett catches this spirit of "popularization" with great relish, and finds it more appropriate for creating a best seller than dry "technical" talk.

Thus picking up an idea popularized by Eddington (and not by Einstein) he speaks of the alleged material emptiness of modern physical theory, what he calls "the void between science and reality" (p. 29). The same thought is repeated in other ways throughout the book. This wild assertion stems from the fact that much of our knowledge of the remote microcosm of sub-atomic particles and of the macrocosm of star-systems and the universe as a whole is expressed in mathematical formulae for which there are no simple pictorial representations in the world of our every-day experience. It is just as silly to deny the "reality" of science in these fields as to deny the reality of x-rays, radio waves, ultraviolet or infra-red rays (*) because we cannot see them without the aid of instruments.

Barnett describes the physicist as being "somewhat in the position of a blind man trying to discern the shape and texture of a snowflake. As soon as it touches his fingers or his tongue it dissolves. A wave electron, a photon, a wave of probability, cannot be visualized; they are simply symbols useful in expressing the mathematical relationships of microcosm" (p. 28).

The confusion of a symbol with the object represented by that symbol is quite common among primitive men and is still retained apparently, even in some sections of civilized society. The author's analogy herein employed is one which we can conveniently use to demonstrate the fallacy in his reasoning.

Let us assume a blind man and a snowflake. Is the snowflake's shape and texture less real because the man lacks the sense of sight? Further, is it impossible for the blind man to ascertain the shape and other qualities of the snowflake? Not at all! For example, such simple tools as a camera and photoengraving equipment can translate the structure of the snowflake very exactly into a raised replica in steel for the blind man to feel it, measure it, and describe it in innumerable other ways.

Likewise our knowledge of the physical world is not limited by those objects which can be directly sensed by our eyes, skin, etc., nor can we doubt the reality of those sections of the universe revealed to us only by instrument or calculation, any more than the blind man would he justified in denying the reality of the snowflake's structure.

In the 1920's and '30's it was fashionable to speak of the "abstract," "empty," "shadow-world" of theoretical physics. The vivid reality of the atom bomb should render this fashion obsolete forever.

Contrary to Mr. Barnett's assertion that "Relativity does not ... contradict classical physics" (p. 52), Einstein's relativity theory is based on fundamentally different laws from those of Newton. Any calculations made by one system will, in principle, be different from those made by the other, in spite of the fact that for velocities and masses of objects common to our every-day experience, the results will be, for all practical purposes, identical. Differences can be noticed when dealing with velocities beginning to approach the speed of light (186,284 million miles per second) and in all such cases Einstein's system has been proven to be more accurate a representation of nature than Newton' s.

Nevertheless there existed before Einstein's time a principle of relativity, now known as Galilean (or Newtonian) relativity. This made compensations in measurements which accounted for commonplace differences in the measurements made by one observer moving relative to the position of another observer. Thus, before Einstein was born, a physicist could compute from measuring the varying pitch of a locomotive's whistle on a train which would pass by him at a known speed, precisely what the constant wave length of the sound would appear to the engineer of the train who hears a sound of only one pitch.

Lincoln Barnett gives many examples of such every-day phenomena which he calls "paradoxes," i.e., the differences in measurements taken by "moving" or "stationary" observers. All of these "paradoxes" can be easily resolved without relativity. Nevertheless he presents Einstein's special relativity theory as an answer to such problems! The illusion is created that a logical problem is presented, discussed, and the answer found by means of a new theory. The fact that there is no connection whatever between the problems presented and the "solution" will be obvious not only to a physicist but even to anyone familiar with the elements of algebra and geometry.

Yet Einstein praises this book very highly! Why?

Research scientists have found themselves more and more isolated from the rest of humanity, at the same time that the effects of their work are having the most profound effect on social developments in all of human history!

The atomic bomb, which represents one of the highest achievements of theoretical physics, is held in the hands of a small group of capitalist politicians and militarists who, seemingly bent on proving the validity of Marxist analysis, show the only consistency in their actions to be their undeviating service in the interests of America's ruling class. In these hands, the atomic bomb is waved threateningly like a symbol of total destruction over the heads of all humanity.

The imperial lords of the atomic age no longer listen to the frantic pleas of the same scientists who put the weapons at their disposal. The physicists (and other scientists) having given the best they had to offer, are now told to shut up and keep out of politics, their pleas and criticisms stigmatized as "subversive."

League of Frightened Men

The scientists now view with genuine horror the picture of the possible fruits of their labor. They begin to see clearly that barbarism is one of the alternatives for the near future of modern society but they fail to see as realistic, the other alternative, socialism, in spite of the fact that many of them (including Einstein) are "socialists" in the sense that they understand that a socialist organization of society is preferable to capitalism. It does not occur to them to employ scientific procedure to find what laws govern the motion of human society. In their attempt to stop the dread machine which is out of their control, they jump empirically from one desperate measure to another.

In 1925, Leon Trotsky remarked:

"Outstanding trained naturalists who in the field, say of physiology, would not proceed a step without taking into account rigidly tested experiments, verification, hypothetical generalization, latest verification and so forth; approach social phenomena far more boldly, with the boldness of ignorance, as of tacitly acknowledging that in this extremely complex sphere of phenomena it is sufficient merely to have vague propensities, day-to-day observations, family traditions, and even a stock of current social prejudices." (New International, Feb. 1940.)

Just as in physics, so in social science, any departure from rigorous investigation and analysis in the spirit of scientific method leads to all kinds of mystic and idealist notions. Among these notions is the utopian idea that ruling economic classes and their governmental agents can be persuaded by logical arguments or appeals to faith to act in other than their own immediate interests. And so the self-named "League of Frightened Men" appeal first to the U. S. government, then to the United Nations, each time their efforts ending in admitted failure.

And so finally after years of this aimless writhing in their cosmic agonies of guilt-feeling (for a crime that they did not commit) they turn to that amorphous mass, the "public," with books, articles, press releases and world peace conferences.

The campaign to educate the public has two aspects. First to acquaint the people with the basic ideas of modern physics (**) in the hope of ending the isolation of the physicists, and, second, to acquaint the people with the real dangers of modern scientific weapons, so that the "public" will now vote for the right politicians who will halt the mad dash toward species-suicide. Each of the physicists has a pet theory or two explaining a "practical" plan to establish world peace (without destroying capitalism) and serve humanity. For some reason, obscure to them, none of these seem to work. Or at least the politicians show no inclination to try them out.

These scientists are like children in a row-boat trying to still the waves of the ocean by beating them down with oars.

The deep underlying social forces, rooted in the class struggle for ownership of the means of production, the essential need of American capitalism to expand by imperial conquest, the resistance of colonial peoples, the rising might of the revolutionary proletariat . . . all these appear to many of them only dimly as another "shadow world," just as removed from their every-day experience as the "shadow world" of the sub-atomic particles. They are ignorant of the fact that their own petty-hourgeois social position in society usually dooms them to blindness to the basic class struggles which are remote from their daily lives and does not equip them as leaders to guide humanity away from the path of doom.

Those who apply scientific criteria to the analysis of social problems will come to grasp the reality of this "shadow world" just as Einstein (who, in 1939, suggested the atom bomb to Roosevelt) grasped the reality of the sub-atomic "shadow world." Allied with the working class, they may even play a leading social role. The rest will have to await further successful explosions of proletarian revolution to have these realities impressed on their consciousness, just as so many had to wait for the explosion at Hiroshima to have that other "shadow world" made real.

— B. Lens

(*) These are some of the categories of non-visible wave-lengths of light.

(**) In his forward to Barnett's book, Einstein writes "It is of great importance that the general public be given an opportunity to experience consciously and intelligently the efforts and results of scientific research . . . Restricting the body of knowledge to a small group deadens the philosophical spirit of a people and leads to spiritual poverty."

This review originally appeared in Fourth International, November 1949, pp. 314-316.

The source is a now obscure Trotskyist theoretical journal. The review is reprinted here as a prescient analysis of what's wrong with science popularization that turns modern physics into mysticism, following the wave of mystical obscurantism that peaked in the 1920s and anticipating the pervasive New Age piffle of the 1960s and ’70s.

(20 July 2000)

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