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Math Space Science

Even Einstein Doubted His Gravitational Waves (astronomy.com) 156

Flash Modin writes: In 1936, twenty years after Albert Einstein introduced the concept, the great physicist took another look at his math and came to a surprising conclusion. 'Together with a young collaborator, I arrived at the interesting result that gravitational waves do not exist, though they had been assumed a certainty to the first approximation,' he wrote in a letter to friend Max Born. Interestingly, his research denouncing gravitational waves was rejected by Physical Review Letters, the journal that just published proof of their existence. The story shows that even when Einstein's wrong, it's because he was already right the first time.
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Even Einstein Doubted His Gravitational Waves

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  • Erh... so? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Opportunist ( 166417 ) on Saturday February 13, 2016 @09:43AM (#51500057)

    Seriously, I fail to see the story here. Scientist ponders problem. Scientist comes to conclusion. Scientist publishes conclusion. Peer review gives it the go. Scientists rethinks problem. Scientist thinks he made a mistake. Peer review looks at new conclusion and thinks first solution was correct. And, lo and behold, it was.

    So the scientific method works, is that what the article should tell us?

    • Re:Erh... so? (Score:5, Insightful)

      by AthanasiusKircher ( 1333179 ) on Saturday February 13, 2016 @10:13AM (#51500151)

      So the scientific method works, is that what the article should tell us?

      Exactly. I'm not sure what the point is here. And TFS's conclusion is just weird: "The story shows that even when Einstein's wrong, it's because he was already right the first time." Actually, if you read TFA, it has a quote from Einstein himself about how he admitted he got things wrong and sometimes his errors had been published.

      The only vaguely interesting aspect to TFA is how Einstein apparently got upset that someone dared to do peer-review on his paper before simply publishing it. Granted, peer-review was not a universal standard in the 1930s (at least not peer-review by external reviewers -- review by expert editorial boards was standard long before that), but Einstein still seems to have reacted quite poorly in this case... refusing to admit he was wrong, and later finding his error and not acknowledging he could have found it had he listened to the reviewer's criticism.

      The lesson here is NOT that Einstein was always right. He was clearly fallible and recognized himself to be so. On the other hand, he also seems to have a tendency (a natural human one) to refuse to acknowledge errors. That's one of the reasons peer review exists, since scientists often -- consciously or unconsciously -- refuse to see errors in their own logic. TFA's lesson actually shows us that even great scientists can be WRONG, but a proper scientific process can help to weed out those errors.

      • by Tablizer ( 95088 )

        Einstein still seems to have reacted quite poorly

        He summoned a spooky fist at a distance.

    • Re:Erh... so? (Score:5, Interesting)

      by raftpeople ( 844215 ) on Saturday February 13, 2016 @03:03PM (#51501333)
      I think the story is primarily an interesting bit of behind the scenes drama and personalities. Einstein was not used to peer-review process and reacted emotionally to a legit criticism and refused to publish in the premiere physics journal anymore despite the fact that the criticism turned out to be accurate. In addition, the story is pretty interesting the way the reviewer was able to indirectly get the criticisms explained to the assistant and ultimately to Einstein who accepted those criticisms as valid.
  • by rmdingler ( 1955220 ) on Saturday February 13, 2016 @09:49AM (#51500081) Journal
    It's been said more eloquently before, but the more you know, the more you realize you don't know.

    Speculating on the ground-breaking physical laws of the universe has to be fraught with doubt and self-reversal.

    Ignorance is the primary reservoir of complete confidence in nature.

    • by Kiaser Zohsay ( 20134 ) on Saturday February 13, 2016 @09:59AM (#51500111)

      New Einstein meme: The Most Interesting Physicist in the World.

      "I'm not always wrong, but when I am, it's because I was right before."

    • Speculating on the ground-breaking physical laws of the universe has to be fraught with doubt and self-reversal.

      It's much worse than that. Mere doubt doesn't even come close.

      Don't forget that the term "Laws of Physics" is just a pop-sci term to simplify the topic for the layman. In fact there are no such laws or if they exist then they are unknowable to us. The things which we loosely call "Laws of Physics" are actually "Laws of Physicists", in other words merely mental abstractions conjured up by human

      • Well put.

        We essentially construct theories to explain the observable symptoms of the universe in action, as yet not worthy to understand the machinations of its underlying condition.

      • Speculating on the ground-breaking physical laws of the universe has to be fraught with doubt and self-reversal.

        It's much worse than that. Mere doubt doesn't even come close.

        Don't forget that the term "Laws of Physics" is just a pop-sci term to simplify the topic for the layman. In fact there are no such laws or if they exist then they are unknowable to us. The things which we loosely call "Laws of Physics" are actually "Laws of Physicists", in other words merely mental abstractions conjured up by human minds. Reality may not even understand or obey mathematics for all we know, and it certainly doesn't take the slightest bit of notice of any "laws" which we conjure up. All we're doing is expressing (roughly) how reality is seen to behave, and we're happy when we find a good mental proxy for that behaviour within a limited range of conditions. We make only very narrow claims, and they're infinitely distant from being actual "Laws of Physics".

        The role of the scientist is to dream up mathematical theories which accurately model the observed behaviour of reality, without having any idea of what's really behind the behavioral facade. And that's really mind blowing, because it's turtles invented by humans all the way down, yet it approximates to what we observe fairly well in most areas.

        To make matters worse, remember that the physicist doesn't have "root access to reality", to use a Unix metaphor. When we run experiments, we are using one behavioral abstraction of reality (a "user-mode API") to probe another behavioral abstraction of reality, as we totally lack any ability to see inside that "kernel". All we can see and touch and use is reality's behaviour and we can't see how that behaviour is actually implemented. For all we know it's all implemented by incredibly fast gerbils scurrying around behind the behavioral veil. We will never know --- we don't have root. All we can do is theorize what causes certain behaviours, and these theories are created entirely out of human-invented abstractions.

        And so, when we oh-so-confidently talk about (say) an electron, we know very well that what we are talking about is our model of a particular behaviour, without having any idea whatsoever what actually exists at that spot. All we know (with incredible precision) is how the thing at that spot behaves, and we can rely totally on that behaviour despite "electron" being only a human abstraction.

        It really is a major accomplishment, a triumph of the mind.

        standing ovation!

  • ...except, of course, about quantum interactions ("God does not play at dice" and "spooky action at a distance"). Or the unified field theory that he spent the last decades of his life chasing unsuccessfully.

    You don't have to be right every time to be a scientific giant.

    • I'm not sure unified field theory was wrong so much as a failed search. Researchers are still looking for it today - we know Relativity and Quantum Mechanics can't both be right, suggesting that one or both will eventually be replaced by something that can be unified.

      • by Anonymous Coward

        Why is it that R and QR can't both be right? I keep hearing this idea, but I haven't heard a concise description of why this is thought to be so. Appropriate linkage, or argument, would be helpful.

        • I forget exactly, I think a big one is that they demand different levels for the vacuum energy... as I dimly recall Relativity demands it be low (zero?), which QM demands it be high, potentially infinite.

        • It's not that they can't both be right (in fact, both are correct, insofar as calling a theory "correct" makes sense in physics), it's that they break down in certain regimes. This is the absolute last thing from surprising: every single physical theory we know of so far breaks down at some point. Newtonian mechanics breaks down at high speeds (relative to c). Classical mechanics breaks down in the quantum limit, and is replaced by quantum mechanics. Quantum mechanics breaks down in the relativistic limit (

        • by KGIII ( 973947 )

          Here, watch this:
          https://www.youtube.com/playli... [youtube.com]

          It's a bit long but pretty good. It's The Fabric of the Cosmos, from NOVA, featuring Brian Greene. It's well worth the time investment.

    • by ledow ( 319597 )

      Science is much more interesting to a scientist when you're proven wrong. And no scientists minds that. Not really.

      And doubting your own science is exactly how you reject those millions of private hypotheses that couldn't have led to anything as they were wrong, and drove you to work out why the maths still pointed that way, and didn't lead you down the garden path of easy assumptions.

      For scientists "being wrong" is merely a pathway to "being right". But sometimes they overshoot and it takes 100 years to

      • by Dunbal ( 464142 ) *

        And no scientists minds that. Not really.

        We must be hanging around different kinds of scientist. From my point of view I've seen people with massive egos. Those egos dislike even entertaining the possibility of being wrong, and usually they get where they are because they're a) good at bullying their fellow scientists and b) good at bullying people into giving the grant money to them instead of other scientists. A lot of them are even prepared to falsify results to support their continuing grant money and research. While I agree that they are the

    • If he freaked about God playing Dice, can you imagine his reaction to Feigenbaum's constants; it was kind of like knowing how many sides the die had.

    • This is off topic, and not a defence of anything that Einstein said, but...

      "God does not play at dice"

      Contrary to what most lay-people believe, quantum mechanics (QM) in no way requires that there be any random element to physics, or the universe in general.

      What leads people to claim QM is "random", is the fact that QM cannot be consistent with all of the following popular beliefs simultaneously:

      1) All physical laws are fully deterministic (non-random).
      2) All macro phenomena (with the possible exception of man's free will) are mere

      • by Boronx ( 228853 )

        You're leaving out many worlds interpretation which is consistent with all points.

        • No, that is covered in the link I offered: " many different interpretations have been proposed [wikipedia.org]".

          I am not attempting to suggest that QM, alone, proves that there is a God. I do believe that it can be proven - to any reasonable standard - that there is a God, but doing so requires discussing a much wider range of even-more-off-topic issues.

          As to the many worlds hypothesis - I agree that it is mathematically consistent with QM, but claiming that it is actually true is not reasonable. Justifying this claim on

      • Most modern scientists simply pretend that randomness is the only possible explanation, because they aren't interested in a God whom they cannot manipulate - or vivisect - a God who demands that they follow His moral laws, as the atoms obey His physical laws

        No, they accept randomness because it is the simplest explanation that is consistent with experimental evidence.
        There is no evidence, nor could there be, for the existence of great magician in the sky
        that is not bound by the physics we observe.

        • Randomness is an elegant explanation for the properties of QM, taken in isolation, but the sum of human knowledge, as a whole, points in a very different direction.

          We know that the physical is not all that there is, because there are many things which have no physical substance to them, and yet exist and play a major role in our day-to-day lives.

          How is it that our words have meaning, and that we can perceive it? How is it that you are experiencing this conversation?

          A mere sack of chemicals might indeed resp

  • "The story shows that even when Einstein's wrong, it's because he was already right the first time."

    The story shows that if you publish both proofs and disproofs of something, you're likely to be right half the time.

    • If you're not wrong sometimes, you're never sure you were correct all of the times you could have been.

  • Science (Score:4, Insightful)

    by ledow ( 319597 ) on Saturday February 13, 2016 @11:56AM (#51500425) Homepage

    Most great science begins with the words:

    "No, that can't be right. Or can it?"

    Einstein was no different.

    • I thought it was "That's weird..."

      • Doesn't matter. Without an experiment, you can't tell if you're onto something or are just confusing yourself. Even high school math class has examples where you can get a completely wrong answer if you don't interpret the solution correctly. How do we amass the knowledge and experience to tell what's real and what's a "nonphysical" artifact of the method of calculations? With experiments!
      • I thought it was "I'm sure I can get funding for this".
  • People are too hasty to jump to conclusions. This is just one bit of evidence. It will take much more time and additional evidence to definitively conclude gravitational waves are the real deal.

  • by fahrbot-bot ( 874524 ) on Saturday February 13, 2016 @01:07PM (#51500719)

    Even Einstein Doubted His Gravitational Waves

    Einstein's own gravitational waves were probably really, really small/weak.

  • by 140Mandak262Jamuna ( 970587 ) on Saturday February 13, 2016 @01:26PM (#51500845) Journal
    The unsung heroes of science are the peer reviewers. It is the peer review that gives science the feedback to stay on course. Without a strong and independent peer review there will be no difference between a philosopher, a quack, a pundit and a scientist.

    Most of the general public would not know that even Einstein's publications went through peer review and there were reviewers who checked and rejected Einstein's math. Think about it.

    Do we know the reviewers who rejected the flawed paper by Einstein? Or, are their names lost to history, without even a Tomb of the Unknown Reviewer?

  • He seemed to not like a lot of his own work:

    Photoelectric Effect -> early evidence for quantum mechanics, the consequences of which he really didn't like
    Cosmological Constant -> he started out with it, decided it was a bad thing and took it out, and now it's back with evidence
    Gravity waves

    • He seemed to not like a lot of his own work: ...

      He got the math right (mostly), but he didn't like some of the answers that he got. That happens a lot, with honest people.

      It means that there is more to learn.

      It's also a sign that he didn't fudge the results! 8-)

  • So he was for gravity waves before he was against them. Thank you, Senator Einstein. If you were still alive, it would be fun to watch you debate Bernie Sanders, who has no particular affection for the laws of thermodynamics and other pesky reality-check-type stuff. But the debate would be very colorful, a lot like sitting near a table at an early bird buffet in Florida and listening in. No, wait, I'm thinking of that most recent PBS-hosted debate.
  • The story shows that even when Einstein's wrong, it's because he was already right the first time.

    Unicorns don't exist. Hang on, maybe they do.

    Look everyone, I'm as smart as Einstein!

  • â€oeEnergy cannot be created or destroyed, it can only be changed from one form to another.†--Einstein.

    Einstein could have replaced Energy with Mass;

"355/113 -- Not the famous irrational number PI, but an incredible simulation!"

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