The relativity of wrong is an essay by Isaac Asimov, in which he argues that physics theories are never really right or wrong; rather what happens is that theories gradually get improved in such a way that they are always a bit less wrong than the previous version.

Humans instinctively believe what they are told, especially when the figure is revered as a great scientific mind, like Asimov. So it is no surprise that physics-believers tend to quote Asimov’s essay as a kind of documentary proof that current physics theories cannot actually be wrong, but only incomplete.

The essay is well-written, in that he offers what he sees as evidential proof of his hypothesis; however if we read it with a critical eye, it soon becomes apparent that Asimov is mostly wrong, and the student mostly right with his criticism.

Asimov wrote: “It seemed that in one of my innumerable essays, I had expressed a certain gladness at living in a century in which we finally got the basis of the universe straight. ……. The young specialist in English Lit, having quoted me, went on to lecture me severely on the fact that in every century people have thought they understood the universe at last, and in every century they were proved to be wrong. It follows that the one thing we can say about our modern “knowledge” is that it is wrong.”.

Like a religious man a little paranoid about criticism of his faith, Asimov heads straight for his core belief of relativity, and avows its correctness. However in his haste to defend current physics theories, I think Asimov really misses the point about what the student was saying. It is unlikely the student was really implying that our current models are incorrect, because he would lack the specialist knowledge to realise that. Rather what the student meant; was more that after major discoveries, physicists tend to pop the champagne corks and proclaim that they now understand the universe, only later to realise that there is actually plenty more to discover.

A recent example is Brian the Cool Fox, rabbiting on about how the discovery of the Higgs boson proves that we now have proof that we fully understand the universe. The classic example in summarised in Pope’s couplet:

“Nature and nature’s laws lay hid in Night.,
God said, ‘Let Newton be!’ and all was light”

Nobody can deny that Newton took our understanding of the solar system from virtually nil, to virtually complete. However Newton’s equations do not accurately describe the motions of galaxies unless an imaginary being called Dark Matter is invoked; whilst Newton was so profoundly ignorant of atomic theory, that he wasted hundreds of hours trying to turn lead into gold. So despite Newton’s huge triumphs, claiming he unlocked the mysteries of the universe is a great exaggeration.

A major problem with the essay; is that it confuses the fact that our understanding of the universe can never be fully complete, with the erroneous idea that individual theories are never completely right or wrong.

The student rightly points out that mankind always believes that current ideas are correct, and virtually complete, only to be proved wrong later. However if the student really did say “the one thing we can say about our modern “knowledge” is that it is wrong”, then he was clearly mistaken, because throughout history some of each era’s physics theories have turned out to right, some partially correct, and some complete nonsense.

Getting the basis of the universe straight, is certainly a relative concept. However Asimov’s apparently thinks differently; as his comment “I had expressed a certain gladness at living in a century in which we finally got the basis of the universe straight”, conveys the impression that he really thinks that previous generations were ignorant, whilst he believes that our current knowledge is so perfect that no future generation will be able to gain a fundamentally better understanding. This is of course what normal physics-believers believe; but the creative mind of Newton, clearly saw things differently with his quotes: “If I have seen farther it is by standing on the shoulders of giants”, and “the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me”.

On the other hand Asimov argues that individual theories are never really wholly right or wrong, which is of course complete nonsense. An idea which is neither right nor wrong, is “not even wrong”, and therefore not a scientific theory. The whole point of science is surely to make statements that can be generally agreed on. Whether or not it is a warm day, or whether something is heavy, is a matter of opinion; but scientists can certainly agree that the temperature is 15°C , or that a lump of metal has a mass of 1 kg.

The main example Asimov uses in support of his hypothesis, is when people thought the earth was flat, they were a bit right and a bit wrong; that when they thought it was spherical they were nearer the mark; that Newton’s grapefruit shape was better, but still wrong; and that we now know the truth, that it is in fact a little tiny bit pear shaped.

However if we actually pose proper scientific questions, rather than playing around with words, then we get definite answers. The question as to whether the shape of the earth is nearer to a ball than a piece of paper, has a correct answer; as does the question of whether the earth is exactly the shape of a ball.

Asimov goes to great lengths to try to show that the earth is nearly flat, but really all he is doing is using weasel words to make a false point. The scientific fact, is that if you stand on the shore of a lake, and look towards your partner 6 miles (10 km) away on the other shore, then the curvature of the earth is such that there will be a 2 metre high wall of water in the middle preventing you seeing each other. So whether or not one considers the earth to be nearly flat, depends on our definition of ‘nearly’ and ‘flat’. The word ‘flat’ is often used to denote level, rather than a completely straight line; and used in this sense the surface of a lake is of course completely flat, as if was not, the water would move to make it so.

Really the first people to form a positive opinion about the shape of the earth were the Ancient Greek philosophers, who reached a conclusion based on the shape of the sun and moon, and the shape of the earth’s shadow on the moon during a lunar eclipse. Whilst the Greeks could justly claim to be the first society to understand that the earth was spherical, it was little more than an observation, and in no sense a proper physical explanation.

Newton on the other hand, not only explained why heavenly bodies tend to gravitate towards the spherical, but also used his mechanics to show that centrifugal inertia must cause a rotating body like the earth to bulge at the equator, as most physicists are aware. However what most physicists do not realise, nor far less could calculate, is that such a bulge once formed must attract more matter towards itself by gravity, thus increasing its size. Newton calculated the bulge to be 17 miles (27 km) high; which would have been the right answer, were it not for the fact that many of the heaviest atoms in the world have sunk to its centre.

Asimov is of course correct that today we can determine the shape of the earth very accurately with satellites; whilst Newton merely had his maths. But Asimov’s implication that Newton was in some sense wrong, and that people like himself now have a better understanding of the physics which explains the shape, is rubbish.

The equatorial diameter is larger than the polar diameter by just one part in 300, or 13 miles; and if one was given a scale model of the earth, this would be less noticeable than the surface roughness caused by mountains such as Everest extending to over 5 miles above sea level. Nonetheless the bulge is a very significant geological feature. Ancient cultures noticed that each year on a particular date such as the spring equinox, the sun rises in a slightly different place relative to the distant stars. This phenomena is known as the precession of the equinoxes; and before Newton came along, nobody can have had a clue what caused it, as they did not understand gravity or realise the earth had an equatorial bulge.

Newton realised that the precession is caused by the varying pull of the gravity of the sun on the equatorial bulge, over the course of the year; and the varying pull of the moon over the course of a lunar month. This again is something that few people today have any understanding of, but which Newton figured out over 300 years ago.

On the other hand the pear-shapedness of which the Asimov seems so proud, is not a proper description of the shape of the earth at all. It is a bulge of a few metres in the southern oceans below the equator. But you only need to view a map to see that most of the land mass is in the northern hemisphere, and much of it extends many metres above sea level; so in terms of volume, the earth is really more pear-shaped towards the northern hemisphere.

The problem with Asimov is that he really just a wordsmith, merely repeating things he has been taught without having any real understanding. He has gained popularity by telling people what they want to hear: “that since physics theories can never be wrong, that therefore none of physics current pet theories can possibly be fundamentally flawed”.

Obviously once a correct theory has been established, it can never be wholly disproved; but all too often physicists do come up with completely wrong theories. Whilst Aristotle did correctly diagnose the shape of the earth, his theory that the earth was stationary in the centre of the universe was completely wrong; yet on this basis, medieval scholars created a mathematical model of the solar system, based on crystal spheres and epicycles, which did agree with the astronomical data. This model was fundamentally wrong, and surely only a fool would maintain that Kepler’s elliptical orbits, in a heliocentric solar system with a rotating earth, were in any sense based on the nonsense of crystal spheres. Yet this does seem to be what Asimov is implying.

Aristotle also thought that everything was made from earth, air, fire, and water; this again is wrong, as everything is in fact made from protons, neutrons, photons, and electrons. Atomic theory is correct, and nobody will ever be able to truthfully say that is not the case. That is not to say that physicists now have a full understanding of matter, as the question remains as to what these particles are made from. Physicists of course believe the answer lies in quarks; but in reality quarks are a theory every bit as wrong as crystal spheres and epicycles.

The problem is, that highly religious physics-believers like Asimov have encouraged people to believe what they have always wanted to believe; that we are living in a century in which we finally got the basis of the universe straight, and therefore there is no possibility that any of our current theories could be substantially wrong; so it looks like we are stuck with nonsense like quarks for the foreseeable future.

Getting the basis of the universe straight, is very much a relative concept; and I reckon it was the 17th century when the greatest leap forward was made; because at the beginning of that century, things had hardly progressed since the Ancient Greeks, whilst by the end a virtually complete mathematical and mechanical model of the solar system was in place. The 18th and 19th centuries saw great advances in our understanding of atoms, light and electricity; but it was only in the 20th century that those three things were put together in a single theory.

If Asimov had expressed a certain gladness at living in the century in which we finally realised that everything on earth is little more than a collection of electric charges exchanging photons, then that would have been an accurate statement. But his generalisation reflects the perennial human arrogance of believing that our current ideas are beyond reproach, the very thing for which the student chastised him. It also reflects the way in which the modern atheistic science-believer, with nothing much to believe in except science, finds it almost impossible to accept that any current physics theories can be wrong.

The completion of atomic theory in the first half of the 20th century, was certainly mankind’s greatest intellectual achievement; however the 20th century was also when physics degenerated into a religion, in which belief in the literal truth of special relativity and quantum mechanics, led to an environment when just about any old nonsense would be accepted, provided it could be claimed that it agreed with experiment.

The universe must ultimately be a very simple organism, and the great physics theories explain much on the basis of very few actors; which makes them not just philosophically pleasing, but also mathematically verifiable. That is true of atomic theory, and also of Newtonian gravity; where the same equations explain the elliptical orbits of the planets, and the size of the ocean tides. But the imaginary beings invented by physicists in the late 20th century, are not falsifiable in this way, because there is no mathematical relationship between the strength of the Higgs field, the stickiness of gluons, the mass of quarks, or the behaviour of dark matter and dark energy.

Squish theory pushes atomic theory to its logical limit, by explaining particles like protons and neutrons, in terms of positive and negative electric charges. However physicists are so in love with their imaginary beings, that nobody is interested.

For more on the equatorial bulge, click the link on the top left. For more on why quarks are nonsense, click on ‘home page’.  There are also pages ridiculing the belief in the Higgs field.

© William Newtspeare, 2012.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to William Newtspeare, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.