Thursday, June 28, 2007

What’s the Use?

I don’t normally get into discussions of my various theories with others. I learned a long time ago that just mentioning the possibility that Newton was incorrect in his conclusion that gravity is proportional to and therefore a property of mass gets me instant recognition as someone who not only doesn’t know what he’s talking about, but is also probably unstable.
Forget the fact that absolutely no one understands the importance of first saying “gravity is proportional to” before saying “it a property of,” in short, what the qualifier "therefore" means, and absolutely no one understands what the meaning of mass is, using it as shorthand for matter.
Both the qualifier and the word “mass” give the lie to Newton. The only way that Newton could prove that gravity was a property of matter (not mass) was to prove it was proportional to matter. To prove it was proportional to matter, he had to compute the amount of matter in the Earth and the moon, assuming that each were uniformly made up of the same particle, and then he used that computation to predict the orbit of the moon. Although he was off quite a bit, everyone accepted his theory and assumed that the orbit of the moon wasn’t, in the early 18th century, exactly computable. Royal Astronomer and lifelong Newton supporter Sir Edmund Halley took the fall for that one.
However, when Newton’s process was used on the other planets, it was clear that it didn’t work. This meant that Newton didn’t prove that gravity was proportional to matter, pure and simply. Of this there can be no dispute. Newton’s proof failed.
What is the early 18th century scientist do about this? Did they say, well, Newton is in the crapper, we better start over figuring out what gravity is? No. Scientists said Newton had to be right, after all he was Newton and universally thought of as the greatest genius of all time. It’s not our place to criticize Newton, especially with universal belief in his theory that gravity is a property of matter. What should we do?
What they did is to reverse Newton. Scientists concluded Newton, while wrong in his proof, was right in his conclusion. What science should do is use the orbit of the planet to compute the amount of matter in it. As the computations reflected the same error that computing the orbits by the amount of matter, science simply said we don’t know the amount of matter in a planet, so whatever Newton’s math computes it to be from a planet’s orbit is how much matter is in the planet. This matter is now called mass because some very big planets don’t have as much matter as their size would indicate (the origin of the gas planets).
It was foolproof because, while Newton’s computation of orbits could be verified, the amount of matter in a planet couldn’t, so there was no way to disprove the new mass gravity computations. This leads to two salient facts about the practice of science, at least on a theoretical level: First, science will never correct itself and second science does not follow its basic tenant that it never accepts as fact that which can’t be verified.
I have, of course, talked about this with some very famous physicists who I knew on a personal level, and while they all readily admitted that gravity was a mystery, none would accept it wasn’t a property of gravity (or was the result of what gravity was doing) simply because their lifework was based on the assumption. But as to talking to anyone without intimate knowledge of the subject matter, I kept my peace.
An opportunity, however, arose recently to get into another of my pet peeves, the handling of light. I was having lunch with several people, one a nonscientist who is very opinionated about the science he knows, textbook science, the other a preeminent practicing, as opposed to theoretical, scientist, the ultimate authority in his particular field. For some reason one of them brought up the subject of aether, and the scientist said, no one believes in aether anymore. That opened the door for me to discuss the Michelson Morley experiment, perhaps a bit too wide.
Reviewing the history of light, I pointed out that before Newton, the argument was whether light was a wave or a particle, and the knowledgeable community was leaning towards Huygens’ position of light as a wave. However, when Newton took over The Royal Society and had it publish his Theory of Colors, the view switched to the particle side where it stayed throughout the 18th century. Then, with Young’s two-slit experiment, which was taken to show wave patterns, light became a wave for the 19th century (hmmm, must be wrong about science being self-correcting).
Now, here’s where my scientific friend’s comment about the aether came in. Young was analogizing light to water waves. Water waves are a disturbance on the surface of water. They do not have an independent existence. Thus, the water is the medium though which the waves travel. If water waves have a medium and light waves are being analogized to water waves, then it only stands to reason that light waves must also have a medium.
Ever ready to create something that isn’t there, scientists made up aether, said everything was permeated with the stuff, and this was the medium through which light waves traveled.
Pretty heady stuff, no? Not one thinker has bothered to ask the basic question about light, how does matter produce it, but all the thinkers have gotten together and given a minute description of light as a water wave traveling through a medium no one knew existed, but which, because everyone now knew light was a wave, had to exist.
As science mulled this over in its collective mind for, oh, perhaps seventy years, a new question started puzzling these geniuses of rational observation: What is the absolute direction of the Earth as it travels in space? We know it travels around the sun, but we don’t know the precise direction it is traveling in, there being no east, west, north or south “out there.”
Now here is a really important question to answer. What better piece of knowledge to have than to know in what direction everyone is traveling? Michelson and Morley, one a theoretician, the other an experimental apparatus designer, sat down and attempted to answer this question. They concluded that because the Earth was traveling through the medium aether, the aether itself could be used to compute the direction of the Earth in space. Because light used the aether as a medium, it could be used for this purpose.
The point of the experiment was to build on Young’s two-slit experiment to produce, or not produce, interference patterns. Light would be collected and sent down a course of a circular platform to the center, where it would be divided by mirrors. One path of light would go in one direction 90º, the other path the other direction, 90º. The light would be reflected when it reached the edge of the platform and sent back to the center, where it would be recombined and sent to an interferometer, a device that could compute interference patterns. As each path of light had traveled through the aether in different directions, and as the platform was moving through the aether, one path would take longer to reach the end than the other and there would be no interference pattern.
Because these enterprising men didn’t know which way the Earth was traveling in the aether, they place the entire apparatus on a bed of mercury so it could be rotated in any direction. As the apparatus rotated, the light would travel different distances in the aether, and the direction of travel could be determined by when there was and when there wasn’t interference patterns.
Everybody agreed that the scientific logic was foolproof, that the experiment would produce the desired results. However, no matter which way the platform was turned, the interference patterns always appeared. Thus, a foolproof experiment didn’t produce the expected result. In fact, it produced no results at all.
Oh my! Our open-minded, stalwart inquirers into the nature of reality would certainly sit down, like they should have done when Newton was found to be a failure, and said, wow, guess there’s no aether, light isn’t a wave, we’d better rethink our whole concept about what light is.
You think?
Actually, since the entire scientific community already knew what light was, it started looking around for an explanation that would explain the non-results of the experiment. And the answer was so simple, it just startled the world (and enthralls us to this day). The answer was reflected in something called the Lorentz Fitzgerald equations. You see, since there was an aether, and since the experiment was foolproof and since the experiment didn’t produce the expected results, there must be something about the physical equipment that was changing. Because it was known the light in the two paths was traveling different distances, there must be something that was counteracting that change in distance.
The only thing that could be counteracting the difference in distances was if the physical dimensions of the apparatus were changing in precise proportion to the change in distances caused by the apparatus’ movement through the aether. Thus, speed was causing the physical dimensions of the equipment to contract.
First these nitwits make up aether, then they use it as the basis of an experiment, and when the experiment doesn’t work, instead of rethinking aether, they make up something that is impossible to measure, measurements change with speed, the size of physical matter depends on its motion.
Although it gets very unclear at this point, Einstein’s theories employed much the same logic. However, Einstein disavowed the Lorentz Fitzgerald equations, and except for possible two times in his life, never mentioned aether, which is totally unnecessary in Einstein’s universe. This led to the gradual death of aether, at least until today, where zero point energy theorists like to trot it out, claiming its frictionless (that’s really confusing, a frictionless medium).
Einstein’s contribution to the light story wasn’t the death of aether, however, it was in his one solid discovery, the photoelectric effect. Now here’s science once again operating as science always operates. The photoelectric effect demonstrated once and for all that light was a particle. So, of course, science would now, after going back and forth between wave and particle to wave would now return to particle. Self-correcting, right?
Not on your life. Our stalwart thinkers said, well, isn’t that interesting, light is a particle. But we know it’s a wave. Therefore, isn’t it amazing, light has dual properties, it is a wave and a particle, a wave particle.
This stuff, delivered by a stand-up comic, would bring the house down.
So, I finally got off my high horse after delivering my peace. Was there discussion about all the untaken chances honest scientists had to revise concepts created in the light of newly discovered facts?
No, through dessert I had to enjoy a lively discussion between my two friends about how space travelers would stay young when compared to those remaining behind unless, of course, they used the newly discovered (read made up) worm holes to move from one end of space to another.
Ain’t science fiction wonderful?
What's the use in trying? The consequences of not trying!

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