When it comes to scientists, one of the most recognized names in our world is that of Albert Einstein. Einstein, who won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1921, is the creator of the theory of relativity which led to the prediction of amazing things such as deflection of light by gravity, gravitational lensing, black holes, gravitational waves, and the expanding universe, all of which have all been proven by many observations and experiments. Einstein ushered in a revolution in physics. He clearly was a genius, but in some aspects the way his mind worked was no different from that of any average human being.
Deflection of Light
Both Newton’s theory of gravitation and Einstein’s theory of relativity predicted that light would be deflected by a strong gravitational field, but Einstein’s theory predicted that light would be deflected by an amount roughly double of that predicted by Newton’s theory. In 1919 during a solar eclipse, it was observed that indeed light from stars close to the sun was deflected by an amount compatible with Einstein’s theory. This result, which made Einstein a worldwide sensation, has been verified with increasing accuracy many times since then. But what is less well known is that Einstein had originally made a calculation error which led him to find a deflection value no different from that predicted by Newton’s theory. This meant that the observation of the deflection of the light of stars by the sun would have disagreed with both theories. Thankfully, by the time the observation was made, Einstein had corrected his mistake, and the actual magnitude of the deflection agreed with his theory.
Einstein had figured out that, according to his theory of relativity, the strong magnetic field of a star could act as a lens and amplify the light of other distant stars behind it. But he realized the effect would be very small and fleeting, so did not deem it worthwhile publishing anything about it. However, in 1936 an amateur scientist named Rudi W. Mandl also figured out that this was one of the consequences of Einstein’s theory. He contacted Einstein who agreed the effect was indeed predicted by his theory and, after some pestering, consented to write an article about it. Einstein wrote the article acknowledging Mandl’s contribution, but stated in it that there is no chance of observing this phenomenon. At the time Einstein wrote this, he was thinking in terms of stars because the realization that there were distinct galaxies beyond our own was relatively new, and astronomers had not yet understood the real vastness of the universe. But astronomers eventually figured out that entire galaxies could act as gravitational lenses, and the first example of such a lens was discovered in 1979.
Another consequence of the theory of general relativity was the possibility of the existence of black holes, but Einstein was also dismissive of these entities, and he published an article in 1939 using his own theory to argue that black holes did not exist. In the decades after Einstein’s death in 1955, the evidence for the existence of black holes accrued until 2019 when a black hole was photographed for the first time.
Einstein’s theory of relativity included the possibility of the existence of gravitational waves, but he confided to some colleagues that he was skeptical about their existence or the possibility that they would ever be detected. He followed this by another article where he specifically examined the math behind such waves, but in this article, as was pointed out to him by other scientists, he made a calculation error. Two years later, he published another article where he corrected his previous error and finally laid down the correct mathematical framework for describing gravitational waves. However, Einstein remained skeptical about the reality of such waves.
Two decades later, in 1936, Einstein revisited the issue of gravitational waves in another article where he argued that the math really did not favor of the existence of such waves after all. He sent this article for publication in a science magazine, but the magazine sent the article to a reviewer who found a mistake in Einstein’s calculations. When Einstein redid the calculations, he found that the math did support the existence of gravitational waves after all! Still, the whole notion of the existence of gravitational waves was too outrageous for Einstein to accept. Untill the day of his death, he remained skeptical that these waves were anything but a mathematical construct, and even if they were real, he thought that they would be so faint that it would be impossible to detect them. The first gravitational waves were detected in 2015.
Expansion of the Universe
In 1917, Einstein wrote an article where he used his theory of general relativity to examine the universe. To his surprise, he found that the math indicated that the universe would expand forever. However, astronomical knowledge at the time indicated that the universe was supposed to be unchanging, so Einstein came up with a mathematical solution. He included a “cosmological constant” in the calculations, which prevented the universe from expanding forever. Other scientists challenged Einstein on this notion to the point that he conceded his original math without the constant was right, but he still doubted the reality of his conclusions. It was only after Edwin Hubble demonstrated in 1929 that the universe is indeed expanding that the prediction of Einstein’s theory were found to be right.
The above reveals how one of the greatest minds that humanity has ever seen worked. Einstein made mistakes. He was unsure about the implications of his theory. He changed his mind several times. He doubted or dismissed the existence of some of the very things that he is credited with predicting, and he sometimes even lacked the vision to imagine future realities.
This is how real science works and what real scientists are like. Science is messy. Scientists screw up. They vacillate, they change their minds, and sometimes they are unable to grasp the real consequences of the very things they propose. This IS normal, and is something that happens to everyone. But in the current poisoned climate where scientists on the “wrong” side of the culture wars are attacked for making mistakes, flip-flopping, or saying the wrong thing during an interview and so forth, one wonders if, for example, the discoveries that Einstein made would have been possible if he had been subjected to the scrutiny and slander that some scientists are subjected to nowadays.
The photograph of Albert Einstein by Orren Jack Turner obtained from the Library of Congress is in the public domain because it was published in the United States between 1923 and 1963 and the copyright was not renewed.
So far, the greatest achievement of physics in this century is the detection of gravitational waves. These are ripples in the fabric of spacetime created in titanic explosions millions to billions of light years away, such as the merger of black holes or the collision of neutron stars. The arrays of massive equipment that were used to detect the waves as well as improved versions under construction, will allow us to look at the universe in a new way and usher in an exciting era of space exploration. The detection of these waves represents the culmination of decades of arguments, counterarguments, mistakes, dead ends, and failed attempts at conceptualizing and detecting the waves by some of the greatest minds to have walked the planet. Chief among them was Albert Einstein.
And Einstein’s story, as most scientific stories are, is complicated. While others had considered and argued for gravitational waves, it was Einstein who formally laid the mathematical foundation for the existence of these waves with his 1916 article on General Relativity. However, the math was fiendishly complex and dependent on systems or coordinates that had to be chosen carefully. The conclusion that the waves existed was not straightforward, and was dependent on how you approached the calculations. Einstein himself was skeptical about the reality of the waves, and made it clear in letters sent to colleagues. Einstein and the scientist Nathan Rosen revisited the existence of gravitational waves again in 1936. After doing the elaborate math, they came up with an explanation of why the waves could not exist, and they submitted their research for publication in a leading physics journal, The Physical Review. The journal sent the article to an anonymous reviewer who found a mistake in Einstein’s calculations, and the article was not accepted. This greatly annoyed Einstein, as he had not authorized the journal to show his work to an independent reviewer, and he submitted the article to another journal which accepted it for publication.
On the meantime, the independent reviewer, the physicist Howard Robertson, managed to contact Einstein. By then Einstein had taken another look at his article and figured out there was something wrong with it. Without telling him that he was the reviewer, Robertson suggested to Einstein the right approach to perform the calculations. So Einstein redid the calculations and came to the opposite conclusion. Gravitational waves existed after all! He contacted the journal to prevent the publication of the article with the old conclusion, he rewrote the article, and finally published it with the new conclusion in 1937.
However, until his death in 1955 Einstein remained ambivalent about the reality of these waves, and whether they could even be detected if they indeed were real. His coauthor in the 1937 article, Nathan Rosen, was also skeptical regarding whether gravitational waves were more than a mathematical construct, and he published articles arguing against them using controversial mathematical procedures. In the late 1950s, several scientists built upon Einstein’s work and developed the mathematical approaches that firmly established the theoretical rationale for the existence of gravitational waves within the framework of Einstein’s theory of relativity. It would be 60 years after Einstein’s death before gravitational waves were finally detected.
The story behind gravitational waves is a success story of science and perseverance by generations of scientists with Einstein playing a central role. However, I wondered what would have happened if the research into gravitational waves had become politicized in the age of social media after, for example, a heavy-weight political personality publicly balked at the price tag of proposed gravitational wave detectors and labelled the science “fake science”. I imagine some of the resulting messages in social media may have looked something like this:
As it turns out the “genius” published in favor of #gravitationalwaves but in private argued against them! #Einsteinhypocrite
He was honestly for them, then honestly against them, and then honestly for them again? Yeah, right! #Einsteinflipflop
Why did a leading physics journal reject Einstein’s article against gravitational waves, and then a reviewer for the same journal secretly influenced Einstein to change his calculations and his conclusions? #ThePhysicalReviewgate #gravitationalwavescandal
#Einsteinfraud sold out to the scientific establishment that wants to milk the taxpayers for their hard-earned money to finance fake projects! #gravitationalwavehoax
Einstein and Rosen didn’t think gravitational waves would ever be detected, but now physicists are asking for billions to do just that. #fakescience
Any money for the #gravitationalwavescam is money that is not used to save lives and help ordinary Americans. Stop feeding the bureaucratic beast with #fakeprojects! Stop killing American Citizens!
You get the idea?
Now imagine doing science under this environment. If you publish anything “for” or “against” gravitational waves and are vocal about it, thousands of people may roast you in social media. Your past activities and statements will be scrutinized with a fine-tooth comb to find something that can be used against you. Any mistake you may have made, any publication you may have retracted, any change of opinion you may have had, may be incorporated into memes containing misleading or false statements about you that may go viral all over the planet. Someone may figure out your e-mail and phone numbers and make them available online. Dozens of people may contact you leaving insulting or threatening messages. Depending on your visibility, you may have to get or be assigned a bodyguard. Would gravitational waves ever have been detected if gravitational wave research had been politicized in this fashion?
The above scenario illustrates how you can take hold of the often complex and messy reality of human beings doing science (or any other activity for that matter) and twist it to argue in favor of nefarious purposes smearing the reputation of those involved and creating stress and anxiety for many people who don’t need it. Even though the specific scenario I presented concerning gravitational waves is fictitious, similar things are currently happening in the fields of climate change, vaccine science, and the research into the effectiveness of hydroxychloroquine and other drugs against COVID-19.
Do not politicize the science!
The photograph of Albert Einstein by Orren Jack Turner obtained from the Library of Congress, and an artist’s rendition of gravitational waves from NASA, are both in the public domain and were merged and modified.