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A neo-Newtonian criticism of Relativity
Copyright 1995 by John Farrell, 71613,2330
Suite 201, 166 Forbes Rd., Braintree, MA 02184
"Yes, they contradict Einstein. But not the experimental evidence."
This is the legend of a bi-monthly newsletter, Galilean Electrodynamics,
put out by followers of the late Petr Beckmann, an electrical engineer and
Professor Emeritus at University of Colorado who died in August 1993.
Beckmann took early retirement in 1981, and spent years working on a way to
discredit relativity by modifying Newtonian physics.
Dr. Beckmann was the much-respected author of "A History of Pi," still
in print, readable, and very amusing thanks to its author's good-humored
crankiness about history. Much mirth is made at the expense of thug-like
Romans and dense monks of the Middle Ages, and the book has a certain
charm, even if some of its historical generalizations are dated. Written in 1970,
it reveals none of the mild self-righteousness that would characterize the
Galilean newsletter or Beckmann's self-published book, "Einstein Plus Two"
The book and newsletter claim that the invariance of the speed of light,
the cornerstone of Special Relativity, is unnecessary and that all of relativity's
experimental triumphs, including the mass-energy relation, can just as easily
be explained by a modified application of 19th century physics.
The reason for Beckmann's opposition to relativity is partly
philosophical, and perhaps partly political. But the degree to which he has
thought through a counter-theory is truly fascinating.
On perusing the selection of articles that have been issued in the
desktop-published Galilean Electrodynamics, one cannot help but admire the
industry of the late professor and his followers, physicists and scholars at
various universities--all apparently nostalgic for the salad days of Newtonian
physics. This would not be a flaw in itself if the theory pointed to something
new, or demonstrated how relativity fails.
For the fact is, it doesn't. The Beckmann theory rewrites Einstein,
finding identical results from a supposedly simpler 19th century assumption.
On this basis, the Galileans insist that space and time need not lose their
Beckmann's book asserts that the Michelson-Morley experiment (and
others) shouldn't be taken as proof of the Special Theory. He claimed that the
speed of light is not universally invariant, as Einstein postulated; it only
appears that way because it is actually invariant with respect to the earth's
local gravitational field. Beckmann doesn't question the result of the
Michelson-Morley experiment (nor indeed of subsequent experiments that
have confirmed Einstein's theory), but he questions the conclusions that
Einstein drew from it: that space and time were not absolutes.
As a counter theory, Beckmann's postulate that light is invariant with
respect to the local gravitatinal field has the virtue of symbolically restoring
the 19th century ether. The purpose: to serve as a medium for light.
Like the ether concept, Beckmann's local gravitational-field-as-medium
apparently moves with the earth in its orbit around the sun. It is important to
note that the field represents a physical reality. In Newtonian and relativistic
terms, the gravitational field is a mathematical means of determining the
influence of gravity. This is a crucial distinction, and it is the reason why
Beckmann's theory ultimately seems unsatisfactory. It reintroduces a ghost
mechanism for preserving what are, in the end, purely abstract philosophical
After all, the gravitational field is a term used to explain how objects
travel under the influence of gravity, a force that either works as action at a
distance if one speaks in Newtonian terms, or comes about naturally as a result
of the curvature of spacetime if one speaks in Einsteinian terms.
In neither theory does the field have a physical reality that can be said
to act as a medium.
According to Beckmann, however, Michelson-Morley received an
apparently null result because the speed of light had been neutralized by the
This raises an immediate question: If light is not universally invariant,
but invariant only with respect to the local gravitational field medium, how
does that truly differ from Einstein's postulate--since he and Newton claimed
that gravity is universal?
Indeed, by Beckmann's claim, once outside the Earth's gravitational
field, one must assume that the speed of light is made invariant by the sun's
gravitational field; and once outside the sun's, one must assume it is similarly
neutralized by the galaxy's, and so on.
Of course, all of these fields are cumulatively pervasive, so it seems
there is no difference between Beckmann's ad-hoc explanation and Einstein's
Special Theory. Light's invariance, for all practical intents and purposes,
remains universal. An attempt to perform Michelson-Morley outside the
Earth's field will therefore lead to the same invariance.
One also needs to ask how the new-fangled local gravitational field
medium makes the speed of light invariant. It has been confirmed that light
bends under the influence of gravity. But Beckmann's theory doesn't explain
how light's speed is affected. Gravity's power to bend the path of light has
nothing to do with its speed. So the Galileans have offered no practical answer
as to how light's velocity is supposedly made invariant by the gravitational
In any case, Beckmann rooted his alternate theory in the creation of an
invisible new medium, and built upon it, with the help of numerous
supporters, an impressive edifice. The Galileans have doggedly applied it to
virtually every experiment related to relativity, as a perusal of back issues
For example, one of the most interesting claims of the Galileans is that
Einstein's application of Special Relativity to explain stellar aberration is
Professor Howard C. Hayden of the University of Connecticut at Storrs,
who has taken over editorship of Galilean since Beckmann's death, completed
a Sept./Oct. 1993 issue claiming that subsection seven of Einstein's 1905 paper
was false in its prediction about aberration.
Specifically, Hayden uses the case of a binary star, Mizar (in the handle
of the Big Dipper), to derive an angle of stellar aberration inconsistent with
Einstein's own predictions.
As an aside: His was not the first paper to point out a supposed
inconsistency, by the way. In 1989, Thomas E. Phipps published an article in
the American Journal of Physics, also claiming the failure of Special
Relativity to accurately predict aberration.
Briefly, Hayden's paper asserts that Mizar reveals that the aberration
angle is related to the orbital velocity of the earth, and not to the velocity of
the earth relative to the rotating binary star, as Special Relativity holds.
Does this necessarily mean that Special Relativity is wrong, however?
Einstein's 1905 paper made two predictions in subsection seven, for
Doppler shift and aberration angle. The observed doppler shift does agree with
the theoretical value, and it does depend on relative velocity. In fact, this is
how astronomers identify rotating binary stars. Furthermore, the equations
predict a transverse Doppler shift which also agrees with observations but
doesn't appear in pre-relativistic physics.
If the aberration angle does not agree with the calculated angle for the
case of binary stars, and since both the Doppler shift and aberration angle are
calculated from the same equations in Einstein's paper, it is hard to see how
one can be right and the other wrong.
According to Professor Milton Rothman of Trenton State College, the
anomaly is resolved when it is realized that measuring the frequency change
of the light and measuring the aberration angle involve different initial
conditions. Once this is taken into account, the aberration angle does agree
with Einstein's theory.
Rothman, who is retired, hopes to submit a paper on the subject to the
American Journal of Physics.
Hayden's paper is to be commended, however, because it unquestionably
points out the error that many textbooks on relativity have perpetuated
through the years by misunderstanding Einstein's own example of stellar
What about other aspects of relativity? For example, the most famous:
the mass-energy relation. According to one Beckmann supporter, who writes
for the American Spectator, e=mc2 was derived independently of relativity,
sometime in 1908.
This is false. Einstein published his paper on the mass-energy relation
in the same issue of Annalen der Physik in 1905. He explicitly derived the
formula from subsection seven, when he pondered the energy being given off
by a moving object, like a star.
But in theory at least, it seems Beckmann's field-as-medium alternative
can apparently account for this as well.
The question to be asked is: does that in itself make his theory
compelling, and can his field-as-medium be demonstrated to be physically
In the preface to his book, Beckmann himself admitted that the
technology does not exist to show that light's invariance is really due to such a
In the absence of such proof, therefore, there seems no compelling
reason to prefer his theory to Einstein's--unless and until some crisis occurs
which cannot be explained by Special Relativity.
What is left to recommend Beckmann's theory then? Precisely its
supposed preservation of the concepts of space and time. These are concepts
that Beckmann claimed were understood "through the ages."
This is historically falsifiable. In the first Scholium to his monumental
Principia, Isaac Newton adopted the concepts of absolute space and time as a
convenience to facilitate the explanation of his laws of mechanics.
To quote from the Principia: "I do not define time, space, place, and
motion, as being well known to all. Only I must observe, that the common
people conceive those quantities under no other notions but from the relation
they bear to sensible objects. And thence arise certain prejudices, for the
removing of which it will be convenient to distinguish them into absolute and
relative, true and apparent, mathematical and common."
It will be convenient to distinguish them. This is important to reiterate,
because historically there has never been any consensus before Newton on
the absolute character of space or time. Indeed, if there was, as Newton himself
suggests, the consensus was that they were both relative. Newton knew he
could not prove that space was absolute.
So it is puzzling to wonder why the Galileans put so much effort into
reinforcing what was established as a convenience.
A brief look at space and time "through the ages" (over the past 2,500
years of history) is instructional.
Plato (not surprisingly) believed that space was absolute. He believed
that all ideas were absolute. In this he followed his predecessors. Aristotle
characteristically rejected this idea, however, and refused to give space any
definitive meaning apart from the objects of experience which helped to
define it. But Aristotle also believed there was a universal time, connected to
the diurnal motion of the sun.
Ironically, this view was disputed by Saint Augustine, who argued that
time had no meaning outside of the mind; to him it was purely psychological.
Indeed, his definition in Chapter Eleven of the "Confessions" presents a
haunting premonition of relativity.
As for the Church Fathers and medieval theologians, and even the
Islamic philosophers, they all disagreed as to the nature of space and time.
There was nothing like the consensus "through the ages" that Beckmann
claimed there was.
So it seems the motivation for his work, and that of the Galileans, is not
really scientific at its core. It is philosophical.
Beckmann himself was not shy about the motivation for his work. "I felt
I owed a debt to Newton," he once said. In the preface to "Einstein Plus Two",
he writes: "I am not so naive to think that the first attempt to move the entire
Einstein theory en bloc onto classical ground will turn out to be perfectly
correct. What I do hope is that the approach will provide a stimulus for the
return of physics from description to comprehension."
Two points: One, as many historians of science have pointed out,
Einstein's theory of relativity was the last great classical theory. Quantum
mechanics came immediately afterward, with all of its revolutionary
implications, and Einstein was not among its vigorous supporters.
Beckmann seems to have lumped relativity and quantum physics
together in his reaction to the kind of science which, he complained, consists
of "unreal acrobatics where the observer becomes more important than the
nature he is supposed to observe. . ." This is a typical and understandable first
reaction to the uncertainty principle and the principle of complementarity--
not to relativity.
Two, his claim that science is about comprehension rather than
description would meet with a great deal of disagreement, not only in
scientific circles, but in philosphical circles as well.
There is more to Beckmann's theory than philosophy, however. He was
a vociferous proponent of nuclear energy, and published a highly-regarded
newsletter called Access to Energy which promoted its use. Beckmann
distrusted the centralized government in Washington, and was a superb and
humorous critic of the proliferating movements of what he liked to call
"mumbo jumbo"--meaning the New Age.
But he was also critical of left-wing politics, and it's no secret that
Einstein and many other of this century's greatest physicists were leftish in
their political views. Is it possible that Beckmann let a reasonable disdain for
Einstein's political positions bleed into a suspicion about his science?
In a eulogy, given by Dr. Edward Teller and printed in the October 1993
issue of Access to Energy, the suggestion is apparent.
"I am about as certain as I can be that Petr Beckmann has been in error
when he opposed the theory of special relativity of Einstein . . . While Einstein
was right in his physics, he was systematically and thoroughly wrong in his
politics. Except in the one important special point: he did not like Hitler. And
that, of couse, was mutual, and in that, we agree with him."
It's true that a certain naivete did permeate the political views of many
physicists, although I think Abraham Pais has argued quite convincingly that
Einstein, in spite of the stereotype of his being absent-minded, was not naive
at all in his political views. In the case of those like J. Robert Oppenheimer, it
would not be unreasonable to label such naivete as tragic. This is a dangerous
reason, however, to be suspicious of his science.
As the above quote shows, Dr. Teller, the maker of the hydrogen bomb,
politely refrained from endorsing Beckmann's theory against relativity. And
he wisely noted that it carried a danger of subjecting the rest of the late
engineer's work on nuclear energy to ridicule.
Indeed, it seems the Beckmann theory has been subject to some
criticism. Unfortunately, the Galilean newsletter hints that this is due to a
conspiracy in academia to keep the truth secret. The newsletter adopts a tone
of dissidence and "rebellion." This is unfortunate, because it seems to invite
all the more a dismissive attitude, where more straightforward discussion of
the issue would benefit physicists and historians all around.
Relativity is not sacrosanct, by any means. There are serious alternative
theories of gravitation under consideration to address the incompatibilities
between the General Theory and quantum mechanics. But as the history of
science has shown time and time again, such changes are motivated by the
practical limits of theory itself, not the philosophical and ideological reactions
of scientists, however well-meaning.
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