In a slow mid-summer news cycle this year, Albert Einstein found himself unwittingly in the pantheon of the right’s culture-war targets, which already included Darwin, atheists, and paleontology. In August, the liberal-leaning site TPMMuckraker discovered that a conservative website called Conservapedia had labeled Einstein’s theory of relativity a liberal conspiracy. Conservapedia, meanwhile, had been founded in 2006 by Andrew Schlafly, the son of conservative political activist Phyllis Schlafly, with the announced purpose to counter the “liberal bias” of the user-written and -edited online encyclopedia Wikipedia while mimicking its aesthetic. Conservapedia looks to change the record on, among other topics, Richard Dawkins, the causes of homosexuality, “Hollywood values,” global warming, Barack Obama, and Judaism. (“The Talmud is another ancient Jewish writing considered by some Jews to contain traditions dating back to Moses himself,” it says.) Einstein joins this list under articles on the “Theory of relativity” and “Counterexamples to Relativity.” The latter describes relativity as “heavily promoted by liberals who like its encouragement of relativism and its tendency to mislead people in how they view the world.”
This is not the first time Einstein has met political resistance. In 1905, then working at the Swiss Patent Office in Bern, Einstein proposed that time and space formed a four-dimensional continuum with an absolute value for the speed of light, and he worked out the essential consequences of this very simple picture: special relativity. Ten years later, working in Zurich but also in Berlin, he incorporated the effects of masses and developed the theory of general relativity. The reaction in the scientific community was both a burst of experimental activity testing these theories’ predictions and a backlash of skepticism and confusion. Special relativity describes how observers moving steadily with respect to one another see measurements of space and time in the other’s frame. General relativity extended special relativity to include the possibilities of accelerating observers and predicted what happens around nearby masses. Together, the theories thoroughly upended accepted notions of space and time, and they remained controversial enough that when Einstein was awarded a Nobel Prize in 1921, it was for his work on the photoelectric effect, not relativity.
Some objections to relativity—the special and general theories are joined with this one word—were honest ones, part of the cooperative enterprise of science. The worldview that had become habitual was that the natural world was propagated on an ether, a kind of invisible loom on which the universe’s tapestry could be woven—God’s very “firmament” of Genesis 1:6-8, according to Conservapedia. Special relativity eliminated the ether. General relativity was first of all technically hard to understand, and secondly the changes it made to the predictions of the prevailing theory of gravitation—credited to Isaac Newton and dating to 1666—were only very fine ones, and small predicted effects are hard to test for. Moreover, general relativity was philosophically a radical departure from Newton’s description of gravity; Einstein’s general relativity shows that space-time is curved in the presence of masses. It was no wonder that even many physicists were honestly discomfited by relativity.
But other objections to Einstein’s ideas were not honest. Some German scientists, still harboring nationalist resentments from World War I and its aftermath (such as over English becoming the leading scientific language), found Einstein’s Jewish background, as well as his outspoken opposition to war, to be more offensive than his science. Einstein was called a “plagiarist”; his theory was called a “hoax.” And as Walter Isaacson recounts in his biography of Einstein, in 1921, a Munich party functionary named Adolf Hitler echoed a prevailing sentiment when he wrote disparagingly in a newspaper, “Science, once our greatest pride, is today being taught by Hebrews.”
When the Nazis came to power in Germany, opportunistic anti-Semitic physicists, including Nobel Prize winners such as Philipp Lenard and Johannes Stark, assailed Einstein. Lenard and Stark were not pure ideologues, at least in the earlier parts of their careers. Both made substantial Nobel-worthy discoveries in classical physics. But whether out of spite, bigotry, professional jealousy, or ignorance, Lenard publicly attacked Einstein, perhaps most famously during a 1920 meeting of the Deutscher Naturforscher-Gesellschaft, a typical scientific congress, when he said Einstein lacked common sense. (Einstein is said to have replied, “May I point out to my colleague Lenard that common sense is something very relative,” a wise-ass remark that wouldn’t have endeared him to anyone.) Privately, Lenard scribbled furious, hateful, and uncomprehending margin notes on Einstein’s 1905 article in the academic journal Z. fur Physik that established special relativity and among other things declared the now-famous equivalence of energy and mass. But this was hardly just a personal disagreement.
Under National Socialism, Lenard and Stark’s very visible attempts to discredit Einstein’s ideas on relativity were concurrent with the development of an ideologically driven Aryan version of science known as Deutsche-Physik, which adhered more closely to the classical model. Hitler himself was the symbolic leader, and said to be the premier scientist, of his nation’s physics, which was aligning with other areas of intellectual life in the prewar period in its opposition to all things non-Aryan. Deutsche-Physik represented the now unpleasantly familiar idea of a brutish political mechanism rejecting uncomfortable if well-founded science.
That new science came to be known in Nazi Germany as “Jewish Physics,” in opposition to Deutsche-Physik. “Bad” Einsteinian ideas, and those having to do with the thoroughly revolutionary science of quantum physics, comprised a threat to the absolutism of an established order. Special relativity did away with the ether, and thereby long careers dedicated to its study. General relativity, for its part, was non-intuitive: There was no way to directly visualize through human experience the curvature of space-time. As with many paradigm shifts, scientists of the old guard turned on other scientists rather than refuting the new science, lacking the tools to do so. Relativity was deemed too “theoretical,” too mathematical, too abstract. And though relativity had nothing to do with moral relativism, it still seemed to hint at a rejection of absolute certainty, and therefore order.
Einstein, already a controversial and convulsive figure by virtue of his outspoken pacifism and the revolutionary nature of his ideas, became the figurehead of “Jewish Physics.” Jewish physicists, who for a very long time had had to fight the anti-Semitic policies of some German universities, along with many of the German physicists who defended Einstein’s work, suffered slander, lost their academic posts, or went into exile. These included the quantum physicist Werner Heisenberg, who was neither Jewish nor politically active. In 1937, Stark publicly called Heisenberg a “White Jew”: In Nazi Germany this would have had serious negative consequences had Heisenberg not also had a remote personal connection to Heinrich Himmler.
At least part of the current hostility to relativity seems to stem from abuse of Einstein’s ideas outside of physics. The most noteworthy of these—directly cited in Conservapedia—is an article written by Laurence H. Tribe, the influential Harvard constitutional lawyer who argued for the losing side in Bush v. Gore in 2000 and later served as judicial adviser to the presidential campaign of his former student Barack Obama. Tribe’s 1989 essay, titled “The Curvature of Constitutional Space: What Lawyers can Learn from Modern Physics,” makes vague analogies based on a misunderstanding of Einstein’s ideas and those of quantum physics to discuss constitutional law. Tribe sees, for example, an equivalent to Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle in the way “the very act of judging alters the context and relationships being judged.” It may have been the fashion in academia in the late 1980s to find social and cultural relevance in scientific thought—and judging may indeed have an effect on society—but courtroom law has nothing to do with ideas about the physical world. (It was in 1992, in fact, that Noam Chomsky called the postmodern idea of science as a cultural construct—“the entire idea of ‘white male science’ ”—reminiscent of “Jewish Physics.”)
That Tribe’s description of what the American right now calls an “activist judge” was so egregious a misappropriation of an essential aspect of quantum physics was not what troubled those who now question relativity. Tribe’s conflation of Einstein’s relativity with moral relativism was for them, instead, evidence of something deeper. Tribe had published his essay in the Harvard Law Review and had acknowledged, among others, then-27-year-old Barack Obama for his “analytic and research assistance.” A few months later, Obama would become the first African-American president of the Review, and Tribe and Obama would continue to be closely linked. Last February, Tribe was appointed by Obama to his unusual position—one created just for him—at the Department of Justice. As Conservapedia puts it in its entry for “Theory of relativity,” under the subheading “Political aspects of relativity”:
Some liberal politicians have extrapolated the theory of relativity to metaphorically justify their own political agendas. For example, Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama helped publish an article by liberal law professor Laurence Tribe to apply the relativistic concept of “curvature of space” to promote a broad legal right to abortion.
As the Conservapedia version goes, Einstein is at the root of a Great Liberal Conspiracy. His work is not science but a foundation for radicalism; relativity is not a scientific theory but the advance guard for an all-out assault on the edifice of fundamental conservatism and, by extension, on absolute authority.
There is no overt or direct anti-Semitism in Conservapedia’s articles on relativity. There are instead a list of 30 “counterexamples to relativity” that purport to discredit Einstein’s theories. The list comprises outright falsehoods, miscalculations, deep misunderstandings of relativity and of the nature of science, and irrelevancies, such as biblical events. For example, Jesus violated special relativity’s proscription against speeds faster than light when he turned water into wine in Galilee (John 4:46).
What makes a theory in physical science? For a set of ideas to be “scientific,” they must have testable consequences. The Greek philosopher Thales of Miletus was likely the first, roughly 2,500 years ago, to lay out the idea that all observed events have discoverable causes. It’s an idea that—because it wrests authority from man and hands it to nature—has not always been politically acceptable. But Western civilization has used it for some 500 years to bring humanity a very long way in a short space of time. When a set of physical ideas sets up a framework that has quantitatively testable consequences for a range of phenomena—and those tests bear up—then this framework in science is called a theory.
The word has little to do with the detective who when he finds a dead man in a closed room announces a theory for how the crime was committed. “Only a theory,” is a dismissive phrase, one often heard in ignorant refutations of evolution, geology, modern medicine, and global warming. But the word is high praise in physical science, where it indicates depth of meaning and breadth of application.
In science, a theory is not a closed system, perfectly insular and complete. The degree and care with which a theory has been tested (and shown to hold up) bolsters its credibility, but does not shelter it from further testing. In science, there is no such thing as “completed testing” of a theory. Isaac Newton’s theory of gravitation makes testable predictions that are nearly perfect. Einstein’s general relativity makes all the predictions of Newtonian gravitation with tiny—and not so tiny in certain astronomical domains—corrections. Do the corrections required by general relativity show up in the data gathered from tests of those predictions? Every time. For example, Newtonian gravity predicts that the orbit of a planet around a perfectly spherical uniform sun is closed—it precisely comes back around to its original position. The presence of other planets, or a slightly non-spherical sun, Newtonian gravity holds, can cause the orbit not to close. General relativity introduces on top of all the Newtonian predictions a further calculable, tiny, but testable adjustment to the orbit.
General relativity, like all scientific theories before and after it, is subject to further testing, which may make it fail. This is precisely what happened to Newton’s theory. Despite the power and accuracy of the predictions general relativity makes about gravitation in the observable world, it has for a long time been known to be incomplete. When physicists try to incorporate quantum mechanics into general relativity, serious technical difficulties arise. There have been some ideas proposed that get around these difficulties—like “string theory”—but these ideas have yet to produce unique testable predictions that are within our current technological reach. As our understanding of the universe grows, general relativity will eventually be replaced by another, more complete, theory.
Yet contrary to the view of Conservapedians, relativity qualifies as extremely successful. Nuclear power plants, PET scanners in hospitals, and radioactive tracers, for example, all have critical aspects provided by relativity. The GPS in your phone, car, or airplane works by seeing how the signals from precise atomic clocks ticking away in satellite orbit (moving at nearly 9,000 mph) are received at the position of the detecting device. When there are several orbiting clocks emitting such signals, then a detector at different distances from them will receive the signals delayed, and triangulation off the two clocks provides a position. But for triangulation to work with enough accuracy to be useful, you have to know very precisely the rate at which the clocks tick. Both special and general relativity describe calculable adjustments to the clocks’ ticking rates—since the theories predict how clocks run at different speeds when moving relative to the observer or under the influence of large masses like the Earth. Without relativity to accurately predict these effects, a GPS system might tell us that we are 10 miles off the Jersey shore even if we are standing in Times Square. For its part, Conservapedia cites a 1997 web posting to erroneously note that “GPS satellites are synchronized to Coordinated Universal Time by radio signals from the ground; therefore, they cannot currently be used to test general relativity.” Strangely, that same source reads: “GPS provides a rich source of examples for the applications of the concepts of relativity.”
There’s another real-world device that can be used to test relativity, of course. The device was developed by exiled European scientists working off the theoretical concepts of what the Nazis called “Jewish Physics.” Like Einstein’s relativity, the device overturned a habitual worldview by providing a radical new vision of the world. And the device did more than re-prove Einstein’s powerful theory: It ended World War II, and it tragically proved that “Jewish Physics” in fact provided a useful and accurate description of the physical world.
Paul Fishbane is a professor emeritus of physics at the University of Virginia.