Tom Bethel has been riding an anti-relativity-theory hobby horse for years. He has recently published an article questioning the theory of relativity in the American Spectator . I have never met Mr. Bethel. I am sure he is a fine fellow; but he should stick to subjects he knows something about. Bethel apparently learned what he knows about physics (obviously very little) from a now-deceased friend of his named Petr Beckmann. Bethel tells us that Beckmann was an engineer. I have enormous respect for engineers— as engineers. But knowledge of engineering in itself no more qualifies a person to talk about fundamental physics than does knowing about baseball or butterfly collecting.

To a non-scientist, maybe there is not much difference between electrical engineering and fundamental physics—they both deal with equations and with electromagnetic phenomena, after all. But that is like saying that because a civil engineer who designs bridges is dealing with gravitational forces and doing calculations involving them he is therefore also competent to discuss the ins and outs of Einstein’s theory of gravity.

Bethel refers to a $2,000 prize that awaits anyone who can disprove a certain one of Beckmann’s crackpot ideas about relativity theory. I will offer a prize of my own. I will pay Tom Bethel $2,000 out of my own pocket if he takes the following courses at a first rate research university and passes them with a grade of A- or better: Classical Electrodynamics I and II (at the level of either Griffith’s book or Jackson’s book), General Relativity, and any course that covers the Dirac equation and relativistic field theory. If he succeeds in doing that, he will at least know what he is talking about when it comes to relativity. Why is it that so many people think they can talk intelligently about extremely technical subjects without knowing anything about them?

To a person who has only cracked open a book on relativity theory written for laymen, relativity seems strange, complicated, unwieldy, and ugly. That is because the way it is often explained in such books (in terms of moving clocks and meter sticks, etc.) obscures what is really going on. One has to get to a certain level of mathematics and physics knowledge to get a clear picture, just as one has to reach a certain elevation in hiking in the mountains before the vistas open up and one sees clearly the lay of the land.

Donald Rumsfeld spoke about the “known unknowns” and the “unknown unknowns”. The world is full of people who think they know something about physics, but haven’t even the barest inkling of what it is that they don’t know.

There is a certain kind of humility that is not only a Christian virtue, but a necessary condition of remaining sane. I barely know the rules of football. I played touch football (very badly) as a child. I don’t follow the sport. Would I feel myself competent to advise Charlie Weis on what plays to call? I have never taken lessons in flying any kind of airplane. Would I climb into the cockpit of a 747 and try to fly it solo to London? I know nothing about accounting or tax law. Would I try to do Donald Trump’s taxes? I have never taken any courses in medicine. Would I try to do a heart transplant? The answer in every case is no. Why? Because I am not crazy. Competence in theoretical physics is no less difficult to achieve than any of those other skills.

Articles by Stephen M. Barr


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