Dr. Larson's Blog

An Absolute Theory

 

Absolute Theory 1. Back in the late 1880's it was believed that light was a wave propagating on a solid medium. That solid medium was called the Aether, based on a similar concept going back as far as ancient Grecian civilization. The reasons for the belief were on a solid footing. There was, and is, substantial evidence that light has wave characteristics. As one important example, interference patterns can be observed. When two waves collide with each other, you can observe a doubling of the size of the disturbance when the crests overlap, and a cancellation of the disturbance when the crest of one overlaps with the trough of the other. Experiments done with light show just such results.

 

Absolute Theory 2. As mentioned last time, back in the late 1880's it was believed that light was a wave propagating on a solid medium, called the Aether. The reason the Aether was believed to be a solid was because it was observed that light could be transversely polarized. For today, we'll discuss polarization. You might be familiar with this through your sunglasses interacting with glare. When light bounces off things it gets partially polarized so that most of the energy is in oscillations related to the direction of the plane that it bounced off of. By blocking light with that polarization, your sunglasses reduce only that portion of light, so the glare is reduced, but the other things you look at still are quire bright. If you haven't tried it, you should sometime take your sunglasses and rotate them in front of your eyes. Or just tilt your head to the left and right while you wear them. You can see the effect of polarization yourself in that simple experiment.

 

Absolute Theory 3. It is known from everyday observations that only solids can support transversely polarized waves which can be polarized in more than one direction. A wave on a string, such as a whip, has a disturbance that is perpendicular to the direction that the disturbance moves along the whip. The wave can be up or down, or sideways, or in between, showing it can be polarized in more than one direction. This is what transverse polarization in multiple directions means. A string is a solid. Waves in liquid (water waves), or waves in gas (sound in air) do not show transverse polarization in more than one direction. Since light exhibits both transverse polarization in more than one polarization direction, as well as interference, in the late 1800's and early 1900's light was believed to be a wave on a solid, and that solid was called the Aether.

 

Absolute Theory 4. Since it was believed that light was a wave on a solid Aether that occupied all of space, scientists in the late 1800's set out to measure the velocity of the earth through the Aether. The first truly successful attempt at such a measurement was done by Michelson and Morley. See here for details. What Michelson and Morley did was to shine light through a set of mirrors, with half the light going through one path and the other half going through a perpendicular path, and then the light was recombined, resulting in an interference pattern. By doing the math it is easy to show that light going back and forth in the direction of the earth's motion would take longer to make the round trip than light that moved perpendicular to the earth's motion. By rotating their apparatus, the velocity of the earth through the Aether could be found by observing the shift in the interference pattern, since what was perpendicular would become parallel and vice versa. But in a very striking result, they found no shift at all!

 

Absolute Theory 5. When the result of the Michelson Morley experiment showed no shift in the interference patterns, this implied that there was no motion of the earth through the Aether, and scientists were quite puzzled. The results were verified many times, and only a few options were thought of at that time. The first option was that the earth really was the center of the universe, as believed by the ancients. But this had the extremely unsatisfying ramification that it meant that the whole of space orbited around the sun as the earth does. So that option was discarded. There were also some other rather bizarre theories put forth. But the idea that got the most scientific attention was that the apparatus itself was changed as it moved through the Aether.

 

Absolute Theory 6. The result of the Michelson Morley experiment led scientists to believe that something must be happening to their apparatus as it moved through the Aether. A proposal was made that the apparatus was shrinking in the direction of its motion by just enough to cancel out the original expected effect. Later, from other experiments, it was also argued that clocks must slow down as they move through the Aether as well. These effects of "length contraction" and "time dilation" became well accepted. Major players in the development of these concepts included Fitzgerald, Larmor, Voight and Lorentz. Lorentz was the first to write a paper with all of the equations in place, and his Lorentz Transformations are still in use today. Indeed, I used the Lorentz Equations in all of my successful high velocity accelerator designs.

 

Absolute Theory 7. Despite the success of the Lorentz Transformations in explaining all known experiments, scientists in the early 1900's felt that the situation was highly unsatisfactory. The complaint was that we shouldn't just be making up theories (lengths contract as the move, clocks slow down as the move) just to explain the results of some random experiments. There should be a guiding principle that explains things without such ad hoc proposals. Poincare suggested that there might be some sort of relativity principle that could explain things, but it was Einstein who was first to elegantly present such a principle in a way that leads to the Lorentz Transformation.

 

Absolute Theory 8. In 1905 Einstein proposed a radical change in thinking. Up to then, physicists started with concepts of space and time, and formulated equations for other things. Velocity was derived from the distance traveled divided by the time it took to do the traveling. Here, distance is a length in space. We call length and time "primitive" quantities. And we call velocity a "derived" quantity. But a well known result of the Lorentz Transformation was that if you would get in a space ship traveling at close to the speed of light, and measure the speed of a light beam passing you, you would measure that light beam to have a speed that was the same as what it was if you were standing still. That is - the speed of light appeared the same, whether you moved toward it (in which case you would think it should be faster) away from it (in which case you would think it should be slower) or not moving at all. This result comes about because, as you move, your measuring sticks shrink and your clocks slow down, and you must use such things to do your measurements. What Einstein did was to take this known result, and raise it to the status of a postulate. He made the primitive quantity the speed of light, and from that, length and time would become the derived quantities. This was indeed, a radical change in thinking about physics.

 

Absolute Theory 9. Einstein's theory of relativity was not immediately accepted. Lorentz did not accept it even up to his dying day. It is, after all, ridiculous on its face. It essentially says that 1 + 1 = 1. (In the limit, which cannot be reached, it says that c + c = c, where c is the speed of light.) Hence, to those who misunderstand it, it is OBVIOUSLY WRONG. But it was EXPERIMENTALLY RIGHT, and once its fundamentals are understood it is also logically correct and mathematically sound. It does have very strange ramifications on what is meant by space and time, however. Spatial separations for one set of people would become a spatial separation plus a time difference for another set of people. What is "the same time" becomes a matter of dispute - it is "relative" to one's motion. Space and time themselves vary depending upon ones motion - they too are relative to one's motion. This new relative theory was a new way of thinking that was radically different from the older "absolute" theories of space and time. So not only did relativity seem ridiculous on its face to those who don't fully understand it, but it also required such a radical change in our thinking by those who did understand it that it faced a lot of opposition. Indeed, it has continually faced opposition, and does so until this very day.

 

Absolute Theory 10. Much of the opposition faced by relativity comes from those who simply do not understand it, and that is very unhelpful. It results in a situation where any critique of relativity is generally viewed by the experts as being from a nut who just does not get it. And sadly, about 90% of the time the criticisms are indeed leveled by people who just don't understand relativity. However there is one line of thinking in opposition to relativity that is widely known to not be nutty at all, and this line of thinking was originated by Einstein himself!

 

Absolute Theory 11. In 1935, Einstein, along with Podolsky and Rosen (EPR), wrote a paper concerning the fundamentals of quantum mechanics. In it, they essentially showed how quantum mechanics predicted results that would be in violation of relativity. In 1965, John S. Bell wrote a paper extending the EPR effort in such a way that actual tests could be done. And then, in 1982, Aspect, Dalibard and Roger (ADR) did an experimental test of Bell's theorem. ADR showed that the quantum mechanical results were correct. Since EPR had essentially laid out a competition between relativity and quantum mechanics, and quantum mechanics was shown to be correct, this experiment was quite challenging for special relativity.

 

Absolute Theory 12. Bell's theorem created a test between quantum mechanics and relativity. Even though there was now experimental proof that quantum mechanics held up in the face of Bell's theorem tests, by 1982 relativity was well entrenched as a "known truth" of nature, and by then the founder of relativity, Einstein, was revered as the greatest scientist of all time. Almost all physics departments have pictures of Einstein - many physics students only know about Lorentz in a way that says he was an old fashioned guy whose ideas have been fully discredited by our modern way of thinking. All of the physics texts are built upon an assumption that relativity is correct. Accelerators and many other tests all work according to the results of relativity, so clearly the results of the Bell's theorem tests were a fundamental problem for all of physics.

 

Absolute Theory 13. Both relativity and quantum mechanics had been studied for decades, and both theories had been thoroughly validated experimentally innumerable times. Yet, the test of Bell's theorem indicated that they could not both be correct, if the original Einstein, Podolsky and Rosen (EPR) paper was itself correct. It did not take long for modern physics to find the "flaw" in EPR. The "flaw" was that EPR had assumed the existence of an objective reality of nature. And hence, to save relativity, all that was required was to abandon the concept of objective reality, and that is the path that is now followed. EPR is considered to be one of Einstein's few mistakes. But of course, there are other possibilities. One could instead simply go back to the principles that guided space time physics before relativity. In addition, I made a new proposal of my own.

 

Absolute Theory 14. Back in 1988, while I was a Physics professor at UCLA, I came up with the idea that this whole idea of a length contraction might be bogus. I had never liked the idea that physical lengths shortened as things moved through space, much less the idea that space itself changed depending upon ones motion. And I did some calculations that showed that the Lorentz Transformation for a single event could be derived without the length contraction. It was still important that clocks ran slow when they moved - but I showed how the Lorentz Transformation for a single event could be derived from time dilation alone. I thought that this was a truly important advance for mankind, and that I would soon be famous.

 

Absolute Theory 15. In addition to proving that the Lorentz Transformation for a single event could be derived from time dilation alone, I also had another concept that I really liked. The concept was that, as we travel in space, we also travel forward in time. You can understand this concept by envisioning what it would mean for a watch as you travel with it into the future. If you travel into the future by one minute, starting at high noon, 12:00, then what will happen is your watch will still read 12:00 when everyone around you has their watch now at 12:01. If you would travel into the future for one minute every hour, your watch would progressively lose a minute every hour. And so, it would look like your watch was "running slow", recording only a 59 minute advance for every hour that goes by. In the well known and proven case for time dilation, it is known that clocks (physical phenomena) "run slow" when they travel through space. But as just described, clocks will also run slow if they are traveling forward in time. So what I proposed was a theory of coupled spatial and temporal travel - when anything travels through space, it also travels through time. Starting from this simple postulate, I showed how the Lorentz Transformations could be derived for single events.

 

Absolute Theory 16. Since LA was grotesquely expensive to raise a family, and my promise of a tenured position was postponed indefinitely, we moved to Florida in late 1988 where I worked on free electron lasers at the University of Central Florida. But I continued to work on my idea of the absence of a length contraction. I sent several letters to John Bell, the physicist who proposed the theorem that led to the experiment that pitted quantum mechanics against relativity. He wrote back early on, but did not answer the last three. In time, I learned that he had died not long after replying to my second letter. But in his reply to my second letter he stated that he did not see how length contraction could come from time dilation, as I believed I had shown. After thinking about it more, I realized that my derivation of the Lorentz equations from a concept that had no length contraction had merely looked at single point-like events, and had not looked at the coupling of two such events. And therefore, I had a problem explaining the Michelson Morley experiment unless I accepted the fact that there was, indeed, a length contraction.

 

Absolute Theory 17. After I was led by John Bell to admit that my earlier derivation of the Lorentz equations from time dilation alone had a problem with the Michelson Morley experiment, I began to think about alternative explanations for that experiment. I still really didn't like the whole concept of the length contraction, since it meant that distant planets get shriveled up into almost totally flat disks, and orbits become almost one dimensional, and that never seemed right to me. And indeed before long I did come up with a different explanation of the Michelson Morley experiment.

 

Absolute Theory 18. My new proposal for a theory of the Michelson Morley experiment was based on something very simple. Recall that back in the 1880's people thought that light was a wave on a solid Aether, and that these waves can be thought to be somewhat similar to waves on a string. Well, if you place your left thumb and forefinger on a long rubber band (a string) at one place, and do the same with your right thumb and forefinger at a different place further down the rubber band, you can have someone else pluck it in the middle and you will get oscillations of the rubber band between the spots where you hold it down. If you now slide your fingers along the rubber band, keeping the distance between your hands fixed, the oscillation will continue, but clearly there is still no oscillation where you are holding it. What happens then is that your fingers enforce a condition where the rubber band has zero oscillation at the point where your fingers hold it fixed. If you mathematically analyze it, you will see that by moving your fingers along the rubber band this enables you to CHANGE THE VELOCITY OF THE WAVES of the string. In my next post, I will explain how this simple observation is crucial to understanding the Michelson Morley result.

 

Absolute Theory 19. In the Michelson Morley experiment, light was bounced off of mirrors and then recombined to show an interference pattern. And so it is important to understand what a mirror does. A mirror acts to reflect the light. Since the mirror is a conductor, the electric field of the light gets canceled at the mirror surface. One way of understanding the reflection is that you have your original wave coming at the mirror, and then the mirror generates a wave going back against the original wave. The newly generated wave exactly cancels the electric field of the incoming wave at the surface of the mirror so that there is zero electric field there. If we now postulate that the electric field oscillation is the oscillation of the Aether, we can see that what the mirror is doing is to enforce a point of zero oscillation of the aether at the planes of the mirrors. This is fully analogous with enforcing zero disturbance of a string by holding it with your fingers as discussed in a prior post. And from that analysis, I proposed the simple idea that the mirrors of the Michelson Morley experiment were CHANGING THE VELOCITY OF THE WAVE between them, and that proposal clearly and simply leads to the famous null result. This is because there is a forced zero at each mirror position where the light reflects, and since the interference is just the result of a phase overlap and the mirrors enforce the condition that the phase will not change as the device is rotated. So perhaps there is no length contraction after all!

 

Absolute Theory 20. When I came up with the proposal that the mirrors of the Michelson Morley experiment might be actually changing the velocity of light within the device, I was surprised that I had never heard of that proposal before. It seemed so simple, and in hindsight, almost obvious. There were proposals that the earth was dragging the Aether with it, and some re-emission theories, and a bunch of other ideas, but I had never seen this simple proposal made. By the mid 1900's it was quite well known that quantum mechanical results are often affected by the measuring apparatus, but that was unknown when relativity took hold. So it is my guess that the reason no one thought about the mirrors forcing the result was that relativity had provided the answer for many years by the time quantum mechanics came around, so no one felt the need to find another solution.

 

Absolute Theory 21. With my new proposal for the Michelson Morley result in hand, I then spent about two years going to the University of Central Florida library almost every day to review all of the literature to see if anyone had indeed proposed the idea before. I did find one paper by a man named Wesley who proposed something that appeared somewhat similar to my proposal. But when I wrote to him to ask about it, he said that of course the Michelson Morley experiment is a standing wave (similar to the rubber band oscillating between ones fingers I described in an earlier post) but he then went on to say his work was completely different than mine. I also did an exhaustive study to see if there was any actual measurement of length contraction outside of the Michelson Morley experiment. I found one test that did indeed look like it might be proof that length contraction exists. Scientists had bounced pulses of light back and forth to the moon, and they claimed that their tests were consistent with a length contraction.

 

Absolute Theory 22. Funding for our free electron laser group got cut, and in 1992 my wife, son Nate, and I moved to Texas so I could work on the Superconducting Super Collider, which was planned to be the next crown jewel in the physics kingdom. I continued to look into the issue of length contraction while there, and I studied in detail the NASA tests of bouncing light back and forth from the moon. It certainly did look like they had proven the existence of the length contraction. But one thing I could not understand was how they could have so accurately measured the angle that they sent the light out. It seemed to me to be an extremely hard measurement to make. I wrote to them and they wrote back saying that they had calculated the angles assuming the length contraction existed. So they hadn't really measured a length contraction at all! At that point I began work on a very thorough paper describing my work and the state of the experimental proof for a length contraction.

 

Absolute Theory 23. At the Superconducting Super Collider there were weekly talks given, and I asked to be able to give a talk on the matter of the length contraction. I was happy that the powers within the lab allowed it. I was also happy with the response, as several of the top theorists there agreed with me that there really was not any proof that the length contraction really existed. The lab had recently put together a "publication committee" to vet papers before they could be submitted, and I dutifully submitted my work to that august body. The publication committee approved the submittal, and I submitted my work to Physical Review Letters, the most prestigious physics journal.

 

Absolute Theory 24. In addition to attempting to publish my work on the length contraction, I also proposed an experimental test. Back at the University of Central Florida a group there had been working on building the shortest pulse lasers in the world. I had calculated that their pulses were actually short enough that we could do the first ever group velocity test of the speed of light in perpendicular directions. It was possible that only the phase velocity was affected by the mirrors in the Michelson Morley apparatus, and not the group velocity. (The group velocity is the velocity of the energy packet, while it is the phase velocity that results in interference patterns.) If this was indeed the case, we could measure the earth's velocity through the aether! We submitted the proposal to the National Science Foundation.

 

Absolute Theory 25. Our proposal to do a group-velocity equivalent of the Michelson Morley experiment got two F's and one D from the National Science Foundation. This was during a time when you needed three A's just to get in the running for money. The reviews were not based on any experimental flaw, rather, they were based on the KNOWN FACT that relativity was correct. Even though I had done extensive work to show that alternative theories could indeed explain everything that relativity explains, my proposal was completely dismissed, and it was clear no reviewer had even given it any serious consideration. At the time, I was shell-shocked. The entire point of science is always heralded as hypothesis followed by tests, and that we should never trust any theory and always do all possible tests. Here we were proposing a $10,000 test that could be a revolutionary scientific advance and the proposal got two F's and a D. And this at a time when the SSC was approved and going to cost $5 Billion. I did not understand it. But what I found even more disturbing was the fact that my colleagues no longer wanted to do the test unless it was done under approved funding. We probably could have done it for less than $1000 of parts and freely put in our time after work. But there was a fear that doing such a thing might upset their other funding if it became known we were doing such a thing.

 

Absolute Theory 26. Back at the Superconducting Super Collider, I heard back from the Physical Review. They rejected my paper that described how the length contraction may not in fact exist. But the reason for the rejection was extremely odd. The reviewer stated that special relativity is well known not to have a length contraction! This was completely wrong, and every physicist I knew agreed with me that the review was bogus. So I appealed. Months later, when the appeal came back, the appellate reviewer sided with the original reviewer. And this was coming from the top physics journal in the world! So at that point, I posted the reviews on my cubical with a heading saying something along the lines of "News Flash - Physical Review declares special relativity does not have a length contraction". But after a few days I realized I was just pouting, and took it down. It was time to submit to another journal.

 

Absolute Theory 27. With my absolute theory work having just been rejected by the Physical Review on entirely bogus grounds, I found another journal that I wanted to submit to. But before doing that, I again sent my work through the SSC publication committee. But this time, much to my surprise, the publication committee rejected my request. When I asked about it, I was told that they felt that they could trust the Physical Review to do a good review, but they could not trust other journals. A bit later, I got an anonymous note on my desk. It said that there had been some push back at the upper levels as to why the SSC even needed a publications committee. One of the "leaders" at the SSC replied with something along the lines of "there is someone, not an expert in special relativity, writing papers on special relativity. In order to maintain the reputation of the SSC, that is why we need a publications committee". I felt so proud. The premere lab in the world had set up a publication committee just to thwart me!

 

Absolute Theory 28. Fate was not kind to the Superconducting Super Collider. Around 1992 a change in politics at the national level led to the eventual defunding of the project. This was a quite difficult event for all of us who were involved there. Everything many people had worked on for years was simply being thrown away. And in its dying throes, the publication committee had its final meeting. And in a bit of irony, I not only was allowed to publish my absolute theory work in a peer reviewed journal, but the SSC paid for the related charges. And my byline on the paper is from the SSC. You can see a copy of it here.

 

Absolute Theory 29. I believe it was after the publication of my absolute theory paper that a couple of relevant things came up. The first thing was the observation of earth tides. Normal tides are caused by the gravitational pull of the moon on water, but there is also a gravitational pull on the ground. Researchers in Europe claimed that they could see evidence of this phenomena by observing the orbit times of particles in a very large recirculating accelerator. I took a brief look at it, and came to the conclusion that their experiment might actually be the first actual evidence for a length contraction. On the other hand, after my experience with the lunar ranging (where they assumed special relativity to do their analysis) it might be that the earth tides were another experiment that really doesn't prove a length contraction exists. I have not yet dug deeper into this issue.

 

Absolute Theory 30 - Conclusion. After the publication of my absolute theory paper (a copy of which is here) I have realized that a group velocity equivalent of the Michelson Morley test could show a null result even if length contraction does not exist. This is because you can sum up components of the group, each of which has a given frequency, and all of those components could be phase locked by the mirrors. So I no longer am entirely certain that the group velocity test will be definitive. Nonetheless, I feel the test should still be done. All new tests of nature should be done! Should I ever succeed financially to the point where I can fund this myself I will do so. And so in conclusion, there has never truly been a test to show that the length contraction exists, and relativity may be just another theory that mankind has believed to be a Great Known Truth that was in reality just another stepping stone on our way to understanding the universe in which we live.