The old man who disproved Einstein (or thought he did)

This is a story from my undergraduate days. The 2010 edition of the Indian Science Congress was held in our campus (the same Science Congress which has recently drawn heavy criticism for plummeting standards and ‘having been turned into a Mela’ — back then, I think the Congress was a little better-received). Being a very curious college-student with high ambitions and delusions of grandeur, I registered for the Congress. By and large, I had a good time. There were talks by Nobel laureates (which attracted a huge audience, most of them, including me, being clueless about much of what is being talked about); a talk by Abdul Kalam (whose speech was, as usual, more appealing to the general public and wasn’t very technical); a lot of short presentations in Computer Science, Mathematics and Physics (most of which sounded informative at that time; although looking back, many of them were surveys or introductions rather than original research); a moderately interesting exhibition; and very good buffet meals.

There were poster sessions, and one of the posters in Physics caught my attention. This was from a feeble old man, an electrical engineer by profession, who claimed to have ‘proved Einstein wrong’. At that time — even now, to an extend — I held Einstein and his theory of special relativity in fervent adulation. I was convinced that this man has got his figures backwards, but I was still curious to see what exactly got him confused.

So I, joined by a bunch of Physics graduate students from the campus and a senior from college, took to reading the poster carefully over and over and trying to talk to the presenter. On the face of it, there was nothing obviously stupid in his proof and derivations. After quite some thought and discussions, we realised that he had interpreted the F = ma equation in a strange and incorrect way and based his whole proof on this. We were obviously not able to sufficiently convince the presenter — he kept saying, “… but Einstein was wrong… things cannot reach the speed of light… mass will become infinity… it will decelerate faster than accelerate…” Nevertheless, we were happy having figured out what exactly was wrong about the paper and having had a very good brainstorming session.

What surprised me, however, was the response from the panel of judges. All the judges (all of them researchers and scientists from prominent institutions in the country) walked by, fully ignoring the poster. One of them muttered to us, “come on, don’t waste your time on this, look at the other posters and see some proper Science.” This is not to say that the judges were showering kindness and praise on the other presenters. They were critical of some of them, found some too trivial, and disagreed with the conclusions in some. But, they took the time to stop and pay attention to what each poster is saying. Not the ‘Einstein’ poster. Every single judge completely ignored this poster and the presenter; it was as if he simply didn’t exist. At the end of the day, the poor old man left feeling dejected, apparently convinced that the mainstream Science doesn’t understand his work because it is too revolutionary. I couldn’t help but feel a tiny bit of sympathy for him.

Looking back, I understand why that was the right thing to to do. By engaging a fanatic like this man, little is to be gained. You will probably gain nothing from the discussion, and you definitely won’t be able to convince him; he already ‘knows’ that you are either too naive or too arrogant to understand or accept what you are saying. Worse, at least some of the bystanders who watch the discussion will walk off with similar beliefs. It’s a temptingly romantic idea; an outsider making a revolutionary discovery that that shakes the foundations of Science, and the brainwashed and sinister overlords of Science trying to hush him up.

Since then, I’ve seen numerous other unfortunate souls like him, who believe themselves to have unravelled the mysteries of ‘quantum collective consciousness’, disproved the theory of evolution, or settled an infamously hard mathematical conjecture. Their driving motivations can be various: they could simply be confused or ignorant, like our ‘Einstein-guy’, they might believe in something too staunchly that they ‘knew’ it couldn’t be any other way, or they might even have non-kosher intentions like pushing an agenda. The response towards them from practising most scientists and researchers, regardless the intention, were almost always the same — cold and complete disregard.

I now understand why this could be the only sensible response to such folks. Attention of any sort; criticism, objection or ridicule; will only strengthen their belief in themselves. Any discussion or news article about these ‘discoveries’ — even if it’s intended to ridicule them — will only help spread the news far and wide. There will definitely be people eager to devour up such news, who will add another entry to their long list of reasons why Science is an elaborate hoax held up by a bunch of obnoxious egotists. People are capable of making amazing leaps to enable them to believe what the want to believe; any amount of contradicting evidence can be made into something that supports the belief rather than counter it.

(PS: This article is chiefly about misguided geniuses, who believe they are ostracized by the mainstream for their revolutionary ideas. Deliberate, organized pseudoscience-mongering is an entirely different ballgame and is much more alarming, even more so if it is sponsored by the State.)