Confessions of an Anonymous Coward

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Find That Flaw!

It's time for a rousing game of Find That Flaw! Where you can see if you can find the fatal flaw in a pseudoscientist's arguments!

Today's bit of nonsense comes courtesy of a book called Universe Alternatives: Emerging Concepts of Size, Age, Structure, and Behavior. I've had a copy this book for years, having picked it up at the "gratis table" at the USC Doheny Library, where the library leaves free for the taking books it has somehow acquired but decides not to place in its permanent collection. Almost certainly, the author had mailed a copy of this (self-published) book to the university at his own expense (and no doubt to many other universities around the nation), and the university had, quite understandably, decided it didn't want it.

(And yes, I knew the book was pseudoscience when I took it. But it was free, and I figured it might be amusing.)

The author--I won't bother mentioning his name; almost certainly no one here has heard of him--is a fairly typical pseudoscientist. He's convinced that his ideas will someday be seen as the truth, and that the only reason they haven't been accepted is because of the closed-mindedness of the scientific community. He doesn't limit himself to one specialty, but thinks he can revolutionize all of physics in one fell swoop. Alas, his understanding of the theories he wants to overturn is superficial at best; he's clearly read a few brief popular accounts, but has no real comprehension of them. (By the author's own admission, he has no relevant academic credentials, but is a "Dermatologist" (yes, he capitalizes it).) The entire book is riddled with fundamental misunderstandings so glaring that it leads one to marvel that anyone could convince himself he was qualified to speak authoritatively on subjects he clearly knows so little about. Most of the author's arguments boil down to little more than the assertion that because he doesn't understand something, therefore there must be nothing there to understand, and the scientists are just playing "a carnival con game".

While he takes potshots at everything from quantum mechanics to astronomy, though, his particular bête noire, the concept he spends the most energy attacking, is relativity. To try to debunk relativity, he marshals the longest argument in the entire book, and its only illustration. And yet his whole argument falls apart because of one simple oversight on his part. I thought it would be fun to invite readers to see if they can spot the mistake for themselves--especially since, in this particular case, the mistake doesn't require any knowledge of relativity to see. (Well, okay, maybe a little, but everything you need to know about relativity should be inferable from the excerpt itself.)

(As a side note, I think there's a reason why relativity is so frequently the target of pseudoscientists' attacks, and it has a lot to do with the fact that it's generally so poorly taught. There are a number of problems with the ways relativity is often presented in textbooks and popular accounts, and one of the most significant is the frequent claim that the ether theory was disproved by the Michelson-Morley experiment, in which, in 1887, two scientists tried to measure the speed of the ether relative to the Earth and found no result. But that didn't lead scientists to reject the ether theory, as far too many textbooks say they did; they didn't have any other explanation for how light could be transmitted, so instead they sought ways to reconcile the theory with Michelson and Morley's results. (There were exceptions, most notably Ernst Mach--but then Mach disputed not only the ether theory, but also atomic theory and seemingly everything else that crossed his path, and it seems as likely as not that he opposed the ether theory just because he liked being argumentative, and that the fact that he turned out to be right was completely coincidental.) Each of these refinements of the ether theory was in its turn disproved, and it wasn't until Einstein came along with a viable alternate theory--relativity--that the ether theory was finally laid to rest for good. (Einstein would hardly have felt it necessary to say in his 1905 paper that "the introduction of a 'luminiferous ether' will prove to be superfluous" if scientists had already decided the luminiferous ether was superfluous almost twenty years before!) Naturally, pseudoscientists familiar only with the inaccurate textbook explanation love to seize on the fact that there are other explanations for the Michelson-Morley experiment, an insight they think is original to themselves, totally ignorant of the real history of the ether theory's downfall. So when the author of Universe Alternatives proposes, for example, that the Michelson-Morley experiment's null result was because a part of the ether moves along with the earth, he's completely unaware that this is the very same idea that Michelson himself subscribed to after his experiment--and which was subsequently tested and found to be untenable.)

The author makes a lot of misstatements in setting up his "thought experiment", but they're not really crucial to his point; for the most part, it's possible to conceive of his scenario in a consistent way. The mistake I'm looking for comes after he's laboriously explained the ground rules for his experiment, and once he's finally trying to show the results--it's in the latter half of the argument, after the diagram. If you're not sure whether or not you've found the mistake, you probably haven't; once you see it, it should be fairly obvious.

So, here's his full "disproof" of relativity (warning: it's long!). The argument is reproduced exactly as presented, with no changes or omissions (unless some have accidentally been introduced by my transcription), though I've added a few comments in square brackets. See if you can spot the mistake:

In the following model and thought experiment, we will first try to establish the verifiable reality of simultaneity and synchronization within one light system or reference frame where there is distance but no motion between members of the system. Later, a second system that has constant speed relative to the first will be added. Then, a series of simultaneous events will be constructed that are true and equally acceptable in both systems. And finally, the model will be used to show the contradictions and logical inconsistencies that flow from following the assumptions and perceptual dictates of special relativity.

(Readers who might prefer to avoid the details of yet another thought model refutation of special relativity are advised to skip the next 8 pages.)

Envision a model in which two physics labs (A and B) are located in a volume of intergalactic space that is far removed from large gravitational objects. The distance between A and B is a measured and constant 1,800,000 km, or six light seconds. The space medium between A and B (if such a medium were conceptually allowed) would be static relative to both A and B. The labs at both locations have synchronized clocks that constantly send out light pulses at one second intervals. These pulses contain messages of time and date information so that when A's clock reads 100 sec. into January 25, 1995, he will be receiving the message from B at that same instant which reads 94 sec. into January 25, 1995. Of course, the reverse of this situation concerning B's clock readings is also true. Establishing this synchronization and absolute or proper time frame between A and B to the satisfaction of all observers will be analyzed a little more at this point.

The clocks at A and B can be used to establish or confirm the accuracy of the pre-measured distance of 1.8 million km between A and B in the following way; a light pulse sent from A to B and reflected by a mirror back to A will have a roundtrip time of 12 sec. as measured by A if the distance between A and B is 1.8 million km or 6 light sec. Also, the times required for light to span each leg of this roundtrip will be an equal 6 sec. in both cases. This is true because there is no light media movement relative to either A or B--a fact that can be confirmed by conducting 90° light interference (Michelson-Morley type) experiments at both A and B. The expected negative results in these experiments means that the speed of light is the same in both directions and that the 12 sec. duration of the reflected roundtrip is composed of two equal 6 sec. legs rather than a 5 and a 7 sec. leg for example, which could be the case if there was movement of the light transmitting medium relative to A and B. Thus we have established synchronized clocks and a confirmed distance between A and B as well as setting the stage for simultaneous events.

Any accidental aberrations in the relation values between A and B would be detectable in the following ways. A change in the A-B distance would be manifest as a progressive and cumulative change in the 12 sec. roundtrip message time between A and B, while the date and time synchronization remained unchanged from day to day. Conversely, a malfunction in B's clock (running slow or fast) would be seen as a cumulative day by day mismatch in the original time and date synchronization between A and B, while the 12 sec. roundtrip pulse time remained unchanged. In the event that movement developed between the light medium and the AB observers, the above two values (12 sec. pulse roundtrip and time-date matching) would remain the same, but the results in the Michelson-Morley experiments at A and B would show changes. Lastly, in the case of clocks that were synchronized before separation, any temporary change in clock function due to the separation process would cease when the clocks reached their permanent points of separation at A and B, and it would also be detectable in the subsequent AB exchanges as a small aberration in the original time-date synchronization that would not change from day to day.

So, in summary, any changes in values pertaining to the relationship between A and B, such as clock function, relative clock motion, media movement, or distance changes, would be detectable and identifiable as to their type and quantity by the particular signature left on the messages between A and B or by the results of the Michelson-Morley experiments conducted at both sites.

I would suggest that the concepts of synchronization and potential simultaneity of events between two distant but static observers should be accepted as verifiable realities. However, most written accounts on the subject reveal that relativists still tend to disparage or question the concepts of synchronization and simultaneity by artificially limiting the permissible deductive methods to only that information that can be gained by the exchange of current light speed messages between observers. (For convenience, the term "relativists" will be used to designate those who adhere closely to the postulates and predictions of special relativity.) [Yes, of course the author's claim about "artificially limiting the permissible deductive methods" is untrue, but that's not a mistake in his model.]

The next model component to be introduced is another fully equipped physics lab called TR (for Traveler). TR is self propelled and maintains a constant speed of 1/2 c (or 150,000 km/sec.) in his straight line trip from A to B. It is pre-arranged and understood by all synchronized labs that TR should pass through A at the instant designated as time zero. TR's clocks and instruments are synchronized with those at A by direct physical contact as TR passes through A. Then TR and B exchange all their recorded information at the instant TR passes through B. For example, this exchange information would include (among other things) B's assertion that his clock reads 12 sec. after time zero, and TR's report that he has received only 6 of the 12 pulses emitted by A during the time of the trip. [I'm not sure why a lab should be male, but yes, the author does in fact use masculine pronouns to refer to it for some reason. My guess is he's thinking of TR as the human observer inside the lab, even though the text equates TR to the lab itself.]

In order to emphasize the absolute and non-negotiable nature of the measured distance between A and B, we will now introduce a measuring device in the form of a wheel with a circumference of one meter. The wheel rotates on an axle that is fixed to TR's lab and it also rolls in a track along the A to B route. A device on the wheel's periphery makes a mark at every meter of the entire AB track--1.8 × 109 meter marks along the 6 light second track. The same marking device allows TR's lab to record 1.8 × 109 wheel rotations during the AB trip.

The purpose of this wheel scenario is to show that TR and AB observers should be in agreement about the AB distance because they used the same measuring device at the same time to arrive at a single distance of 1.8 ✗ 109 meters. Of course, relativists might try to claim that TR perceives the wheel in a different way. This, however, might be difficult to sell, since it would imply that one wheel in one location at one instant must have two different and equally valid sets of dimensions. [Which, in fact, is precisely the case, however "difficult to sell" the author thinks it--and the same is true of the track. But those facts, while certainly problematic for his argument, aren't the blatant flaw I'm asking for. That comes later. (They are related to the blatant flaw, though; it's important that his assumption of agreement about distance is wrong.)] Incidentally, it is understood that some of this model's assumed hardware, like the AB track material and the wheel structure, is mechanically impractical considering the distances and speeds that are used. Just presume that the wheel is composed of a virtual reality material that would not explode when rolling along at a speed of 1/2 c. [Unsurprisingly, the author evidently has no idea what "virtual reality" means. Oh well.]

It should be established at this time that all value determinations concerning distance are properly derived only at the source in their reference frame of origin. So, numbers like the A to B distance, distance between pulses from A and B, and wavelengths of light originating in the AB system are all unchangeable or absolute values that should not logically be vulnerable to alteration by observers in other inertial systems. TR, as a moveable recipient, can conceivably claim that he perceives time and its related values, like frequency and velocity, in a way that is different from the perceptions of AB observers, however distance values from the AB system are not directly perceivable to TR. He can only accept the distance values furnished by the AB observers, or re-calculate the numbers using his already distorted perceptions of time as a basis for those calculations. In other words, measured distances in one system are not negotiable quantities that can have different values for different observers. [The author is seriously begging the question here--this whole paragraph is essentially an assertion of much of what he claims to be trying to prove! (Either that or he's simply unaware that special relativity involves length contraction as well as time dilation--which, now that I think about it, is more likely the case, though it makes it all the more astonishing that he'd try to disprove something he's so ignorant about.) But, again, this isn't the mistake in his model that I'm asking for; just ignore this paragraph and move on...]

The next model addition will be the introduction of 6 more physics lab substations (labeled S1 through S6) that are evenly spaced and located at one light second intervals along the AB track. Please become familiar with the diagram on page 52 [shown below this paragraph] and note that there are a series of 3 simultaneous events occurring at each of the 7 labs located at A, B, and the substations. Each triple event represents a confluence in which TR and light pulses from A and B come together at a specific lab location. For example, at 4 sec. into the experiment (4 sec. from time zero), the number 2 pulse from A, the number zero pulse from B, and TR, all arrive simultaneously at the S2 lab. The importance of the event combinations lies in the fact that these undeniable realities are actually experienced at the same instant by TR and the observers along the AB track, so they must necessarily be perceived in the same way by all observers, including TR. Working from this platform of agreement, the manipulation of logic imposed by the constant light speed postulate can be more clearly shown by models involving paired comparisons of closing velocities. However, to avoid lengthy side trips, the pursuit of details in this argument will be left to the discretion of the reader.

Now, getting back to the perceptual consequences of relative motion between two frames of reference as interpreted by various observers, we can trace the events that occur during TR's constant 1/2 c trip from A to B. Recall that both A and B send out light pulses at 1 sec. intervals while TR traverses the 6 light sec. between A and B.

During the single time interval of the AB trip (12 sec. as determined by AB observers), TR receives 18 light pulses from the B direction but only 6 from the A direction according to the following explanation; A sends out 12 pulses during the 12 sec. it takes TR to travel from A to B. Six of these pulses pass through TR and the other 6 are in transit between A and B when TR reaches B at the  12 sec. mark. In the other direction, TR impacts the 6 pulses that are in transit from B to A at the moment the model begins (time zero), plus the 12 additional pulses that are emitted by B during the 12 sec. of TR's A to B trip. Thus, a total of 18 B pulses are impacted by TR. In terms of distance along the AB track, TR impacts A pulses every 300,000 km and B pulses every 100,000 km. This means that TR and the light pulses from B approach each other with a closing velocity that is 3 times as great as the closing velocity between TR and the light pulses from A. Recall at this point that the distance between successive 1 sec. pulses from A and B is a constant 300,000 km. Now, the special relativity postulate holds that TR must perceive the closing velocity of all light pulses from any direction as being 300,000 km/sec. (c). To resolve this impending conflict, TR first considers the 6 pulses from A in the following manner. He sees that it will be necessary to change the 12 sec. duration of the trip to a lesser number by changing the function of his own clock. If he did not make this adjustment, he would be in the position of perceiving 6 evenly spaced A light pulses (300,000 km apart) in a 12 sec. period, meaning that he would be receiving light at the unacceptable speed of 1/2 c. So, by slowing his own clock and reducing the total trip time, TR is able to raise the unacceptable 1/2 c closing speed toward the proper speed of c.

Rather than being concerned with the math equations and the use of the L.C. [that is, Lorentz contraction] factor in these changes, it is more important in the current argument to remember the direction of these time changes that TR makes because of the problems created by the nature of the pulses from A and B.

Now, if TR's only contact with the world outside his frame of reference was the 18 pulses from B rather than the 6 of A, things would be different. His observations would then indicate 18 light pulses (with 300,000 km spacing) arriving in a 12 sec. period with an unacceptably high closing velocity of 1.5 c. So, following the previous reasoning, TR would have to speed up his own clock and lengthen the trip duration in order to reduce the closing velocity with the B pulses from 1.5 c toward the acceptable value of c. However, since this model was arbitrarily set up to include pulses from both A and B, TR is confronted with the problem of having two sets of equally valid trip duration numbers (one higher and one lower than the determination of AB observers). He cannot logically report two values for the duration of a single trip without revealing that his methods are in error. Of course, this paradox or impossible duplicity is the result of the off-base assumption that two observers receiving light from a single source must receive that light at the same speed of c regardless of relative motion between the two observers.

It should be pointed out that in this model TR is a "naked observer" in that all of his instruments are on the outside of the vehicle. In other words, there is no volume of light transmitting space medium surrounding and traveling with TR and his instruments. This point is emphasized for the purpose of avoiding the same type of misinterpretation that came out of the Michelson-Morley experiments when the static nature of the medium in the vicinity of this earth bound experiment was assumed to be an absence of light transmitting medium.

Nearing the conclusion of this A-B-TR discussion, it seems appropriate to summarize the non-relativistic reality of the model in the following way; the one sec. interval light pulses go back and forth between A and B with a speed of c because of the fact that the light transmitting medium between the two is at rest relative to both A and B. Since TR is moving relative to this medium, he receives the 6 pulses from A at 2 sec. intervals and at a perceived and actual speed of 1/2 c. TR also receives the 18 pulses from B at 2/3 sec. intervals and at a light speed of 1.5 c. Both of these sets of recordings indicate a trip duration of 12 sec, that of course matches reality as well as the clock readings of all observers, including TR's. TR is able to perceive these light velocities above and below c because he is a "naked observer" in that he is not surrounded by a cocoon of light transmitting medium that moves along with him.

Furthermore, this thought experiment could have been constructed so that TR was accelerating during the A to B trip, in which case the math would have been a little more complicated, but all of the important paradoxes, denials, affirmations, and conclusions would have been the same. The relativists' idea that accelerated motion should cause anything more than the expected algebraic changes in the results of the single velocity model is probably best interpreted as an attempt to theoretically bind gravitation to light speed perception by using the presumed equivalence of gravity and acceleration to justify the claim that acceleration has more than the normal mathematical effect on light speed perception. More will be said about this in a subsequent chapter.

The essence of the preceding model involves the construction of a series of paired events in which the postulates of special relativity demand that there should be a certain symmetry. To the extent that asymmetry has been demonstrated, it can be seen that these postulates are in error. To summarize it in another way; we have demonstrated that two observers in relative motion, receiving light from a single source, are not interchangeable as far as both perceiving light at the same speed is concerned. This is because the speed of light is tied to the movement of its transmitting medium which cannot have a single velocity relation to both observers.

So, did you find the mistake? Go ahead and post it in the comments if you think you did. If no one has by Friday, I'll post the answer myself...


At 4/26/2007 12:37 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Huh? Did I miss the place where he actually measured the speed of the light coming from A or B? All he did was measure the frequency of the messages. He seems to have re-discovered the concept of red-shift/blue-shift in light frequency, not made any comment on the speed of the light.

But what do I know -- all I had was one year of intro physics over 30 years ago. ;)

At 4/26/2007 7:29 PM, Blogger An Anonymous Coward said...

His point doesn't actually rely on measuring the speed of light directly--his point is that it's impossible for the light from A and B to have the same speed in TR's reference frame. Even if you use time dilation to make one of them match up to c, that's only going to throw the other one further off.

He's wrong, but not because he didn't measure the speed of light.

At 4/26/2007 9:38 PM, Blogger An Anonymous Coward said...

(Actually, I should be more specific there--admittedly, he doesn't explain it well, but I think his main argument boils down to the fact that there are three times as many light pulses hitting TR from B as there are from A, and since the light pulses from A and B have the same distance between them that means the ones from TR must be arriving three times as fast. So he's not measuring the speed of light directly, but he sort of is implicitly, in that he does take into account the distance between the pulses as well as their frequency.)

At 4/26/2007 10:45 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

From TR's frame of reference, pulses from A and B will be emitted at the same rate. However, since B is moving towards TR and A is moving away, the distance between pulses from B will be only one third the distance between pulses from A. Therefore, TR will not be surprised that it gets three times more pulses from B in the same time interval.

...but I cheated by majoring in physics. Actually, I was expecting the problem to be in the specifics of lorentz transformations, but surprise, this problem could have been resolved even with the pseudo-scientist's minimal knowledge.

I don't think he is at fault for making such a mistake--it's pretty easy to get caught up in apparent paradoxes in SR. But rather than complaining about close-minded scientists, he should complain about poor physics education (assuming he's at least given physics a try).

At 4/27/2007 12:06 AM, Blogger An Anonymous Coward said...

Yep, anonymous #2, you got it. That's the mistake I had in mind.

At 4/27/2007 12:10 PM, Anonymous Fatboy said...

Am I missing something? I was looking for a glaringly obvious flaw in logic, but this seems to be based on his erroneous assumption that length is fixed.

I changed his thought experiment a little in my own mind to make it easier for me to understand. Instead of thinking of light pulses, I imagined it as being a conveyor belt running between A and B, moving at the speed of light, with light second gradations on it (a really big tape measure). TR moves at half the speed of light, parallel to the conveyor belt. Based on the author's assumption of fixed length, TR would still be able to accurately measure the distance between gradations on the belt moving in the same direction as him and the belt coming towards him. Obviously, the belt can't change length, so that's how he comes to his paradox.

From a normal, non-relativistic point of view, his reasoning makes sense. As an aerospace engineer, that's the type of thing I deal with regularly - airspeed vs. windspeed vs. ground speed. No matter which one of those I use for a reference, a mile is a mile is a mile.

So, this guy is wrong, but I think it's in his assumptions, not in the logic following them.

At 4/27/2007 4:12 PM, Blogger An Anonymous Coward said...

I was looking for a glaringly obvious flaw in logic, but this seems to be based on his erroneous assumption that length is fixed.

Yes and no. Depends on how you look at it.

The problem is that length can't be fixed, for the speed of light to be constant, for the reasons that anonymous #2 briefly stated. If light is moving at speed c in TR's reference frame, and A is moving away from TR and B toward TR at a speed of 1/2 c and emitting light pulses every six seconds, a bit of simple math shows those pulses can't all be 300,000 km apart as he asserted. The distances have to be different.

Now, one could argue that he saw this but ignored it as impossible because he'd already considered it proved that length was fixed. The reason I don't think that's the case is because if it were, he could have made his "proof" a lot simpler; he wouldn't need the two stations with the lab moving between them. One moving station would have sufficed to show that the distances between the light pulses were different in different reference frames, and he could have just said that that contradicted his previous "proof" that distances were fixed and called it a day without introducing the second station and all the extra paraphrenalia. (He'd still have been wrong, of course, because his "proof" of fixed distance was wrong, but he was already relying on that anyway so he wouldn't have been any wronger than he is now, so to speak.) The fact that he didn't do this is what leads me to believe that he didn't realize that light having a constant speed necessarily implied that distance varied in different reference frames.

Still, you're right that his assumption of length being fixed played a major role, and you could see that as being the fatal flaw. I may have overstated the simplicity of his error in my lead-in.

At 4/30/2007 9:37 AM, Anonymous Fatboy said...

The reason I don't think that's the case is because if it were, he could have made his "proof" a lot simpler...

After reading what that guy wrote, there were a lot of ways that he could have made his proof simpler.

Anyway, it was still entertaining and it got me thinking. There's definitely a flaw somewhere in his not seeing that length can change, but I don't want to get into his head any more than I already have to see if it was his assumptions or logic that led him astray.

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