The Speed of Gravity

The Speed of Gravity

Sir Isaac Newton’s great gravity gift [that keeps on giving] has enabled mainstream science to retreat from reality by jettisoning mechanics.

Sir Isaac Newton’s great gravity gift has also allowed mainstream science to warmly embrace the magical concept of action at a distance.

In physics, action at a distance is the concept that an object can be moved, changed, or otherwise affected without being physically touched by another object.

Newton’s theory of gravity offered no prospect of identifying any mediator of gravitational interaction.

The “absurdity” of this situation was even acknowledged by Sir Isaac Newton when he wrote that nobody with “a competent faculty of thinking can ever fall” for the concept of gravity without some form of mechanical mediation.

It is inconceivable that inanimate Matter should, without the Mediation of something else, which is not material, operate upon, and affect other matter without mutual Contact…

That Gravity should be innate, inherent and essential to Matter, so that one body may act upon another at a distance thro’ a Vacuum, without the Mediation of any thing else, by and through which their Action and Force may be conveyed from one to another, is to me so great an Absurdity that I believe no Man who has in philosophical Matters a competent Faculty of thinking can ever fall into it.

Gravity must be caused by an Agent acting constantly according to certain laws; but whether this Agent be material or immaterial, I have left to the Consideration of my readers.

Sir Isaac Newton – Letters to Bentley – 1692/3

Evidently, Sir Isaac Newton would consider modern mainstream science to be an academic bastion of incompetent thinking because the mainstream believes “an object can be moved, changed, or otherwise affected without being physically touched by another object”

I don’t disagree with Sir Isaac Newton regarding the “absurdity” of the situation.

Regardless [of these absurdities], the modern [non-mechanical] mainstream mathematicians maintain that Newton’s great gravity gift travels “instantaneously” throughout the universe at “infinite” speed.

Newtonian Gravitation
Isaac Newton’s formulation of a gravitational force law requires that each particle with mass respond instantaneously to every other particle with mass irrespective of the distance between them.

In modern terms, Newtonian gravitation is described by the Poisson equation, according to which, when the mass distribution of a system changes, its gravitational field instantaneously adjusts.

Therefore the theory assumes the speed of gravity to be infinite.

The concept of instantaneous gravitational interactions was endorsed by Sir Arthur Eddington in 1920 when he stated that the orbital period of Jupiter would appreciably change if the speed of gravity “is at all comparable with that of light”.

If the Sun attracts Jupiter towards its present position S, and Jupiter attracts the Sun towards its present position J, the two forces are in the same line and balance.

But if the Sun attracts Jupiter toward its previous position S’, and Jupiter attracts the Sun towards its previous position J’, when the force of attraction started out to cross the gulf, then the two forces give a couple.

This couple will tend to increase the angular momentum of the system, and, acting cumulatively, will soon cause an appreciable change of period, disagreeing with observations if the speed is at all comparable with that of light.

Space, Time And Gravitation – 1920 – Sir Arthur Eddington

Tom Van Flandern first encountered instantaneous gravitational interactions whilst studying celestial mechanics at Yale in the 1960s.

The most amazing thing I was taught as a graduate student of celestial mechanics at Yale in the 1960s was that all gravitational interactions between bodies in all dynamical systems had to be taken as instantaneous.

Indeed, as astronomers we were taught to calculate orbits using instantaneous forces; then extract the position of some body along its orbit at a time of interest, and calculate where that position would appear as seen from Earth by allowing for the finite propagation speed of light from there to here.

It seemed incongruous to allow for the finite speed of light from the body to the Earth, but to take the effect of Earth’s gravity on that same body as propagating from here to there instantaneously.

Yet that was the required procedure to get the correct answers.

The Speed of Gravity What the Experiments Say

Tom Van Flandern

Dr. Thomas C Van Flandern – 1940-2009 – Founder and President of Meta Research

Thomas C Van Flandern (June 26, 1940 – January 9, 2009) was an American astronomer and author specializing in celestial mechanics.

Van Flandern had a career as a professional scientist, but was noted as an outspoken proponent of non-mainstream views related to astronomy, physics, and extra-terrestrial life.

He also published the non-mainstream Meta Research Bulletin.

Tom Van Flandern concluded that “instantaneous gravity seemed to have an element of magic to it” because:
1) Infinite speed implies infinite energy.
2) Special Relativity states that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light.

However, he also realised that this instantaneous absurdity came “in many guises”.

Indeed, it is widely accepted, even if less widely known, that the speed of gravity in Newton’s Universal Law is unconditionally infinite. (E.g., Misner et al., 1973, p. 177)

This is usually not mentioned in proximity to the statement that GR reduces to Newtonian gravity in the low-velocity, weak-field limit because of the obvious question it begs about how that can be true if the propagation speed in one model is the speed of light, and in the other model it is infinite.

The same dilemma comes up in many guises:

Why do photons from the Sun travel in directions that are not parallel to the direction of Earth’s gravitational acceleration toward the Sun?

Why do total eclipses of the Sun by the Moon reach maximum eclipse about 40 seconds before the Sun and Moon’s gravitational forces align?

How do binary pulsars anticipate each other’s future position, velocity, and acceleration faster than the light time between them would allow?

How can black holes have gravity when nothing can get out because escape speed is greater than the speed of light?

These objections were certainly not new when I raised them.

They have been raised and answered thousands of times in dozens of different ways over the years since general relativity (GR) was set forth in 1916.

Even today in discussions of gravity in USENET newsgroups on the Internet, the most frequently asked question and debated topic is “What is the speed of gravity?”

It is only heard less often in the classroom because many teachers and most textbooks head off the question by hastily assuring students that gravitational waves propagate at the speed of light, leaving the firm impression, whether intended or not, that the question of gravity’s propagation speed has already been answered.

The Speed of Gravity What the Experiments Say

Technically, instantaneous gravitational interactions places the mainstream on the horns of a dilemma [aka Catch 22] because:

a) If instantaneous gravitational interactions are deemed to be Settled Science then [just about] every theory that is built upon Einstein’s work is falsified.

or more dramatically

b) If instantaneous gravitational interactions are falsified then [just about] every theory that is built upon Newtonian Gravity is falsified.

Obviously, this is why there is no mainstream mechanical explanation for gravity.

Practically, instantaneous gravitational interactions can be ignored [and very profitably exploited] by the mainstream provided:

1) Nobody is allowed to rock the boat.

2) Everyone forcefully misdirects by talking about the propagation of Gravity Waves.

3) There is a continuous stream of abstract absurdities [like black holes] and bogus controversies that deflects critical attention away from the underlying absurdities [aka assumptions].

However, science hasn’t always been this shallow.

There are mechanical explanations for instantaneous gravitational interactions that date back to [at least] the early 13th-century… to be continued.

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32 Responses to The Speed of Gravity

  1. mkelly says:

    How can black holes have gravity when nothing can get out because escape speed is greater than the speed of light?
    I again point out if black holes exist (that is for you Geran) then why didn’t the stars they came from have the same or larger gravity well. A star 100X the mass of the sun must explode to become a black hole. Explosions throw off matter so the black hole will have less matter than the star did before it exploded. Oh ya density.

    Something is not right is Mudville.

  2. geran says:

    This post raises some very good questions. (As do most of the posts here.) And, the closing sentence promises some answers. I can’t wait!

    I have not been able to study all of the historical posts here, so forgive me if this has already been covered. I know that “conventional science” tries to cover for gravity by assigning a “negative” potential energy. But, to me, that still doesn’t work.

    Consider an elevator (lift). The elevator goes to the 10th floor every day with the same load. We can calculate the work (energy) required. Then, the elevator can basically return to the ground level by itself, under the force of gravity. (The motor is only used for braking.)

    So, in rising to the 10th floor, it requires “W” energy. Since W is force times distance (neglect friction for clarity), gravity must use the same energy, W, to bring the elevator back to the ground. Someone has to supply the energy for the motor to do the lifting. So, who is supplying the energy to bring the elevator back down. Or, is gravity like a huge battery and we are slowly using up the “charge”?

    (Like I stated, please excuse if this has already been discussed.)

    • malagabay says:

      Trying to understand Newtonian Gravity as a Force is a strange experience.

      This is primarily because the mainstream prefers to short-circuit [aka avoid and deflect] the discussion by interpreting Newtonian Gravity as an Acceleration.

      In physics, gravitational acceleration is the acceleration on an object caused by force of gravitation.

      Neglecting friction such as air resistance, all small bodies accelerate in a gravitational field at the same rate relative to the center of mass.

      This equality is true regardless of the masses or compositions of the bodies.

      However, this exercise in mental gymnastics highlights just how far Newtonian Gravity is removed from reality because it requires Gravity to be a Variable Force that magically adjust itself so that it precisely accelerates every object at the same rate [“regardless of the masses or compositions of the bodies”] as defined by Newton’s Second Law of Motion.

      Second law: F = ma.
      The vector sum of the forces F on an object is equal to the mass m of that object multiplied by the acceleration vector a of the object.

      Therefore, at this point, it is clear that Newtonian Gravity:

      1) Allows a body to interact with every other body in the Universe at Infinite Speed.

      2) Allows a body to magically interact with every other body in the Universe without any mechanical mediation.

      3) Allows a body to intelligently tailor its Force depending upon the mass of the body it is interacting with.

      4) Allows a body to simultaneously support an individually tailored Force for every other body in the Universe.

      Clearly, at this point, believing in Newtonian Gravity is as scientifically valid as believing in fairies.

      Sadly, Newtonian Gravity is a matter of faith – not science.

      • George says:

        Interesting read. It is better phrased as:

        In physics, gravitational acceleration is the acceleration of an object towards another object, and this is called the phenomenon of gravitation, and implies a convenient property called a ‘force’ for that interaction.

        With that phenomenon being that ‘masses attract one another’. The phenomenon is observed as an acceleration that varies with mass, for convenience that is called a ‘force acting on that mass’. But the force isn’t a real, causal thing. It’s more just a relating term.

        Gravitation =
        observation that masses attract
        > observation that masses accelerate towards each other proportional to inertial mass
        > creation of concept of ‘force’ and ‘gravitational field’ used for convenience.

        Newtonian Gravity doesn’t really say anything about how your points 1-4 occur; it sort of doesn’t try to. It just describes the observations. Sometimes, books kind of give it ‘personality’ and try to say that the notion of gravity ‘does things’, ‘is causal’ but it doesn’t. It’s the name of a description, the description of a tendency for objects to move towards each other.

        Essentially, the force isn’t a “real thing”, just as fields aren’t “real things” – they are really imaginary “what-if” constructs (“what if we put this object in this location, what would happen?”).

        Newtonian Gravity just isn’t a real-objects, mechanical theory, and never was. It just doesn’t really attempt to say “why” at all. So I think complaints that it implies infinite-speed communication over distance (it just doesn’t have that idea in it) or that the force magically adjusts (the force is just a convenience term, it’s not a real thing out there). Similar arguments can apply to electromagnetism, etc. None of them really say how things work. In the end, even if you come up with a ‘mechanical-contact’ theory, you are still left with: how do collisions work?

        If one billiard ball hits another billiard ball, why don’t they just stop? Why do they behave in the way they seem to? The theory describes the observation in a conceptual framework; the billiard balls do what they do, but they don’t do it because of the theory. The theory is just a codification of the observations, so we can reuse the insights. There is no reason that collisions happen as they do. The ‘mechanical view’ is just an arbitrary position to stop at, where we say “this is how things work, basically”. It is just as unlikely and made-up as the rest.

        Sorry for the extended comment; this is interesting stuff. I liked this book on it: The Philosophy of Physics. It’s centred around ideas such as “are fields real” and all the other stuff. And it’s quite an easy read, relatively. Check it out.

      • malagabay says:

        Newtonian Gravity doesn’t really say anything about how your points 1-4 occur; it sort of doesn’t try to
        My personal view is that Newton:
        1) Knew he had constructed a scientific elephant trap and [cunningly] said nothing.
        2) He was satisfied when scientists voluntarily threw themselves into his elephant trap.
        3) He enjoyed bullying slothful scientists into his elephant trap.
        4) He enjoyed demolishing anyone who refused to slide into his elephant trap.

        Regardless of what the great man wrote [or didn’t write] all the points mentioned are [by definition] problems for Newton’s theory of Gravity [as currently defined by the mainstream whilst they languish in the dark at the bottom of Newton’s elephant trap].

      • malagabay says:

        It just doesn’t really attempt to say “why” at all.
        But he did say “what”… and that “what” was mass…
        And oh what a mess that mass has made 🙂

    • George says:

      No energy needs to be supplied to bring the elevator back down. The elevator’s default position is actually the centre of the earth. Raising the elevator is like stretching an elastic band.

      Fundamentally, though, we do have to remember that all this stuff is “made up”. It’s not how it “really, really works”, because that is inaccessible – it’s just the best conceptual/descriptive framework that ties into the most observations. Which, obviously, we can completely rethink at any time, if we get some better ideas!

      • malagabay says:

        all this stuff is “made up”
        How true!

        if we get some better ideas!
        There were far better ideas in circulation before Newton turned science into a [flea] circus.

      • George says:

        Yeah, the Cartesian theory kind of got sidelined. As much by personality as anything else. I read this badly formatted but interesting article a while back. Newton wasn’t the nicest.

        History is littered with that sort of thing I guess. Look at how atomic theory was developed – very messily!

      • George says:

        Oh, and we should probably add that general relativity means Newton isn’t such a problem, surely? Since a deformed surface doesn’t require a “speed” or “action at a distance”?

      • geran says:

        The “elastic band” is an interesting analogy to gravity, but unfortunately it fails quickly in light of well known observations. As the elastic band is stretched, more and more energy it required. But, as an object moves farther and farther from the center of Earth, LESS energy is required. For example, a person “weighs” less on a high mountain than at sea level. An astronaut in space is virtually “weightless”.

      • George says:


        The “elastic band” is an interesting analogy to gravity, but unfortunately it fails quickly in light of well known observations.

        Indeed! 🙂

        It’s a good example of a metaphor that only works for a limited case, it gives an intuitive picture as far as it goes – which itself isn’t a bad metaphor for how physical theories tend to be, limited: For instance, Newtonian mechanics operates well at the macro scale, not so at small scales.

        I can broaden my metaphor by saying it isn’t like an elastic band – which snaps if pulled too far – but rather like an elastic cord, where the elasticity fails when pulled beyond a certain point, and doesn’t return to its original position afterwards. However, for the example of an elevator, surely we never reach that point? Unless we are travelling with Willy Wonka!

        No theory or metaphor (and all theories are extended metaphors) will capture all the facts in one “nice coherent picture” – simply because of our demand that it comes in the form of a “nice coherent picture”, an abstraction:

        No theory ever agrees with all the facts in its domain, yet it is not always the theory that is to blame. Facts are constituted by older ideologies, and a clash between facts and theories may be proof of progress. It is also a first step in our attempts to find the principles implicit in familiar observational notions.

        As an example of such an attempt I examine the tower argument which the Aristotelians used to refute the motion of the earth. The argument involves natural interpretations – ideas so closely connected with observations that it needs a special effort to realise their existence and to determine their content. Galileo identifies the natural interpretations which are inconsistent with Copernicus and replaces them by others.

        – Some nice quotes from Paul Feyerabend, who was not a great fan of the standard way of looking at physics and progress.

        Note that this is why ‘pictorial’ theories often eventually turn into mathematical theories – it is often not possible to create a ‘picture’ that covers all the picture; several different pictures are required. With mathematics, you can often create something that captures all the behaviour in one set of structures and equations – however, this is at the expense of intuition. It gives the correct results, but it stops being understandable. That’s why its better to accept multiple metaphors for the same underlying phenomenon, to cover different ranges of behaviour.

        Newtonian mechanics is a metaphor like any other, for instance. It’s a metaphor that covers a certain domain of circumstances really well, but then we need to switch out of it.

        We are never talking about the real world, because the real world is ten thousand things, all individual special cases. (Gravity is not an elastic band, an elastic cord, a force, deformed space-time, or a vortex – it’s none of those really.)

        However, this gives us a challenge: If at all possible, we should try and come up with reformulations of theory/metaphor that gives us as much “picturability” as possible. But we should be clear that this is what we are doing: We are not getting “closer to reality” – unless we are matching observations which we previously could not account for – we are just giving ourselves a “better picture to use”.

        Often, scientists are reluctant to do this because they don’t care if it’s an entirely visualisable theory. If it accounts for all the observations, that is enough. For the layman, however, this means so much of science becomes inaccessible to him without many years study. Hence, I vote for the effort!

  3. Pingback: The Clockwork Universe | MalagaBay

  4. George says:

    “Mass” has always been a bit of a hack job, like “matter” in general, so fair enough. It’s about being useful, surely? Science is pragmatic.

    Knew he had constructed a scientific elephant trap and [cunningly] said nothing.

    Do you really think so? I really don’t think there’s a big devious plan afoot (but I am willing to be proved wrong). Physics has never claimed to find out the “true nature of things”. Truth is in the domain of philosophy, not science. All physics aims to do is come up with a scheme that matches the observations. Those schemes then get built on. And hopefully they kind of hold together. It’s true that there’s always going to be a reluctance to go back to the beginning and rebuild from scratch using new basic formulations – because most science isn’t fundamental in that way.

    Certainly, Newton was not an entirely nice man, and people defend what they have built, but he was surely not doing some grand “fooled you all” thing; that would imply he knew the “real truth” that he was keeping it from everyone. Do you think that was the case?

    For instance, I studied the way certain semiconductors worked under illumination from laser light, in terms of certain concepts, such as excitons and so on. Now, there isn’t “really” such a separate thing, but that wasn’t the point. There aren’t “really” any atoms either.

    It’s all made up, of course, because it’s a human endeavour. Fundamentally, it’s just people coming up with ideas, liking them better than other people’s ideas, and arguing amongst themselves. 🙂

    Anyway, that’s my random thinking at the moment. Interested in your thoughts.

    One question: Do you believe that there’s a way that things really, really work behind the scenes, and that we can discover that that is? And if so, do you believe that some people know what this is, and that it is being kept from us?

    • George says:

      Oh yeah, there’s also that thing where, the best theory doesn’t necessarily propagate, it’s a case of who has access to the largest audience, and who dies first!

    • malagabay says:

      It’s all made up, of course, because it’s a human endeavour.
      Indeed… but some of these “scientific stories” outlive their initial usefulness and require adaptation or burial.
      I think Newtonian Gravity falls into the latter category… but then I am in a minority of one 🙂

      One question: Do you believe that there’s a way that things really, really work behind the scenes, and that we can discover that that is? And if so, do you believe that some people know what this is, and that it is being kept from us?

      I believe that if science follows the Scientific Method then science will discover a lot more… but probably not everything… but you never know.

      In the modern era of “post-normal science” it is increasingly difficult to separate “fact” from “fiction”… undoubtedly there is a lot of GIGO science being produced [with the propaganda volume turned up to maximum]… there is also some good science being produced but until the mainstream “cleans up its act” everything they produce should be treated as “suspect”.

      There are sensible reasons to “manage” knowledge distribution for safety reasons… but there are also many examples of “suspect science” where knowledge appears to be “managed” for political and propaganda purposes”… additionally, science and many other disciplines have morphed into “belief systems”.

      I don’t know where the “truth” lies… but I am intrigued… this blog documents my personal voyage of discovery into the increasingly murky domain of science… my personal perspective is that science made a massive “wrong turn” when it swallowed Newtonian Gravity “hook, line and sinker” and subsequently succumbed to the Cambridge Cancer of mathematics and models… a major reset is long overdue.

      • George says:

        I added this above, but while I might agree that the Newtonian model was (at the time) probably inferior to the Cartesian model (in terms of avoiding “spooky action at a distance”), surely nobody would say either is “right” these days.

        Surely general relativity – which views space as a ‘landscape’ – gets around this? There’s no action at a distance required when objects are deforming the space around them. Objects move as if they are “rolling down a hill”. It’s the “slope” that moves the object, no the thing that they are being ‘attracted’ to. It gets rid of gravitational force as being a mysterious thing caused by mass/matter:

        In Newton’s description of gravity, the gravitational force is caused by matter. More precisely, it is caused by a specific property of material objects: their mass. In Einstein’s theory and related theories of gravitation, curvature at every point in spacetime is also caused by whatever matter is present.

        But for doing calculations that come up with correct answers for minor problems, Newton is still a pretty handy thing, even if it is conceptually dubious. Using relativity all the time is pretty cumbersome!

      • malagabay says:

        Surely general relativity – which views space as a ‘landscape’ – gets around this?
        With mathematics and models you can “get round” anything… you can even invent a new dimensions or two or three or more… you can even “warp” your new dimension/s… you can also have instantaneous propagation and infinite speeds… doesn’t make any of it real but its a great way to distract the mainstream for a few centuries.

      • George says:

        I dunno, I always quite liked the treat-space-as-curved approach, like this picture, because it’s quite intuitive, separate from any mathematics. It’s quite a ‘mechanical, real-objects’ view I always thought.

        Would it be fair to say that you see models/theories that deviate from ‘common sense mechanics’ to be suspect? Because surely conservation of momentum and energy, upon which that relies, are not measurable really, etc.

        Circling Earth

      • malagabay says:

        Would it be fair to say that you see models/theories that deviate from ‘common sense mechanics’ to be suspect?

        But it would be fair to say that I find all mathematical models that are “conjured up out of thin air” as suspect – especially when there are no mechanics and they rely upon inventing new dimensions and arbitrarily assigning values because they look like they may “work”…

        The particular image you have selected always makes me smile because all Einstein seems to have conjured up is a dysfunctional vortex [without realising it]… possibly Einstein was on the “right track” but for “all the wrong reasons”… and the smile is because René Descartes [1596–1650] actually produced a cosmology with fully functioning vortices 381 years ago in 1633…

      • George says:

        (Sorry, I didn’t realise that the picture would become embedded!)

      • George says:

        On the vortex shape, you’re right – both approaches end up with a similar morphology. It’s just that one attributes it to the deforming properties of “mass”. (Actually, Wikipedia isn’t bad on the mechanical gravitational theories I think.) It’s much of a muchness to some extent.

        As to mathematical models, well I’ll agree that all mathematical models should have grounding in a (loosely) visualisable model. That’s why I appreciated the efforts of, say, David Bohm to take a view on quantum mechanics that actually had it make “picturable sense” rather than others who just said “it can’t be understood, only used”. I firmly believe that a model should be understandable.

        [However, action at a distance, for instance, isn’t necessarily, just-because problem in this regard. Not everything has to be “mechanical-contact”, because upon examination even that is suspect. If there is a “common background” to the universe, then distance is not necessarily a problem. Of course, as always, it’s about experimental evidence.]

  5. Stephen Kovaka says:

    I like what you wrote above (11:23) George. Scientists’ desire to understand nature has the unfortunate side effect of causing them to compress the unknown and mysterious into as small a space as possible, the better to ignore it. It also occurs to me that if we have reached the point where scientists are willing to postulate such a thing as an unobservable “dark matter” to support their theories, why not give the also unobservable “ether” another look?

    • George says:

      Random thoughts again:

      Scientists’ desire to understand nature has the unfortunate side effect of causing them to compress the unknown and mysterious into as small a space as possible, the better to ignore it.

      It’s perhaps better to say that Scientists try to describe nature, and if we’re searching for descriptions rather than truth, then we make descriptions that are as simple as possible. A conscious decision is made to – well, not ignore, but put aside the complexity. It’s not a conspiracy, it’s a deliberate choice that’s made.

      For instance, objects are approximated as “point charges” and “point masses” so that you don’t have to deal with the complex shapes and density distributions of everything, when all you really want to do is work out how, say, fast an object will move after a collision. It just makes the analysis easier. Convenience!

      This is only a problem if people then take these conveniences beyond their limit and make predictions that the models were never intended to make.

      if we have reached the point where scientists are willing to postulate such a thing as an unobservable “dark matter” to support their theories, why not give the also unobservable “ether” another look?

      Well, quite. Dark matter is a real desperate thing.

      Personally, I always liked “aether”. It’s hard to go back to something discarded so completely (and for good reasons, at the time given the context). When you’ve build a structure as complex and mature as the current one, it’s going to take some big problems to encourage a fundamental rethink. And given that most science is about being useful rather than being right in some philosophically pure sense, there’s a whole extra thing. Lots of different areas in physics clash with one another, but that doesn’t mean the different bubbles are useless or should be thrown away. In the mainstream press science tends to be presented as one complete single connected consistent thing, but that’s never been the case. It’s really lots of little islands, with bridges linking the different islands, to a greater or lesser, more or less successful extent.

  6. malagabay says:

    It’s really lots of little islands, with bridges linking the different islands, to a greater or lesser, more or less successful extent.
    Indeed… But [in my view] that is no excuse for:
    a) Peddling garbage, magic, myths, propaganda and falsified theories.
    b) Turning science into a belief system policed by peer review.
    c) Abandoning the Scientific Method.
    d) Data tampering so it “fits” the mathematics and models.

    • George says:

      Good points, all. (This is an interesting discussion.)

      a. Well, when science becomes political – as in climate change and so on, or energy and resources – then this can be a real problem. For most stuff though, the study of materials and things like that, it’s not really an issue.

      b. I’d say it’s less of a belief system than different groups defending their funding sources. I think it mostly doesn’t affect so much the quality of the work, so much as what world is done. For instance, string theorists will be doing good and honest ‘string theorist work’, but the fact they are doing string theory rather than other stuff is because the funding is there. Peer review does tend to be self-reinforcing. Reviewers think their own views are “right” and so review badly papers submitted which counter that, or at least make the authors really work to get it published (I’ve been involved in this).

      c. Well, the Scientific Method is an ideal, nobody really does the Question > Hypothesis > Prediction > Experiment > Analysis cycle just so! It’s really far more ad hoc than that, because ideas occur all the time throughout the process, feeding back in to what you are doing. This is fine, so long as it is honest. In the end, all that matters is that the experimental approach is sound, so the results are reliable, and then hopefully the theory matches. Let me recommend Paul Feyerabend’s take on this.

      d. Quite. But it’s okay if the model doesn’t quite fit the results, because real-world results just tend to be messy. The model might bring out the key features of what’s happening, but not capture it all. This is okay, so long as it is admitted and the stray data included. There will always be cases of fraud; that was what peer review was meant to help catch. And there’s always the case that experimenters choose the cleanest data, or see patterns within results that correspond to their ideas – just because that’s how perception works. That’s why one study isn’t enough, it has to be replicated.

      So I’d say, yes – where things go wrong is when politics and funding and personalities interfere. This has always been the case, but it has got much worse. The first half of last century, things were much better. Science, unfortunately, has become a business!

      But there are still great things going on both inside and outside academia. People like Julian Barbour, for instance, are worth checking out – and these guys tend to make sure they do some writing for a non-technical audience (see his website here).

  7. Stephen Kovaka says:

    Excellent, George – thanks for elucidating the matter. It isn’t only scientists who tend to oversimplify matters, it is more like human nature.

    • George says:


      If you’re in the kitchen trying to make a lovely meal, you concentrate on the taste ingredients of the ingredients and maybe have a “theory of tastes”. If you’re in the yard trying to lay concrete foundations, you concentrate on the strength properties of the ingredients and maybe have a “theory of solidity”. In neither case do you need a “complete theory of materials down to the fundamental particle level”.

      Most science is like the first two examples. The third example is a very particular branch, and its success doesn’t affect the usefulness or “correctness in context” of the first two, although one day it might offer new insights which feed back into the other two. As I said, mainstream press presents all scientists as essentially working in terms of the third example as a way of getting to the others, but that just isn’t the case, and nor should it be.

      Also, the mistake is made that somehow the third example is “more fundamental”, but this is not so. All three are equal within their area, it is just the context and scope that is different.

      There will be no grand unified theory that accounts for all areas and all scales.

      Anyway, that was fun.

      • George says:

        Oh, I’ll finish by being controversial: “atoms are not made from electrons, proton, neutrons”.

  8. Stephen Kovaka says:

    George wrote:

    “Surely general relativity – which views space as a ‘landscape’ – gets around this? There’s no action at a distance required when objects are deforming the space around them. Objects move as if they are “rolling down a hill”. It’s the “slope” that moves the object, not the thing that they are being ‘attracted’ to. It gets rid of gravitational force as being a mysterious thing caused by mass/matter”

    But objects only roll down a slope because of . . . Gravity! So there is still the same mysterious force at work or something very like it. To me, this doesn’t look like much of an explanation.

    • George says:

      I guess the landscape metaphor can be confusing – but the idea was to extend it from the intuitive “hill metaphor” to apply to empty space – i.e. empty space is also a landscape, with structure, and has “hills” to roll down. So it becomes a mechanical, kinetic/potential energy picture, rather than a “mysterious force” picture.

      The key point is that you don’t have to think in terms of a mysterious force acting at a distance, rather the shape of space-time at each location gives rise to a change in the direction of an object at that point. It’s more akin to an ongoing collision than a remote attraction.

      The picture shifts from being two objects separated by empty space with no connection, pulling towards each other mysteriously over distance – to objects being affected by the shape of space where they are, locally.

      In the case of the planet, objects in the vicinity that would be travelling in a straight line out into the void find their path curved towards the object, and becomes satellites. Hence, planets orbit the sun, and so on.

      Matter bends space!

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