Relativity is wrong?

The fundamental postulate of relativistic physics is that there is no possible way to claim that one inertial observer’s observations are more correct than another’s. All the wonderful paradoxical thinking of relativity really grows out of that condition. And that idea was the key to Einstein’s ability to explain the failure of the Michaelson-Morley experiment to detect the ether.

The most elegant way to express the idea is to posit as axiomatic that there is no preferred reference frame in the Universe. Unlike Newtonian thought, Relativistic physics says that there is no Universal frame of reference that can be thought of as being “at rest”. The implications of the idea are that there is no preferred direction in the Universe. (As my advisor in grad school once quipped to me, the reason that the Laplacian operator is present in the simplest expressions of physical laws is that it is the simplest mathematical operator that is rotation invariant.)

What if this fundamental idea is wrong? What if there is a preferred direction, at least cosmologically speaking… It would mean that much of the thinking about cosmology is wrong. If there is a Universal frame, at least at the cosmological scale, we’d have to gin up relativity to fix that.

In a little noted paper a few weeks ago, this appears to be the case:

“In recent years, however, some cosmologists have begun to suspect that the principle may be wrong. They point to evidence from the study of Type 1 supernovas, which appear to be accelerating away from us, indicating the Universe is not just expanding but accelerating away from us. The curious thing is that this acceleration is not uniform in all directions. Instead, the universe seems to be expanding faster in some directions than others.

But how good is this evidence? Is it possible that the preferred direction is a statistical mirage that will disappear with the right kind of data analysis.

Rong-Gen Cai and Zhong-Liang Tuo at the Key Laboratory of Frontiers in Theoretical Physics at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing have re-examined the data from 557 supernovas throughout the Universe and recrunched the numbers.

Today, they confirm that the preferred axis is real. According to their calculations, the direction of greatest acceleration is in the constellation of Vulpecula in the Northern hemisphere. That’s consistent with other analyses and also with other evidence such as other data showing a preferred axis in the cosmic microwave background.”

More here.

That last bit about the preferred axis in the cosmic background radiation resonates with me. I’ve always been bothered by the fact that one side of the sky appears hotter than the opposite side. People have told me that it’s expected, but at least at the basic level of intuition it’s always bothered me. Perhaps there’s something here.

Now, this is probably going to have a bigger impact in the philosophy of Physics than in the actual calculations of motion. Special Relativity works really really well. And all the most recent tests of General Relativity have indicated that General Relativity works exceedingly well too.

But there’s something subtle happening here, assuming that the report is verified.

Philosophically speaking, it will mean that Science is no longer telling us that there is no way to uncover an absolute truth. It means that we’re going to have to acknowledge the existence of a truth that can universally verified by all observers. Which I suppose will push us back towards a more positivist stance than the weaker versions like post-positivism that have been gaining in popularity recently.

If this claim that there is a Universal reference frame verifies, it’s also going to punch a whole in the Multiverse theories too. (Though the lack of the Higgs particle may be already doing that.)

Interesting times. Interesting times…

[Finally, I apologize for the lack of posts here. I’ve been taken to task that I’ve been burning the candle on both ends for far too long a time, and this summer I’ve tried to find a healthier balance between work and rest. I’m not sure I’ve got it down yet, but at least I’m trying to be more intentional. (As an interim observation, I’ve noticed that the more movies or novels I read (one this summer!) the better the sermons I preach have gotten. Let’s see if the observation verifies…)]

Author: Nick Knisely

Episcopal bishop, dad, astronomer, erstwhile dancer...

1 thought on “Relativity is wrong?”

  1. So it looks like at the beginning of time there was a singularity that exploded releasing all the matter and energy in the observable universe, and we’re now becoming able to calculate which way we went from that center? Or is that to simplistic an understanding of the observations?

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