Einstein’s unfinished symphony in the media

Our recent discovery of an unpublished model of the cosmos by Albert Einstein (see last post or here for a preprint of our paper) is receiving a lot of media attention, it’s very humbling. First off the mark was Davide Castelvecchi with a very nice article in Nature. Davide’s article was quickly reproduced in various outlets, from Scientific American here to the Huffington Post here. Trawling over the internet, I see newspaper and magazine articles describing our discovery in a dozen languages. It’s nice to see historical material receiving this sort of attention, I guess everyone loves an Einstein story.

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I’m also intrigued that it was the traditional media that picked up the story – with the exception of Peter Woit, no-one in the blogosphere seemed to notice our preprint or even a blogpost I wrote describing our paper. Perhaps we bloggers need the imprimateur of respected print journals more than we care to admit!

I notice one slightly misleading point in the electronic version of the Nature article is getting repeated everywhere. It’s probably not quite correct to frame Einstein’s attempt at a steady-state model of the cosmos in terms of a resistance to ‘big bang’ theories; there is no reference to the problem of origins in Einstein’s manuscript. Indeed, one of the most interesting aspects of the manuscript is that it appears to have been written in early 1931, at a time when the first tentative astronomical evidence for an expanding universe was emerging but the issue of an explosive beginning for the cosmos had yet to come into focus (e.g. the great debate between Eddington and Lemaitre later in 1931). It’s interesting that the initial mention in Nature of resistance to ‘big bang’ theories  is repeated in almost all other outlets, one can’t help wondering how many science journalists read our abstract. An honorable exception here is John Farrell at Forbes Magazine. John certainly noticed the discrepancy and no wonder – John has written an excellent book on Lemaitre.

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All in all, it’s been a lot of fun so far. I’m getting quite a few emails from distinguished colleagues pointing out that Einstein’s model is trivial because it didn’t work, which is of course true. However, our view is that what Einstein is trying to do is very interesting from a philosophical point of view  – and what is even more interesting is that he apparently abandoned the project when he realised that a consistent steady-state model would require an amendment to the field equations. In short, it seems the Great Master conducted an internal debate between steady-state and evolving models of the cosmos decades before the rest of the community…

Update

There is a very nice video describing our discovery here.

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12 Comments

Filed under Astronomy, Cosmology (general), History and philosophy of science

12 responses to “Einstein’s unfinished symphony in the media

  1. Pingback: Ninth Level Ireland » Blog Archive » Einstein’s unfinished symphony in the media

  2. It is a tribute to Einstein’s greatness that he recognised and acknowledged an error that he had made in opposing the concept of an expanding universe. Just as he did with the principle of uncertainty in quantum mechanics by sating, famously, that “God does not play dice.”

  3. Yes, indeed. Though I’m not even sure one should use the word ‘error’ here, it’s really only an error in retrospect. When Einstein formulated his first cosmological model in 1917, the idea that space itself might be expanding or contracting would have seemed pretty wild, and there was no empirical evidence known to him for such a thing. It’s fun to speculate what cosmic solutions Einstein might have considered had he known of Slipher’s redshifts in 1917…

  4. Good stuff Cormac. For myself I find myself struggling to understand why Einstein didn’t predict an expanding universe from the off. It’s as if his intuition and his confidence in his own theory somehow failed him. It’s like I’m sitting there reading The Meaning of Relativity, shouting lose the dust! See Einstein talking about field theory in 1929* where he refers to a gravitational field as a state of space. It alters the motion of light and matter through that space, but it doesn’t make space fall down. The universe was never ever going to collapse. Then look at the energy-pressure diagonal in the stress-energy tensor. And the sheer stress. Sheer stress should remind you of elastic. And pressure should remind you of compressed elastic. Only in 1916, they hadn’t invented the stress-ball, and the moment was gone.

    * http://www.rain.org/~karpeles/einsteindis.html

  5. I think maybe the concept of expanding space is quite hard to envision. A lot of physicists struggled with the idea, even after the Hubble/Slipher observations (see the letters between Eddington and de Sitter in the early 1930s for example). It’s probably no coincidence that Friedman was the first to predict a dynamic universe, a mathematician who didn’t make any real attempt to connect the theory with observation

  6. Donncha

    Excellent article (and paper) Cormac. I presume that the reports of the motivation for the steady state type of solution being reported is due to journalists attributing the motivation for the steady state that Hoyle for instance had, to Einstein. Certainly a major part of Hoyle’s motivation was due to a discomfort with the Big Bang theory (and in particular with the notion that time is not infinite). Indeed attributing this motivation to Einstein is probably a sound enough notion, since Einstein rejected the cosmological constant due to his preference for a static universe solution. Also a little bit of a bugbear of mine – is to attribute the dynamic universe derivation to Friedmann alone. Though he was indeed first, Lemaitre did make the derivation independently. Often the solution is referred to as the FRW metric, but really FLRW should be the accepted name. I notice in your paper that you did, of course, mention both Lemaitre and Friedmann, so my comment is not about your article but a general remark. As you have been looking at the historical context of the first GR solutions, I was wondering if you had any take on why Lemaitre had been overlooked for so long.

  7. Yes, it’s FLRW in all good textbooks. I think it’s convenience, people like to put Friedman in the box marked ‘dynamical models’ and Lemaitre in the box marked ‘connection with observation’. Just lazy, I think. Another reason might be that AE never once referred to Lemaitre, I’ve never understood why not.
    Re Hoyle,very true. It’s a pity everyone keeps looking at Einstein’s steady-state model through the lens of a Hoyle model, it just confuses the issue – the motivation and the maths are quite different

  8. Hi Cormac, I was wondering if you could tell me why they say that Einstein’s model is trivial as it did not work?

    • From the text:
      “I’m getting quite a few emails from distinguished colleagues pointing out that Einstein’s model is trivial because it didn’t work, which is of course true.”

      How the heck would they know… this isn’t the original model that they think it is…

  9. Says Einstein! The model doesn’t really work the way it was originally set up because there is no term representing the continuous creation of matter. It only seemed to give a non-zero solution because of a numerical error. It’s clear from the manuscript that AE spotted this on revision, and he apparently abandoned the model at that point rather than try a more sophisticated steady-state model by amending the field equations..

  10. “Perhaps we bloggers need the imprimateur of respected print journals more than we care to admit!”

    Yes, but that’s no good if someone has a blog as a last resort to get around the biased peer-review problem with “controversial” facts!