Science and socialists

It's all relative

Duncan Blackie (1988)


Published in Socialist Worker Review issue 115, December 1988, pp26-27.

Transcribed by Jørn Andersen for Marxisme Online, 3 december 2001.



If you haven't heard of any other twentieth century physicist, you'll have heard of Albert Einstein. And with good reason: he laid the theoretical framework for the greatest revolution in physics for 250 years.

Einstein was a pacifist (except during the Second World War), a Jew who had to flee Germany after his house was raided by the Gestapo in 1933 on the pretext that he was funding a "communist revolt", and a Zionist (he was offered the second presidency of Israel in 1952 but declined).

He also thought of himself as a socialist. His 1949 Essay, Why Socialism, if not original, is one of the best short arguments about the insanity of capitalism there is.

His two most important contributions were in the theory of relativity, and in laying the framework for "quantum physics" which forms the dividing line between modern physics and "classical physics".

Classical physics is what people still learn at school and which shapes our everyday view of the world. What is it?

For 250 years a scientific understanding of the world was dominated by one towering orthodoxy: the laws laid out in Newton's Principia.

Most important of them are Newton's three laws of motion, which state that the motion of bodies is determined according to the action of forces upon them. These laws formed the cornerstones to technological development under capitalism.

They give us a basic understanding of all sorts of systems from the motion of the stars to the behaviour of snooker balls. The planets move around the sun because of the action of gravity, a football moves because it has been kicked, a car jolts forward because another one has crashed into its behind.

The French scientist Laplace took this to its logical conclusion and said that with sufficient information about the position and movement of everything, it would be possible to predict everything that will happen in the universe for ever more.

Newton also insisted that what ultimately lay behind his laws was a divine mission. His was not the arbitrary God of earlier ages but one which had set up the world in an ordered fashion. This was also a world in which materialism pushed the intervention of God back out of the way of everyday life.

Because of this, his system also seemed to fit with the way in which society was developing, particularly during the latter part of the nineteenth century, as capitalism grew more powerful, decade after decade.

He offered a view of a mechanically developing world. But the idea that a simple accretion of certain laws could ultimately explain ever more complex systems was constantly under threat.

Thermodynamics, the behaviour of fluids, required information about an immensely large number of independent elements. It was impossible to understand the behaviour of a gas by adding up the momenta of all the individual molecules. So laws which consider the overall, or "holistic", behaviour of fluids were developed.

This erosion of determinism gave credence to the development of a new leading figure in science, Ernst Mach. His doctrine was that scientists could only really study and understand what they themselves could see or feel.

The world is thus divided into two. One part, accessible to observation by humans can be studied and is thus deemed "real". The other, beyond our reach, according to Mach, just doesn't exist to all intents and purposes.

It was against this background of a decaying Newtonian orthodoxy that Einstein made his most important breakthroughs which were much more threatening to the old certainties than thermodynamics ever was.

Special Relativity was first formulated by Einstein in 1905 to deal with an emerging inconsistency between mechanics and electromagnetic theory.

The full theory and its implied conclusions are quite difficult to understand, and we haven't been helped by the Star Trek-type mysticism which has grown up around it. But the basic implication is, as it sounds, that everything is relative.

Position, speed and acceleration all only exist in relation to something else, not in absolute terms as Newton would have it. The most important implication is that time, in Einstein's theory, properly becomes a dimension in a similar sense to horizontal or vertical distances. Instead of space and time we now have the four dimensional "space-time".

It also means that time itself is distorted according to the, motion of bodies, that light has momentum in the same way as solid bodies and, as a special result, that phenomenal amounts of energy are transferred when mass is swopped for energy. (This is where E=MC2 comes from.)

Special relativity was developed into the general theory in 1916 with gravity assuming the power to distort spacetime. The best explanation of this is given by Einstein himself in his popular little book, Relativity.

Because Newton's absolute frame of reference was gone, and because Einstein stated himself to be a follower of Mach, special relativity was hailed as a triumph for Mach's ideas.

Moreover, because it was now cut free from the old certainties, the new physics were taken up by all sorts of people who wanted to use its implications for a profoundly anti-materialist view of the world, one which said, like Mach, that nothing really exists beyond what we know about.

In fact Einstein was plainly dealing with phenomena which were not easily seen or felt, breaking Mach's golden rule. And, despite the distortions, relativity had actually saved materialism from an impasse.

Einstein's second major contribution also came in 1905, when he wrote a paper on the photo-electric effect.

The most important aspect of his theory is that sub-atomic particles skip around, making "quantum jumps". Electrons, for example, don't gradually move between two states, they are either in one state or the other – never half way in between.

This is a real blow for those that imagined that sub-atomic particles could be expected to follow Newton's rules and move about as if they were miniature billiard balls.

Quantum mechanics proper was developed during the 1920s, and marks the most radical break in physics since Newton. Most revolutionary was the idea that there is no way of knowing how and when these things will happen. Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle, the real cornerstone, states that we can never know absolutely the precise whereabouts and movement of a particle.

If relativity had overcome the challenge to the old mechanical materialism and revamped it in a more sophisticated but nevertheless recognisable form, quantum physics is the end of mechanical determinism.

It is best summed up by the idea of Schrodinger's cat. A cat is put in a box with a radioactive source and sealed vial of poison. The box is then sealed.

In the Newtonian model to check the health of the cat, it would be a simple matter of making deductions from the state of affairs before the box was sealed, as knowing everything about the contents of the sealed box is enough to determine what happens from then onwards.

However, in quantum mechanics we don't know everything, nor can ever hope to – in Schrodinger's model the uncertainty lies in the radioactive source. All we can say is that the cat is either sitting comfortably in a corner, or the radioactive source has emitted a neutron which has broken the poison vial and killed the cat.

Quantum theory was accepted by most of the leading physicists by the mid '20s, (with the notable exception of Einstein himself who spent the rest of his life trying to get rid of the uncertainty principle.)

"Quantum mechanics demands serious attention." he says, "But an inner voice tells me that this is not the true Jacob. The theory accomplishes a lot, but it does not bring us close to the secret of the Old One [God]. In any case, I am convinced that He does not play dice."

And yet there was no properly worked out description of the new system at the time. This only came with Dirac's equations in 1930.

Quantum mechanics and with it the end of causality, were prompted by attempts to find solutions to problems within physics itself. But the fact that it was embraced so readily is at least partially due to a change in general atmosphere in which the scientists were working.

The certain, forward marching, technologically dominated world of the turn of the century had been smashed up by the carnage of the First World War, revolution and near revolution across Europe followed by economic crisis.

The burying of the Newtonian mechanical determinism in science coincided with the development in Weimar Germany (where most of the great physicists of the time lived and worked), of an anti-scientific, anti-technical culture. Nevertheless these changes can only have facilitated the breakthroughs, which had much more to do with developments internal to physics itself.

A study of modern physics can't end without briefly examining the issue it throws up in most people's minds.

That is, doesn't it all just lead to ever more disgusting obscenities?

The answer is no. Without quantum physics we would not have atomic weapons, but neither would we have modern medicines, genetics or semi-conductors. Science even under capitalism is capable of throwing up great advances which are of use to humanity now and will be under socialism.

Which of them, the destructive or the civilising, is most developed depends on the priorities of class society.

Ten thousand of the top scientists in the world were assembled in a specially built town in Los Alamos in the Arizona desert to build the atomic bomb. Many months, hundreds of millions of pounds, millions of person hours went into making the first ever, very crude, atomic device. (The myth that a dastardly group of physics students could build a terrorist atomic bomb is ridiculous.)

The genius which underlies this work was given impressive resources and acclaim because it suited the needs of competing sections of capital at the time.

Equally impressive theoretical developments underlie genetics and medical science. But they are not translated into a usable product nearly as fast since finding a cure for AIDS, for example, is not a priority of capitalism.

Einstein helped lay the basis for massive strides in humans' ability to both help and destroy one another. The choice of priority was not his.

Duncan Blackie



This article is one out of a short series on Science and socialists published in Socialist Worker Review issues 112 to 116 (September 1988 to January 1989):
Paul McGarr: Star wars (Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo)
Andy Wilson: The core of Newton
Mike Simons: Darwin's new dawn
Duncan Blackie: It's all relative (Einstein)
Malcolm Povey: The science factory (science and scientists in society)



Last updated 3.12.01