Danger in London's Science Museum

By cjohnson | May 25, 2006 11:59 am

einstein theory vs lawThis was spotted during my very enjoyable visit to the Science Museum on Sunday, described earlier. I am disturbed by this picture for several reasons. Click on it and read the text surrounding the picture. I am not even complaining about the fact that this picture -in prominent display in the spaceflight part of the London Science Museum- contains a lot of silly science fiction nonsense about warp drive (it is right next to a model of the Starship Enterprize) – this stuff has no place in an otherwise excellent display of real science, in my opinion.

What I am complaning about is the fact that the Science Museum has decided to shy away from using the word “theory” when describing Einstein’s General and Special Relativity. They’ve replaced the word “theory” with “law”. Why? You might consider this to be an issue of mere semantics but it is not. There is a very important misunderstanding of what the word “theory” means in a scientific context. This misunderstanding is dangerous. This misunderstanding has already been exploited for political means, and I am sure that it will be exploited again. Recall the discussion about the NASA administration official saying that the Big Bang is “just a theory”, for example. (See a post about it here, with discussion.) (See also a post about the use of the word in a scientific context, here.)

Why does it matter? Surely, since members of the general public think that the word “theory” is less compelling than “law” we might as well use the latter, no? I don’t agree. What we should be doing instead is better educating the public as to the meaning of the word, making it clear that the terms “Theory of Evolution”, or “Theory of Relativity” do not imply that these are not powerful, established parts of the scientific knowledge base.

In fact, I would go as far as to say that replacing “theory” with the word “law” is far more dangerous that it seems. The word “law” does not do as well as “theory” in invoking a vitally important part of Science that distinguishes it from, for example, the typical organized Religion. Science is an on-going process of refinement, adventure, challenge and re-evaluation. It is a different type of “search for truth” than organized Religion. Science is all about the asking of questions and refining of one’s understanding of how the world works. It is not about obeying a set of laws. To focus on the word “law” is a mistake.

A scientific theory establishes a truth about the world, with an understanding that there is a specific realm of validity associated with that theory. It hands over to another theory once we step outside its domain of applicability. Science is about expanding our knowledge by exploring new domains, and, where it can, building a connectivity between those domains of knowledge. It is always being refined. The word “law” really misses all of that, and rather makes it seem more of a dogmatic enterprise: Einstein’s “Law of Relativity” implies that if you’re working in a regime where it does not apply, you’re “breaking the law”. This is not a good word to use, especially when trying to teach either the young, or those from the public who are either not well-exposed to science and the scientific process, or are suspicious of science, or are confused about Religion vs Science (or combinations of all three).

This is also an example of something else I’ve pointed out before. Notice that this is in the Science Museum in London, England. My countrymen over there are often pointing across the Atlantic (with a great deal of complaceny and often glee, sadly) at what is going on in the USA with various debates about science education, religion, science vs. religion, etc. I repeat again: This is not just an American problem. When America sneezes, Britain catches cold. Do not be complacent.

And yes…. someone should talk to someone in charge over at the Science Museum. This mistake should be corrected.

-cvj

  • Samantha

    This semester, I was especially careful in my classes to explain the scientific method to my students and what conclusions result from applying it. Is there anything else we can do?

  • Quark

    The next step is even more dangerous..to substitute the word law with dogma..but in the long term it would not work anyway…scientific discoveries are more powerful than a word attached to one of them..

  • Andy

    So what about Newton’s “laws” of motion or “law” of gravitation? Should we change those as well? I suspect part of the Museum’s motivation was related to the desire to connect Einstein to Newton and to indicate that former is at least as well (actually, even more!) established as the latter.

  • http://epistolary.net candace

    I have other complaints about the SM that are vaguely related…mainly that the collections keep disappearing only to be replaced with funfair rides. Seriously. The optics section on the thrid floor (I think) is undergoing ‘refurbishment’ and I dread to see the implications, and although I hope I’m being overly pessimistic, the rides down the way don’t instill much faith.

    Anyway, the bitch box is here for what it’s worth:
    http://www.sciencemuseum.org.uk/lets_talk/feedback.asp

  • michaeld

    That’s true. Sadly, based on my last visit, it appears they removed Faraday’s equipment (of course it’s possible they couldn’t keep this indefinitely anyway).

  • stevem

    Yes, I get your drift. When they say “Einstein’s Special Law” it sounds all wrong: it makes ole Albert out to be an intellectual dictator or authority/guru figure, something he himself would have hated to be seen as. “Special Law” sounds especially authoritarian, like it was dictated by a genius whose work mere mortals cannot hope to ever understand or question. “Theory” is the right word since theories in science are retained simply because they have not been proved wrong, and SR and GR have stood all tests thrown at them. This is the point they should be emphasising, and also that a theory will in time be replaced by a more complete or deeper theory but will still reproduce the details of the older theory. Newton’s “laws” are within out everyday experience and we have no choice but to obey them (driving a car for instance) so I think the word “law” is more appropriate in this context.

    Also, why oh why must they always have “Star Trek” and “warp drive” discussions within any display on relativity?! It is uneccessary and the real science is far more exciting. Plenty of better things to put there while exploiting slick modern computer graphics and space art too: curved space, black holes and how/why they form, singularities, the Big Bang and expanding universe, the early universe, the possible fate of the universe, gravitational waves and how they might be produced and detected, the cosmological constant problem and dark matter/energy, lensing, quasars, collapsing stars (neutron stars pulsars and white dwarves), time dilation and gravitational red shifts, galactic red shifts. GR is a very rich and fascinating area and that needs to be put across, and also the fact that it is still being explored, refined, tested and built upon. On top of that you could then throw in a little bit on “warp drive” or time travel. Perhaps you should write or email the museum your thoughts?

  • Ted

    “Yes, I get your drift. When they say “Einstein’s Special Law” it sounds all wrong: it makes ole Albert out to be an intellectual dictator or authority/guru figure, something he himself would have hated to be seen as. “Special Law” sounds especially authoritarian, like it was dictated by a genius whose work mere mortals cannot hope to ever understand or question.”

    Please. Someone call the BS Police.

    “‘Theory’ is the right word since theories in science are retained simply because they have not been proved wrong, and SR and GR have stood all tests thrown at them.

    What about the “Laws” of Thermodynamics? They haven’t been proven wrong.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/clifford/ Clifford

    Andy, Ted. I think you’re missing the big picture, to some extent. Sure, there might be a few exceptions here and there where the word “law” is already enshrined by popular use, but that does not mean that we just give up on using the more appropriate term.

    I also note that the examples that you mention -and others- are somewhat different in character than a theory. The Laws of Thermodynamics are simply effective statements which arise from the underlying theory of Statistical Mechanics. Newton’s Law of Gravitation, Boyle’s Law, Charles’ Law, Kirchoff’s Laws, Ohm’s Law…these are all specific equations or statements describing a particular behaviour for a very specific situation.

    For the case or Special Relativity, or General Relativity, or Statistical Mechanics, or Quantum Mechanics or a range of other frameworks and/or bodies of work and ideas…. there is not one single equation that is being named. It is a whole framework of treatments, approaches, ideas, etc. The word “theory” is far more appropriate. There is no single equation talking about a specific behaviour that is being referred to when they say “Einstein’s Law of Relativity”. There is simply no such thing and no actual physicist I know ever says that. Therefore it is totally wrongheaded to try and rename it in this stupid way just because they are afraid of the word “theory”. It is misleading at best, and very counterproductive to science education.

    -cvj

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/clifford/ Clifford

    candace, I placed the link to this post into their feedback box, along with the comment: “Please see the discussion at this link about one of your displays. It is a serious matter, to which several of us hope you will give some thought, and perhaps reconsider your display.”

    Cheers,

    -cvj

  • stevem

    “Please someone call the BS police”. Dear Ted, so I am in a ranting BS sort of mood today. Big f—–g deal. Around the physics blogsphere and blogs in general, the “BS police” would have an impossible task. Let’s hear your contribution. The first paragraph you put in quotes is exactly how the layperson public see Einstein. There is a subtle difference between saying the “laws of thermodynamics” as in the “laws of nature” and “Einstein’s Special Laws”, as in the sense of “the law as laid down by Einstein”. He of all people would have made the clear distinction. So I agree with what Clifford writes in that it makes science sound like a dogmatic enterprise and it is more worrisome than it seems.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    I mostly agree with you, Clifford, especially when it comes to the silliness of replacing “theory” with “law” to emphasize the truthfulness of something. My one quibble would be with your claim that “A scientific theory establishes a truth about the world.” Well, some theories do, and some don’t; plenty of theories are just wrong.

    As I’ve argued before, we should just drop the pretense that “theory” and “law” are well-defined technical terms that indicate an ideas status in the hierarchy of correctness:

    http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/2005/09/19/theories-laws-facts/

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/clifford/ Clifford

    Sean,

    I think it was clear from the context that I was talking about established, experimentally tested pieces of work such as the Theory of Evolution, or the Theory of Special Relativity, and not just some fancy someone dreamed up one morning, or an interesting or promising body of work that has not yet been tested (such as “String Theory”).

    Cheers,

    -cvj

  • http://iso42.blogspot.com wolfgang

    May I ask why the trackback link to Lubos’ post was deleted?

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/clifford/ Clifford

    Yes, you may.

    -cvj

  • LambchopofGod

    “May I ask why the trackback link to Lubos’ post was deleted? ”

    I have a theory about that. But it’s just a theory.

  • http://iso42.blogspot.com wolfgang

    > I have a theory about that.

    Yes, you may have such a theory.

  • Aaron Bergman

    It could be bunnies.

  • Simon

    Maybe an origin of the common misunderstanding of the word “law”
    is that all of high school physics deals with old ideas, invariably described by …someone’s… “law”.
    So unless you’ve gone on to study further you think, “physics = laws”.
    and that the new (20th century) physics “theories” are not as good.

  • http://electrogravity.blogspot.com/ Science

    Clifford,

    Theory is a bit old fashioned, suggesting some kind of mechanism which explains what is going on.

    FitzGerald’s contraction is a “theory” of relativity, because it says the absolute speed of light simply can’t be detected: in the direction of motion the fall in light speed is offset by the contraction of the instrument.

    So light travelling along each path in the Michelson-Morley equipment arrived at the same time.

    This FitzGerald mechanical “theory” of relativity is heresy; it has to always be suppressed from discussion using authority or using an armwaving sneer that physics is not concerned with “people’s theories”.

    FitzGerald said the contraction in the direction of motion is a physical compression by the pressure of the spacetime fabric against moving atoms, like the tiny contraction of a moving ship in the direction of motion due to the difference in water pressure between bow and stern.

    (I remember one enraged physics lecturer claiming FitzGerald was talking nonsense because the arms of the MM instrument can be made differing lengths. However, the instrument is not measuring speed of light, it is just detecting differences in speeds in two directions by interference fringes, so the length of the arms doesn’t change affect the conclusions. Anyway, the arms of the MM instrument were never the same length to within a wavelength of light, even in the original instrument.)

    FitzGerald’s mechanism implies light velocity is absolute but this is usually covered up by contraction:

    ‘The Michelson-Morley experiment has thus failed to detect our motion through the aether, because the effect looked for — the delay of one of the light waves — is exactly compensated by an automatic contraction of the matter forming the apparatus…. The great stumbing-block for a philosophy which denies absolute space is the experimental detection of absolute rotation.’ — A.S. Eddington (who confirmed Einstein’s general theory of relativity), Space Time and Gravitation, Cambridge University Press, 1921, pp. 20, 152.

    But waves obey the wave axiom: velocity = wavelength x frequency. In relativity, redshift of light from receding galaxies involves both an increase in wavelength and a decrease in frequency (by an identical factor), so that the velocity is unaltered. (The reason why the frequency decreases is now obvious: it is the time-dilation effect on the frequency of the receding electrons which are emitting light.)

    Hence emitted light has the same velocity irrespective of the state of motion of the emitter, and any change must be due to the observer’s motion relative to the light and not to the motion of the source.

    Peter Woit might say that you have to ask what more FitzGerald predicts than does Einstein, and might then conclude FitzGerald’s relativity theory is “NOT EVEN WRONG” like string theory. (However, maybe he would just stay out of controversy and not worry that a few “crackpots” continue to ask questions in science instead of buying the well-advertised dogma. The “lunatics” are only a problem when they take over the asylum as in the case of some mainstream extra-dimensional speculations.) I think, in his heart, Einstein sided with the doubters who can’t muddle physics for religious dogma:

    ‘The special theory of relativity … does not extend to non-uniform motion … The laws of physics must be of such a nature that they apply to systems of reference in any kind of motion. Along this road we arrive at an extension of the postulate of relativity… The general laws of nature are to be expressed by equations which hold good for all systems of co-ordinates, that is, are co-variant with respect to any substitutions whatever (generally co-variant). …’ — Albert Einstein, ‘The Foundation of the General Theory of Relativity’, Annalen der Physik, v49, 1916.

    ‘Recapitulating, we may say that according to the general theory of relativity, space is endowed with physical qualities… According to the general theory of relativity space without ether is unthinkable.’ — Albert Einstein, Leyden University lecture on ‘Ether and Relativity’, 1920. (Einstein, A., Sidelights on Relativity, Dover, New York, 1952, pp. 15-23.)

    Dr Love helpfully quotes Einstein’s admissions that the covariance of the general relativity theory violates the idea in special relativity that the velocity of light is constant:

    ‘… the law of the constancy of the velocity of light. But … the general theory of relativity cannot retain this law. On the contrary, we arrived at the result according to this latter theory, the velocity of light must always depend on the coordinates when a gravitational field is present.’ – Albert Einstein, Relativity, The Special and General Theory, Henry Holt and Co., 1920, p111.

    So general relativity conflicts with, and supersedes, special relativity. General relativity says goodbye to the law of the invariant velocity of light which was used in a fiddle, special relativity:

    ‘… the principle of the constancy of the velocity of light in vacuo must be modified, since we easily recognise that the path of a ray of light … must in general be curvilinear…’ – Albert Einstein, The Principle of Relativity, Dover, 1923, p114.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/clifford/ Clifford

    science:- I don’t agree that theory is a bit old-fashioned. It is the usage that actual people in the field subscribe to and is therefore current. See my comment number 8.

    -cvj

  • Ambitwistor

    Aaron: or maybe midgets.

  • Dan

    For once I tend to agree with Lubos…

  • ronan

    Maybe we need a term that will demonstrate that Relativity (S&G) and Evolution are better tested, more accepted, and more likely to be “true” than a theory that came out last week and will be tested over the next 40 years. This new term could also (hopefully) not be spelled and pronounced the same way as a common English word that means wild-assed-guess. It might then be harder for politicians and preachers to deliberately confuse people as to the ‘strength’ of a scientific whatsamajigit.

    What’s with all the carrots? What do they need such good eyesight for anyway?

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/clifford/ Clifford

    ronan:- That’s not a good approach, in my opinion. …and will be starting from scratch. We have existing words that we can use:- we just need to do a better job of educating people in basic science. That’s at the root of the problem. We don’t do it very well, as a society, so people are easily confused by the distinctions.

    -cvj

  • ronan

    Unfortunately, ‘our’ words mean different things to different people. That means that our words are ill-defined. Perhaps not ill-defined to a specialist, but you aren’t talking about educating specialists.

    Look at the “Free Software” movement. Stupid name, causes all kinds of confusion, and requires irritating speeches from an irritating geek in sandals to become clear. Because the word ‘free’ has two very different meanings (libero vs gratis), we are constantly tripped-up. Get this: I can require you to pay me to get a copy of my “Free Software”. This software is “Free Software” as in “freedom”, but you aren’t free to make changes and sell it in a proprietary package like you could with public domain software. The term Open Source had to be invented just to jettison much of the confusion.

    No amount of public education is going to eliminate the casual use of the word ‘theory’. So you expect two soccer moms to say, “no, I meant theory in the scientific sense”? You can keep your jargon pure, or you can accomplish your objective of educating the public about science. Right now your jargon is impeding science education (and public policy), not because it uses unusual jargon terms, but because it uses English words instead of jargon terms.

    Try coming up with a new term that means something like ‘really well tested law-candidate’. I do not recommend: gesss, junche, y-knot, or swag.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/clifford/ Clifford

    ronan:- In an ideal world, I would agree. But the real point is that language is full of ambiguities, not just in the scientific context. I trust the intelligence of the general public, actually. I don’t assume that they are stupid. They are people, just like me. They sort through ambiguities in other situations, and they are capable of doing it in this case. What they need is better information about what we do, not a PR campaign launching nice soft easy words for them because we think that they’ll be confused by “our” words. Until we’ve actually done a decent job of trying that -and we have not- I’ll not be convinced that we need to introduce a whole new dictionary.

    Best,

    -cvj

  • Ted

    “Dear Ted, so I am in a ranting BS sort of mood today. Big f——g deal. Around the physics blogsphere and blogs in general, the “BS police” would have an impossible task. Let’s hear your contribution. The first paragraph you put in quotes is exactly how the layperson public see Einstein. There is a subtle difference between saying the “laws of thermodynamics” as in the “laws of nature” and “Einstein’s Special Laws”, as in the sense of “the law as laid down by Einstein”. He of all people would have made the clear distinction. So I agree with what Clifford writes in that it makes science sound like a dogmatic enterprise and it is more worrisome than it seems.”

    Please. Lighten up, Stevem. Someone call the Overreaction Police.

  • http://www.ideasforwomen.com/news/ Trisha

    I agree that the word ‘law’ shouldn’t be substituted for the word ‘theory’ that would just cause more problems in the future.

    The word theory does cause confusion with the general public though.

    Ronan has a good point maybe we do need a new word that wouldn’t be ‘spelled and pronounced the same way as a common English word that means wild-assed-guess’.

    Either that or much better education of the methods and terminology of science.

  • Stevem

    Ted, fair enough lol. Not in a good mood yesterday after a difficult day.

  • http://arunsmusings.blogspot.com Arun

    There may have been a different attitude towards Newton’s Laws in the past that we do not remember after Einstein dethroned them. Now that we have a history of several scientific revolutions that overthrew previously established “laws”, the provisional nature of scientific knowledge is never far away from us. Perhaps not so in the past.

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