Empirically Yours

On Monday, August 21 a large swath of North America will be treated to a spectacular display of celestial magic, a total eclipse of the sun.  For the first time in 99 years from coast to coast across the entire continental U.S., daytime will become total darkness for usa_eclipse_map_print_2017_NASA about two minutes in a 70-mile wide band stretching from Oregon to South Carolina.  Those outside this path of totality will see a partial eclipse, as illustrated above in the lines parallel to the path of totality.

This marks an unusual opportunity for scientists to study features of the outer atmosphere of the sun that are usually obscured by its blinding brightness.  The international space station, orbiting satellites, high-altitude balloons, and ground based telescopes will all be focused on this rare astronomical event.

In spite of the well-justified attention garnered by the Eclipse of 2017, the information gathered, as the eclipse transits the continent, is likely to provide only an incremental improvement in our understanding of the sun, its outer atmosphere, and surrounding regions of space.  In contrast, another eclipse, observed by only a few ground-based astronomers using mostly marginal equipment, resulted in undoing mankind’s fundamental concept of the universe accepted as immutable fact for nearly 250 years.  How this happened illustrates an important lesson in how we should judge what we think we “know” is so.

In 1905 a then unknown patent clerk, Albert Einstein, published four scientific papers.  One described his Special Theory of Relativity, a radically new view of how space and time are interwoven.  The scientific community did not seem impressed.  He used math and physics to articulate his theory.  Still, the burden of proof rested with Einstein.

By 1913 he had completed an initial draft of his new General albert-einstein-784078_1280_PixabayTheory of Relativity, explaining gravity is a result of spacetime curving due to mass and energy.  According to this theory, the path followed by a beam of light should be bent by the influence of gravity.  To prove his theory he had to design an experiment that could demonstrate the path of a beam of light being bent by gravity.  The challenge was finding something with enough gravity to bend light.  His insight about how to accomplish this was to observe light from distant stars and measure how its path was affected by the gravitational pull of the sun.

Unfortunately, the sun is so bright it obscures the path of light beams approaching it from distant stars. Einstein, realized the exception to this given, i.e., during a solar eclipse the moon blocks rays from the sun.  So, for the few minutes of the totality of an eclipse stars around the sun become visible.  If his theory were correct, their positions would appear shifted slightly from where they ordinarily appear in the night sky because their light beams would be bent as they passed near the sun.

Einstein published a description of the experiment he proposed to prove his General Theory of Relativity, seeking astronomers to perform the experiment.  There was little response initially.  Finally, a group of astronomers was assembled to pursue the effort of photographing a solar eclipse and measuring its effect on starlight.

Four Attempts To Prove Or Disprove Einstein’s Theory

  • In August 1914 an eclipse was visible in eastern Europe, about two months after the outbreak of World War I.  Two teams of astronomers were on the ground for the eclipse.  The German team was arrested in Crimea.  Near Kiev, the American team was unable to photograph the eclipse due to cloud cover.  They were allowed to return to the U.S., but their equipment was seized.
    • After the failure of the 1914 expedition, Einstein discovered serious errors in his calculations concerning his General Theory of Relativity.  Though disheartened by the failure of the 1914 expedition, he must have realized his luck that no measurements had been taken in 1914 because they would have discredited his theory due to his uncorrected errors.
    • In November 1915 Einstein published his General Theory Of Relativity with revised calculations.
  • In June 1918 William Campbell of the Lick Observatory in California observed a total eclipse of the sun in the Pacific Northwest of the U.S. It was his equipment that had been seized four years earlier near Kiev.  So, he had to improvise, using sub-standard equipment.  This led him to question the accuracy of his photographs when measurements of them failed to detect light-bending, meaning Einstein’s theory was wrong if the photographs were indeed accurate. Facing a quandary, he delayed publishing any findings.
  • In May 1919, after the end of World War I, a total eclipse of the sun was visible on Principe, an island off the west coast of Africa.  Arthur Stanley Eddington, an astronomer from Cambridge University, traveled to Principe to photograph the event.  Clouds in the aftermath of an early morning rain storm forced him to take his photographs rapidly, hoping to capture the instant of totality, when background stars would be most visible before cloud cover again obliterated his view. Eddington had colleagues in Sobral, Brazil also photographing the eclipse, as a backup.  They encountered heavy cloud cover until the clouds finally broke up one minute before totality, allowing them to take some photographs.Between the two teams, a few of the photographs showed some stars clearly enough to make measurements, which demonstrated light-bending, proving Einstein’s theory.
    • Eddington sent a cable to the Royal Astronomical Society in London to inform them he had confirmed Einstein’s theory.
    • Eddington’s cable arrived just as Campbell was about to meet with the Royal Astronomical Society to present his results, disproving Einstein’s theory.  Hearing of Eddington’s cable, Campbell canceled his meeting due to his ongoing doubts about the quality of his equipment and the resultant accuracy of the measurements of his photographs.
    • In November, 1919 Eddington presented his results to the Royal Astronomical Society.  The news confirming Einstein’s theory became known worldwide almost immediately.  Nevertheless, skeptics questioned his results, setting the stage for an effort to determine whether Eddington’s results could be independently replicated.
  • In September 1922 a total eclipse of the sun occurred in western Australia.  1922 Eclipse_xjubier.free.frOn this occasion, the equipment was up to proper standards, and the weather cooperated.  Once again, William Campbell was in charge.  He directed the photography and the measurements of the resulting images.
    • In May 1923 the Greenwich Observatory announced that the measurements by Campbell’s 1922 expedition had replicated Eddington’s results, thus confirming Einstein’s theory.
    • Since 1922 light-beams have been measured during subsequent solar eclipses, with increasing degrees of precision, replicating the results of earlier measurements, lending further credence to the confirmation of Einstein’s theory.

The Importance Of The Empirical Proof Of Einstein’s Theory Of Relativity

Einstein’s theories fundamentally altered our understanding of math, geometry, physics, and science, exposing an entirely new view of the universe radically different from the clockwork universe of Newtonian physics first set forth by Sir Isaac Newton in 1687.

The term empirical proof refers to using a working hypothesis that can be tested through observation and experiment.  Einstein relied on empirical proof to validate his theory:

  • Hypothesis – General Theory Of Relativity
  • Prediction – gravity will bend the path followed by a beam of light
  • Observation – photographs taken of light from distant stars during a total eclipse of the sun
  • Testing Predictions – comparing the positions of the stars in the photographs during the eclipse while passing the sun to their normal positions observed directly in the night sky
    • if the stars appeared slightly out-of-place in the photographs, it would indicate the path of the light they emitted was being bent by gravity while passing near the sun, thus proving the hypothesis.

Crucially, even empirical proof is not accepted at face value.  Before being accepted as fact, the experiment that produced it must be independently replicated, reaching the same conclusions.  Of course, this is why Einstein had to wait seven years from publishing his General Theory Of Relativity to seeing it confirmed as scientific fact.

The proof of  Einstein’s theory has affected more than scientists in physics labs.  In the era of Newton, rules were fixed and unchanging.  Now the idea of relativity and its inertial reference frame argues against “absolute truths,” affecting the realms of sociology and philosophy. We see many other effects in our day-to-day lives such as the power grid, television, and GPS.  For more on this take a look at Live Science and at The Daily Mail, commemorating the 100th anniversary of the publication of the General Theory Of Relativity.

Why People Often Rely More On Viral Social Media Than Empirical Scientific Proof

According to psychologist Robert Cialdini, author of Influence, the answer is “social proof.”  He says people who are unsure about what is the correct choice or behavior in a given situation have a tendency to mobile-phone-426559_1920-Pixabaylook to others for guidance by observing and copying their choices or behaviors.

The key elements of social proof are:

  • Uncertainty – that drives the perceived need for guidance
  • Similarity – people tend to adopt the behaviors, attitudes, and choices like others they see to be similar to themselves, and thus more relatable
  • Expertise – that drives a greater adoption of the choices of others when the others are perceived to have greater knowledge or experience concerning the topic in question than that possessed by the person who is uncertain
  • Number – the greater the number of people accepting an idea as correct, the greater their influence and the likelihood they will be emulated by a person who is uncertain.

In many mundane matters, social proof is probably an effective strategy.  However, it can be a poor and ineffective substitute for decisions based upon empirical evidence in matters of greater import.

For example, in 1998 The Lancet published a paper by Dr. Andrew Wakefield as lead author.  It suggested the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine could be linked to autism.  Although the paper didn’t state a definitive cause and effect had been demonstrated, Dr. Wakefield attacked the MMR vaccine as if it indeed caused autism.  He continued to do this for years after that.

In 2010 The Lancet took the rare action of retracting the paper, totally discrediting Dr. Wakefield and the study for its fundamental flaws and violations of scientific standards of empirical research.  CNN broadcasted this story explaining the background and consequences of this debacle.

The claims of a connection between vaccinations and autism garnered significant attention in the media.  Celebrities such as Jenny McCarthy, Lisa Bonet, and Robert De Niro, among others, took up the cause as anti-vaxxers.  This has provided “social proof” that persists to this day in the face of sound empirical scientific proof to the contrary, leading many parents to forego having their children vaccinated.

Reasonable people may differ over the particulars of an issue such as vaccination and autism or any number of other matters that are both complex and nuanced by their nature.  Understanding empirical evidence and its role in establishing scientific proof should be a means to make a more reasoned choice between evaluating a complex matter by relying on empirical proof or by relying on social proof.


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