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April 10, 1921: St. Thomas prof calls Einstein’s theory ‘bunk’

Posted by: Ben Welter under Minnesota History, Minnesota newsmakers Updated: September 24, 2011 - 2:16 PM

 

Reports emerged from Geneva this week that a lowly neutrino has been clocked at speeds faster than light. It’s not the first time that a shadow has been cast on the century-old theory of relativity. Arvid Reuterdahl, the dean of the engineering school at St. Thomas College, made headlines in 1921 when he called the theory “bunk” and challenged Albert Einstein to a written debate. The Minneapolis Tribune published Reuterdahl’s exhaustive critique of the theory in this page one story. Readers had to wait almost a week for Einstein’s response. 
 

Einstein Branded Barnum of Science,
Minnesota Man Calls Relativity ‘Bunk’


St. Thomas Dean of Engi-
neering Challenges Ger-
man to Debate.

Teuton’s Pet ‘Cult’ Born
13 Years Before Him,
Says Professor

Reuterdahl Cites Passages
in 1914 Treatise to
Back Assertions
 
Branding Prof. Albert Einstein as a sophist, a dealer in “might-have-beens” and the Barnum of the scientific world, Prof. Arvid Reuterdahl, dean of the Engineering school of St. Thomas college, St. Paul, yesterday challenged the German savant to a written debate on his theory of relativity.
 
American Scientists ‘Jolted.’
 
 
  Among Arvid Reuterdahl's contributions to science and technology: an improved design for culverts.
Professor Reuterdahl, who has been exploring the worlds conquered by Einstein since 1902, declared that he was willing to meet the much-heralded mathematician at any time in a written debate, and that he was prepared to prove that Einstein’s theory is largely “bunk.” Professor Reuterdahl used the scientific word for it, but that is what he meant.
 
‘Work Antedated by Another.’
 
Coupled with his challenge to a debate, Professor Reuterdahl declared Einstein was not only deceiving scientists with a mythical theory, but that he was either a plagiarist, or his work has been antedated by another without his knowledge.
 
“Einstein is at liberty to accept either horn of the dilemma,” he said.
 
That the Einstein theory of relativity in its gravitation aspects was advanced in 1866, 13 years before Einstein was born, by a scientist known under the pen name of “Kinertia” is the contention of Professor Reuterdahl, in a statement in which he gives the life history of both men, and gives references and dates to prove his charge. While not accepting the theory, he gives “Kinertia” credit for its origin.
 
Professor Reuterdahl, however, gives credit to Einstein for one thing, which, he says more than justifies his claim to prominence. The German savant, he says, has broken down the barriers of set ideas in science, and made it possible for a hearing for new ideas.
 
“The American scientists,” said Professor Reuterdahl, are the most clannish and orthodox in the world. In the Old world the scientific journals publish articles advancing new theories. Here they will not consider anything except that which is based on their own knowledge and belief. If Einstein has done anything, he has jolted American scientists into accepting something new.” Professor Reuterdahl paid tribute to Einstein’s genius as a mathematician, declaring him to be one of the greatest in the world.
 
Magazine Articles Cited.
 
Professor Reuterdahl refers to 11 articles which appeared in Harper’s Weekly in 1914 in giving “Kinertia” credit for originating the so-called Einstein theory of gravitation.
 
“If it is true that ‘Kinertia’ actually considered the Einsteinian problem in these essays,” he says, “then the question of priority is inevitability raised and the unparalleled originally claimed for Einstein’s work becomes a debatable matter.”
 
 
  Turns out Albert Einstein wasn't tongue-tied about the challenge, just hard to reach.
Einstein’s investigation of his theory is traced by articles which appeared in German publications.
 
“The year 1905 is considered, by most authorities on Einstein’s work,” he says, “as the birth year of the theory of relativity.
 
Theory Announced in 1915.
 
“Careful search, however, has revealed a paper on this subject which was published in Berlin during the year 1904 in the journal ‘Sitzungsberichte.’ That portion of Einstein’s theory which deals with the phenomenon of gravitation is a later development. Einstein first gave his attention to the problem of gravitation in 1911, when he developed the principle of equivalence of gravitational and accelerative fields.
 
“Other phases of this subject were dealt with in papers which appeared in the years 1912 and 1913. A further elaboration, the joint work of Einstein and Marcel Grossman, appeared in 1914. The theory in its final and complete form was announced in the year 1915.
 
Historical Summary.
 
“A brief historical summary of the work of ‘Kinertia’ is now in order. Lord Kelvin first aroused ‘Kinertia’s’ interest in the problem of gravitation. That was in the year 1886, when ‘Kinertia’ was a student under Lord Kelvin. ‘Kinertia’ even then did not agree with the Newtonian theory of force as presented by Lord Kelvin. Incidentally, we desire to call the reader’s attention to the fact that Albert Einstein was born in 1879 in Ulm, Germany, 13 years later.
 
“During the period from 1877 to 1881, ‘Kinertia’ became convinced that acceleration was the basic cause of what we gernally speak of as ‘weight.’
 
‘Kinertia’ Ridiculed in U.S.
 
“The reader undoubtedly is aware of the fact that acceleration plays the fundamental role in Einstein’s theory of gravitation, ‘Kinertia’ corresponded with Kelvin, Tait and Niven of Cambridge with the hope that he would be able to interest these men in his startling theory. This attempt met with little or no sympathy.
 
“his attempts, dating from the year 1899, to persuade our stubborn American scientists that the Newtonian theory of gravitation must be revised met with nothing but ridicule and indifference. To Harper’s Weekly and its managing editor, Mr. H.D. Wheeler, belongs the credit of having published ‘Kinertia’s’ series of articles entitled ‘Do Bodies Fall?’ The first article appeared in the issue of August 29, 1914, Vol. 59.
 
Similarity of Views Pointed Out.
 
The final article is dated November 7, 1914. From the preceding it is evident that “Kinertia” derived his norm of gravitation before Einstein was born.
 
Professor Reuterdahl quotes from the writing of Einstein and “Kinertia” to prove the similarity of their views, and says:
 
“It is noteworthy that the only real difference between these two citations is that Einstein derives his conclusions from a hypothetical case, whereas ‘Kinertia’ draws his conclusions from an actual experiment upon himself.”
 
Further quotations are from Prof. A.S. Eddington’s “Space Time Gravitation,” published by the Cambridge University Press in 1920; from an article by Prof. Edwin B. Wilson of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and from “Kinertia’s” articles.
 
Striking Similarity.
 
These quotations, he says, “show the strong similarity existing between Einsten and ‘Kinertia’ when they consider the relation between acceleration and gravitation, a similarity which extends not only to intent but affects even the very words.”
 
The following quotation from Einstein’s “Relatively” illustrates that scientist’s theory as to the relation between acceleration and gravitation, according to Professor Reuterdahl:
 
“We imagine a large portion of empty space, so far removed from stars and other appreciable masses that we have before us approximately the conditions required by the fundamental law of Galilei.
 
Hypothetical Example.
 
As reference body let us imagine a spacious chest resembling a room with an observer inside who is equipped with apparatus. Gravitation naturally does not exist for this observer. He must fasten himself with strings to the floor, otherwise the slightest impact against the floor will cause him to rise slowly toward the ceiling of the room.
 
“To the middle of the lid of the chest is fixed externally a hook with rope attached, and now a ‘being' (what kind of a ‘being’ is immaterial to use) begins pulling at this with a constant force. The chest, together with the observer, then begins to move upwards with a uniformly accelerated mostion. In course of time their velocity will reach unheard of values, provided that we are viewing all this from another reference-body which is not being pulled with a rope.
 
Viewpoint of Man in Chest.
 
"But how does the man in the chest regard the process? The acceleration of the chest will be transmitted to him by the reaction of the floor of the chest. He must therefore take up this pressure by means of his legs if he does not wish to be laid out full length on the floor. He is then standing in the chest in exactly the same way as anyone stands in a room of a house on our earth. If he releases a body which he previously had in his hand, the accerlation of the chest will no longer be transmitted to this body, and for this reason the body will approach the floor of the chest with an accelerated motion.
 
"The observer will further convince himself that the acceleration of the body towards the floor of the chest is always of the same magnitude, whatever kind of body he may happen to use for the experiment.”
 
‘Kinertia’ Quoted.
 
“Kinertia’s” theory of the relation between acceleration and gravitation is set forth in the following quotation from “Do Bodies Fall?” and is used by Professor Reuterdahl in building up his argument:
 
 “I set to work to find out by experiment whether bodies actually did fall with the acceleration which the force of attraction was said to produce. Years before that, when in England, where some of our coal mines had vertical shafts about 1,500 feet deep, I had studied the cause of weight by having the hoisting engine drop me down with the full acceleration for about 500 feet. Then, by retardation during the lowest 500 feet, I could experience increase of weight all over me so marked that my legs could hardly support me.
 
“That taught me that acceleration was the proximate cause of weight, but at the time of these experiments I still thought the acceleration of the falling case was really caused by the earth’s attraction.
 
“Weight is not a kinetic force because it cannot produce acceleration. If a body were accelerated in proportion to its weight, then weight would be a force.
 
“Laying aside the right of Einstein to claim originality for his theory,” said Professor Reuterdahl yesterday, “he is a sophist, and the world will know him as such in due time. He is dealing with mythical beings. They are ‘might-have-beens.’
 
“His fourth dimension is a composite of time and space. That cannot be, because time and space never can be one. Space may be referred to as the distance between two points, A and B. We may travel from A and B, and return to find the same permanent objects in their places. We may require a certain amount of time to make the journey, but when we turn back that time is gone.
 
“I demand that Einstein show me his proof. I believe in dealing in the physical things of this world. In other words, I am from Missouri. I shall be glad to meet Professor Einstein at any time or place and debate this subject. But I shall demand an actual demonstration of his theory, not a journey into the realm of the mythical. That demonstration he can never give.”
 
On April 16, 1921, Einstein’s response to the challenge appeared inside the Tribune on page 15. Here are excerpts:
 
Replying to Professor Reuterdahl’s challenge, Professor Einstein gave out a statement in New York, the first since his arrival in American, in which he declared that he was willing to rest his whole theory upon one experiment. …
 
To the charge of plagiarism Professor Einstein gave no heed, but he did rush to the defense of his pet theory. …
 
“You know the solar spectrum. Everybody has seen it in the rainbow. You have also seen it when the sunlight passes through a triangular glass prism and falls upon a screen.
 
“Any light-giving body produces a spectrum, but the spectra from different bodies are not alike. The spectrum of sodium, for instance, allows only two yellow lines. The hydrogen spectrum shows only four colors.
 
“The solar spectrum is a colored band, showing seven primary and secondary colors, ranging from red at one side to violet at the other.
 
“My theory demands that the spectrum of solar light, as compared with similar spectra from all other bodies, must be different in this respect.
 
“The lines of the solar spectrum must be found displaced – that is out of line – in the direction of red. If my theory of relativity is true, then this must be true. Why? Because of the nearness of the original solar light in the great mass which is the sun. If my theory is true, that mass must affect the spectral lines as I have said.”
 
Reuterdahl, of course, remained unconvinced. The Tribune gave him the last word in the followup piece (but of course Einstein eventually got the last word in spacetime):
 
“I gladly grant the importance and bearing of these mathematical deductions of Professor Einstein. The granting of these contentions, however, in no way modifies my conviction that the theory of relativity is grounded upon fallacious assumptions, and therefore cannot survive. The history of science shows that one mathematic-physical theory after another has been abandoned because of inadequacy, unnecessary complexities, and untenability in the light of wider knowledge.
 
“It is true, of course, that this is the price which must be paid for intellectual advancement.
 
“Nevertheless it is also true that an hypothesis based upon fallacious assumptions contains the leaven of its own ultimate dissolution, despite the fact that some of the results of its application to physical phenomena may be approximately correct.
 
“This I am prepared to prove is the status of Professor Einstein’s theory of relativity. I am, indeed, surprised that Professor Einstein, while claiming that he had written his book from scientific motives and not for the sake of notoriety, lightly brushes to one side a challenge to a debate upon the validity of his theory. In no better way can the cause of science be served.
 
“A theory which so completely upsets all common-sense deductions concerning realities cannot hope forever go unchallenged. Certainly it is not in keeping with the scientific motives of which Professor Einstein claims to be so ardent an exponent, continuously to reiterate the platitude that those who do not accept his theory are incapable of comprehending its alleged profundities."

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