Classic EssaysRevilo P. Oliver

Is There Intelligent Life on Earth? (part 10)

H.G. Wells

by Revilo P. Oliver

Metaphysics

IT IS EASY TO account for the sudden vogue of “science fiction” in the later 1920s. As we have already remarked, it was a novel form of fantasy, refreshing to palates weary of the traditional forms, which had been cultivated almost to exhaustion. But it was really fostered for political purposes. It was an ideal vehicle for revolutionary propaganda, which could be subtly and almost covertly injected into the reader’s mind by tales in which Marx’s earthly paradise was described as scientifically inevitable.

That sugar-coated propaganda dated from Victorian times. An American writer, Edward Bellamy, after producing a series of quite pedestrian novels that reworked worn-out plots with little success, hit the publishing jackpot with two rather silly books, Looking Backward (1888), and Equality (1897).43 The most effective propagandist, intellectually far superior to the mediocre Bellamy, was H. G. Wells, who always had the good sense to eschew Bellamy’s grinning optimism. His Time Machine contains elements of political satire but is essentially a brilliant tale of pseudo-scientific adventure. His Story of Days to Come and When the Sleeper Wakes, both dating from 1899 and still in print as “prophetic science fiction novels,” are extremely adroit. Their glowing pictures of the socialistic world of the future that Science has made inevitable do not entirely omit its horrors, but leave the average reader with the feeling that there must be some way to eat the cake and have it, too.

The propaganda that became so large a part of the “science fiction” during the past half-century was cruder and on a much lower literary level, but nevertheless effective, and there can be no doubt but that the great vogue of this kind of fantasy was partly fostered for revolutionary purposes. That, however, is only marginal to our present subject.

There was a concurrent and drastic revolution in scientific thinking. I have no thought of attempting anything so absurd as to try to adjudicate the strictly scientific questions involved, and I must not be understood as pronouncing on the accuracy of any of the scientific theories I shall mention. My purpose is only to call attention to their drastic and ominous consequences.

It is fair to say that in 1920 the world-view of scientific thought was in complete harmony with common sense and that by 1930 that harmony had been disastrously destroyed. In 1920, one thought of the entire physical world, from the infinite to the infinitesimal, as obeying a uniform law of causality and differing only in the scale on which the various phenomena took place. The early model of Bohr’s atom could still be understood as a miniature world subject to the Newtonian laws.44 The Lorentz contractions (“transformations”) were known, of course, but as mathematical paradoxes, and the theories Einstein derived from them, were still highly dubious speculations.

The first spark of revolution came from the solar eclipse on 29 May 1919, which yielded observations that seemed to provide for the first time confirmation of Einstein’s General Theory. Relativity smouldered for a time and then burst into a conflagration. Astronomers and physicists alike underwent an almost spiritual conversion and accepted as real Lorentz’s fantastic world in which time and space are no longer separate and absolute in themselves but have become merely reciprocally interdependent appearances that are relative to the mind of the observer. Strictly speaking, there is only one absolute, light, and it really does not move through a given space in a given time, but is what measures space and time and makes them merely aspects (“dimensions”) of the same thing. Physics, in other words, became a kind of mathematical metaphysics.

I cannot tell you whether Relativity is right or wrong, and I shall draw no inferences from the fact that it has become in scientific thought a dogma to which many men are as passionately attached as Christians once clung to the doctrine of transsubstantiation. It is still a theory, a speculative theory, deduced from premises that are still uncertain, many of them beyond the scope of experimental verification. The most cogent bits of observed evidence that support it, the precession of the orbit of Mercury and the deflection of light from distant stars about the sun, are both susceptible of other explanations. The theory is not compatible with quantum mechanics, so that one or the other (or both!) must be wrong, although it is now as much of a faux pas to mention that as it would have been to discuss sexual intercourse in a Victorian drawing room. Evidence that the velocity of light, Einstein’s famous C, is not an absolute seems to be accumulating, and is becoming more difficult to explain away.45 If the sun is not the uniform sphere supposed in the Einstinian calculations, its internal structure could adequately explain the precession of the orbit of Mercury, and evidence to that effect was presented last year by Dr. Henry A. Hill, but he had to go to Dublin to have an opportunity to present that evidence, which, it is alarming to note, excited indignation.46

Unfortunately, I cannot assure you on my own responsibility that Relativity is a fraud, although that is precisely the conclusion that is reached by distinguished and very courageous scientists, Dr. Dean Turner, Dr. E. E. Butterfield, Dr. Herbert Dingle, the late Dr. Herbert Ives, and other contributors to The Einstein Myth and the Ives Papers (New York, Devin-Adair, 1981). But I can assure you, without hesitation, that something is infernally rotten — and in a place much nearer than Denmark — when scientists resort to the vapid argument that those who blaspheme against their Savior are, if Russian, nasty Communists, and, if Americans, vile “anti-Semites,” using a nonsense term that can be employed only by the completely thoughtless or the utterly cynical.47 Whatever the truth of Relativity, it has obviously become a religion,48 and that alone suffices to make one take pleasure in Dr. Turner’s succinct characterization of godly Einstein as “the high priest of Recondite Moronity. ”

However that may be, it was Einstein’s Relativity that dynamited the dam and soon the sciences were awash in a flood of mathematical metaphysics. When I first heard of Einstein’s theories, I was assured that there were in the whole wide world only twelve other men (the proper number of apostles for a Savior, of course) who had big enough brains to understand it, but in a few years everyone who was Somebody in the sciences was understanding it, and there was a jungle growth of theories equally metaphysical about almost everything that was very large or very small. We soon came to the Principle of Indeterminacy, not as a limitation inherent in the means of observation (as seems to have been originally intended) but as a physical reality in a kind of infinitesimal fairy land in which there was no longer a necessary connection between cause and effect.

It would be both tedious and profitless to enumerate the progeny of Relativity, but I cannot refrain from just mentioning the “Big Bang,” which is all the rage these days. Since, by the Doppler Effect, light from distant stars and galaxies is uniformly shifted toward the red, and therefore shows a corresponding velocity of recession, strictly proportional to the distance of the object, so that the farther the object is from us, the faster it is moving away from us, and since Einstein said that nothing can change the speed of light, it is believed that the entire cosmos is exploding, like the blast from a stick of dynamite that has been detonated. It follows that all the matter in the universe, including the most remote galaxies now known and the even more remote ones that will soon be discovered, was originally concentrated in just one ball of infinitely dense matter, and that we can thus calculate back to the date on which that ball exploded (and, logically, time began!). Now although it is known that interstellar space is not a vacuum, but is filled with extremely tenuous gas, refraction, such as is seen in any sunset, is thought to be excluded, and, what is strange, although the force of gravity in a “black hole” is said to be so great as to prevent the escape of light from it, it is assumed that the gravity of celestial bodies, which could have a cumulative effect proportional to the distance traversed, could not retard a ray of light (decrease its frequency) to produce the shift toward the red.

Now I don’t really care, but I just know that tomorrow or the next day some holy man will yell “hosanna!” and proudly announce that the Truth of the Bible has at last been vindicated, because Science has conclusively proved that, ten or twenty billion years ago, the three-in-one Jesus laid an egg, and that when the divine egg, charged, of course, with concentrated mana, was hatched by the Holy Ghost (rūăh, just as it says in Genesis 1), it blew up into the tōhū wā bōhū. (just as it says ibidem) out of which came the universe and all its marvels — and where would you be without it? So give to Jesus until it hurts and mail your cheque today.

As I have said several times already, it is not our concern to determine the truth or falsity of Relativity. Let it be superlatively true, it is still of (relatively!) little importance, except to metaphysicians, and we can only wonder why it seems to obtrude itself into every scientific discourse as persistently as King Charles’s head got into Mr. Dick’s memorial. It is, in its way, similar to the older demonstration of the fourth dimension, which has long been a mathematical truism. By just moving a tennis ball into the fourth dimension, you can turn it inside out without breaking its surface, and, by the same procedure, you can move a cube of sugar at right angles to all of its faces. True, no doubt — who can deny it? — but until some mathematician thus turns a tennis ball or moves a cube, there is no occasion for excitement.49

If the universe is indeed exploding as claimed, there is no cause for alarm: it will last our time — I mean the time of our species. If it be true that Mercury undergoes the Lorentz contraction as it moves toward perihelion, Newtonian physics are all you need to hit it right on the nose with a rocket, if you so desire. And if it be true that subatomic particles move without cause in a way that somehow depends on the observer, you need not lie awake o’ nights trying to figure out what the mirror in your bathroom looks like when it isn’t reflecting you.50 You have other things to worry about.

In short, if Relativity is true, it is comparable to the fact, doubtless mentioned by one of your teachers in school, that every time you go upstairs in your house, you alter the orbit of Jupiter. We can adapt the legal aphorism and say, De minimis non curat homo. Relativity, be it ever so true, is of infinitesimal relevance to the sciences on which our lives depend. But it has spawned a metaphysics that has so bewildered men of some scientific reputation that they find in quantum mechanics a proof of the hokum about “extra-sensory perception”!

It will be understood that I do not in the slightest deprecate research into the nature of “black holes” and quasars; I do object to the expenditure of billions of dollars in an effort to overhear chit-chat that supermen in some neighboring galaxy might have beamed at the earth a few million years ago. I applaud hunting the quark (who is proving more various and elusive than the snark), but I want “science fiction” kept out of the laboratory.

I will own frankly that I am profoundly disturbed by the drastic change in the climate of scientific work that I have witnessed in my own lifetime. When I was a youngster in college and had first to read Einstein closely, I was not able to cope with his mathematics, but I thought, perhaps wrongly, that Relativity was subversive of the work that Bohr had thus far done, and, in an essay I wrote at that time, I predicted, with juvenile rashness, that a general acceptance of Relativity would destroy our faith in the scientific method. Einstein, it was true, had expressed a hope that Newtonian physics, that is to say, a conception of physical reality as determined by a strict causality, could be restored, but it seemed to me that the whole tendency of scientific thought that was based on Relativity was tending, especially in subatomic physics, to abandon the very concept of causality and to have begun a regression of which the ultimate terminus was the lawless and animistic nature perceived by the dim consciousness of Australian aborigines. I assumed that a repudiation of causality would spread, like an infection, from one scientific discipline to another. I still hope I was wrong.

In the Golden Age, the gods still frequented the earth, but as mankind degenerated, they left in disgust. The last to leave was the fair daughter of Zeus, Astraea, the Virgin, who lingered longest, hoping that men would not entirely repudiate the concept of Justice, which she represented; but at last she, too, departed, and now we can only glimpse her on starlit nights, far, far away in the heavens, where she dwells in the Zodiac, with the diamond fire of Spica gleaming on her virginal breast. I do not want to see common sense follow her into exile.

* * *

Source: Liberty Bell publications; transcribed by Racial Idealism

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It was Olinto de Pretto’s Theory of Relativity! He published his theory in Italian Science journals several years before Einstein. de Pretto was killed during a financial dispute and being unable to promote the theory Einstein claimed it.