A (very) smart kid and a solid theory

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April 8 2011 1:00 PM

A (very) smart kid and a solid theory

I've been getting lots of emails and tweets about a young man named Jacob Barnett, a 12-year-old who is apparently a math genius. He's been getting a lot of press lately because he's tackling some pretty heavy problems in astrophysics, including relativity.

I want to be clear that from the videos on YouTube and such, he does appear to have an extremely advanced grasp of math and science. I also think he has a lot of promise! However, science is more than just learning the equations. It takes insight that generally comes with time. Happily, Mr. Barnett has that time, and has a big head start with the basics.

Phil Plait Phil Plait

Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death From the Skies!  


Steve Novella tackles that issue very well at Neurologica, and I don't necessarily disagree with anything he wrote there.

But I do want to talk briefly about the way Barnett's story has been told by some media. I first saw it at Time magazine's site, with the headline "12-Year-Old Genius Expands Einstein's Theory of Relativity, Thinks He Can Prove It Wrong".

Barnett may very well be a genius, and may very well rewrite a lot of physics... as, no doubt, future generations of genius scientists will. But one thing they won't do is prove relativity wrong.

Bold statement? Not really. We know relativity is right. It may be incomplete, but it's not wrong.

What I mean by this isn't too hard to understand. In science (ideally, if you'll pardon the pun), an idea becomes a hypothesis, a testable statement. If it passes the test, it can be expanded upon, broadened, tested and retested. Eventually, as it grows and becomes more solid, it becomes a theory -- I know, in the general jargon that word means "guess", but to a scientist a theory is an explanation of phenomena so profoundly certain that a layperson would call it a law.

Relativity is just such a theory. It has passed essentially every single test to which it has been put for the past century. It is literally tested millions of times a day in particle accelerators, for example.

Relativity is one of the most well-tested and thoroughly solid ideas in all of science for all time. It is literally tested millions of times a day in particle accelerators. We see it in every cosmological observation, every star that explodes in the sky, every time a nuclear power plant generates even an iota of energy. Heck, without relativity your GPS wouldn’t work.
Relativity is so solid, in fact, that anyone who denies it outright at this point can be charitably called a kook.

So I don't think anyone, young Jacob Barnett or otherwise, will ever prove relativity to be wrong. What they might do, what I think and hope someone eventually will do, is show how it's incomplete.

Put it this way: Isaac Newton formulated his Universal Law of Gravitation, and it revolutionized physics and astronomy, allowing us to apply math to the thorny issue of gravity. Newton's Law is still valid today, four centuries later. However, it's limited to a regime where masses are small and velocities low. If you want to calculate the Moon's effect on Earth, Newton is the way to go. We still use his basic equations to plot the trajectories of our spacecraft, and they ply the solar system's gravitational pathways with incredible precision.

But when you start to approach the speed of light, or deal with masses that are very large, Newton's math breaks down. It doesn't work.

Einstein fixed that. His Theory of Relativity uses far more complex math that can deal with these large velocities and masses, and get you the correct answers. When you look at Einstein's equations for low velocities and small masses, they simplify right down to what Newton wrote. Newton wasn't wrong, he was incomplete.

Einstein added to Newton, made the math more accurate. The thing is, we know relativity is incomplete right now. In the realm of the very, very small, relativity has some issues with quantum mechanics. QM is just as solid as relativity as theories go. Atomic bombs make that clear, as well as digital camera, electronics in general, and on and on. Obviously, one or both of QM and relativity are incomplete.

Again, we know they are not wrong -- not like creationism is wrong, or astrology and Geocentrism are wrong, in that they don't explain anything and all the evidence is against them -- but just that we don't know everything about them yet. There may be some bigger idea, some broader concept that unifies them, and reduces to either one if you use the right conditions, just as relativity reduces to Newton's law in certain circumstances.

I am very much looking forward to seeing what Barnett can do in the next few years. If he can garner the insight and the imagination needed to marry QM and relativity, to unite these two seemingly immiscible fields, then I will happily cheer him on as he accepts his Nobel Prize. But that's a whole different ballgame than proving it wrong.



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