APS News

A Unified Theory of Journalistic Caution

By Calla Cofield

APS April Meeting, Savannah
For the last five years, I’ve attended the APS April Meeting and the APS March Meeting as a journalist, writing primarily for APS News. It’s a thrill to learn about physics at the cutting edge, but what I love most — what no press release or research paper can capture — is the chance to talk to physicists face to face: to hear them talk about the questions that keep them up at night.

Of course, no matter how confident or excited a scientist is about his or her results, it’s the duty of any good science writer to cross-check those results with outside sources. Even great physicists can be wrong.

I was reminded of this during a talk at the APS April Meeting by physicist and author Paul Halpern on Albert Einstein’s theory of distant parallelism. If you’ve never heard of distant parallelism, that’s probably because it was wrong, and thus never found a place in physics. Einstein believed that this theory united the forces of gravity and electromagnetism.

Halpern explained that while Einstein did not like personal publicity, he had no problem promoting his work to the press. In 1929, Einstein was at the height of his celebrity status, and as Halpern put it, “was seen as a kind of prophet.” Most people took Einstein’s promotion of his new theory at face value; The New York Times printed a few stories exclusively about Einstein’s new theory and continued to mention it in nearly a dozen others. In an article published in the paper on January 12, 1929, the journalist paraphrases Einstein as saying that distant parallelism was “his most important contribution to mankind; scientifically more important than his original theory [of relativity].”

Other physicists promoted the theory as well (although perhaps they were not actually qualified to comment on the science); the chair of the New York University physics department openly discussed the hope that this theory could be used for some kind of anti-gravity device.

There was, however, a voice crying out in the wilderness: Wolfgang Pauli, who could understand Einstein’s theories, pointed out that distant parallelism did not incorporate the newly-discovered property of spin, and that it also fell apart in various other ways. Pauli wrote letters to Einstein pointing out these flaws, but also took jabs at Einstein for the number of times he claimed to have found a unifying field theory. Eventually Pauli’s writings on the subject veered into pure satire, as when he wrote that Einstein, in all his greatness, “blesses us with about one such theory per year,” and that each new theory should be greeted with the cry, “‘Einstein’s new field theory is dead! Long live Einstein’s new field theory!’”

It seems that neither Einstein nor the press learned their lesson with distant parallelism; in 1950, Einstein would promote yet another unification theory, and yet again the press would accept it uncritically.

Do I have it easier than a science writer living in 1929? Thanks to the Internet, it is easier to find someone like Pauli to help put things into perspective. Then again, it also gives a podium to everyone with a theory to share.

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