Oddball heroes on the left-field of dreams

January 7, 2005

Take scientific mavericks to your hearts in Einstein Year, for it is to them that we owe our progress, says Simon Singh

This week is the start of Einstein Year, marking the centenary of Albert Einstein's revolutionary papers on special relativity, Brownian motion and the photoelectric effect.

In 1905, this obscure patent clerk was suddenly recognised as a genius of the highest order. And although 2005 will be an opportunity to celebrate his achievements, perhaps it is also an opportunity to see what can be learnt from one of his most embarrassing failures.

In 1922, Einstein read a paper by Alexander Friedmann, in which the Russian suggested that the universe had started with what we would call a Big Bang.

This meant that the cosmos originated from a hot, dense, compact state and then expanded, cooled and evolved into what we observe today. It was a radical theory because the establishment backed the view that the universe had existed for eternity in a largely unchanged state.

Friedmann's research was of direct interest to Einstein because the father of relativity had helped to develop that establishment view of a static cosmos. His immediate reaction was to criticise the Russian's calculations and to call his idea "suspicious".

Although Einstein later had to admit that the calculations were correct, he still argued that they had no "physical significance".

Criticism from a genius such as Einstein was enough to banish anyone to the hinterlands of cosmology. Hence, by the time Friedmann died three years later, nobody had taken him or his idea seriously.

The Big Bang model subsequently disappeared until a Belgian priest and cosmologist by the name of Georges Lemaitre independently came up with it.

The term Big Bang had not yet been invented. Instead, Lemaitre talked of "a day without a yesterday".

When Lemaitre met Einstein at the 19 Solvay Conference he was keen to tell him about his idea, unaware that Einstein had heard it all before.

True to form, the great physicist rebuffed him with the remark: "Your calculations are correct, but your physics is abominable."

Einstein had now been offered two chances to consider the expanding Big Bang scenario and he had rejected the idea on both occasions.

And rejection by Einstein meant rejection by the establishment - he had the power to make or break a nascent theory. Fortunately, science has a safety valve that prevents anybody permanently blocking a great scientific idea.

Reality is the absolute judge of scientific truth.

In 1929, the astronomer Edwin Hubble at Mount Wilson Observatory in the US detected the first evidence to back the Big Bang model. He saw that the distant galaxies were receding at speeds indicative of a universe that started with a Big Bang.

It was not conclusive proof, but the tide began to turn. Einstein quickly switched sides in the Big Bang versus eternal universe debate.

In the decades ahead, further observations would demonstrate that Friedmann and Lemaitre had been right all along.

So the truth will out. Scientific progress is inevitable. But the speed of progress can depend on the extent to which the scientific establishment tolerates mavericks and their rebellious ideas.

A healthy climate of questioning leads to the rapid detection of flawed ideas and the promotion of insightful thinking. In contrast, if established scientific theories are considered sacred and senior figures are idolised, then the best fringe ideas from newcomers can get stuck in the doldrums.

Great scientists such as Einstein have power and influence because of their experience and achievements. In most instances, their proclamations are ultimately proved to be valid.

But Einstein's initial condemnation of the Big Bang model shows that the voice of authority backed by the establishment can sometimes quash potential breakthroughs and hold back progress.

All good scientists are aware of the importance of being open-minded and giving air to surprising and shocking theories. But perhaps Einstein Year is a chance to remind everyone of the importance of embracing mavericks.

Indeed, subtitling Einstein Year as Maverick Year would be a great tribute to the discoverer of relativity, because this theory seemed a maverick notion when it was first proposed.

Einstein had been the epitome of rebellion in his youth. Only later did he become an unwitting block to the free flow of cosmological ideas. He eventually came to appreciate the irony of his position, and once lamented:

"To punish me for my contempt for authority, Fate made me an authority myself."

Simon Singh is the author of Fermat's Last Theorem . His latest book, Big Bang , is a history of cosmology (£20.00, 4th Estate).

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