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Getting Einstein to Say "I Was Wrong"

Einstein in 1931
Image: Wikimedia Commons
What does it take to convince Albert Einstein he was wrong? According to new scholarship and contrary to popular belief, not even the legendary astronomer Edwin Hubble backed up by photos of distant galaxies could convince the wispy-haired physicist to ditch his now-infamous mistaken cosmological fudge-factor.

Historian Harry Nussbaumer's paper argues that Einstein ignored observational evidence his "Cosmological Constant" was wrong, and instead only admitted he was wrong when he personally came to the conclusion that his model of the universe was unstable. Nussbaumer culled through stacks of the physicist's diary entries, drafts of speeches and even newspaper articles, looking for the source of his conversion.

When Einstein was developing the theory of general relativity in 1915, he was faced with a serious problem; His equations indicated that there was no way the universe could exist. At the time, everyone thought the universe was static, that stars didn't move very much and the idea of galaxies was unheard of. According to his equations based on that understanding of the universe's density, gravity should pull everything in the universe together into a single conglomerated mish-mash.

To compensate, he introduced the cosmological constant to counteract gravity. There was no observational evidence for it or any real theoretical scientific backing, but it kept the universe from collapsing in on itself, so it was an effective fudge factor.

However it was wrong, and in April of 1931 Einstein published a paper where he renounced it and said that he agreed with astronomers who said the universe was expanding, effectively countering the pull of gravity, and the cosmological constant was a mistake.

How Einstein reached that conclusion has however been the stuff of myth.

The galaxies in this photo that appear redder are
farther away and moving away at a tremendous speed.
Image: NASA 
The popular belief is that after Einstein met with astronomer Edwin Hubble at California's Mount Wilson Observatory in January of 1931, Einstein was so impressed by Hubble's evidence of an expanding universe, he renounced his belief in a static universe, and was an immediate convert. Hubble showed Einstein photographic plates of distant galaxies (then only known as nebula) which showed that the farther away it was form Earth, the redder it was, a phenomena phenomenon called redshift. As a distant galaxy recedes away, its light waves get stretched out and white light takes on a reddish hue. The farther away, the faster it recedes, and the redder the galaxy looks.

However, Nussbaumer argues, Einstein was not as impressed with Hubble as common lore holds. Einstein, from his interactions with other physicists, already superficially knew most of what Hubble was saying about the redshift of distant galaxies, and his meeting with the astronomer added nothing really new. Plus, the idea of redshift was so new, no one was sure that's what they were seeing.

On February 4, Einstein gave a seminar about astronomy where he mentioned the work of the astronomers at the Wilson Observatory. He commended their work, but was conservative about how their observations might affect his equations, speculating that likely the universe was still static, but he might have to refigure his equations slightly.

Despite that modest answer, headlines across the country lit up, claiming that Einstein had been converted to a believer in an expanding universe. Hubble's own hometown newspaper the Springfield Daily News headlined "Youth Who Left Ozark Mountains [Hubble] to Study Stars Causes Einstein to Change His Mind."

Even to this day, that narrative  is often repeated. Walter Isaacson's acclaimed biography Einstein: His Life and Universe, implies as much and author Denis Brian writes in Einstein: A Life, "Einstein was Tremendously Impressed... [N]ow he could hardly deny the spectacular evidence."

Except Einstein wasn't so impressed. His diary from that time period hardly mentions Hubble at all. A week later when he was at another seminar, this one specifically on redshifted galaxies he offered a much more nuanced and qualified view. He said it could be an expanding universe, or from a universe that expanded and contracted, or perhaps even that distant light got "tired" and redder the farther it traveled. His beliefs were starting to change, but it was hardly the instant conversion often talked about. When asked how he could explain the redshifts, he said "I don't know the answer."

Today's accepted version of the expanding universe.
Image: NASA
He highlighted a major shortcoming of the expanding universe theory, that according to existing calculations, the universe appeared to be way too young. If you back rewound the clock based on the speed distant galaxies were receding, everything would converge about one billion years ago, way more recently than already accepted ages of the Sun and Earth. This was a major sticking point for Einstein. The idea of an expanding universe had been kicking around for several years at that point, but each time a physicist approached Einstein about it, he would dismiss the theory for that very reason.

Over the next few months he reviewed the published literature on the expanding universe problem. His opinion continued to evolve and in mid-March he sat down and started writing a paper for the Prussian Academy of Sciences where he finally renounced the cosmological constant. In putting it together he only made oblique referenced the works of Hubble and whose last name he habitually misspelled as "Hubbel," indicating that he may not have read any of Hubble's papers.

Though Hubble's observations were immensely important to science they were not as important to Einstein. He never liked his cosmological constant not just because it was hackneyed, but because it had to be impossibly perfectly balanced for a static universe to even exist. He finally came around to the idea of a dynamic universe without the constant only after a he found a workaround for the age of the universe. He cited "inhomogeneities" in matter distribution of the universe as possibly affecting the equations for the age of the universe.

Einstein was a relatively late comer to the idea of a dynamic universe. Many in the field had either already accepted that explanation by the time his paper was published. The paper itself contained no new science, but was important historically for being the point when Einstein finally admitted that his own cosmological constant was cosmological claptrap.

Nussbaumer's research was recently accepted to the journal European Physical Journal - History.


  1. Einstein was very wrong.

  2. Hubris, arrogance, and narcissism, obviously ruled

  3. In para 3, "special relativity" should be "general relativity"

  4. @dehilster

    ... Expanding earth? Aether? Free energy?! Ok, Einstein was wrong about many things, but those aren't scientists, those are crackpots.

    Even Joao Maguijo isn't quite so insane. Dear god their 'database' lists arXiv as a 'journal'?! I suppose I should introduce waters of this 'documentary' to snarxiv.

    ... Honestly, from Maxwell's equations SR naturally falls out. It just does. The math isn't even that hard. I don't understand why anyone could deny relativity in favor of the aether still.

    So these people trust Maxwell's equations are accurate enough to demonstrate light as a wave, but cannot accept the results of people like Michelson and Morley?

  5. Watchers*

    And this is an excellent time to comment on the importance of proofreading.

  6. The singular is "phenomenon"; the plural is "phenomena." Common and easy mistake. Good blog. :-)

  7. Einstein was, all things considered, FAR more right than he was wrong. To say that it is hubris and narcissism for him to hold on to his belief the universe was not expanding in the absence of evidence that REFUTED such a belief is silly. If the evidence was indeed "true" (as we would find out later that it was) that an expanding universe presupposed a universe far younger than it should be, then all someone had to do was correct that incongruity. In the end, when that misgiving was resolved he changed his mind. Einstein didn't become one of the top 3 scientists to ever live b/c he followed the crowd, or even the physics community at-large, remember that. The guy was simply the epitome of genius:


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