Was watching Dark Matters: Twisted but true the other night. It was about Einstein and how he turned the knowledge of physics up side down and pretty much said that "Newton was wrong", simplified. Because of this, he was the target of much slander and anti semitic propaganda and he eventually moved to the US.

Throughout history scientific theories have been presented and either proven or debunked. But what about theories that HAVE been proven and then later new knowledge has proven them wrong? Like Einstein that proved that time is not absolute. And what of our proven theories today? Will there in some near or distant future be other theories that will disprove what we "know" today? Will Einstens E=mc² someday prove to be wrong and open a whole new World for us?

  • 4
    $\begingroup$ What do you mean by "theories that HAVE been proven"? Proper science is always tentative. And we cannot really predict just how today's theories will be disproven. Many scientists expect that general relativity will be replaced by string theory (M-theory) or some such, due to conflicts with quantum theory and with scientists' unease with the relatively recent beginning to the universe resulting from relativity. $\endgroup$ Aug 24 '15 at 9:07
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Science is not so much a process of proving theories, but rather of refining old theories and sometimes replacing them with newer, better ones. But this doesn't mean that previous theories were entirely wrong. We still use Newtonian physics to do most of the calculations in everyday engineering - the theory is valid apart from in exceptional cases. The same is the case with most theories. $\endgroup$ Aug 24 '15 at 10:15
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ Not related, but "he was the target of [...] anti semitic propaganda and he eventually moved to the US" not because of physics! $\endgroup$
    – Ben
    Aug 25 '15 at 7:28

Einstein did not say that Newtonian mechanics was wrong, special and general relativity reaffirm it within its domain of application, he showed that this domain is restricted, namely Newtonian mechanics does not apply to objects moving at speeds close to the speed of light, or in strong gravitational fields. Absolute space and time were part of Newton's philosophical interpretation of his theory rather than part of the theory itself. As for anti-semitism it was common in Europe for centuries, and especially prominent at the time due to the rise of Nazism, so Einstein's science was less important than his race.

Can some elements of modern scientific theories be eventually abandoned? Certainly, especially interpretational parts, even big ones. For example, consider a common belief of late 19th century as expressed by Michelson in 1902:"The day seems not far distant when the converging lines from many apparently remote regions of thought will meet... Then the nature of the atoms, and the forces called into play in their chemical union... the explanation of cohesion, elasticity, and gravitation — all these will be marshaled into a single compact and consistent body of scientific knowledge... one of the grandest generalizations of modern science ... that all the phenomena of the physical universe are only different manifestations of the various modes of motion of one all-pervading substance — the ether." Ironically, it was Michelson's own experiment that eventually led Einstein to reject ether, and the absolute space it embodied.

But Maxwell's electrodynamics, which was originally phrased in terms of ether, was not only retained but became a foundation for special relativity. Because empirical evidence which it proved to describe and organize did not change, only its interpretation did. The same goes for proven modern theories. We may discover that they do not apply universally (in fact, we already know that general relativity and quantum mechanics do not), or choose to revise some of their concepts, but they will still describe the phenomena that they proved to describe. This goes for E=mc² just as for Newtonian mechanics and Maxwell's electrodynamics. How it manifests itself in gravitational bending of light or splitting of the atom will remain true in whatever theory that replaces Einstein's, see What were the early empirical tests of Einstein's mass-energy equivalence $E=mc^2$?


To this simply stated question there is a simply stated answer: None. If the theory is proven, then it is correct. So it cannot be "debunked".

Speaking of concrete example of Newtonian mechanics, it has never been "debunked". It is a proven and CORRECT theory, which nowadays is taught in schools and universities, which would not be the case if it was not correct. Engineers base their designs on Newton's mechanics, and the machines designed by them work. This is the ultimate proof. It was not, and will never be "debunked".

Maxwell theory has nothing to do with aether. Maxwell's theory is correct, (and proven), aether was always a hypothesis its existence was never proven, (and now it is "debunked").

You should apply some skepticism and common sense when you listen to journalists and movie makers (and philosophers) who speak on the matters thay do not understand themselves.


Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.