Not in sync with Einstein

TO ERR is human. Famous physicist Albert Einstein once said, “Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.”

Indeed, the mistakes made by Einstein in his theories have been widely chronicled over the years.

A local physicist from Monash University, Assoc Prof Dr Lan Boon Leong (pic) discovered in 2003 that Einstein’s belief about the relationship between his theory of special relativity and Newton’s non-relaticistic theory at low speed is wrong.

“It is conventionally expected that the two predictions will always agree. Einstein, for example, believed so,” said Dr Lan.

The idea to compare the predictions of both Einstein’s and Newton’s theory for the motion of a slow-moving system came to him when he chanced upon a journal paper on special-relativistic motion while searching for something else on the Internet.

“I had the immediate hunch that the predictions of the two theories would not always agree, contrary to Einstein’s belief,” said Dr Lan.

Based on mathematical calculations, his discovery has proven wrong Einstein’s century-old assumption that predicting the motion of a system moving much slower than the speed of light using his theory of special relativity and Newton’s non-relativistic theory would always yield approximately the same results.

Dr Lan showed that, typically, the Newtonian prediction, although close to the relativistic prediction for some time, eventually deviated completely from it.

“However, how fast the agreement between the two predictions breaks down depends on whether the system is chaotic or not.

“A chaotic system is a system where the subsequent motion depends very sensitively on its initial motion. The breakdown occurs very fast if the system is chaotic,” said Dr Lan.

“If conventional wisdom is wrong, physicists and engineers would have to use relativistic theory, instead of the standard practice of using non-relativistic theory to correctly study the motion of dynamical systems,” explained Dr Lan.

His findings were published in Chaos, a highly regarded journal in the American Institute of Physics.

“Although I had the results by 2003, it was not published until 2006. As the results are contrary to conventional wisdom, it was very difficult to get it published – the paper was initially rejected by a number of well-known Physics journals.”

Dr Lan was recently awarded the TWAS-Unesco Associateship at the Institute of Physics at the University of the Republic, Uruguay.

He said that during the three-year stint, he would work on extending the comparison of relativistic and non-relativistic theories from classical to quantum theories.

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