Physicist critics (historical)
One of the most famous challengers of modern physics is Albert Einstein himself. Although he was felt to have played an important part in the origination of quantum theory, with his particle explanation of the photoelectric effect, he became its most vociferous critic, spending years arguing that it was ‘incomplete’ because it did not provide the physical details of sub-atomic interactions.
Einstein disliked the probabilistic basis, instinctively feeling that there would always be a determinist explanation, and we should seek it. Hence his famous phrase, ‘God does not play dice with the Universe’.
He felt this incompleteness could be established through analysis of the thought experiment that became known as the Einstein-Podolski-Rosen or EPR effect. This seems to have been a dead end, not least because Einstein joined the key argument on both sides. The extensive discussion was inconclusive and won’t be followed further on this site.
A more fundamental problem is that while science has sought and provided cause-and-effect explanations to great effect, it has not established that they will always be available. In fact, modern physics, and quantum theory in particular, is certain that it has demonstrated that they will not.
The power of causal analysis is discussed here. Erwin Schrödinger, author of the most famous equation in quantum mechanics, and of its most famous paradox, had very strong views on this.
Robert Millikan, the experimental physicist famous for the oil drop experiment that demonstrated that electric charge came in discrete amounts or quanta, ripped into Einstein’s 1905 photoelectric paper:
‘It was in 1905 that Einstein made the first coupling of photo effects with any form of quantum theory by bringing forward the bold, not to say reckless, hypothesis of an electro-magnetic light corpuscle of energy hν, which energy was transferred upon absorption to an electron. This hypothesis may well be called reckless, first because an electromagnetic disturbance which remains localised in space seems a violation of the very conception of an electromagnetic disturbance, and second because it flies in the face of the thoroughly established facts of interference.’i
Remarkably, this was published in the abstract of one of his most famous peer-reviewed scientific papers.
Eigler and Milonni
Two respected modern physicists have entered this discussion, though without taking a critical tone.
Don Eigler, whose work at IBM has enabled us ‘to actually see a physical wavefunction rippling across a surface’ii, says: ‘Don’t even think about them as particles. Electrons are waves, and if you think of them as waves you will always end up with the right answer. Always.’iii
Peter Milonni observes that modern theory of the photoelectric effect ‘allows Einstein’s relation to be deduced without photons: Once electrons are described by the Schrödinger equation, it follows that a classical light wave of frequency ν can induce an electron to change its state…’iv
Bohr and Werner Heisenberg are the architects of the most famous Interpretation of quantum mechanics, having argued it through at Bohr’s home and University workplace in the city of Copenhagen. Yet Bohr recognised the scientific problems of particle light from the outset:
‘As is well known, the [quantum] hypothesis introduces insuperable difficulties when applied to the explanation of the phenomena of interference, which constitute our chief means of investigating the nature of radiation. We can even maintain that the picture, which lies at the foundation of the hypothesis of light-quanta excludes in principle the possibility of a rational definition of the conception of a frequency ν, which plays a principal part in this theory.’v
Bohr was expressing a concern felt by many, that there was no plausible mechanism by which particle light could do what is observed, and mechanism at that point was still important to physics. Planck himself treated the mechanistic way of thinking as axiomatic, discussing his own Nobel Prize-winning findings as follows:
‘But even if the radiation formula should prove to be absolutely accurate it would after all be only an interpolation formula found by happy guesswork, and would thus leave one rather unsatisfied. I was, therefore, from the day of its origination, occupied with the task of giving it a real physical meaning.’vi
Erwin Schrödinger is lauded as the originator of the most commonly used equation of quantum mechanics (as well as the originator of the world's most famous cat) but he was also a persistant and highly cogent critic of the Copenhagen Interpretation as being unphysical and incoherent.
He is sufficiently important in this story to have his own page, here
Poincaré and Lorentz
Turning to relativity, one of the most important criticisms, commonly overlooked, occurred before Einstein published his 1905 paper.
Henri Poincaré and Hendrik Antoon Lorentz were two of the towering scientific and mathematical intellects of their day. Prior to 1905, they had argued back and forth the principle of relativity, the Lorentz transformation, the methodology of comparing and synchronising clocks in a relativistic universe, E=mc2 and energy conversion, and much more.
Despite the failures of Michelson and Maxwell to find the background ether, observationally and theoretically (detailed here), they resisted the conclusion that relativity was the only way forward.
Their important contributions, and potentially important reservations, have been lost in the myth that Einstein created all of the above elements from scratch.
Whittaker, Dingle and Alfred Nobel
Recognising this, eminent mathematician Edmund Taylor Whittaker wrote in 1953:
‘In the autumn of  … Einstein published a paper which set forth the relativity theory of Poincaré and Lorentz with some amplifications, and which attracted much attention.’vii
This view was echoed three years later by Max Bornviii, while physics Professor Herbert Dingle described Einstein’s theories as ‘simply another form of medieval logic restored to its old position of authority over experience.’ix
These seem remarkably dissident in the light of the hold that Einstein’s relativity has on both physics and the public imagination. Perhaps more telling is that the Nobel Prize authorities seem to have agreed with Whittaker. Einstein, despite living a long life, never received a Nobel Prize for either theory of relativity but he did receive that award for his paper on the photoelectric effect and his considerable efforts to see quantum mechanics clarified.
Ritz and Ives
Walther Ritz was an early critic of Einstein up to his death in 1908. He produced an ‘emission’ theory in competition with special relativity, but his real argument was with the wave light calculation of Maxwell. Ritz believed that the speed of corpuscular light was dependent on the motion of its source, as in normal ballistics, but this would make nonsense out of what we see of distant objects in orbital motion, and so Ritz was clearly wrong.
Herbert Eugene Ives performed in 1938 a famous experiment that demonstrated an actual non-relativistic time dilation, in keeping with the Lorentz transformation. He claimed that this result indicated the physicality of the background and hence disagreed with Einstein’s special relativity. Ives had failed to recognise that the original principle had by then become cosmetic and that exposing this was unwelcome. Time dilation is an important feature of both special and general relativity, but neither speaks about it clearly. Time dilation is detailed here.
Miller and Allais
Dayton Millerx identified a ‘drift’ in Michelson’s results and confirmed it with ever-more-careful observations over a number of years. He brought in Michelson’s prestigious collaborator, Morley, to establish that his results were as reliable as those earlier ones. Maurice Allaisxi and others have postulated ‘aether drag’ to bring these results into line also with the anisotropy in the cosmic background radiation (discussed here). They claim that the motion of the Solar System and its galactic neighbours through space is identifiable from Michelson and Miller’s results.
Bell and Bohm
John von Neumann provided a complex mathematical proof that there was no mechanistic underlying reality to be found for quantum theory, and it stood for 32 years. John Bell dismissed it by pointing out that one of its assumptions was wrong. Bell’s theorem, his demonstration of the ‘non-existence of hidden variables’, then replaced von Neumann’s. The problem with Bell’s ‘proof’ is discussed here.
John Bell continued to be a supporter of David Bohm, who challenged the prevailing wisdom that ‘hidden variable’ theories could not be made to work by producing one. It resurfaces in an amended form here.
Bohm suggested that known particles showed wave effects such as interference due to a carrier wave emitted alongside the particle and travelling with it. While far fetched, it has not been shown to fail, and has modern echoes in the experimental work of Krausz.
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i. R.A. Millikan, 1868 – 1953, A Direct Photoelectric Determination of Planck’s ‘h’, Physical Review 7 (1916) 355.
ii. Michael Riorden, co-author of ‘Crystal Fire’, on ‘Uncertain Principles’ in the TV documentary series ‘Quantum Leaps’, around 2000.
iii. Don Eigler, author of ‘The Quantum Corral’, on the same programme.
iv. P.W. Milonni, Los Alamos National Laboratory, in Am. J. Phys. (January 1997) 11. Milonni’s italics.
v. Niels Bohr, 1885 – 1962, at the 1921 Solvay conference.
vi. Max Planck, 1858 – 1947, 1919 Nobel Prize address, The Origin and Development of the Quantum Theory.
vii. E.T. Whittaker, History of the Theories of Aether and Relativity (Dublin University Press Series, 1953)
viii. Max Born, Physics in my generation, 1956
ix. Herbert Dingle: Science at the Crossroads (Martin Brian & O’Keefe, London, 1972) page 96
x. E.W. Morley, Dayton C. Miller, Report of an Experiment to Detect the FitzGerald-Lorentz Effect, Proceedings, Am. Acad. Arts & Sciences, 41:321-328 (August 1905). D.C. Miller, The Ether-Drift Experiments at Mount Wilson Solar Observatory, Phys. Rev, 19:407-408, (1922). D.C. Miller, The Ether-Drift Experiments and the Determination of the Absolute Motion of the Earth, Reviews of Modern Physics 5, 203-242 (1933).
xi. Maurice Allais: Nouvelles régularités tres significatives dans les observations interférométriques de Dayton C. Miller 1925-1926, Comptes Rendus de L'Académie des Sciences, Paris, t. 327, Série II b (1999) 1411-1419.