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The Herbert Dingle Affair

February 13, 2021

In the current discussion about expertise, accolades and fake news, the story of Herbert Dingle keeps whirling around in my head. It’s a story that caused a sensation in the ’70s, at least in scientific circles, but has now been forgotten. Even so, Dingle ended up having produced, albeit involuntarily, a book that is still one of the classics of what has come to be called ‘pseudo-science’.

Herbert Dingle was born in 1890 in England, to a Quaker family. A precocious and talented student, he was forced to interrupt his studies at the age of 14 due to his family’s economic straits, at which point he worked humble jobs but continued to study ‘independently’. Thanks to his aptitude for learning and remarkable willpower, in 1915 at the age of 25, he obtained a scholarship to the prestigious Imperial College of London. Here he graduated in Astrophysics, but also pursued courses in other scientific subjects, and maintained interests outside science too, especially in the field of the Philosophy of Science (which would become something of his ‘specialty’ in the second part of his career) and of English literature, on which he wrote some fine books, for example on the work of Emily Bronte.

Herbert Dingle (1890-1978)

A strange detail, one that was never totally cleared up: in 1915 Great Britain was busy in the First World War. As a Quaker, Dingle was a conscientious objector, and maintained a pacifist stance his whole life. Conscientious objectors were despised at that time, and the best that a poor young man like Dingle could hope for was to be sent to be a potato-peeler somewhere in Flanders. But, and no one knows how, Dingle got the said scholarship, and avoided a tour of the kitchens of the Western Front, conducting studies that were ‘fundamental’ for the War Effort. Seeing that he had no guardian angels, it is probable that the whole thing came down to another of Dingle’s traits: his persuasive abilities and his oratory. Something that we will speak more about in a bit.

Dingle specialized in spectroscopic astronomy, and in this capacity, he did a little experimental and theoretical work, participating among other things in two expeditions of solar spectroscopy during as many eclipses. This allowed him to become a professor and then to rise to the Department Director of Spectroscopy of Imperial College. His interest in the Philosophy of Science started to prevail over spectroscopy, and Dingle obtained the title of Imperial College’s Chair of Natural Philosophy, then rose to become Director of the whole College of Physics IC itself. Then he became, continuing his steady rise, Director of the Department of the History and Philosophy of Science. In addition, he became a member of the prestigious English Royal Astronomical Society, and then a bit later the President of the same. A spectacular career from any point of view, achieved by someone who was by no means ‘desirable’.

Dingle wrote a few books on the philosophy of science, which were often addressed to the greater public and characterized by a lively and brilliant tone. He had strong ideas on the subject, which attracted some criticism from his colleagues. He was a great admirer of the ‘inductive method’ in science, where one first collects data and then advances hypotheses. It was therefore hostile to the ‘deductive method’, which had become prevalent in theoretical physics, where one first constructed theories mathematically, then proved or negated them using data. Dingle believed this second methodology to be a return of Aristotelianism, and he embarked on a lively diatribe on the subject with the cosmologist Arthur Milne. Dingle’s prestige was such that the matter ended up on the pages of Nature, the famous scientific journal, in which sixteen world-famous scientists responded to Dingle himself. The debate, though it was intense, helped to direct the course of cosmology in the following years, and was certainly ‘scientific’, even if Dingle’s ideas are now considered obsolete and conservative.

It must be said that Dingle was an extremely well respected and popular figure. Politically he was a liberal progressive and pacifist, and before the Second World War he took concrete steps to help refugees from Europe, especially Jews. He got married to Alice Westacott, a woman he loved deeply, and when she died relatively young, he stayed faithful to her memory for the rest of his life.

In the ’20s Dingle started to get interested in Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, and in 1922 he wrote Relativity for All, which became a bestseller on the subject (at that time considered the height of difficulty) and received excellent reviews. Some, however, criticized “his simplifications”. For Dingle the interest of Relativity (especially the simplest and intuitive Special Relativity, as opposed to the more complicate General Relativity) grew to the point that he started to hold conferences on the problem, and in 1932 he went to California to Caltech (California Institute of Technology) to work with Einstein in person, and even collaborated on an important textbook on the subject of relativist cosmology.

In 1940, he also wrote a scientific paper on Special Relativity that sparked timid puzzlement in some reviewers. But Dingle’s prestige overcame these bland uninfluential critics. Things changed in 1955, coincidentally the year of Einstein’s death. In that year Dingle, who had retired from active teaching, started a ferocious campaign out of the blue AGAINST the Theory of Relativity. To understand this campaign, which yielded arguably tragic consequences, we should talk about the so-called ‘paradoxes’ of Special Relativity, the ‘paradox of the twins’.

Space-time diagram of the paradox of the twins (source Wikipedia). The vertical axis is time, the horizonal one is space. The ‘stationary’ twin on Earth (Bruno) moves only vertically in time, while Anna (the ‘travelling’ twin) moves in both space and time. Each point corresponds to one year. The blue lines are the axes of simultaneity for the two twins while Anna is going away from Earth, that is those that correspond to the ‘same instant’, i.e., points different in space but simultaneous in time. Those in red are the simultaneous moments while Anna is returning. In our daily experience, these axes are perfectly horizontal—Note the central space in the diagram, where it seems that some points on the vertical axis are missing. These are the years that Anna ‘loses’ whilst moving in space.



Imagine two twins, Anna and Bruno, both twenty. Bruno stays on Earth. Anna takes a rocket that can go close to the speed of light, let’s say at 90%, and heads for the star Sirius, some 8.3 light years from Earth. Having reached Sirius, Anna turns the rocket back to Earth, and returns at the same speed (90% of light-speed). On her return, Anna discovers that for her 8 years have passed since she left Earth, whereas more than 19 have passed for Bruno. In other words, when Anna left she was twenty years old, as was Bruno. Now she is 28 and he is 39.

If you have seen the film Interstellar, you know that the Theory of Relativity involves this phenomenon, the dilation of time, which has been experimentally tested multiple times. But this is not the ‘paradox’. The paradox is that the (Special) Theory of Relativity tells us that whether we move at a constant speed or stand ‘still’ (that is in a ‘system of inertial reference’), it is not locally possible to establish whether one is moving or standing still. Each party has an equal right to say ‘I am still, and you are moving’ or vice versa. The fact that we are able to state that ‘we are moving’ on Earth is due to the fact that in order to initiate movement we have to apply some kind of force, whether it be feet creating friction on the floor or a wheel on the asphalt. If we lack this force, for example if we’re in a plane flying in perfectly calm air, and we close our eyes, if we don’t hear the sound of the plane’s engine and we don’t look out the window (i.e. if we don’t have an external point of reference), we can imagine that we are still, and so don’t perceive ourselves as moving at hundreds of kilometers per hour.

Most importantly, there is no mechanical experiment that we can do to establish that we are moving. If we are in a plane flying in a straight line at 500km per hour (about 140 metres a second), and we throw a ball in the air, it comes back to our hand and does not fall 140 metres behind us. On the other hand, when the speed isn’t constant (when we are accelerating or decelerating), the magic is broken, and we “feel” that we are moving, that is we perceive the force of inertia. It is something we’ve all proved when taking a tight curve or braking suddenly in a car, or when standing up on a plane in a bout of turbulence. That ball, instead of returning to our hand, ends up who knows where.

Therefore, if the respective speed is constant, according to one interpretation of Einstein the twins would not be able to distinguish who has really moved and who has stayed still.

However, when they return, Bruno is older than Anna by a good eleven years. So, Anna ‘knows’ that she was the one who really moved. It would seem, therefore, that the prediction of the Theory of Special Relativity (that is that time passes differently according to your relative speed) contradicts one of the postulates of the same theory, which is that it is never possible to conclusively establish the state of movement of two inertial reference systems.

Obviously, though, there is no ‘paradox’. In turning back from the star Sirius Anna must use her motors to brake and to change direction, which breaks the symmetry between her system of reference and Bruno’s. But even ignoring this elementary fact and inventing a more complex example in which Anna doesn’t use her motors and so neither accelerates nor decelerates, the ‘trick’ is in the little word ‘locally’. Individually, Anna and Bruno can’t establish whether they are moving fast or slow, and whether their clocks are fast or slow. The thing that the theory predicts is that the relative velocity changes the concept of simultaneity: i.e., what ‘the same moment’ is for Anna and Bruno. Without going into details, the theory tells us that different simultaneous moments correspond to different velocities. If we are standing still next to one another and see a bomb explode in the distance (for example), it’s a different thing to a situation where I’m standing still and you are moving at velocity near the speed of light, when we see the bomb exploding at different moments. When the two twins reunite, comparing their clocks they discover that the respective simultaneity is ‘screwed up’.

The above concepts are (verbally) counterintuitive but the mathematics behind them are not terribly complex, and it’s perfectly possible to explain the paradox of the twins without mathematical formulas, using a ruler, a piece of paper and a pencil. There are nice introductory books on the subject suited to people all abilities, so long as we limit ourselves to Special Relativity (General Relativity is a bit more difficult from every point of view, even if it’s based on relatively simple concepts).

Sixty-five years ago, things were a little different. The theory of Relativity, after turning Einstein into the superstar we use to advertise a famous chain of supermarkets, ended up in limbo through lack of practical applications, a limbo from which it only started to emerge between 1955 and 1975, in the so-called ‘Relativity Renaissance’, sparked above all by new theories on extreme phenomena such as stars and neutrons and black holes. Having said that, Dingle was a famous name of the scientific establishment of the time, and initially addressed himself to an audience of his peers. His peers who respected Dingle and initially they thought it was worth debating someone who spoke their own language.

There is no space to go into detail on the objections brought up by Dingle, except that he declared urbi et orbi that he had ‘discovered’ how Special Relativity was NOT able to predict that Alice and Bruno, when they reunited, were different ages. That is, that the theory could NOT predict the dilation of time for Alice. When finally, after years of exchanges that got ever more furious and vitriolic, in which Dingle used all his considerable oratory power, he became convinced that Special Relativity did indeed predict the dilation of time, his own thesis became that the theory itself was contradictory and therefore invalid. In the face of the repeated and ever more baffled denials of his colleagues (some collaborators of Einstein among them), Dingle became convinced of the inevitable; there was a kind of conspiracy going on led by the Relativity ‘mafia’, which didn’t want to admit that their theory was mistaken. So, in 1972 Dingle wrote a pathetic book, Science at the Crossroads, in which he warned the world that it was continuing to follow a fake theory, with disastrous consequences. The book became a classic of the global scientific conspiracy, and it is unreadable.

At this point his colleagues were convinced that Dingle was insane through age or loneliness or the early death of his only child, and they stopped responding to him. This infuriated Dingle even more, convincing him of the conspiracy. The situation became so painful that the newspapers stopped publishing his letters, and the Royal Astronomical Society decided to keep its distance, until Dingle died in 1978, at 88 years old.

But there is a small point. Dingle was not crazy. For 35 years from 1920 to 1935 (that is before starting his campaign against Relativity) Dingle had written, held conferences about and lectured on a theory of which he’d never understood any part. And he was allowed to do it, without any of his colleagues noticing.

Here too, it’s hard to detail the multiple misconceptions Dingle was prey to without boring the reader. I’ll try to summarize the main facts. Dingle didn’t have the least understanding of the concept of an ‘event’ as Einstein meant it. In fact, an ‘event’ for Einstein is a ‘location’ a precise instant in time and in space. Simplifying, the goal of a mortar at 18:30:10 on 5 February 2021, at the coordinates 45˚7″5′ North, 07˚04″02 East. For Dingle an ‘event’ is what we mean discursively: ‘a man goes to see a football match’. Or else (the example made by Dingle in one of his best-selling books) ‘A man dances with a strange girl and his girlfriend gets jealous’. This is not an ‘event’ as Relativity means it, because it’s made of so many things that happen next to each other in a brief period of time, that is a sum of a lot of undefined or poorly defined ‘events’.

In other words, Dingle never really understood – and this is easily inferred by reading his writing—the whole simultaneity business. He was convinced—naively—that in the prediction of Relativity, time stretched or contracted like an accordion. If that were the case, obviously his objection on the grounds that Anna and Bruno could not be different ages would be correct, because the ‘accordion’ stretches or contracts for BOTH in a symmetrical fashion. So, from Anna’s point of view, Bruno ages more slowly, while from Bruno’s point of view, it’s Anna who ages more slowly. This is a contradiction in terms. But Relativity predicts that the thing that changes is ‘the axis of simultaneity’ for both, i.e., what is ‘the same instant’ for both. While Anna moves away from Bruno, the line that joins ‘the same instant’ in a hypothetical diagram where time goes on the vertical axis and distance goes on the horizontal axis, is inclined in one way. When Anna returns, the incline turns into the reciprocal angle. In the moment in which Anna changes direction, it’s as if ‘the years of difference’ that have accumulated between Anna and Bruno pass in a moment.

Third – in my opinion this is much more serious: in Dingle’s ‘proof’ there is a conceptual mathematical error unforgivable in someone with his curriculum vitae. Simplifying greatly, for those who don’t chew on calculus: if we call the variable that ‘keeps track’ of time for Anna ‘t’, and the one that does the same for Bruno ‘t1’, Dingle became convinced that the partial differential between t and t1 (dt/dt1) and the one between t1 and t (dt1/dt) would be one the algebraic inverse of the other. This implies that if dt/dt1=Y then dt/dt1=1/Y and so therefore Y=1/Y, something evidently impossible. This is the kind of error someone would make in a first-year Physics course, when they teach you calculus if you have not already done it at high-school.

A famous scientist going nuts is nothing new. It has happened to a lot of Nobel Prize winners. Nor is a novel event for a famous scientist to start supporting an absurd or ‘heretical’ theory, completely losing any credibility, maybe for ideological or political reasons, or out of academic rivalry. Here, though, we face a different matter, and an even more chilling one: someone who is a supposed expert in a sector in which ‘peer reviews’ exist with all the accolades and the respectability that entails, who shows that he hasn’t understood a word of things that he’s been left to discuss for years. Dingle’s errors of comprehension are of a kind common to types—normally ‘lay people’ and non specialists—who think that the Theory of Relativity is a ‘relational’ theory (‘Einstein teaches us that everything is relative’), but on the contrary, Einstein was talking about things that are relative but also of those that are absolute. And Dingle, presumably, had some big holes in his mathematics. This is the part that is more difficult to digest, because notwithstanding his interest in the philosophy of science, Dingle started out as a spectroscopist, that is an experimental physicist, and for his whole life maintained the superiority of experimental over theoretical physics. As if that weren’t enough, if one looks at his books on the history of scientific philosophy, they are full of blunders. In practice, it’s not that Dingle forgot some things, or was acting under false pretences. He really didn’t understand some things.

Today Dingle is one of the patron saints of the anti-Relativity crowd (‘Anti-Relativity Company Ltd.’ in the witty definition of his biography), and Science at the Crossroads is often cited on YouTube in conspiracy videos. An inglorious end. ‘The why’ remains to be understood. Some believe that after his wife’s death in 1947 Dingle went into a long psychological decline, and the tone of his letters written in the ’70s is certainly a little bizarre. But that doesn’t explain the rest. I can’t get it out of my head that Dingle’s is the story of a bright person, even a gifted one in some fields, who managed to exceed his own severe limitations without exciting comment in a sector in which everything should always be meticulously scrutinized, just because of some ‘accolades’ and because of his brilliant communication.

A theme that is very topical today.

(thanks to Katherine Liddy for translating this)

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2 Comments
  1. Dear author,

    thank you for interesting story. I’d like to cite it in a scientific paper. How should a quote look like? Thank you in advance.

  2. James Arathoon permalink

    2022 will be 50 years since the publication of Dingles “Science at the Crossroads”. Although as you say this not his best book by far it is a very useful marker in the historical sand; particularly since the Standard Model of Particle Physics was completed in its currently experimentally acceptable form around that time with little theoretical progress in the fundamentals since.

    Unfortunately once all the “polymath” (non-specialist) type thinkers were ejected from our universities and the public scientific discourse we are left monstrous social group think by specialists, without any high status cross-discipline figures to disrupt it.

    If you leave science to the specialists alone gross mis-allocation our scarce scientific resources can result.

    When I was at university studying engineering and physics in the late 1980’s early 1990’s I was very sceptical of Special Relativity. I tried to question people on the theory and think about it for myself, but I didn’t find any body that really understood Special Relativity and could communicate that understanding to me.

    I think the basic problem for Herbert Dingle was that once he had had his crisis of understanding, none of the people he reached out to understood Special Relativity either.

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