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The Rudolf Steiner Archive

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Elephants to Einstein
GA 352

X. Einstein's theory of relativity. Thinking divorced from reality

27 February 1924, Dornach

Good morning, gentlemen. Has anyone thought of something for today?

Mr Burle asked about the theory of relativity and what the situation was today. One read a lot about it, especially earlier. Now it had perhaps been forgotten again; at least one no longer heard so much about it.

Rudolf Steiner. Well, you see, the situation with the theory of relativity is a difficult one, and so you'll probably have to pay careful attention today and in the end you'll still say, even if you did pay good attention, that you do not know it. But it is the same for many people who talk about the theory of relativity today. They talk about it, often praising it as the greatest achievement of our age, but they do not understand it. I'll try and speak of it in as popular a way as possible. As I said, it will be difficult today, but I am sure we'll get back to more interesting things the next time.

Einstein's theory refers to the movements of any body. You know that bodies move by changing their position in space. To draw a movement we say: a body is in a position a and moves to another which we may call b. So if you see a railway train go past, standing somewhere outside, you will at first be in no doubt but that the train is rushing past you, that it is moving and you are standing still. But doubts may arise quite easily, for the moment of course only if you do not give it any more thought, if you are sitting in a railway carriage and are asleep at first, then wake up and look out of the window. A train is going past. You have the distinct feeling that a train is going past. This need not be true, however, for before you went to sleep your train was stationary, and while you were asleep your train started to move. You did not notice, being asleep, that your train started to move, and it seems that the other train is moving past. If you take a closer look you find that the train outside is stationary, but your train is moving. So you are in motion but believe you are at rest and the other train is in motion, when in reality it is at rest. You know it can also happen that you look out of the window and believe yourself to be at rest in the train you are in, and the whole train is going in the opposite direction. That is what the eye perceives. And so you see that the things we say about movement are not always correct. You wake up and form the opinion that the train outside is in motion. But you immediately have to correct yourself: Hey, that is not true; it is standing still and I am travelling!

It has happened that an opinion had to be corrected in this way on a much larger scale on one or indeed several occasions in world history. We only need to go back six or seven centuries. People then held the view that the earth stood still in space, with the whole of the starry heavens moving past it. This view was corrected in the sixteenth century, as you may have heard. Copernicus22Copernicus, Nicolaus (1473-1543), Polish astronomer who established the view that the earth and the other planets or it the sun. came along and said: 'None of this is true. The sun, the fixed stars are in fact standing still, and we with our earth are flying through space at a tremendous speed.' We thought we were at rest on earth—just as the person in the train thought he was at rest and the other train was moving—and we have now corrected this. Copernicus corrected the whole of astronomy, saying it was not true that the stars moved; they stood still, whereas the earth with the human beings on it was rushing through space at a vast speed.

So you can immediately see that we may not always say right away how things are with movement—whether we ourselves are at rest and a body moving past is truly in motion, or we ourselves are moving and a body we think is rushing past is at rest.

I think if you consider this you'll say to yourselves: 'Yes, it may be necessary to make such a correction for anything we recognize to be movement.' But just consider how long it took before the whole of humanity came to make the correction for the movement of the earth. It took thousands of years. When you are sitting in a train it may perhaps only take seconds before you correct your opinion. It therefore varies how long we take to correct such an opinion. This has made people like Einstein say that we really cannot know if something we see in motion actually is in motion or if we are not in some mysterious way in motion as we stand there motionlessly and the other is in fact motionless; let us therefore draw the final conclusion from this uncertainty.

Well, gentlemen, in that case it might be like this. Let us assume this is a car. You drive the car from Hansi House up to the Goetheanum. But who can say that the car really comes up here? Who can say this with certainty? The car might be completely motionless, only its wheels turning, and the whole of the Goetheanum towards which one is driving might be moving down the hill in the opposite direction. It just needs for something to emerge the way it did emerge for Copernicus in relation to the earth! (Laughter)

Einstein took such things and said: 'We can never be certain if it is the one body that moves or the other. All we know is that they move relatively to each other, that the distance between them changes; that is the only thing we know.' Of course we know it when we drive to the Goetheanum, because we come closer to the Goetheanum, but we cannot know if it comes to us or we go to it. Now you see, when we speak of being truly at rest or truly in motion, those are absolutes. What then is absolute rest or absolute motion? It would be a state of rest or a movement of which we could say: 'The body is at rest within the universe or it moves.' But that is an awkward business, for at the time of Copernicus it was still believed that it was the sun that stood still and the earth that moved around it. This is true for the earth, but not for the sun, for the sun is moving very fast, rushing through space at a terrific speed relative to an astral cosmos in the constellation of Hercules—and all of us with it, of course.23See M. Wilhelm Meyer, Die Gesetze der Bewegungen am Himmel und ihre Erforschung, Berlin, n.d. On page 96 he says (in German): The only thing we know, incidentally, is that this total motive energy of the stars is currently taking our solar system through the universe and towards Hercules at a rate of some 30 kilometres a second, towards an unknown, dark destination that is infinitely far away for us. On the one hand we are orbiting the sun, but as we orbit the sun we rush through cosmic space with it. We thus cannot say that the sun is absolutely at rest in cosmic space. And because of this Einstein and others who held the same views said that we simply cannot be certain that anything is absolutely at rest or in absolute motion; we can only say that things are relatively at rest—relatively meaning in relationship to each other—they appear to us to be at rest or in motion.

You see, gentlemen, there was an occasion during a course given in Stuttgart where someone thought we anthroposophists do not really know anything worth knowing about the theory of relativity, and being a fanatical adherent of that theory he wanted to show people that the theory of relativity really has validity. What did he do? He took a box of matches and said: 'Here's a match. I now hold the box so that it does not move and move the match away from me and towards it. It ignites. Now I make a second experiment. I hold the match so that it does not move and move the box towards me. Again the match ignites. The same thing happens. What has happened is that a flame has been ignited. But the movement I made is not absolute; it is relative. On the one occasion, if that is the box and this the match, I move the match in this direction, and on the other occasion the box. It does not matter if I want to make a fire if the box is moving or the match, but only that they move relative to one another.'

This can be applied to anything in the world. You can say, speaking of the whole world, the situation is that we do not know if one thing moves or another, or one moves more actively and the other less so. All we know is that they move relative to one another, coming closer or going further apart. That is all we know. And we do not know if one body moves faster or more slowly. Let us assume you are in a fast train travelling at speed and a slow train goes past outside. You are looking out of the window. You cannot judge what is really going on, for as you travel in your fast train and the slow train comes along you have the feeling that your fast train is going much more slowly than it did before. Try it. At that moment you have the feeling that the train is suddenly going much more slowly. Your perception is that the speed is reduced by as much as the speed of the train that is coming the other way. So you get completely the wrong idea about the speed at which your train is travelling. If on the other hand a train is travelling next to yours that is going more slowly, you get the feeling that yours is going faster. You can never judge how two movements are relative to each other but only how the distance between them changes.

We may stop at this point and say: 'This Einstein really was a clever fellow, he has finally realized that you cannot speak of absolute movement in the universe but only of relative movements.' It is clever, and, as you will understand, it is true for many things. For no one seeing a star, let us say, at rest can say it is a star at rest. If you move at a certain rate, the star seems to move in the opposite direction—but it may also be moving towards you. So you cannot say from just looking at it if it is at rest or in motion. It is necessary for us to know this; and knowing this, the whole way of putting things in some of the sciences today really ought to change. Let me give you an example of this.

How do we gain knowledge of the stars? You cannot gain knowledge of the stars if you take the view a certain prince once took who went to an observatory where the astronomer had to show him the observations he was making, of course, him being the ruler of the land. So he let the prince look through the telescope and they observed a star. If you aim a telescope just anywhere you'll not see anything at first. You have to wait a little and then the star will appear and finally disappear again on the other side. The prince looked at this and then he said: 'Right, now I can see you know something about the stars; you know where they are and how they move. I see that. But what I fail to understand is how you can know the names of the stars, seeing they are so far away.' Such views will not get us far in astronomy. But what happens when we observe the stars? We have a telescope, and the astronomer sits there—seeing his head from above—looks into it and there is the reticle here, where two threads cross, and one establishes the location of the star.

In the past, observers always thought one might say: 'Either the earth has moved, or one has moved the telescope on, moving the objective'—that is the objective or lens system, which is further away (the glass that is nearer to one is called the eyepiece)—'so far that one sees the star at rest in it.' In the old days people thought the star moved. Today we have to say that we do not know anything about the resting or moving state of a star. All we can say is that at that moment the reticle of my telescope coincides with the image of the star. The two coincide. We cannot say more than what is immediately in front of our eyes. We would thus have no certainty about the world as a whole.

This has tremendous implications. It is important when we consider the movements not only of heavenly bodies but also of bodies here on earth. And the consequences drawn by Einstein and others who think like him go a very long way. They said, for instance, that if motion was only relative and not absolute one could never say anything valid about anything, not about things happening at the same time nor about different times. If I have a watch in Dornach, for instance, and another in Zurich, with the hands in the same position, I am far from certain that it may not be true that my observation is wrong, for they are some distance apart. It is possible that there is no such thing as simultaneity, with things happening at the same time.

So you see, enormous consequences were drawn from the matter. And the question is: shall we never be rid of this problem? Is there nothing at all we can say about the things themselves as they are in motion? That is the important question. What is certain is that we cannot say anything about their movements as we look at them. And it is also true in the widest sense that when I drive up to the Goetheanum in a car, it may just as well be that the Goetheanum is coming to meet me.

But there is one thing, gentlemen, that does happen. Even the example of the matchbox which I quoted is not entirely true. For you see, I could have called out to the gentleman who gave such a fine demonstration: 'How about nailing the box to the table and see how well you can move it then! You'd certainly need a lot of strength to move the whole table to and fro.' So there is something not right somewhere.

You can find out what it is if you consider the matter very carefully. Let us assume you go by car from Dornach to Basle. Now we might say it is not true that the car is moving; it is stationary and only the wheels are moving, and Basle is coming to meet it. Fine. But there is one thing that speaks against it. The car will be worn out after some years. And the fact that the car is worn out can only be due to the fact that it was not the road that moved but the car, and that it has been worn out, ruined, by what went on inside it. So if you do not only look at the movement but also inside the body itself to see what effect movement has, then you will realize that Einstein's conclusion does not apply all the way. So you'll find that the car wears itself out, and it is not only that the tyres are worn down from going round and round. Now someone might say: 'Well, they would also go round if the hill were coming towards one, or if Basle came towards one, for otherwise that would get worn down.' And then one might still say: 'Maybe it is like that after all. It is not easy to decide in the case of lifeless bodies.' And all you can say in the case of lifeless bodies is that it is uncertain how much the one or the other is moving. But a living organism! Imagine you walk to Basle, and someone else stays here in Dornach, standing still for the two hours you need to walk to Basle. Now, if you had not moved towards it but Basle had come to meet you, you would have practically done no more than the other person who remained standing still. But you've grown tired. A change has come over you. This change, which is happening inside you, does tell you that you have moved. And with living bodies it is possible, in a way, to tell from the change that happens in them if they are truly in motion or only in apparent motion and therefore at rest.

And that is also what must help us to realize that one must not base theories on observations made in the world not even something that seems as obvious as movement does. We must base our theory on internal changes. So the situation is that with the theory of relativity, too, we have to say to ourselves: someone who only looks at the outer aspect of things will not get anywhere; you have to consider the inside. And then the theory of relativity actually helps us to make at least a beginning with the science of the spirit, with anthroposophy, for in anthroposophy we are always asked to consider the inner aspect.

Einstein's theory has had some extraordinarily strange consequences. The matter gets particularly interesting, for instance, when Einstein gives examples. One example was his effort to prove that the change in location has no significance at all. He therefore said: 'If I fling a watch the hands of which are in a particular position out into space so that it goes out at the speed of light, turns round and comes back again, this movement has had no significance for the inner parts of the watch. The watch comes back unchanged.' That was the kind of example Einstein would give. 'If a body moves or not—we cannot tell. The watch is the same, it is the same to it if it moves or remains at rest.' But, gentlemen, one simply has to ask you to look at the reality of a watch flying out into cosmic space at the speed of light and coming back again. You won't see anything of that watch. It will have been pulverized so that you can no longer see it.

What does this mean? It means one cannot think like that. It leads to thoughts that are thoughtless. And so you'll find on one hand that Einstein is a very clever man, and that he draws conclusions, forms opinions that people find most attractive. You know, ordinary people who are not the best of mathematicians will not understand much of Einstein's theory. And then they begin to read about Einstein's theory in some popular book. They read the first page and give a yawn; they read half the second page and then they stop. And they'll say: 'It must be something terribly clever. For if it were not terribly clever I would be able to understand it. And a lot of people are saying that it is something very clever.' This is how public opinion has been formed concerning the theory of relativity. But there are people who do understand it. And Einstein's followers come from among those who do understand it, their numbers growing daily. It is not that it has been forgotten, as Mr Burle thinks. University professors did not want to know about Einstein's theory if you tried to talk to them about it a few years ago. Today people in the academic world in particular are full of Einstein's theory.

But people do develop strange notions about it. I once had a debate about Einstein's theory with university professors. Now, you see, for as long as one stays in the area which I have also been discussing here, Einstein's theory of relativity is correct. There's nothing you can do about it. It is like that with railway trains, with solar systems, with movements in the whole world. In that respect it is quite correct. But the academics then apply it to everything and say, for example: 'The size of a person is also relative. He does not have absolute but only relative size. It merely seems to me that he is that tall. He is that tall in relation—well, seeing we are here—to the chairs or to the trees, but one cannot speak of an absolute height.' Now you see, that holds true for as long as we are only dealing with geometry. The moment we stop dealing with geometry and come to life itself, the situation changes and we are singing a different tune. You see, someone who has no feeling for it can carve a human head that is a hundred times the size of your head. He then has a head. But someone who has a feeling for this would never do this, for he knows that the size of the human head is not relative, for it is determined by the whole of cosmic space. The person may be a little taller or shorter, but when someone is a dwarf that is because of an illness. When someone becomes a giant that, too, is due to illness. It is not just relative, for the absolute nature i already apparent. Human sizes do, of course, vary withii limits. But in the universe the human being is destined to have a particular size. So again we cannot speak of relativity. We can only say that a human being gives himself a particular size because of his relationship to the universe. Only one of the group of professors with whom I had the debate would admit this. The others had their minds twisted to such an extent by the theory of relativity that they said the size of a human being, too, is relative, for that is how we look at it.

Now you know that if you have a painting it may be large; when you walk away it gets smaller and smaller, according to the law of perspective. The size of the painting, you see, is relative. The relativity theoreticians therefore believe that the size of the human being, too, is only the way it is because it is seen against a particular background. But that is nonsense. The size of the human being has a quality of being absolute, and a person cannot be much taller and not much shorter than predetermined.

People think all this up because they have no real idea as to what is involved in a process or an object that is somewhere near us on earth. You will be able to realize from everything I have been saying that if that is the earth, and there is a human being on the earth, you know he depends not only on the forces of the earth but on forces that influence him from beyond the earth. Our head for instance reflects the whole universe. We have spoken of this. If it were of no importance what size a person is, what would have to be then? Let us assume Mr Burle's head, Mr Erbsmehl's head and Mr Muller's head is created out of the universe. Well, gentlemen, if the heads differ in three or four different ways here, then there would have to be an extra universe for each. But there is only one universe, and it does not grow bigger or smaller for the sake of an individual person but is always there, always the same, and because of this human heads must be approximately the same. Only people who do not realize that we all share the same world, which also has spiritual influences, believe it does not matter what size a person's head is and say that it is merely relative. It is not relative but depends on the absolute size of the universe.

So we have to say to ourselves again: it is indeed the case that if one thinks about the theory of relativity in the right way that one comes to the science of the spirit and not to materialistic science.

And if one looks more closely at the human being, one can see that people who think like Einstein run out of ideas when they come to the sphere of life or of the spirit. You see, as a boy I was able to take part in the lively debates held on the forces of gravity. Gravity—if a body falls to the ground, you say it has weight. It drops because it has weight, gravity. But the force of gravity is active throughout the universe. Bodies are attracted to one another. If this is the earth and this the moon (Fig. 24), the earth attracts the moon and the moon does not fly off like this, but moves in an orbit around the earth because the earth always draws it back to itself just as it is on the point of flying off. When I was a boy people were disputing with one another as to what really causes gravity.

helmet
Figure 24

Newton, the English physicist24Newton, Sir Isaac (1642-1727) of whom I have been telling you before, simply said: 'Bodies are mutually attracted.' This is not an entirely materialistic view, for you only have to think what it takes for a person to take hold of something and draw it to him and you can see it needs all kinds of things other than the material. Now if the earth is to attract the moon, one really cannot speak of a materialistic view at all. Yet in my young days materialism was flourishing. We might also say it dried people up, making them wither, but we might also say it flourished. And people would say: 'That is not true; the earth cannot attract the moon, for it does not have hands to draw it to itself. That is not possible.' Then they said: 'The cosmic ether is everywhere (see drawing).' So what I am drawing red here is the cosmic ether; it consists of lots of small grains, tiny little grains. And these tiny little grains bump into here, and bump into there, but bump more there than they do in the middle. So if you have two bodies, earth and moon, and there is more pushing from outside than from the inside, it is as if they were attracted to each other. The force of attraction, of gravity, was therefore explained as pushing from outside.

I cannot describe the painful process I went through to gain insight at that time. I really kept turning the matter over in my mind from my 12th to 18th year—does the earth attract the moon, or is the moon pushed towards the earth. For you see, the reasons people gave were mostly not exactly stupid but clever. But here we already have something of a theory of relativity. One asks oneself: is there something absolute in this or is it all relative? Perhaps it really does not matter if we say the earth attracts the moon, or the moon is pushed towards the earth? Perhaps the issue cannot be decided. You see, people gave the matter a great deal of thought. And what I really want to say is this: they did at least realize at the time that apart from visible matter there is also the ether. They needed the ether, for how could one speak of something that was pushing unless it was those grains in the ether. When Einstein first established his theory of relativity, people still believed in the existence of the ether. And Einstein thought of everything he described as relative motion as being in space, and space being filled with ether. Then he realized: 'Wow! If motion is merely relative, there is no need for there to be any ether. Nothing needs to pull, nothing to push. All this cannot be decided, and so it may also be that space is empty.'

As time went on there really were two Einsteinian theories. It was of course one and the same person. The earlier Einstein described everything in his books as if the whole of cosmic space were filled with ether. Then his theory of relativity made him say: 'Space is empty.' Only with the theory of relativity there is no point in saying anything about the ether, for one simply does not know if it is like that. And some of the examples he gives are indeed grotesque. He says, for example: 'If that is the earth and there is some kind of tree, I climb up the tree; here I slip, and fall down'—it is something you probably all know; I certainly had it happen to me quite often as a boy that when I climbed up a tree and lost my grip I would fall down. And you say: 'The earth is attracting me. I have weight. This is because of the force of gravity, for otherwise I would have remained hanging in the air, I would be waving my arms and legs about if the earth did not attract me.' But Einstein thinks you can't say all this, for imagine the following. There you have the earth again and now I am up there on a tower. But I am not standing in a place where there is open world all around me, for I am in a box, and the box is suspended from above. If I drop off the tower in my box, my relationship to the walls remains the same. I am not aware of being in motion, for the walls come down with me. So now I cannot say if the rope on which my box is suspended is let down from above and I arrive at the bottom in my box because someone is letting me down, or if I get down there, if the box loses its hold, because the earth attracts me. I cannot determine this. I do not know if I am let down or if the earth is attracting me.

But the situation with this example chosen by Einstein is just as it is with the example always given in schools. It is explained to the children how a planetary system develops; that at first there is a nebula, and the planets separate out from this misty nebula. The sun remains at the centre. And people say it is easy to prove that this is true. Take a little drop of oil floating on water, and in the middle a piece of card with a pin stuck through it. You put this into the water, and begin to rotate it. Tiny droplets then split off from the bigger one, and you have a tiny planetary system.25Reference to an experiment named after the Belgian physicist J.A.F. Plateau (1801-83). And it must be the same out there. Once there was a nebula; the planets split off, and the sun remained at the centre. How could anyone contradict this when they see that drop of fat even today! Well, yes, but one little thing has been overlooked, gentlemen, which is that I have to be there and rotate the pin if I am the teacher showing this to the children. If I do not rotate it, no little planetary system will develop! And so the teacher would have to tell the children that there is a huge teacher out there who once made it turn. Only then would the example be complete. And Einstein, if he were to think in terms of reality—if he ever gets to develop such an idea—would have to assume that someone up there is in charge of the rope. This is equally necessary. Otherwise you cannot say it does not matter how I come down off the tower, whether someone lets me down or I fall down; there must be someone up there. And giving his example Einstein would have to immediately remember to say: 'Who is holding the rope?' But he does not, for the materialism of our present age does not permit him to do so. So he thinks up examples that do not relate to reality, that one cannot think, that are impossible to think.

And there is something else, too. Imagine a hill, gentlemen. There you have the town Freiburg im Breisgau. I set up a cannon on the hill so that you'll be able to hear it in Offenburg, if you like, when it is fired. If someone notes the time when he heard the bang in Freiburg and if someone else has heard it in Offenburg, you get a difference in time. The sound needed some time to get from Freiburg to Offenburg.

Now you see, this business has also been made use of for the so-called theory of relativity. For people say let us assume I am not in Offenburg and hear the bang but in Freiburg. There I hear it as it happens. I now travel in a train from Freiburg to Offenburg. Moving away from Freiburg, I hear the sound a little later than when it happened. I would hear it still a little later if I were closer to Offenburg, and even more the further I go in that direction.

But this will only happen for as long as you travel more slowly than the sound does. If you travel at the same speed as the sound going from Freiburg to Offenburg, what will happen? If you travel at the same speed as the sound, you arrive at Offenburg and it runs away from you—you still do not hear it. If you travel at the same speed you'll never hear it. You are meant to hear it, but it's gone. Now people will say: Wow, that is right, you don't hear the sound any more when you move at the same speed as the sound. And if you move even faster than the sound, what happens then? If the movement is slower you hear it later; if it goes at the same speed you don't hear it at all. If you move faster you hear it sooner than it happens! And people will say that is quite natural, it is properly thought out. So if you hear the sound two seconds later in Offenburg, moving more slowly than the sound, you do not hear it at all if you move at the same speed as the sound. But if you move faster than the sound you hear it two seconds earlier than the cannon was fired in Freiburg! Now I'd like to invite you to listen, really listen to the sound before it is produced in Freiburg! Try it to convince yourselves; see if you'll hear it sooner, even if you go ever so fast.

The other thing that goes against this is that I would also like to ask you what you'll look like if you move as fast or even faster than sound.

What follows from this? It follows that you can think what you like providing you do not stick to reality. With the theory of relativity, people finally arrive at the idea that you can hear the sound before the cannon is actually fired! (Laughter) It is perfectly possible to think these things, but they cannot actually happen. And, you see, that is the difference. People doing scientific work today mainly want to think logically; and Einstein is wonderfully logical in his thinking. But logical is not in itself real. You have to have two qualities in your thinking. In the first place, things certainly have to be logical, but they must also be in accord with reality. You must be able to live in the real world. Then you won't think up a box pulled up and down by a rope. You won't think of a watch flying out into space and back again at the speed of light. Nor will you think of someone moving faster than sound and hearing the sound before the cannon is fired. Many of these ideas presented in books today, gentlemen, are well thought out, but they do not relate to the real world.

We are thus able to say that Einstein's theory of relativity is clever and does hold true for some things in the world, but you cannot do anything with it when you look into reality. For the theory of relativity will never tell you why someone gets extremely tired going to Basle, seeing he is unable to say if he is going to Basle or if Basle is coming to meet him. His tiredness would be inexplicable if Basle were coming to meet him, and why I do things with my feet when I walk. I might simply stand still and wait for Basle to come to me. You see, all this shows clearly that it is not enough to think correctly and cleverly, for there has to be something else. We have to accept the reality of life and decide on things in relation to life.

This is what I am able to tell you about the theory of relativity. It has attracted a great deal of attention, but, as I said, people do not really understand it, otherwise they would reflect on these things.

We'll meet again next Saturday.