Einstein’s smallest blunder

At 17.45 GMT today, I carried out the final fuel checks on our Einstein paper, took a deep breath and hit launch (okay SUBMIT).

Over the summer, I came across quite a few references to a paper Einstein wrote on cosmology in early 1931, in the wake of Hubble’s first observations of the expanding universe (Ahemperhaps you mean  in the wake of Hubble’s observation of an apparent linear relation between the recession of the spiral nebulae and their distance, an empirical result that some theorists interpreted as evidence of an expanding universe – Ed ).

Like many Einstein papers, this paper is written in German, but unlike most Einstein papers  I could not find an English translation anywhere – pretty strange, given that this is Einstein’s first official  publication in the light of the new astronomical results (and given that he wrote very few papers on cosmology). So, with permission from the Einstein Archives, I spent the summer translating the paper with a colleague and adding hysterical remarks. Sorry, historical remarks. It was a most enjoyable project, with a few surprises along the way:

(i) Einstein’s 1931 paper offers a lot of interesting insights into his thoughts on the first tentative evidence for an expanding universe, but it does not say what a lot of science historians seem to think it says

(ii) Some calculations, where Einstein estimates values for the radius of the universe and the density of matter using Hubble’s results, seem to contain a fairly obvious numerical error

(iii) The same error can be seen in writing on a blackboard preserved from a lecture Einstein gave on the paper at Oxford University in 1931


Einstein in Oxford – nice to know we all make mistakes

There has already been quite a bit of interest in our article, it seems your humble correspondent may have gotten lucky for once. Or we  might be wrong, in which case we’re going to look very silly. In the meantime, it looks like I’ll be doing a bit of traveling this year….

Update (Jan 2014)

Our article has now been published in the European Physical Journal (History). You can find the article here or a preprint on the Physics Arxiv here.

Update (Jan 2014)

Our article made the cover of EPJ!

EPJ cover


Filed under Cosmology (general)

8 responses to “Einstein’s smallest blunder

  1. Farhad Keyvan

    More detail please…

  2. cody

    So, how do I get the translation? I would love to read it.

  3. This is very interesting and I hope your paper will be published but I’d like to mention that Einstein’s computational errors are trivial compared to the fundamental logical error in his reasoning.

    In my opinion, the importance of your paper is to reveal to the world that Einstein is the source of the logical error of the equivocation of the universe with universe-as-a-whole.

    Einstein makes the most elementary statistical mistake of extrapolating to the unknown whole from a non-representative sample. Einstein extrapolates from observations of 50 galaxies to unknown number of galaxies in the universe-as-a-whole. His sample is not representative. Einstein’s computations are based on the equivocation of ‘universe’ and ‘universe-as-a-whole’ and they are worthless.

    A question for you. If someone claims to predict election results for polling only 1 (one) person would you consider that prediction a scientific prediction? I am sure that you would at least ask “what election?”, “how many voters are there?”, “what is the population of voters?”. The sample of an unknown population cannot be a representative sample.

    In Einstein’s case, total number of galaxies are unknown. How can Einstein extrapolate from 50 measurements to the unknown whole? This is charlatanism. It’s hard for me to believe a genius like Einstein did not notice that it is absurd to extrapolate from particular astronomical observations to the cosmological whole. Do you mention this fact in your paper? In any case I look forward to the paper.

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  5. In fact, one of our conclusions is that E. is quite sceptical of cosmic models (his own and others’) precisely because he feels there is no guarantee that the tenets of GR hold at cosmic distances

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