Today, I want us to look critically into Einstein’s historical quest for the Unified Field Theory which he sought for the last 30 years of his life but could not discover. Today, and in this article, I want us to finally give answers to the long-held questions such as, why didn’t Einstein discover the Unified Field Theory? What did he really miss? Etc.
These historically unresolved questions which have been the concern of physicists, historians, and the general public alike have now come up in this article because we have finally discovered the Unified Field Theory which eluded Albert Einstein, and so we can now look back and see what he really missed in his noble pursuit of the Unified Field Theory.
However, because of other remarkable discoveries that followed the discovery of the Unified Field Theory such that it has established a new era of physics which we call post-modern physics, we would have to narrow our discussion to focus on what I call Einstein’s peculiar path to the Unified Field Theory, which he missed.
This is so that we don’t complicate this discourse and place certain unwarranted expectations on Albert Einstein that would only be because he was not born in the post-modern era of physics.
Also, this intention to narrow this discourse to the peculiar path Einstein followed in his aim to discover the Unified Field Theory will further show us how Einstein got so much right even though he failed in his pursuit, which I think in itself is a remarkable discovery that has not being identified or applauded by the scientific community.
Einstein began to make his mark in physics in 1905 when he helped establish the foundations of quantum mechanics and relativity. The former was as a result of his publication of an article on the photoelectric effect and the latter was as a result of his article on special relativity.
With these two scientific articles, Einstein made himself a giant of modern physics, but that was not to satisfy the young Albert Einstein who had a burning curiosity for the universe and for unity.
In his pursuit of unity, in 1916, he extended the principle of relativity to accelerated frames in another groundbreaking paper which he referred to as general relativity.
Now, to make you understand the difference between the special relativity paper and the general relativity paper. In special relativity, Einstein had focused on how the principle of relativity applies to uniform frames, that is frames that are moving in uniform motion with respect to each other.
But in general relativity, Einstein sought to generalize the principle of relativity to apply also to accelerated frames. And it was in this paper that Einstein made the remarkable discovery of the principle which he called the strong equivalence principle (SEP) and this was to distinguish it from the weak equivalence principle (WEP) which has been since classical physics.
So it goes without saying, that it was Albert Einstein who showed us that there are two distinct equivalence principles in the universe. This is one remarkable discovery that will always be to his credit.
Now, with the acceptance and success of general relativity, Einstein proceeded further, in the 1920s, on his quest for unity and to unravel the universe, but this time his focus was on a bigger quest to unify light and gravity into a single theory which he called “The Unified Field Theory”.
Einstein was quite far ahead of his time as many of his contemporaries saw no need for such a theory. This was because of the massive success that both quantum mechanics and relativity were enjoying. So his contemporaries saw no need for the unified field theory, but Einstein intuitively knew that it was the next big step for physics.
Also, Einstein’s quest for the Unified Field Theory was fueled by the weirdness of quantum mechanics. Though Einstein had helped establish the quantum theory, he later rejected it in his search for a better theory which he felt was going to explain objectively what quantum mechanics couldn’t.
Einstein was somehow able to intuitively connect the problem of quantum mechanics with the need for the Unified Field Theory. He felt that quantum mechanics was hiding something about the universe that only the Unified Field Theory could expose.
So, to Einstein, quantum mechanics was not final, and this, as I have said, propelled him to search for a better explanation in the Unified Field Theory. It is then easy to guess why Einstein could not rely on quantum mechanics for this quest.
As a result, his focus was on the conceptual framework of relativity which he had built. This is central towards understanding what I refer to as Einstein’s peculiar path to the Unified Field Theory.
Einstein sought to derive the Unified Field Theory following relativity, or more broadly the continuity principle and not the discretion principle of quantum mechanics.
Many physicists say that Einstein missed the Unified Field Theory because he ignored quantum mechanics, but does post-modern physics prove him wrong? I will come to this soon.
Also, physicists say that Einstein could not have discovered the Unified Field Theory because he ignored the other two discovered fundamental forces of the universe, which are the strong force and the weak force, but does post-modern physics also prove him wrong in this regard?
A good knowledge of physics shows that both questions are related since the strong and the weak forces are the discoveries of quantum mechanics or the standard model, but separating them as such makes us touch all the nuances of this discourse which is of historical concern to every physicist.
What did Einstein really miss? Well, let me begin by saying that he missed nothing by ignoring quantum mechanics (or the discretion principle) and focusing on relativity (or the continuity principle). Einstein was right in his adoption of relativity or the continuity principle in his quest for the Unified Field Theory.
Also, he missed nothing by ignoring the weak and the strong forces, but he missed something absolutely important which should have followed shortly after his discovery of the strong equivalence principle and not the resulting theory of general relativity.
Why not the resulting theory of general relativity is because the theory of general relativity was what really led him off on his quest for the Unified Field Theory.
His only challenge was not how to ignore quantum mechanics but how to ignore his theory of general relativity which the discovery of what he missed would have rendered irrelevant, as it would expose the inherent error of the theory.
Now, the one absolute thing that Einstein really missed in his quest for the Unified Field Theory is the universal equivalence principle. He had in a way discovered the weak equivalence principle since he named it as such, and the strong equivalence principle, but he did not proceed a step further to realize that these two equivalence principles are equivalent.
A good study of his 30 years pursuit of the Unified Field Theory shows that he lacked the guidance of a core central principle that was usually his style. The universal equivalence principle would have been what would have set Einstein on the actual discovery of the Unified Field Theory.
With this, it is somewhat safe to say that Einstein was just a step away from his discovery of the Unified Field Theory, and he was just a step away since 1907 when he discovered the strong equivalence principle by a profound thought experiment of an observer in a free-falling elevator.
But the discovery of the universal equivalence principle would have prevented him from following or opting for the mathematical formalism of general relativity.
Einstein would have discovered the Unified Field Theory immediately and he would have realized that the mathematical framework of special relativity was what was also needed in order to generalize the principle of relativity as he had aimed to achieve.
Einstein did not have to adopt a different mathematical formalism in order to generalize the principle of relativity and thus disrupt the geometrical harmony of relativity and of the universe, theoretically.
General relativity was unnecessary and it was the only stumbling block towards Einstein’s quest for the Unified Field Theory and not his choice to ignore quantum mechanics or the weak and the strong forces as many physicists had assumed and still assumes.
Einstein needed to ignore general relativity as well, and in fact, more than quantum mechanics. But overall, in his pursuit of the Unified Field Theory following the conceptual framework of relativity was not mistaken. He was right with this.
Some physicists speculate that Einstein could not have discovered the unified field theory since he ignored the other two discovered fundamental forces, which are the weak force and the strong force and focused only on the electromagnetic and the gravitational forces. But how right are they?
Well, they are wrong. The weak and the strong forces are non-existent in the universe and what Einstein needed to prove this to us is the universal equivalence principle which unifies the weak and the strong equivalence principles.
I want you to see how the discovery of the universal equivalence principle would have done away with the weak and the strong forces giving us a simpler understanding of the universe based on only the gravitational and the electromagnetic forces.
This was what Einstein aimed to achieve and he was absolutely correct in his approach and focus on only the two fundamental forces in the universe, which are the electromagnetic force and the gravitational force, notwithstanding the fact that he did not discover the Unified Field Theory.
And he was right in his belief that the discovery of the Unified Field Theory would come around to explain better what we call ‘the mysteries of quantum mechanics’.
He had believed that the weirdness of quantum mechanics was as a result of some underlying reasons or principles which we have not discovered yet.
So Einstein was right that quantum mechanics was not final. Thus, even though he lost the battle, he did not lose the war.
And even though history would attest to the fact that Einstein did not discover the Unified Field Theory, it will not fail to attest to the fact that he was on the right path in his pursuit of the final theory, and was just a step away from it.
His major stumbling block was general relativity, a theory which he had published in 1916 shortly after special relativity.
General relativity was a stumbling block because the strong equivalence principle was not what was needed in order to generalize the principle of relativity, but the universal equivalence principle.
The universal equivalence principle (UEP) is what would have shown Einstein that just as no body can travel faster than the speed of light, so also no body can accelerate greater than the acceleration of gravity.
With this discovery, Einstein would naturally have known, considering his great intuition and wealth of experience with theoretical physics, that special relativity and general relativity must have the same mathematical formalism.
This is why I said that if Einstein had discovered the universal equivalence principle, he would have reverted on his theory of general relativity. With the universal equivalence principle, he would have already discovered the Unified Field Theory. But general relativity which limited him only to the strong equivalence principle was a distraction that complicated the journey.
Nevertheless, by sticking with relativity and ignoring quantum mechanics, Einstein was a lot right and better off. So with the arrival of post-modern physics, physicists can now rightly judge Einstein’s pursuit of the Unified Field Theory and give him his due credits.
He knew that the Unified Field Theory had to be based on relativity or the continuity principle and not on quantum mechanics or the discretion principle. And he knew that the Unified Field Theory had to be about the unification of light and gravity, and does not involve the weak and the strong forces.
Concerning the first, Einstein was afraid of what it would mean if physics can no longer be based on the continuity principle that he is quoted to have said that:
“I consider it quite possible that physics cannot be based on the field concept, i.e., on continuous structures. In that case, nothing remains of my entire castle in the air, gravitation theory included, [and of] the rest of modern physics.”
A good study of Einstein’s failed quest for the Unified Field Theory shows that he had an understanding of the core problem of physics more than all his contemporaries and that he understood intuitively the actual nature of the Unified Field Theory.
Besides Matvei Bronstein, Einstein had a special way of seeing the cause of the problem which was already brewing when his contemporaries were lost in excitement with the supposed success of quantum mechanics against which Einstein is quoted to have said that:
“The more success the quantum theory has, the sillier it looks.”
To Einstein, the weirdness of quantum mechanics would be resolved if we can unify light and gravity. I don’t know what else signifies that he saw the problem differently from his contemporaries.
And today, post-modern physics justifies his pursuit of the Unified Field Theory, and which, as Einstein expected, has explained away the weirdness of quantum mechanics. In fact, the final theory has explained the atomic world in a deterministic manner against the probabilistic methods of quantum mechanics.
In his quest for the Unified Field Theory, Einstein missed nothing by ignoring quantum mechanics or the strong force and the weak force, but he missed everything by not discovering the universal equivalence principle.
And as I have said, this principle, considering his wealth of experience with theoretical physics, would have led him to The Unified Field Theory. This is the central stance of this article that informs us for the first time of what Einstein really missed in his quest for the Unified Field Theory.
Also, relating my personal experience to all of this. The universal equivalence principle was the first principle I articulated and which led me to finally set down The Theory of the Universe and the other principles that accompany it.
This great article gives answers to the most central questions that surrounded Einstein’s historical quest for the Unified Field Theory, thus, finally opening a new chapter for physics as we proceed to unravel the universe as the long-sought Unified Field Theory now teaches us.
Until next time,
I will be here.
– M. V. Echa