If he’d take it as a compliment, I’d call him the Einstein of West Morena Boulevard. That’s where Tony Iaquinta holds forth in his restaurant, Bull’s Smokin’ BBQ. It’s mighty good food, the barbecued ribs, smoked salmon, pulled pork, and brisket of beef that he offers up between conversational visits to your table. Customers can sit indoors in front or outdoors on the patio, where dogs are allowed if they don’t wander away from their owners. Enclosed by an iron fence, the patio sports heat lamps, a pile of cushions to put on your chair, and a computer hooked up to a large screen in the rear.
On the computer one evening, well before Iaquinta treated his clientele to an Eagles concert on the big screen, he showed me a YouTube demonstration of Albert Einstein’s theory of special relativity. (It is “special” because it deals only with the special case of objects in constant, invariant motion; acceleration leads one on toward the more advanced “general” relativity.) The short video is an animated presentation of two spaceships moving in relation to each other. “It’s very well done and an accurate picture of special relativity,” Iaquinta told me. “Trouble is, it’s wrong.” He meant, of course, that the theory is wrong. That Einstein was wrong. To put a more emphatic point on it, Iaquinta often claims that the famous scientist was nothing more than “a clown.”
Einstein fared much better among San Diegans in the early 1930s, when he visited from Germany three times in conjunction with visits to the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. On the morning of December 31, 1930, a reception for Einstein was held at the organ pavilion in Balboa Park. Later, Einstein and his wife Elsa toured the city and lunched with local dignitaries at the U.S. Grant Hotel before being whisked off to Pasadena. The following day, he attended the Rose Parade. He spent the next three months as a visiting scholar at Caltech and even became a temporary Hollywood celebrity, hobnobbing with the likes of Charlie Chaplin and other actors. After the Nazis came to power in Germany in 1933, the Einsteins immigrated to the United States, where Albert took a permanent teaching position at Princeton University in New Jersey.
Today, Tony Iaquinta isn’t the first to think Einstein got special relativity wrong. But during my visit to Iaquinta’s restaurant, I was taken aback at hearing him articulate a cogent refutation of the theory — whether it does the trick I am not qualified to judge. The surprise I felt speaks more to stock opinions I hold than to anything about Iaquinta or Einstein (the genius knew everything, right?). In 1905, after all, Einstein was still working as a clerk in a patent office when he published the paper that began a revolution in modern physics. Iaquinta, in order to complete a civil engineering degree in the late 1960s, studied physics at Cal State Los Angeles.
Iaquinta, who is 64, moves steadily among his customers, chatting them up in a deep sandpaper voice and bringing water and cups of ice cream to their tables. Wire-rimmed glasses perch above his round tanned face, and his slightly graying hair is combed straight back. He came to the United States from his native Italy in 1954. His family first moved to Pennsylvania, where he eventually started college at the University of Pittsburgh. After his freshman year, he came to California to complete his education in the less expensive state university system. Iaquinta eventually went to work as an engineer for the Bechtel Corporation, then spent 30 years as an independent building contractor. When the economy soured, he decided to open a restaurant.
For the past eight years, Iaquinta has worked during his spare time on a paper that he hopes will correct an error so glaring he can’t understand how it still persists as truth. He told me that early on he started sending versions of the paper to a physics website. “Within a week or so,” he said, “I’d always get back a message pointing out mistakes in my explanation. The guy never identified himself, but the critiques always improved my paper. Recently, I’ve gotten nothing from him, even though I sent my latest draft six months ago. He must have either died or lost interest. The way I take it is that he thinks I finally got things right.”
Iaquinta’s heroes in the history of physics are Galileo and Isaac Newton, and his paper consists largely of a dialogue between them. They are portrayed (including visually, in cartoon-character images) as speaking to Einstein, pointing out his mistakes. From the paper and several conversations I had with Iaquinta, I have distilled the simplest summary of his argument I can think of.
Before Einstein, Galileo explained the relativity of motion too. But his version was thought not capable of incorporating the phenomenon of light. Most people are familiar with Galilean relativity. Imagine people riding in a train that is traveling at a constant speed of 50 miles per hour. This means the people, the train car they sit in, and every object in the car are traveling 50 miles an hour as well. One person holds a cannonball at eye level, then drops it to the floor. Though the cannonball is going forward as fast as everything else in the car, the people notice only its downward motion. But say that you are standing trackside looking through the car window as the train goes by. What you will see is the cannonball move diagonally forward and downward, a combination of movements. So there are two perceptions, each dependent, or “relative,” to the perspectives of those who are watching.
Imagine the same scenario with a pistol attached to the ceiling of the train car and pointing downward toward the floor. There is a bullet in the pistol’s chamber. Someone activates the trigger, and the gun fires. At this point, we have to imagine that all who watch are so hypersensitive that they can see the bullet’s motion. The people inside the car see it travel downward. From the side of the tracks, you see it move diagonally forward and downward, because remember that the bullet inside the pistol at the time of its firing was already moving forward with everything else in the car.