Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » Janne M. Sjodahl vs. Albert Einstein

Janne M. Sjodahl vs. Albert Einstein

By: Ardis E. Parshall - May 08, 2009

Janne Mattson Sjodahl (1853-1939) was a highly educated Swedish convert (in fact, he emigrated to Utah before he converted, specifically to investigate the church). He trained for the Baptist ministry in Stockholm, earned a further divinity degree in London, and studied German, Greek, Hebrew, and a handful of other languages, as well as his native Swedish and the fluent English he learned in London.

In Utah, Sjodahl was the first person to be endowed in the Manti Temple. He translated the LDS scriptures into Swedish, and, after serving a mission to Palestine, he began a notable editorial career with the Deseret News, Salt Lake’s various Scandinavian-language newspapers, and the church magazines. He assisted apostle James E. Talmage in revising the footnotes that appeared in the 1920 edition of the Book of Mormon, authored commentaries on the Book of Mormon and Doctrine and Covenants, and entered the debate over Book of Mormon geography. There is no question that he made a solid and lasting contribution to Mormon intellectual life.

… Which is why I was a little surprised to run across his challenge of Einstein’s theory of special relativity:


The newspapers have told us that the celebrated scientist, Professor Albert Einstein, at present [February 1931] is located in a modest bungalow at Pasadena, Cal., for the purpose of putting some of his ideas of the structure of the universe to scientific tests. The professor maintains, as is well known, that we are living in a world in which everything has four dimensions instead of only three. Time he considers as the fourth dimension. Every object, accordingly, must be regarded as having a time-dimension as well as length, breadth and height. This is part of his theory of the structure of the universe.

Sjodahl then runs through the history of human attempts to understand the cosmos: the harmonious, luminous orbs of Pythagoras, producing the “music of the spheres”; Ptolemy’s view that the earth was the center of the universe; Copernicus, with his revolutionary recognition that the earth moved around the sun; Tycho Brahe … Kepler … Galileo … La Place … Newton …

“Now,” Sjodahl says with a hint of sarcasm, “Professor Einstein is about to enrich the knowledge of mankind with another plan.”


I do not claim to comprehend his theory in every detail, but, as far as I have been able to follow his arguments, which are to a large extent expressed in Algebraic formulae, I understand him to maintain that the wonderful movements of the celestial orbs, as explained by astronomers, are only apparent. We are, as it were, sitting in a rapidly moving railroad car. We see the objects near the track moving in a direction opposite to ours, while objects farther away seem to be moving in the same direction as we. But all this is only optical delusion.

The velocity and the direction of a body in motion depends entirely on the point of observation. Dr. Einstein expresses this principle of “relativity” thus:

The carriage is in motion relative to the embankment.

The embankment is in motion relative to the carriage.

These are his own words, and they seem to take it for granted that the apparent motion of the embankment is as real as the motion of the train, depending on the point of view we occupy. And yet, it seems to me very clear that, while I can go from Salt Lake City to Ogden, sitting in a railroad car moving in that direction, I cannot return to Salt Lake City by sitting on the embankment, no matter what point of view I take.

Sjodahl’s dismissal of this illustration demonstrates a rather thorough lack of understanding of relativity: that the perception of motion depends on relative positions and movements. The train carriage is changing position relative to Salt Lake City, Ogden, and the embankment between them, while the two cities and the ground in between are not moving relative to each other.

Sjodahl runs through a few other examples illustrating Einstein’s ideas, dismissing them with equal ease: “How utterly difficult it is to follow” the line of argument of “the famous professor,” he says. The perception of relative movements is not due to reality, but to “error of judgment on the part of the observer” – after all, “we have known persons who have called green red and red green,” too. Clocks act strangely; two lengths of cloth, each equal to the same yardstick, are not of equal length; a rod placed on the floor of an infinitely fast train grows shorter and shorter, “from which conclusion seems inevitable, that if the train moves fast enough, there will be no rod at all, and yet, when the train slows up, the rod is there, and was there, all the time.”

Sjodahl doesn’t care what algebraic formulas “the famous professor” produces in support of his absurd claims, because “it seems to me that by such reasoning it would be easy to argue the entire universe out of existence.”

And then he falls back onto the non-argument that has always been the refuge of religious people who do not understand secular studies (which is, really, only a variant of the refuge of secularists who do not understand the claims of religion, who fall back to a sole reliance on what can be observed and measured):

I am not disputing the theory of Professor Einstein, but I firmly believe that the world we inhabit is real, both as to substance and motion, and not a complex system of optical illusions. I believe, further, that it is, both in substance and qualities, such as God intended that we should perceive it through our five senses, which are so many counterparts of the Divine image.

I’m not sure why this episode fascinates me. Because I hadn’t realized mathematics could be a front in the culture wars? Because I like finding moments when larger cultural issues are reflected in our own culture? Because while algebra is opaque to me and my most sophisticated numerical calculations end with balancing a checkbook, I can actually visualize the simpler thought experiments Einstein described?

What is your reaction to Sjodahl’s reaction to Einstein?


  1. There’s a popular blog called “Good Math, Bad Math”, whose author spends part of his time tearing down the “Bad Math” arguments used by bankers, politicians, and (most often) creationists (he also posts wonderful expositions on various math topics).

    Basically, people use math to justify their own conclusions, and then other people not as well-versed tend to believe the conclusions.

    Sjodahl is taking the approach of using his perception of the universe to attack Einstein’s math and scientific goals, instead of using math and science to further his understanding of God. It’s a common mistake. We see it in the ‘nacle and in Church every week…

    Comment by queuno — May 8, 2009 @ 7:28 am

  2. Hmmm. I was also surprised, and as I read through it, it made me think of that mysterious quotation I’ve heard from one of the prophets who said man would never walk on the moon. I believe that sometimes we look at science in a spiteful way because it has given an explanation for something that we haven’t explained through the mysteries of God. But really, I think at this point in our eternal progression, we don’t NEED to know those mysteries, they just arouse our curiosity and thus we feel a bit upset with science. That is not to say I don’t think we should spend our times on such things. I find them a fascinating way to get to know more about the wonders of God. I also believe that, contrary to Sjodahl’s point of view, theories like Einstein’s are not against the real. Maybe logic and a science/math-oriented brain understand them more than one of the five senses sense it, but I don’t think that should discount them. For me, it’s just one more thing to enjoy about God’s creations. Faith could also be described as an optical illusion. Or healing of the sick. But they are real. Anyway, just some random and disorganized musings.

    Comment by Michelle Glauser — May 8, 2009 @ 7:30 am

  3. I haven’t time this morning to give a serious answer (whenever do I?), but this reminds me of the other famous attack on Einstein by a Latter-day Saint.

    One day Dr. Henry Eyring was walking with Professor Einstein in Princeton. Dr. Eyring pointed to a bean plant and asked Einstein if he knew what it was. He did not. Afterwards, Dr. Eyring always maintained that Einstein didn’t know beans.

    Comment by Mark B. — May 8, 2009 @ 7:33 am

  4. it made me think of that mysterious quotation I’ve heard from one of the prophets who said man would never walk on the moon.

    Someone Banner-of-Heaven like needs to write a post claiming that Joseph Fielding Smith’s infamous comment about man on the moon is TRUE and PROPHETIC since we know the moon landing was faked ;)

    Someone at Meridian Maybe. Tie it in to the Jewish calendar ;)

    Comment by Ben — May 8, 2009 @ 8:31 am

  5. First reaction: By 1931 Dr Einstein was, um, way beyond algebra.

    Comment by Edje — May 8, 2009 @ 9:17 am

  6. We believe in all truth. Truth is the way things are, have been and will be. We learn truth through revelation and also through science.

    I think Sjodahl’s comments really reflect the time period. This was when modern thought was challenging “traditional” ideas. Clashes were extreme. Consider that Sjodahl’s criticism comes just a few years after the Scopes’ trial. Many people inside and outside the Church were afraid of modern secular thought and, instead of trying to understand how it fit into the plan, they tried to debunk it. Other’s tried to find the connections. This was evident in the debates within the !2 over evolution.

    Fun read, Ardis.

    Comment by Steve C. — May 8, 2009 @ 10:41 am

  7. Ironic to see Sjodahl would use, apparently, the examples of Tycho Brahe, Galileo, Copernicus, and Isaac Newton as people who had advanced mankind’s knowledge, and then use the same kind of faulty logic on Einstein that had been used against them. It would be interesting to read the whole piece.

    Comment by kevinf — May 8, 2009 @ 11:27 am

  8. I could understand if Sjodahl (by the way, how on earth is that pronounced??) had gone on the warpath against the general theory of relativity–since it makes absolutely no sense to me (if only I had listened to my father and become a scientist!).

    But the special theory–Einstein’s thought experiments make sense, and Sjodahl’s complaint about the embankment not transporting him from Ogden to SLC, though amusing, completely misses the point.

    If he had trouble with relativity, just imagine the fun he’d have had with Heisenberg and uncertainty.

    Comment by Mark B. — May 8, 2009 @ 11:33 am

  9. I feel a little sympathy mixed with admiration for Sjodahl, despite his ostensible dim-wittedness, and here’s why. While Sjodahl may have been way off base in analyzing Einstein’s ideas, I slightly admire that he took a chance and stuck his neck out in favor of his own ideas. I know this may sound pig-headed, but Sjodahl did not have the benefit most of us have had, learning of relativity at the high schoool and university level from professors who accept and admire Einstein. To us, looking back, this all seems a foregone conclusion, and Sjodahl seems a little silly. But at the time, Sjodahl seems to be engaging in a little critical thinking.

    I remember well Professor Griggs in a lecture, quoting H. Nibley I believe, about how it’s important to not just blindly accept every new idea that you come across, without doing a little critical thinking. “A truly open mind,” he said, “is an empty mind.”

    So, in that vein, I have a little sympathy and admiration for Sjodahl who was acting in his time. Now I will crawl back under my rock of ignorance, since I really have no business making any comments pertaining to math or science.

    Comment by Hunter — May 8, 2009 @ 11:53 am

  10. I think “Sjodahl” is pronounced “SHO-doll” in Utah. Sometimes I see an umlaut over the “o” which must affect the pronunciation in Swedish.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — May 8, 2009 @ 1:05 pm

  11. I’ve posted the full text of the Sjodahl article here.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — May 8, 2009 @ 5:24 pm

  12. Thanks for posting the entire article, Ardis. Sjodahl comes off as a bit self-righteous and smug (“This is the view of a scientist who has found God”).

    Comment by Hunter — May 8, 2009 @ 7:57 pm

  13. Perhaps it’s fortunate that we aren’t required to accept Bro. Sjodahl as a prophet when he was speaking about physics. Then again it’s probably also fortunate we aren’t required to accept Prof. Einstein as a prophet when he was speaking about God, either.

    Comment by Confutus — May 9, 2009 @ 1:15 pm

  14. Touché, Confutus.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — May 9, 2009 @ 2:35 pm

  15. I am virtually certain that Sjodahl was the grandfather (or maybe great-grandfataher) of former Democrataic congressman from Utah, David S.(Sjodahl) King. His death was reported in this morning’s paper. He was 91 years old.

    Comment by Marjorie Conder — May 9, 2009 @ 5:52 pm

  16. Yes, he was. We’ve talked about David Sjodahl King before here at Keepa: They Had Questions, Too, 1939.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — May 9, 2009 @ 6:13 pm

  17. I saw a show on the History Channel recently about string theory, and how that theory can lead to more theories aof different levels of universes in a bigger multiverse, and how universes can come into and out of existance, and there truly being no end to time or space.

    It opened up a whole new perspective on LDS cosmology as described by Abraham, the D&C, and Joseph Smith. I started getting ideas of how the multi-verse theories might be reconciled with the “generations of gods” having their own domains, kingdoms, planets, galaxies, universes, etc. And how the “heavens” can “come into existence” and “pass away.”

    The show went way beyond the big-bang theory, taking it to higher magnitudes and hierarchies of dimensions. And, it seemed, to me at least, to offer ideas that might bridge the understanding of scientific observations of the universe with “the solemnities of eternity” and “generations of gods.”

    If this whole universe is Elohim’s, when what universes do our heavenly grandparents, and heavenly aunts and uncles have?

    Understanding the mysteries/solemnities of eternity likely require the understanding of Einstein, Hawking, and then much more.

    Comment by Bookslinger — May 9, 2009 @ 9:38 pm

  18. Joseph Fielding Smith did state, over the pulpit at Hyrum Utah stake conference,that man would not walk on the moon. I was at the stake conference and heard him. However, I am not the one to spread the so-called rumor.

    Comment by Maurine — May 10, 2009 @ 12:02 am

  19. Bookslinger:

    Those are interesting thoughts. As I was reading your comments I thought, I wonder how little we know about the universe as compared to what God knows. I just imagine that with all the great minds who have walked the earth, we’ve only just scratched the surface.

    Won’t it be fun to learn these things in the afterlife?

    Comment by Steve C. — May 10, 2009 @ 5:13 pm

  20. Thanks for the interesting post.
    Sojdahl’s reaction to Einstein is somewhat similar to Einy’s reaction to quantum mechanics; Einy had a hard time accepting quantum mechanics simply because it made assumptions about the natural world that conflicted with how we perceive the world in everyday experience.

    In a way, what comes around goes around. I think it is important for all of us to remember that no scientific theory is perfect, and that when we look at science’s past, theories once thought to be certain and immutable have changed or have been replaced by better theories. Einy did it to the great Newton, and someone will one day do it to Einy, thus vindicating Sojdahl, to a certain extent.

    Comment by Dave C. — May 11, 2009 @ 12:38 pm

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