Even after all these years, we didn’t get very far: This morning, at the coffee joint, disgusted with what we’d seen on cable TV last night, we put aside current events and returned to Stephen Hawking’s first best-seller, A Brief History of Time (1988).
Our disgust with last night’s “cable news” made us think of Plato’s Seventh Letter. Plato described his reaction to the accusations against Socrates, “without question, the most upright man then living.”
For ease of comprehension, we’ll quote Plato in translation:
“When I saw all this, and others things as bad, I was disgusted and drew back from the wickedness of the times.”
For the record, Athenian society was falling apart at the time, as is happening now.
Whatever! Drawing back from the wickedness of the times, we returned to Hawking’s book this morning, asking how far a non-specialist could hope to get in the famous text.
We’d say we got maybe to page 20. And that isn’t as impressive as it might sound. The treatment of 20th century physics doesn’t start until that page.
Did any non-specialist really understand Hawking’s book? Perhaps more significantly, were people able to recognize the fact that they didn’t understand? Two weekends ago, on a mid-winter trip, we decided that this was the place where we stopped being clear on what was being said:
HAWKING (page 20): The fundamental postulate of the theory of relativity, as it was called, was that the laws of science should be the same for all freely moving observers. This was true for Newton’s laws of motion, but now the idea was extended to include Maxwell’s theory and the speed of light: all observers should measure the same speed of light, no matter how fast they are moving. This simple idea had some remarkable consequences...We don’t understand that. Step by step, we’ll walk through our incomprehension:
First, why would anyone have supposed that the laws of science wouldn’t be the same for all freely moving observers? Why would anyone think that?
We had no idea.
Second, what “laws of science” were we discussing? We couldn’t answer that either.
Perhaps more significantly, what is a “freely moving observer?” We don’t understand that phrase. Here, we advance an incomparable point:
The term in question, “freely moving observer,” doesn’t sound like a technical term. Often, in reading science or math, a reader will encounter technical terms or mathematical symbols he clearly doesn’t understand.
That doesn’t seem to be the case here. The term “freely moving observer” sounds like everyday English.
But that term isn’t part of everyday English. To wit:
The phrase seems to imply that some observers are moving, but they aren’t moving freely. Do you understand that distinction? Can you explain the difference between moving observers and their freely moving brethren?
Frankly, we can’t! That means we’re working with technical language we don’t understand, even if its components make it seem familiar.
From there, our incomprehension grew. Consider that new idea in physics: “all observers should measure the same speed of light, no matter how fast they are moving.”
Do you have any idea what that means? Do you have any idea how an observer might go about measuring the speed of light at all, let alone how he might do so when he’s moving?
We have no idea how someone measures the speed of light. That said, we’re fairly sure of this—if we ever decide to measure the speed of light, we’ll probably try to do it while we’re sitting still.
Laughter of the gods to the side, that formulation sounds like something we regular folk understand, but it pretty much isn’t. By the way: Why should the speed of light be different if you measured it from a moving car rather than from a park bench? Why would anyone be surprised by the idea that two observers, one moving and one still, would measure the same speed of light?
At this point, do you have any real understanding of what is being discussed? We had to admit we did not.
(We assume that Hawking means this: the speed of light relative to the observer should seem the same to all observers “no matter how fast they’re moving.” If I rush toward a beam of light, it will seem to approach me at the same speed as if I remain here in my chair. We assume that’s what he means, though we aren’t sure. And that isn’t what he says.)
Once we hit that passage from page 20, we had to admit it—by this time, we didn’t really understand what Hawking was saying. It seemed that we ought to understand. But, in truth, we didn’t.
Looking back from there, we saw some stuff on page 19 we didn’t really understand either. And at that point, Hawking is still explaining 19th century physics!
We’ve been interested by these types of incomprehension for decades. In many ways, Wittgenstein’s later work was concerned with similar problems—with the failure to diagnose the incoherence in types of “philosophical” speech.
Then too, there’s the inability to see the ways we get conned by pols and by “journalists”—by various forms of journalistic speech.
Back in the 1950s, as little leaguers, we were fascinated by Al Kelly, the doubletalk comedian who often appeared on network TV shows. (Click here.) Kelly would seem to be making sense, but you couldn’t quite put your finger on what he had actually said.
As it turned out, Al Kelly was deep! It’s much as Wittgenstein is said to have said: “a serious and good philosophical work could be written that would consist entirely of jokes.”
Back to the world of journalism:
Book reviewers know they should say that books like A Brief History of Time are marvelously accessible to non-specialist readers. When journalists agree to say such things, you see the heart of the intellectual problem eating away at our discourse.
Still coming: Back to Professor Frenkel’s magical math. Also, Daniel Dennett!
Even this couldn’t undermine the brilliant clarity: As we read Hawking’s book two weekend ago, we were puzzled by this passage on page 18:
HAWKING: Newton was very worried by this lack of absolute position, or absolute space, as it was called, because it did not accord with his idea of an absolute God. In fact, he refused to accept absolute space, even thought it was implied by his laws...That didn’t seem to make sense. Finally, we decided to check the revised, later version of Hawking’s book. When we did, we saw that our book had been published with a two-word omission, a typo.
In the updated version, the text says this:
HAWKING: Newton was very worried by this lack of absolute position, or absolute space, as it was called, because it did not accord with his idea of an absolute God. In fact, he refused to accept lack of absolute space, even thought it was implied by his laws...In 1988, the book was published with an early-page typo. It was still amazingly easy to understand, or so the reviewers all said.