How far did we get with Hawking’s first book?

THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 20, 2014

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.

88 comments:

  1. It seems Hawking's book still still has a typo. "Even thought" should be "even though."

    If you really want to understand physics, study it in college.

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    1. The point of this post is that reviewers of this book praised it for its accessibility even though it is not accessible at all. This is a media criticism, not a criticism of Hawking.

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    2. Oh, absolutely. As noted before, if the ultra-sophisticated, Ivy League educated Bob Somerby can't understand it, then absolutely no one on earth can either, especially those vile reviewers and those poor people of far less intellectual ability who made it a best-seller and only pretended that they understood it and even found it well worth a read.

      Silly rubes.

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    3. Did you overlook the part where he described the missing words that turned the paragraph into something incomprehensible? How can people claim to understand something that doesn't make sense because words are missing? They must be skipping over parts. If they skip parts, how much and what have they actually understood?

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    4. No, I didn't over look that. It was Bob's typical MO. Find a typo in one paragraph and declare the entire book incomprehensible.

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    5. The point is that people reading the book read right past that major contradiction. Somerby asks how people can do that. The answer may explain how viewers can watch nonsense on TV without questioning it.

      I cannot believe the trolls are seriously contending that enough folks understand physics to make Hawking book a bestseller on the strength of its contents.

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    6. Oh, so that's the point? Well, then I guess the next time I'm reading a book and I get to a paragraph that doesn't make perfect sense to me, I will do what Bob did and stop reading, rather than continue to see if context clears up my temporary confusion.

      After all, life should be perfect and never confront us with major contradictions that require us to think and to learn.

      Not only that, if we do run into such a paragraph and stop reading, we will proclaim the 20 million other people who purchased the book as either phonies for pretending they understand it or dupes of book reviews who pretended they understood it.

      After all, if I can't understand it "no one on earth can comprehend a word of it". (The Daily Howler 1/5/00 -- scroll down for the full text).

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    7. anon 7:08 - you are utterly stupid, sorry to have to tell you, as you don't seem to realize it.

      Delete
  2. When I tried to read Hawkings' book many moons ago, I felt that I understood and grasped it until he started talking about string theory. At that time I lost it.

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  3. Terrific essay, Bob.

    LTR

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  4. Well, if the uber-intelligent Somerby can't make sense of it, no one can.

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    1. Somerby is not posing as a genius in this post. He's posing as an everyman. If you want to accuse someone of arrogance, it helps if they're being arrogant.

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    2. I also read this post as Somerby accusing Hawking of being an incoherent writer.

      To which I say, "Pot, meet kettle."

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    3. Which of the two has greater pretensions?

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    4. Which of the two has contributed more to the body of human knowledge? Bob and his amazing blog, or Hawking and his incredible lifetime of research and authorship, which continued despite his physical condition.

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    5. Wow. Going through the comments, I'm amazed by the lack of reading comprehension of some of these trolls.

      More and more, I'm becoming convinced Somerby really does know what he's talking about.

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    6. @Steeve, anyone who feels they have to "pos[e] as an everyman" is an arrogant PoS.
      -Probe

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  5. OMB (Thinking Back...A BOBworld Pastime)

    Our disgust with the last few muses and ruminations led us to think way back to contemporary events, namely BOB's coverage of a Kristof
    column.

    "But, over all, there are, I think, fewer public intellectuals on American university campuses today than a generation ago."

    Why would anyone think that?

    We had no idea.

    Perhaps more significantly, what is a “public intellectual?” We don’t understand that phrase. Here, we advance an incomparable point:

    The term in question, “public intellectual,” doesn’t sound like a technical term. Often, in reading blogs, a reader will encounter acronyms and catch phrases he clearly doesn’t understand.

    That doesn’t seem to be the case here. The term “public intellectual” sounds like everyday English.

    But that term isn’t part of everyday English. To wit:

    The phrase seems to imply that some intellectuals are public, but others are private. Do you understand that distinction? Can you explain the difference between public intellectuals and their privately owned brethren?

    Is the distinction between intellectuals on public American campuses and private American campuses. And if you think there are "fewer" now than a generation ago, were there many then and few now, or simply less of an already rare commodity. And how were they counted? Were they banded by some annotation on their curriculum vitae, or simply randomly observed intellectualizing free in the wild?

    As usual, my comments may get posted with many typos. Trying to beat the traffic to the troll booth.

    KZ

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    1. A person who wastes other people's time with this is a thief of time.

      Delete
    2. A solution, for now: scan for "KZ" -- you may safely ignore anything appearing above that moniker.

      In avoiding other trolls, you will find the phrase "this blogger" is also a cue that your time will likely be wasted if you proceed further.

      If truncated to simply "blogger" as an un-capitalized personal pronoun (as in "blogger says..."), you are surely in the presence of bona-fide troll-spew.

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    3. How do I get the three seconds back I wasted reading that sentence?

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    4. NJ Time Refund Bureau, next to the Ft. Lee toll booths.

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    5. I take it none of you fine "private" intellectuals are up to the task of defining "public" intellectual either.
      You just agree with BOB. "Who needs professors?"

      KZ

      Guess that qualifies you to do what BOB did once.
      Teach.

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    6. KZ, I would love to join you on your quest to define "public intellectual," but I am now suffering from a bad case of cognitive dissonance trying to wrap my poor brain around the notion that the future of American discourse depends on the work of the very people that our dear Bob so clearly loathes.

      I'll leave it to Bob to discuss with his therapists (and there must be a team of them) those things those vile Harvard professors must have made him do for him to have carried such a grudge for so long, and how seamlessly that grudge has carried over to Our Own Rhodes Scholar.

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    7. Your problem is attempting to "wrap" your brain around anything.

      We once tried to disabuse you of the urban legend on your planet that when we aliens visit we probe human rectal orifices.

      I will now admit we did a little experimentation with brains. They don't wrap, though when lightly sauteed they are good as wrap filling.

      Try weaving your brain. If that fails, they can be braided.

      KZ

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    8. I am truly saddened to hear that the story of alien probes of our nether regions were merely urban legends.

      I was truly hoping you could shed some light on the critical question of where Bob gets some of his brilliant ideas.

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    9. Only too happy to oblige, 5:24. Even someone with physical difficulties as severe as Stephen Hawking
      can explore the source.

      First, follow the link below. When you get there click on the button in the middle of your screen.

      http://dailyhowler.com/

      KZ

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    10. KZ, I not only took your incomparable suggestion to the incomparable archives, but I took the liberty of taking it one step beyond.

      Into the incomparable search engine, I entered "Hawking" and came up with this gem from Jan. 5, 2000:

      ---

      Hawk this: British physicist Stephen Hawking was the Barnum of the 20th century. He wrote a book, A Brief History of Time, purporting to "make Einstein easy." He sold twenty million copies of the book, although no one on earth can comprehend a word of it. Then he had the book put on tape, and some bought the tape for their cars.

      But Hawking still wasn't finished. He somehow persuaded the editors of Time to publish him in their century-end issue, writing what the editors called "an easy primer" on Einstein's relativity. Here at THE HOWLER, our analysts chuckled as they tried to fight their way through it. There were lucid moments, but all too few; our analysts found no lasting purchase. Most notably, the colorful "Time graphics" which accompanied the piece were full of statements that made no sense at all.

      Can we point something out to Time's credulous editors? Einstein cannot be made easy! Indeed, Einstein once tried to do so himself, in a little book called Relativity. "A CLEAR EXPLANATION THAT ANYONE CAN UNDERSTAND," the editors shout from the book's dust jacket. Inside the jacket, their representations only become more extreme:

      DUST JACKET TO "RELATIVITY": It has long been a popular misconception that only a handful of people in the world can understand Einstein's theory of Relativity. Here is a book, however, by the originator of the theory himself explaining the theory in simple words that anyone with the equivalent of a high school education can understand.
      We find the book completely impenetrable. At some point, Hawking saw the chance to take this cruel hoax even further.

      We're not quibbling with Time's selection of Albert Einstein as the person of the century. But isn't it time we called a halt to Hawking's cruel experiments in "popularization?"

      ("A brief history of relativity." Stephen Hawking, Time, 12/31/99. Relativity, Albert Einstein, Bonanza Books, MCMLXI.)

      ---

      It is troubling to discover that another Somerby jones has lasted for 14 years (shouldn't he seek immediate medical attention?)

      But at the same time, it is quite heartening to discover that he believes in recycling so strongly.

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    11. As usual, my comments may get posted with many typos. Trying to beat the traffic to the troll booth.

      When will they open the access lanes to your commentary?

      Delete
  6. Just as lots of people read Hawking and thought they understood it (it was a bestseller), lots of people are listening to Maddow and other journalists and thinking that they understand what is being reported, without realizing there is more to the story, holes in what is being said that ought to be noticed, incompatible and incongruent statements, typos.

    Perhaps the sense of discomfort that arises when you don't understand something is what prevents people from realizing that what they think they understand is actually incoherent. Cognitive dissonance is unpleasant, so why go looking for it?

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    1. Once you find it you will be one of the rare few who can actually see the collapse of intellectual culture before your very eyes. Once that happens you won't even need BOB to translate your Plato from the Greek.

      KZ

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    2. Does it bother you that Bob may read Greek? Is it unfair that he should know something you don't? I don't feel that way about those who know physics. Is it just when Bob knows things that people get upset?

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    3. Not at all. It bothers us that he looks down on his readers by thinking they don't.

      KZ

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    4. I think he is expressing puzzlement that so many people claimed to understand a book that had words missing from sentences making them incomprehensible. He is having an "emperor's new clothes" moment over the claim that Hawking's book is clear to nonspecialists.

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    5. I don't believe for a second that Bob reads Greek, because if he did he would be flaunting philological analysis all over the place.
      I can read it (majored in Classics at a rival school to Bob's) and can attest to the "curse of the classicist," i.e. pedantry, which is not among Bob's flaws.
      -Probe

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  7. I see. You don't really understand something that's incoherent so that gives you a sense of discomfort.

    Clear as a bell.

    And yes, Hawking's book was a best seller. But rather than rush to judge the ability of other people to understand it when Somerby couldn't, I will presume that at least some of those who put down their good money to purchase this book, against all their other choices, may have actually both understood it and even enjoyed it.

    But then again, Bob's fans can't possibly hold that opinion. They have been told what to think, albeit 26 years later. And thus, those who read, understood and enjoyed this book are merely fooling themselves and suffering from cognitive dissonance as well.

    After all, if the almighty Bob can't make sense of it, how can anyone else?

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    1. Not exactly. When you recognize that something is incoherent, it gives you a sense of discomfort, so better to avoid recognizing it. Is that any clearer?

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    2. Perhaps that is the way you react when you recognize incoherence, but it is not the way I react.

      Prime example? "How He Got There."

      I eagerly read Chapter 1, 10 years in the making. And I quickly came to realize that it was screaming for an editor to pull together scattered thoughts and tighten runaway prose.

      But I read Chapter 2 anyway, and realize Bob's entire thesis had fallen apart. He dated the "War on Gore" to March 1999 an the "Invented the Internet" saga, and said by that winter the three big lies were in place: Invented the Internet, Discovered Love Canal, Inspired Love Story. These were the tales that would forever alter the course of history.

      Except . . . they were all in place during the primary season. On top of that, Bob told a tale of the "press corps" openly cheering Bradley, and openly jeering Gore at a debate.

      So I wondered how Gore was so effective in countering this all-out media effort to defeat him during the primary season, when voter turnout is much, much lower, than in the general election, which drew record numbers of voters to the polls.

      Was my feeling then discomfort? Not at all.

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    3. Do you know why they did it? Didn't think so Mr. Smarty Pants.

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    4. If you recognized those problems with Chapter 1, why didn't you volunteer to help edit the book? Has Somerby ever claimed to be a professional writer? Maybe jokes but that is a lot different than writing nonfiction.

      If these are sincere questions, I would suggest that despite the opposition of the press Gore's qualifications and experience made him a stronger candidate and he appealed more to voters despite press interference. You do realize that a primary is not the same as a general election and that the impact of media manipulation against Gore may have a different impact in November, especially with the strength of more repetition over time. Primary voters were (1) Democrats and (2) perhaps more motivated and better informed than general election voters. I don't see these as insurmountable obstacles to Somerby's arguments. I noticed the press bias myself during the election and felt much of the same frustration and I was not a reader of this blog at that time.

      I'm also unclear about whether you felt a lack of understanding of what Somerby was saying, or just simple disagreement. There is no reason why disagreement would produce discomfort. I was talking about avoiding feeling confused by believing that you have gotten the gist of what is being said, ignoring details or points that are not understood.

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    5. I am not certain that even if Jesus himself laid hands on the manuscript for even Chapter 1 that it would have risen the dead. And it was certainly beyond my meager capabilities to translate jibberish into coherence.

      Concerning the election, you are correct on two points. Voters in the Democratic primaries -- whether by ballot or by caucus -- were mostly Democrats, except of course in those states that allowed voters to declare affiliation at the polls or the caucus site.

      And after nearly a year of the brutal War on Gore, they were certainly motivated to vote -- for Al Gore.

      But here is the puzzling thing. Back in the 2008 primary cycle, no less authority than Bob Somerby himself told us that the "3 a.m. phone call" commercial was certainly fair game, as were the Rev. Wright questions. Why? Because Sen. Obama, if successful in his quest for the nomination, would be hearing those questions and more, and would be tempered by the firey Hillary to address them.

      I remain curious how Gore so deftly fought off the War on Gore against a far more qualified and worthy opponent in Sen. Bradley, but was helpless against it when facing good ol' boy Dubya.

      And come to think of it, Dubya wasn't even the media anointed one on the Republican side. That honor went to the donut-distributing, straight-shootin' maverick.

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    6. It's not hard to understand Bob's point. The media didn't prevent everyone from voting for Gore; after all, he did win the popular vote in the election. Rather, the media's mistreatment likely caused enough people to vote for Bush (or Nader) instead of Gore that it made a difference in a historically close election.

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    7. For those having a hard time with Bob's book there is a handy button provided to make the type bigger. It is a really helpful tool and makes the book longer than it really is.

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  8. Slowest news day imaginable, I guess.

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  9. Thanks Bob. I bought Hawkings book but I will confess that I've never even attempted to read it. I suspect many people did that.

    Although not a physicist myself (only an engineer) I used to like to read articles in "New Scientist Magazine" on quantum physics. They were completely incomprehensible. But since subatomic particles are given names like "charm" and "spin", the articles read like fantasy.

    Charm and spin sound like properties of modern journalism.

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    1. "Bullroar" is my personal favorite. But the closest I can to being an engineer was with my Thomas wood toys.

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  10. Plato's Seventh Letter made me think of Chapter 7 in Bob's book.
    I'm sure it was a winner but I never got to it.

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    1. As a philosophy major, is the any reason why Somerby shouldn't have read Plato?

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  11. Bob ... there are simple and clear answers to your rhetorical questions. But never mind that.

    Just because you found it inaccessible that doesn't mean everyone did. There's a rule of organizational dynamics that says if you want those in an organization to understand something you have to explain it seven different times in seven different ways. Different styles of explanation work for different people.

    And that's simple stuff. Modern physics? Hawking's exposition didn't work for you. That's one down and six to go.

    In any event, if you found A Brief History of Time to be that difficult, I suggest you do your best to avoid The Black Hole War.

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  12. Let's take the first three questions out of order:

    [W[hat is a “freely moving observer?” In the vernacular, a freely moving observer is the opposite of a captive observer or an observer under compulsion. Captured by a force, like a planet under the force of the sun's gravity. Compelled to move by a force, like a rocket by the thrust of its engines. A freely moving observer is not acted upon by a force.

    The term in question, “freely moving observer,” doesn’t sound like a technical term. It isn't. The technical term is "observer in an inertial frame of reference."

    [W]hat “laws of science” were we discussing? Any law. including Newton's (the laws of dynamics, i.e., the motion of things with mass) and Maxwell's (the laws of electrodynamics, i.e., the laws of electricity and magnetism). In physics a law is a general rule that may be discerned by conducting experiments and measuring the results.

    [W]hy would anyone have supposed that the laws of science wouldn’t be the same for all freely moving observers? Because it is our experience that rest (an observer freely moving at zero speed) is fundamentally different from motion (an observer moving freely at positive speed under no force). That experience makes us think that we can conduct some experiment that will distinguish the two states. If we could, the laws of physics would give different answers depending on whether we were at rest or in uniform motion.

    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? Sure. Jonathan Broxton, a relief pitcher for the Cincinnati Reds can throw a 100 mph fastball. If I strapped Broxton to the front of a stationary train and had him throw heat at a batter down the tracks, the batter would face a baseball coming at him at 100 mph, which is what I'd clock on a radar gun as I jogged by the tracks. If Broxton instead threw a pitch when the train was moving toward the batter at 75 mph, both the hapless batter and I would agree that the pitch was coming at him at 175 mph. From Broxton's point of view, his fastball goes at 100 mph in either case. If Broxton instead shone a flashlight at the batter, it wouldn't matter whether the train was moving or not. The speeds of the light beam from the flashlight as measured by Broxton on the train, the batter on the tracks, and me jogging by the side of the tracks would all agree.

    Why would anyone be surprised by the idea that two observers, one moving and one still, would measure the same speed of light? As the batter, you'd be surprised if the fastball's speed didn't take into account the speed of the train, right? Why would light be any different?

    We assume that Hawking means this: the speed of light relative to the observer should seem the same to all observers … We assume that’s what he means, though we aren’t sure. And that isn’t what he says." He doesn't say it because observers can only measure speeds of something for themselves and in the usual way, i.e, by by starting and stopping a clock to measure a time interval, using a tape measure to find the distance the thing traveled in the interval, and dividing the latter by the former.

    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? Sure, in the usual way. But why do the details of the measuring apparatus matter? Do you suppose that no one really knows how to measure the speed of light?

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    1. keep pleasuring yourself real good

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    2. Deadrat has the right of it.

      [S]He could have added that pre-Newton there wasn't an accepted idea that the laws of physics as they manifest on earth are the same elsewhere in the universe.

      As much as I enjoy BobS' political writing, it does seem that he should have taken a general science class at Harvard, or perhaps gone to a trade school a short distance downstream. His close reading of political writings is pretty darned good but it doesn't translate to his reading of science. Sadly, this inability is about as appalling as his belief that it he can read popular science books and articles.

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  13. 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 I can't find the provenance for that, but Wittgenstein did write in the Tractatus, "Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muß man schweigen." (Of which one cannot speak, one must remain silent.) Too bad TDH didn't heed that aphorism. Or learn a little physics. Sometimes politicians and journalists make little sense because they're trying to con us; sometimes scientists make little sense because the ideas they attempt to explain can't be understood without advanced mathematics.

    And sometimes people don't understand things because they don't have the elementary and accessible knowledge that's required to understand. A wise person knows the difference.

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    1. And sometimes people don't understand things because words are missing from the sentences. In that case, why do readers pretend they understand anyway? That is at least part of the point of this post.

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    2. You have written this several times already, so I will reward you for your industriousness by posing two serious questions:

      Did the missing words in the single paragraph cited by Somerby render the entire book incomprehensible?

      If so, did the addition of the previously missing words in the same single paragraph in a subsequent printing render the entire book comprehensible?

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    3. Did he say the entire book was incomprehensible? No. Then why do you say it?

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    4. Yes, he quite clearly does, although he himself admits he stopped reading at page 20 because he couldn't comprehend anything up to that point.

      Then we have Howler History, where through the magic of the Incomparable Archives, we read Bob stating flatly:

      "He sold twenty million copies of the book, although no one on earth can comprehend a word of it."

      So you see, it's because he said it that I say he said it, but I suppose the Bob Fans will tell us that the really, really meant that he is saying he simply didn't know if the book was comprehensible past page 20 because he never ventured to get beyond that point.


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    5. If he says no one on Earth can comprehend a word of it, do you take that literally? Really? Words like the or and? Including Hawking himself and his peers?

      Why do trolls have no appreciation for figurative speech? Is it perhaps incompatible with an understanding of physics?

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    6. I understand hyperbole to make a point. But what exactly is the point that Somerby is trying to make with that hyperbolic statement? That he couldn't get past a paragraph on page 20, thus the entire book is incomprehensible to everyone else? And that the 20 million who bought it and the reviewers who gave it glowing reviews are merely faking it? If not that, then what?

      And I always find it heartwarming that Bob's loyal fans forgive him for "figurative speech" far more generously that Bob forgives his targets.

      He has spent 16 years making tall mountains out of molehills of tiny snippets speech that could also be defended as "figurative" and not to be taken literally.


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    7. And to the point, I was asked if Somerby declared the entire book incomprehensible.

      I showed where he said exactly that.

      And now it was just a figure of speech, not to be taken literally.

      Priceless.

      Delete
    8. "Why do trolls ...?" ZZZZZZZZZzzzzzzzzzzz

      Delete
  14. A freely moving observer is free of external forces and therefore not accelerating - an inertial reference frame. Galilean invariance says that the laws of motion ("laws of science") are the same in all inertial frames. Einstein does a better job explaining this.

    ReplyDelete
  15. In the decades before Einstein, mathematicians found that they could study the curvature of space with tensors. He spent a decade figuring out how to adapt their ideas to space-time, and thereby to explain gravitation. Since the hard work has already been done, you can learn it in half a decade. Or you can read a popularization, knowing that at best you're only going to get a rough idea, not a deep understanding.

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  16. "A Brief History of Time" DVD available on Netflix March 18th.

    ReplyDelete
  17. Thank you Howler for not forcing us to remember our Greek.

    Reading the Classics in translation, I could never help feeling I was having to settle for something inferior to the point of being something else altogether. Was this your sly way of saying it is vanity to translate 20th century physics from the mathematic to the verbal?

    The Classics are essentially lost to us who balk at learning Latin and Greek, even with the help offered by Rosetta Stone. Their Greek is the Greek of Zorba, not Plato. And for all I know, their Latin may be that of Popes rather than Caesars. Besides, Canadian humorist Stephen Leycock (no, not an SNL cast member) once observed that the transcendant pleasure associated with reading the Classics in their original tongue was, in his experience, apocryphal.

    Perhaps it's the same in the sciences. Those of us unable to master the true language of higher physics (math) are forever banned from any real appreciation of the universe and its building blocks and its mechanics and what scientists keep telling us is its elegant beauty.

    No doubt they're lying. I'm sure it's an unholy mess out there.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. If you understand the Latin of the Popes, you can understand the Latin of the Caesars. And vice versa. They're different, but similar enough to be considered the same language.

      Delete
    2. Back in the day, the way students learned classical Greek was to present passages in class, first reading them aloud in Greek and then giving the translation. At first, it's necessary to pay close attention to the accents and mark the time with stresses, but after a while, the rhythm becomes natural and the beauty of the sound of the poetry emerges. That doesn't mean that the language and the story are inaccessible in the translation.

      In the same way it's possible to understand some of the beauty of the standard model of particle physics without knowing the underlying math, but the elegance and computational workability won't be evident. In the so-called "eight-fold way" of classifying particles, the combinations of characteristics seem to give nines, not eights, and only hand-waving is available if you don't know the underlying group theory of matrices.

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    3. deadrat, that is still how ancient languages are taught. A year with a textbook memorizing like hell, then comes the philological seminar, a precious and dying ritual. In Sanskrit studies, too.
      -Probe

      Delete
  18. What's more turgid? Hawking's book? Or this post on Hawking's book?

    ReplyDelete
  19. So no comments from a physicist. The physicists I know tend to agree with this post. Hawking is an overrated physicist, in part a result of his unending self promotion. He is a pretty inept writer as well.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. "The physicists I know"

      And I am certain they are legion!

      I await Bob writing about how the second baseman for the Baltimore Orioles is "overrated." You will of course tell us of all the major league second basemen that you personally know who wholeheartedly agree.

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  20. There are quite a few here at Fermilab.

    Come on Wednesdays, you might learn something.

    ReplyDelete
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