How we spent our mid-winter long weekend!


Lessons from Stephen Hawking’s first popular book: We were in the Hudson Valley last weekend, visiting a sick older friend.

We saw a nurse, whose name isn’t famous, who knows how to capture the focus of Parkinson’s sufferers by playing their favorite music. (We saw it happen before she explained that she’d done it.)

In a local newspaper, The Northern Duchess News, we read five pages of remembrances of local favorite son Pete Seeger. For us, this passage stood out:
FASHONA (2/11/14): Seeger was an enigma in some ways. Although he was a staunch opponent of war—any war—he was also a dedicated member of Fishkill VFW Post 1286. He was able to separate the act of war from the men who felt it was their duty to fight for their country...

“In the four years I was commander, he never missed a meeting, until his health started to go downhill,” said the VFW’s Ron Leenig. He said Seeger was always helping with fundraising and any other jobs that needed to be done around the VFW post.

“He was a very dedicated member,” Leenig said.
On our own, we spent some time rereading Stephen Hawking. We got the idea after reading that Science Times report about the sum of all the natural numbers.

As you may recall, Dennis Overbye (no relation) reported that the sum of all the natural numbers somehow turns out to be minus 1/12.

Overbye was puzzled too! The following passage inspired us to reread our Hawking:
OVERBYE (2/4/14): In modern terms, Dr. Frenkel explained, the gist of the calculations can be interpreted as saying that the infinite sum has three separate parts: one of which blows up when you go to infinity, one of which goes to zero, and minus 1/12. The infinite term, he said, just gets thrown away.
Say what? We were struck to see that passage in a newspaper piece for non-specialists. As we reviewed the passage, these problems came to mind:

We don’t know what it means to say that “the infinite sum has three separate parts.”

We have no idea what it means to say that one of the parts “blows up when you go to infinity.” We don’t know what it means to say that “one part goes to zero.”

“The infinite term just gets thrown away?” We don’t know what that means either! And who said you can just throw it away, whatever it is in the first place?

That passage made us think of Hawking. We had just watched the new PBS documentary about his life. We recalled our struggles with his first popular science book back in the 80s and 90s.

The book to which we refer was A Brief History of Time (1988). In our judgment at the time, the book had either been too brief, or perhaps not brief enough.

We have fond memories of playing the book-on-tape when we drove from Baltimore to Lexington, Kentucky on four successive Sundays in the summer of 1997. (On one of those Sundays, we drove from Montreal. For our destination, click here.)

At the time, we were puzzling over a basic question:

Hawking’s book was supposed to be written for non-specialists. How far could a non-specialist plausibly hope to get in the book before he would have to admit that he was hopelessly lost?

That passage in Science Times interacted with the PBS special to produce The Northern Duchess Challenge! While away on our mid-winter long weekend, we would return to Hawking’s mega best-seller. We’d see how far we could get in the famous book today.

In truth, we didn’t get far. In our defense, we didn’t throw the infinite term away either—at least, not as far as we know.

Did anyone ever understand Hawking’s book? Here's why we ask:

We’ve long been fascinated by the way we humans deal with statements and presentations we don’t and can’t truly comprehend. No one who read the Science Times article understood the paragraph we have posted. In a similar vein, how far were we able to get in Hawking’s famous book?

We’ll report on our journey tomorrow. Our thesis:

People who accept incomprehensible work from famous authority figures constitute the perfect customers for the slippery, incoherent presentations of modern-day “cable news.”

We assume that Hawking was fully sincere. Big cable stars may not be.


  1. As a teacher, I spend a lot of time encouraging students to stop and look up the things they don't understand, to ask questions about things they don't understand when speaking. I suspect that going for the gist and ignoring the details is a neuristic developed to enable students to keep up and move forward in school. It becomes self-defeating later on when the details matter more than the overarching concepts. But by then, students don't realize they are skipping so much in their understanding and they don't know how to go back and fill in the parts they have glossed over. I find myself wondering whether teachers at lower grades are encouraging them to do this.

    1. heuristic not neuristic, sorry

    2. But I liked neuristic. It sounds like trial and error at the synapse level.

  2. Attention fellow pseudo-intellectuals!

    Bob just dropped the name of Stephen Hawking. And threw in the infinity addition game to boot!

    Time to mount our high horses, gallop off to Wikipedia, then show off how smart we are!

    1. You won't be joining us, I assume?

    2. Maybe. If he survives getting his foot caught in the stirrup and the subsequent equine dragging.

  3. People who accept incomprehensible work from famous authority figures constitute the perfect customers for the slippery, incoherent presentations of modern-day “cable news.”

    Stand Your Ground laws permit a person to defend himself with force if he reasonably believes he is in imminent danger of injury or death, without being imprisoned for defending himself.

    The government should not "allow" a person to defend himself and should require him to be severely injured or killed by a violent criminal because….RACISM!

    What's so incomprehensible about that message, adopted and promoted by cable news and its brilliant progressive following?

    1. And the return of the Zimmerman Defense Team! Welcome back to your new home!

  4. Beautiful and moving post, Bob

  5. Even things, unlike advanced physics or mathematics, that we think we understand we don't really. Economics, politics, psychology, commerce have so many variable and are so complex, noone really understands anything - we have to grope our way forward

    1. There is a big gap between not understanding everything and understanding nothing. In most of these fields we understand quite a bit. New information will change that understanding in small ways, so even if we are partially mistaken in our understanding the correction will not be major. To say that "no one really understands anything" is patently false.

  6. What, pray, is so enigmatic about being anti-war and pro-veteran? Isn't the cliché to be "against the war but for the troops." One of the best stand-up jokes of the Bush War II (or was it the Great Bush War?) went something like, "I've been seeing a therapist ... because... I'm for the war ... but I’m against the troops."

    As to astrophysics, to be incomprehensible is not necessarily to be full of it. As long as scientists don't let me down, I accept on faith their consensus that the moon is about 238,000 miles away, that the universe began with a big bang, that all flora and fauna evolved from earlier forms of life by means of natural selection, and that man is a factor in the melting of glaciers.

    Stephen Hawking and Morgan Freeman are both authority figures by dint of celebrity. One is a great scientist and the other a great actor who reads cue cards. In other words, there are famous authority figures and then there are famous authority figures. In a democratic society one must learn to judge.

    Does my faith in scientists of solid accomplishment mean I'm as susceptible to the nightly rantings of political hacks passing for journalists? People are perfectly capable of withholding judgment while enjoying the chase (the game is afoot! cried Sherlock as he set about to solve a mystery). It's not exactly a Fitzgeraldian situation of simultaneously entertaining two diametrically opposed ideas.

    Whenever I read the comments sections of several online publications, I can’t help noticing they’re not all fools, thank God. (Naturally, I don't mean this one.)

    Yea, verily, verily, Hawking is no Sagan, and Sagan was no Hawking. In a current New Yorker article, a colleague of Neil deGrasse Tyson said the latter-day Sagan was a good researcher but a great popularizer. Reverse the adjectives to describe Hawking.

    Didn't I read somewhere that he may be changing his mind about black holes? That there may be a new theory on the event horizon that the Big Bang was either not so big or not such a bang? As long as scientists keep changing their minds to conform to the evidence, I'm a sucker for science. As long as Rachel et al. gets it essentially right in the final analysis, I’ll keep listening to them that do.

    1. Rachel is neither a popularizer nor a researcher. She is promoting other aims. Authority figures such as demagogues and dictators promote goals that have nothing to do with science or understanding. I am closer to believing Maddow belongs with such people, not those seeking understanding or truth about the world.

  7. "People who accept incomprehensible work from famous authority figures constitute the perfect customers for the slippery, incoherent presentations of modern-day 'cable news.'"

    This is very interesting, and the first time I remember seeing Bob explicitly tie these two themes of the blog together (though I may well have missed it if he's done it before).