Train traveler says he didn’t “get” Hawking!

SATURDAY, MARCH 8, 2014

How often does that happen: How often does that happen?

This morning, in a local coffee joint, we guarded a younger fellow’s luggage as he used the men’s salon. In the long run, he seemed to be on his way to nearby Penn Station.

Upon returning from the men’s room, he caught us perusing Stephen Hawking’s 1988 best-seller, A Brief History of Time.

We’ve been reading our Hawking every morning in recent weeks. It’s an antidote to the infantilization involved in watching you-know-who tell her stories about scandal topics.

This morning, a rare event occurred. As the younger fellow gathered his luggage, he said he tried to read Hawking’s book at some point—but he didn’t quite understand it!

How often does anyone say that? For ourselves, we had just made a bit of a breakthrough on page 20 of the book, where Hawking writes this:

“Because of the equivalence of energy and mass, the energy which an object has due to its motion will add to its mass.”

Because of statements on page 17, we don’t exactly understand that. Rarely, though, will an Amtrak traveler acknowledge a similar problem.

Please understand! If we remember correctly, the recent PBS bio of Hawking says he’s one of the greatest physicists of the past few centuries. We don’t doubt that.

We’re asking a different question: Is this greatest physicist able to explain modern physics in a way general readers can understand? Like song-writing, cooking or even horse-whispering, that’s a different skill.

Twenty-six years later, we’re still on page 20 of Hawking’s book! We’re also trying to figure out why the SAT has been changed.

We’ll start to examine that topic on Monday. There’s a reason for our fuzziness, though—we read about the ballyhooed changes in you-know-which newspaper.

Do we the people really know how to explain any topic? Or is it all just silly stories—silly stories by you-know-who and similar types, pretty much all the way down?

A recommendation: Our interlocutor recommended Richard Feynman’s Six Easy Pieces (or possibly its sequel).

Maybe! But that’s not the point!

(From the synopsis at Penguin Australia: “If the greatest physicist since the Second World War can't explain it to you, no one can.” If someone made us place a bet, we’d take no one against the field.)

43 comments:

  1. Why should complex things be easy to understand?

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  2. My take is that this stuff is so complicated, to understand it you'd first have to be really intelligent and mathematically inclined, and second you'd have to spend years of study.

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  3. Pop scientists like Neil Tyson are all the rage amongst the blog-educated liberal set. There is an odd phenomenon of science-ish-ists attaching their ideology to their science, and no shortage of tribalists who promote them by argumentum ab auctoritate precisely because they don't understand the science. They just enjoy saying their names and since they are ideological similar, attribute special insight to them regarding questions of politics or the cosmos that still remain outside the realm of scientific understanding.

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    1. We "tribalists" eagerly await a pair of specific examples of members of the "blog-educated liberal set" attributing "special insight" to Neil D. Tyson. Or, if you prefer, some "science-ish-ists attaching their ideology to their science".

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    2. Ah, yes, "pop" scientist Tyson. Harvard '80 (BA physics), UT Austin '83 (MA astronomy), Columbia '89 (M Phil, astrophysics) and '91 (PhD, astrophysics), honored associate of U Maryland, Princeton, the American Museum of Natural History, and the Hayden Planetarium, and a man who's done significant work on the measurement of supernovae.

      And the that's the last piece of actual information we'll get from Ignoramus @1:26. Actually, @1:26 just contributed the name; the rest of the vitae is my contribution. But Tyson has been on TV and radio and written non-technical books for the non-expert or "popular" audience. Did you know that he was born in Kenya and is thus ineligible to be President of the United States?

      OK, I made up that last. Just like @1:26 has made up reifications like "the blog-educated liberal set," "science-ish-ists attaching their ideology to their science," "tribalists" promoting ish-ists by "argumentum ab auctoritate." @1:26 knows what these imaginary groups of people understand and don't, what they enjoy, and to whom they attribute insight. That kind of talent won't get you a PhD in astrophysics, but it's still kinda impressive.

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    3. Tyson's work isn't "pop" science because of his credentials but because of the audience level he is pitching his work to. Aside from that, I agree with your complaint about @1:26's comment.

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    4. Anonymous @2:45, Some of Tyson's work is popular science and some is astrophysics. My objection is to the sly implication in the term "pop scientist" that Tyson is an ideologue who's no more informed than say, the IDiots he opposes. But perhaps that's just an inference entirely my own. I just wasn't in a forgiving mood when I posted the comment.

      But then, I'm never in a forgiving mood.

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  4. Nice little essay, Bob. I really like to understand things as well and have a problem accepting that highly complex subjects cannot be simplified and clarified.

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  5. Too bad TDH and his traveling companion didn't ask the Amtrak engineer to goose the train to nearly the speed of light, so they could conduct some experiments. One of them could have stood on the platform while the other held Hawking's book onboard. From the platform, the book would have been compressed in the direction of travel, possibly making it a quicker read. I'm not sure whether that would have helped TDH's understanding.

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    1. But it would have added energy to the book.

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  6. “Because of the equivalence of energy and mass, the energy which an object has due to its motion will add to its mass.”

    Seems clear. An object's weight on earth equals its mass. Suppose you have a bowling ball that weighs 10 lbs. and also has mass 10 lbs. You put that ball into motion. It now has some kinetic energy. This energy makes the ball infinitesimally heavier.

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    1. I appreciate this explanation.

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    2. Weight and mass are not the same or equal. Weight is a force and mass is a measure of inertia. Newton's 2nd law identifies weight in a gravitational field as mass times the acceleration of gravity.

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  7. I don't know if your other readers have the same problem or not but for me this (we) thing is confusing the heck out of me

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    1. Anonymous @5:02, TDH is using the editorial first person, a plural construct, which implies that he is speaking for himself and the like-minded. I've always taken that as somewhat ironical, as he seems to think of himself as the lone wolf howling at Selene, who looks a bit like Rachel Maddow.

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  8. Whenever someone asks me to watch their bag or case while they visit the lavatory I always think they're a terrorist and a bomb is going to explode next to me as they exit the building.

    Maybe it's just me.

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    1. I think you should watch more TV.

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    2. When someone refers to the bathroom as the lavatory I always think they are English.

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    3. They always referred to the bathroom as the lavatory when I was a kid in school in CA.

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  9. I'd like him to explain why he has lived so long with ALS. I was under the impression it was a death sentence.

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    1. ALS is a catch-all term for motor neuron disease. There are several different types. Those who get an adult-onset form typically don't live more than three years after diagnosis. Some who get the juvenile form, live for decades since this type progresses very slowly. Hawking was diagnosed in his 20s. If the disease incapacitates the diaphragm or the muscles that control swallowing, the attendant difficulties in breathing and eating shorten the sufferer's lifespan.

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  10. It seems like it is a law of humanity to give someone with a disease more credit than they are due.

    I love David's claim that it "seems clear" and then he offers an explanation devoid of clarification, merely rephrasing the issue.

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    1. And yet any explanation provided to the layman is likely to be rather circular. Would I be correct in assuming in Newtonian physics Momentum, the maximum amount of force an object can impart to other objects should they collide is equal to the Mass of the object times its Velocity (the speed and direction of an object) and that an object with 1 gram of Mass traveling in a direction at 1000 miles per second has half the Momentum of an object with 1 gram of Mass traveling at 2000 miles per second and an object with 1 gram of Mass traveling at 1000 miles per second has half the Momentum of an object with 2 grams of Mass traveling at 1000 miles per second?

      Momentum = Mass times Velocity

      Would I also be correct in assuming in the Newtonian model that a given amount of Force, call it 1 unit of Thrust, that would accelerate a one gram mass from a Velocity of say 83,000 miles per second to 84,000 miles per second is the same amount of thrust that would accelerate a one gram of Mass from a Velocity of 93,000 miles per second to a Velocity of 94,000 miles per second (a speed and direction at which the object would then continue at forever or until it was acted upon by an outside Force)?

      However, doesn't it turn out that that in the more sophisticated theory it is believed that as an object approaches the Speed of Light, which in a sense is what is happening whenever there is any increase in Velocity, it actually takes more Force, i.e. more than the 1 unit of Thrust that would do the trick at a particular Velocity, to achieve an incremental increase from a greater Velocity and the closer an object's speed gets to the Speed of Light the dramatically greater the amount of additional Force required to achieve, say, the next 1000 mile per second increase in its Velocity? In fact it would take an infinite amount of thrust to accelerate a Mass the final increment of Velocity to the 186,000 miles per second of rate of speed at which a photon travels in a vacuum (186,000 miles per second being not the suggested speed limit within the universe but the actual speed limit).

      Therefore, because it's also accepted that no energy would be lost when it is applied to accelerate an object in a particular direction in this theoretical experiment, it would be conserved in some fashion, i.e. each 1 unit of Thrust does increase the Momentum of the object by the same amount, but since each unit of Thrust would not increase the Velocity of the object by the same amount it is the Mass of the object that must be increasing in order for the Mass times Velocity product to yield the precise amount of increased Momentum that would be expected for an object to have after it had been accelerated by a certain number of units of Thrust.

      (And, for instance then, I suppose, because the amount of Mass an object has determines the amount of gravitational attraction it has, be it a planet or a ping pong ball, as an object's Velocity increases the strength of its gravitational field increases. I've never read that, but that would be the implication, right?)

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    2. The answer to all your questions is "yes," Socrates.

      In particular for your last and parenthetical question, gravitational mass (the attraction one mass has for others) is the same as the inertial mass (the amount of force required to accelereate it).

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    3. I wasn't pulling a Socrates, I was just trying to formulate in the form of questions what my impressions were after reading various for the layman explanations over the years. I'm kind of a relieved to hear "yes" is the answer to those questions, I thought I might end up being told "You idiot, you don't have the first clue about any of this."

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    4. Only deadrat is allowed to pull a Socrates.

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  11. An 8th grader with a shaky grasp on science and statistics could identify this offering from the "brilliant" lib Neil Degrasse Tyson as revealing something less than super intelligence or even above average intelligence https://twitter.com/neiltyson/status/266758023177981952

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    1. An 8th grader can graps why that offering would embarrass most Republicans.

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    2. Do tell what you believe that offering tells you. We all need a good laugh.

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    3. States don't vote; people vote. A better analysis would compare the education of Obama voters vs. Romney voters. That's assuming that years of education is meaningful.

      Here's another analysis:

      The Pew survey adds to a wave of surveys and studies showing that GOP-sympathizers are better informed, more intellectually consistent, more open-minded, more empathetic and more receptive to criticism than their fellow Americans who support the Democratic Party.

      Read more: http://dailycaller.com/2012/04/22/science-say-gop-voters-better-informed-open-minded/#ixzz2vUbZn9hO

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    4. An 8th grader can graps why that offering would embarrass most Republicans.

      An 8th Grader asserting that the offering should embarrass Republicans would embarrass his teachers, parents, school, and friends.

      Any institution that awarded a degree to someone who would draw the conclusions Tyson appears to have drawn from the information he provided should likewise be embarrassed and said credentials should be questioned.

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    5. Here's a nugget from DAinCA's IQ test for partisans:

      <quote>
      The widest partisan gap in the survey came in at 30 points when only 46 percent of Democrats — but 76 percent of Republicans —- correctly described the GOP as “the party generally more supportive of reducing the size of federal government.”
      </quote>

      This can be rephrased more accurately as "46% of Democrats were fooled by Republican claims that they're the party of small government, a shamefully high figure, but nothing compared to the 76% of Republicans who were duped."

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    6. Anonymous @3:39P, I think you're absolutely right. Tyson is an embarrassment and his credentials should be questioned. Let's get a Republican luminary to do that. I suggest Ted Nugent. After all, it's not rocket science.

      Oh, wait.

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    7. Let's get a Republican luminary to do that.

      We don't need luminaries to do it. Only regular folk who recognize his conclusions as wildly unsupported and revealing. I.e., any 8th Grader.

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    8. Deadrat never made it to Eighth Grade. And that's OK! Progressives shouldn't educate-shame since the least educated voters vote democrat. With one exception. If you're Neil Tyson you can attempt to educate-shame as long as your targets are not philosophically similar to you. And even if your attempt to do so reveals a need for a more effective education than the one you've obtained.

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    9. I've read that paragraph three times Anonymous @8:57, and all I can figure is that you're mad at Neil Tyson for something. Maybe because he's so stupid compared to you?

      But then maybe my lack of understanding is because I'm so ill-educated. But I did so make it to the 8th grade. I just never made it out.

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  12. Modern physics isn't more complicated than classical physics. It deals with situations that our brains weren't built to understand. So physicists use abstract mathematics, and their ideas can't really be explained in familiar terms.

    If you want to read Feynman, try his "QED: the Strange Theory of Light and Matter". He says you won't won't understand it, but don't worry, because he doesn't understand it either. But it will give you some idea of quantum theory.

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