BREAKING: Concerning our course on Incoherence!


An overview of future work:
Doggone it! Yesterday, we made a bad choice.

In fairness to us, our error involved the faulty judgment of the lover.

In what did our error consist? In our first look at Walter Isaacson's book, Einstein: His Life and Universe, we focused on the way Isaacson starts his Chapter Six.

The chapter begins with this brief paragraph, one we've come to love:

"Relativity is a simple concept. It asserts that the fundamental laws of physics are the same whatever your state of motion."

As a general matter, Isaacson is a very clear writer. His work on Einstein's life is superb. Not so on Einstein's universe. In that particular instance, we've come to love the way he advertises "a simple concept," then proceeds to make a statement which isn't simple or clear at all.

We've come to love that passage and the paragraphs which follow it. Exhibiting the lover's faulty judgment, we decided to feature that passage in yesterday morning's post.

We think that was a bad choice. At this early point in our studies, we should have gone with the simpler passage which appears in Chapter One, a passage which ends with Isaacson making a joking confession:
ISAACSON (pages 3-4): [I]n 1915, [Einstein] wrested from nature his crowning glory, one of the most beautiful theories in all of science, the general theory of relativity. As with the special theory, his thinking had evolved through thought experiments. Imagine being in an enclosed elevator accelerating up through space, he conjectured in one of them. The effects you'd feel would be indistinguishable from the experience of gravity.

Gravity, he figured, was a warping of space and time, and he came up with the equations that describe how the dynamics of this curvature result from the interplay between matter, motion, and energy. It can be described by using another thought experiment. Picture what it would be like to roll a bowling ball onto the two-dimensional surface of a trampoline. Then roll some billiard balls. They move toward the bowling ball not because it exerts some mysterious attraction but because of the way it curves the trampoline fabric. Now imagine this happening in the four-dimensional fabric of space and time. Okay, it's not easy, but that's why we're no Einstein and he was.
To peruse Chapter One, click here.

"Okay, it's not easy," Isaacson good-naturedly writes. But as he does, he makes an important confession:

No one has the slightest idea what that familiar bafflegab means! We refer to the mandated passage about the trampoline and "space-time!"

Alas! We should have started with that early passage, leaving Chapter Six for later. At the start of Chapter Six, Isaacson moves from bafflegab into a form of argle-bargle. If we want to teach these matters well, we should have kept that passage for another day.

Readers, good morning, and welcome to our new course from the department of Incoherence Studies! We'll be teaching this award-winning course in the weeks and months ahead. We thought we'd take some time today to explain what we'll be doing, and to answer your very particular inquiries about why we're going to do it.

Inevitably, we think of Plato in The Seventh Letter. To wit:

By now, it has become obvious that we the people are incapable, at this time, of conducting a "national discourse" concerning any substantive policy or political topic. And we're sorry, but no:

This inability isn't restricted to members of the "mainstream press" or to the leadership of the pseudo-conservative world. We the liberals have made it clear that we can't function discursively either, absent direction from trusted gatekeepers, all of whom are gone.

We're sorry, but it's blindingly clear. Like the other tribes, we liberals aren't up to the task.

As a young man, Plato withdrew from public life after the rise of so-called "Thirty Tyrants." In the work which lies ahead, we're taking a similar course.

Don't misunderstand! We'll continue to offer "Campaign watch" reports in our afternoon posts. But when it comes to our principal work, we've decided to follow the lead of our slightly more garbled predecessor, who retreated to philosophical work after The Thirty went bad. We've decided to beat a retreat into work which is more fundamental:

Before President Trump decides to start rounding up the intellectuals and even the bloggers, we've decided to outline a long, award-winning course in Incoherence Studies. It's a subject we've been pursuing, in our spare time, for the past forty-plus years.

The topics we examine won't be political topics. Still, before the agents of Trump arrive, we've decided to record the fruits of our years of work.

For that reason, we're going to look at the culture of incoherence, confusion and incomprehension, especially as it exists within branches of academia. We're starting with the incoherence surrounding discussions of modern physics, but we'll be moving to other topics within the "philosophical" world.

We plan to discuss this incoherence within the context of Wittgenstein's later writings. As currently planned, we expect to do four days on Wittgenstein next, followed by another four days on Nova's recent attempt to explain Einstein's famous example about the pair of lightning strikes and the lady on the fast train.

Nova is considered to be one of our smartest news programs. Did anyone who watched its program last November have any idea what the heck they were talking about? Did anyone have the slightest idea what was being explained?

(To watch that program, just click here. The lady on the fast-moving train arrives about twelve minutes in. Isaacson offers the basic framework right at 11:05.)

Let's repeat a basic point. The topics we'll be exploring here will not be political topics.

Nothing turns on the alleged incoherence of Nova's presentation. Your GPS will still work in the morning even if you don't understand what Nova's narrator says.

No one gets hurt if you don't understand what type of entity "space-time" is, or if you don't know why you're constantly told to regard it as some type of "fabric." (Look out for the bowling balls!)

Nothings turns on the lofty topics we'll be exploring here! Still, our prevailing culture of incoherence is fascinating, even comical and profound.

"Man [sic] is the rational animal," Aristotle is widely said to have said. Like the gods, we regard that famous statement as perhaps almost comically false.

In the weeks and months ahead, we plan to offer you a great deal. We'll channel the laughter of the gods, the howling dear Homer observed.

We'll also be doing this: Periodically, we plan to interrupt our lofty work with long-form book reviews.

To cite one example, we still want to spend a chunk of time with Ta-Nehisi Coates' recent book, Between the World and Me.

In the familiar old joke, everyone talks about the weather but no one does anything about it. In this variant of that pattern, everyone praises Coates' book, but no one raises a finger to discuss what it actually says.

In truth, nobody cares about Coates' book, or about the children within it. After our first month on incoherence, we plan to spend a couple of weeks puzzling hard about that.


  1. During a Thursday interview with CBS’s Scott Pelley, the saucer-eyed HRC exclaimed, “I don’t will believe I ever had of have” lied to the American people.

    1. HRC is to Cicero as Rachel Maddow is to Bob.

    2. Maybe if B.S. got a hug from R.M. he would be mad for Maddow. R.M.'s biggest competition is FNC. HRC's biggest competition is the FBI.

    3. Maybe in you ever got a hug from your mother
      you wouldn't spank your monkey as much.

    4. What other candidate has been asked the kinds of questions Hillary gets? Pelley's question was ridiculous and insulting and I think she handled it well.

    5. @ 12:10

      According to The Donald, FNC's Megyn Kelly asked him an insulting question. HRC can only blame herself for why these type of questions are posed to her. That she was utterly flustered by a question you claim is de rigueur for liberal journalists to ask her suggests she is not asked that question enough.

    6. Doggone it! Yesteryear, cicero's mommy made a bad choice.

    7. For Comrade Trollochesky, Megan Kelly's question to Trump was insulting while Hillary Clinton is to blame for Pelley's gotcha questioning.

      Putin's current KGB salutes you Comrade.

    8. @ 11:13

      Asking HRC if she has always told the truth is a "gotcha question"? Only HRC could whiff on such a soft ball question and reply "Well, I have always TRIED to tell the truth."

    9. Of course it was. You're a silly trifle.

    10. @ 7:36

      Asking when HRC will have those Wall Street speech transcripts is also considered a "gotcha question" by the manic Clintonistas.

    11. What a pathetic troll you are, comrade.

  2. Barry Claire RyetingFebruary 19, 2016 at 11:12 AM

    "In truth, nobody cares about Coates' book." Which is why Bob Somerby is motivated to spend so much time talking about it.

  3. The language of physics is math, not English.

  4. I found the discussion of simultaneity coherent. But, as I recall it, Einstein didn't imagine a woman on the train.

    1. He once imagined a woman in his pajamas. What she was doing in his pajamas, he never knew!

  5. Warning Bob..If your example of the speed of light and the "lady on the train" is like some I've seen...Their error "disproving Einstein" is in the fact that the lady on the train is in motion compared to the guy at the station, and time is not constant between an object in motion and one that is not. Got that?

  6. True confession, for what it is worth. I was a young astrophysics major in the distant past, was reading Einstein as a 16 year old. Doubtless only pretending to understand, since I had not yet had Trig.

    One funny thing to me, is that he seems to think it is an improvement to replace "the mysterious gravitational attraction between objects" with "the bending of space-time". That's great. Now all we are left with is the mysterious ability of mass to bend space time.

    Also, I must confess I never even tried to read Hawkings book, because by then I was rather bored of that nonsense. Used to read articles, probably in Astronomy magazine talking about what was happening between 10(-98) seconds until 10(-80) seconds and I was like riiiiight.

    Of course, that was probably pop-cosmology, not actual physics like Hawking would do.

    1. In every case studied so far, when general relativity gives a result different from Newtonian gravity, relativity is right. Therefore mysteriously curved spacetime is better than the mysterious attraction.