FIRST REACTIONS: Drum takes the Einstein-made-easy challenge!


Part 3—We keep pounding out those results:
People, let's come out and say it:

Your incomparable Daily Howler just keeps banging out those results!

Last Monday, we started a series of reports about an academic and journalistic phenomenon we described as a culture of incoherence, confusion and incomprehension. As we started, we focused on the incoherence we keep finding in the nation's constant stream of Einstein-made-easy books.

Do those books, and concomitant PBS programs, really make Einstein easy? Despite persistent raves from reviewers, we'd say they plainly do not.

In our view, the incoherence of those books and those PBS programs is a fascinating part of our academic and journalistic cultures. We plan to spend large chunks of time in the coming months examining the argle-bargle-based hodgepodge we persistently think we find in those widely-praised best-selling books.

By last weekend, we were already getting results! On Sunday, our favorite blogger, Kevin Drum, cheekily accepted the general relativity challenge.

His post appeared beneath a cocky headline. "Be careful, Uncle Drum," the analysts cried, when they read his banner:

"General Relativity: Not So Hard After All!"

That was the headline on Drum's post, in which he reduced General Relativity to just seven brief points.

You can find Drum's bullet points here, in his Sunday post. "Not so hard!" he cheekily claims, after listing his points.

In fairness to us, we never said that Kevin Drum couldn't make Einstein easy. (Nor did Drum attribute that claim to us.) We said the best-sellers which claim to make Einstein easy have persistently failed, in grandiose fashion.

In some ways, Drum seemed to agree with that general claim in the course of posting his seven points, and in his original Saturday post on this subject. That said, did the analysts' Uncle Drum succeed in making Einstein easy in the course of Sunday's post?

We'd have to say he probably didn't. As laymen, we can't even say with certainty that his seven points are all accurate, or that they're complete.

Why would we balk at Drum's self-assessment, in which he says The General Relativity-Made-Easy challenge actually "isn't so hard?"

Alas! It takes less time to read his points than to read a 400-page book. But lurking in his 126 words are several points we the laymen almost surely won't "understand:"

According to Drum, "gravity isn't a property of mass. It's caused by the geometry of the universe."

In all likelihood, we the laymen will have no idea those last four words mean.

According to Drum, "Einstein's equations predict that time runs slower near objects with high gravitational fields."

The notion that time can run faster or slower is one of the concepts by which we laymen tend to be bollixed when writers start making Einstein easy. For that reason, we're also likely to be puzzled by this point:

"Sometimes an object can have such a strong gravitational field that light can't escape and time stops."

Time stops altogether, full stop? It's natural for laymen to wonder what Einstein, or anyone else, could possibly mean by a statement like that. Drum provides no help.

Returning to Drum's post today, we also find this fiendish update at the end of his post:

"UPDATE: I've modified the third bullet of the relativity list to make it more accurate."

If memory serves, he also eliminated some fascinating language about the relationship between energy and matter.

In our view, the typical layman would have found that fascinating language confusing or puzzling or perhaps just fascinatingly incomplete. Today, that fascinating language is gone, and we're left with a simplified seven points which, in Drum's assessment, constitute "a perfectly adequate lay description of general relativity."

Is that assessment correct? We have no idea! We're the laymen of this piece; as such, we've purchased and read a lot of best-sellers which, we were assured by reviewers, would make Einstein stupefyingly easy.

We've always found these widely-praised books to be masterworks of bafflegab. For that reason, we don't understand special relativity, general relativity or quantum mechanics, or any of the other subjects these books purport to clarify or explain. For these reasons, we can't evaluate the accuracy of Drum's account.

Drum goes on to discuss the extent to which it even makes sense to try to "explain" this branch of science. In our view, his remarks in this area are a bit muddy. That said, they touch on very important points about what it even means to offer "explanations" in physics.

(Was Newton's theory of gravitation really an "explanation?" Or was it just a set of predictions? Drum flirts with essential questions here, although his remarks strike us as muddy.)

Kevin Drum is our favorite blogger. His work on the effects of exposure to lead has been, in our view, the most important body of work we've ever seen from any other "blogger."

(He's also examined this topic as a straight journalist. For his lengthy cover report for Mother Jones, you can just click here. Could someone tell the Maddow Show about the sprawling body of work they're turning into a creepy burlesque?)

That said, has Drum really produced "a perfectly adequate lay description of general relativity?" For the reasons explained, we have no idea. That said, a critic of Drum-the-teacher would say that he is instructing his students to do the following things:
1) Memorize these seven points.
2) Don't ask any questions!
That's a bit of an exaggeration. That said, how beloved would Mr. Chips have been if he had instructed the boys as Drum did in this post?

Nothing turns on the average person's knowledge of general relativity or quantum mechanics. Nothing turns on the average person's understanding of the connection between energy and matter, although that person's ability to reason and dream would be vastly enhanced by a competent discussion of that fascinating topic.

Nothing turns on the success of those Einstein-made-easy books. That said, we think our prevailing culture of incoherence is a fascinating phenomenon:

Remember when an emperor's claim made no sense and no one could tell except one little child? Our academic and journalistic cultures often seem to recall the bewitchment of that troubled empire. We plan to spend the coming weeks and months exploring that part of our failing culture—our culture of upper-end incoherence, our culture of pure bafflegab.

Uh-oh! In his initial post on this subject, our own Mr. Chips seemed to say that this bafflegab doesn't matter all that much. In last Saturday's post, what did Drum say about Walter Isaacson's best-selling book?

The analysts moped about all day. Tomorrow, we'll recall what he said.

Tomorrow: "It's close enough for the general reader," the analysts' Uncle Drum said


  1. Glad to see the Analysts making their first appearance in the New Pavilion of ICI. Since Rachel has her Maddowsketeers, no reason for Bob to abandon his Analysts.

    I like the way they chant in unison like the Mouseketeers and Trump Rally Attendees.

  2. Credit for Drum's supposed hypothesis actually goes to a guy named Nevin, whom Drum quotes in his Mother Jones article:

    "So Nevin dove in further, digging up detailed data on lead emissions and crime rates to see if the similarity of the curves was as good as it seemed. It turned out to be even better: In a 2000 paper (PDF) he concluded that if you add a lag time of 23 years, lead emissions from automobiles explain 90 percent of the variation in violent crime in America. Toddlers who ingested high levels of lead in the '40s and '50s really were more likely to become violent criminals in the '60s, '70s, and '80s."

    Drum gets credit for finding Nevins theory more plausible than other proposals, not for originating those findings about lead, nor even for pointing out the relationship.

    So what, then, is Drum's journalistic feat? Spelling the guy's name correctly? Popularizers regularly displace the actual originators of ideas in history.

    A cult formed around Einstein because of the popularizers of his work, not because of his ideas, which remain inaccessible even to many physicists. If Somerby finds this a disturbing phenomenon, I think he should be more careful about claiming that Drum originated the lead theory of crime.

    1. Correlation is not causation.

    2. Anon. @ 11:00: Perhaps you should re-read Somerby's essay. You may have read it too quickly, and, along with a possible pre-judgement of anything Somerby writes, misunderstood what he is saying.

    3. Somerby says: "Kevin Drum is our favorite blogger. His work on the effects of exposure to lead has been, in our view, the most important body of work we've ever seen from any other "blogger."

      (He's also examined this topic as a straight journalist. For his lengthy cover report for Mother Jones"

      How does that give Nevin credit for the lead theory? Drum's work is to examine a range of theories and pick Nevin's as most plausible, in his opinion. Nevin did the work on examining correlations between lead and crime.

    4. Awesome trolling, troll!

      Too bad it depends upon us all agreeing to pretend along with you that we don't know the difference between a research consultant (Nevin) and a journalist (Drum).

      Please fuck off now.

    5. Somerby shouldn't credit Drum with Nevin's work.

    6. Nona Nym - you can take off that goat-hair shirt anytime now.

  3. Today Drum is saying that HRC blew it whens she used (not set up) her own email server, something many other cabinet members, including secretaries of state, had done previously. When he blames Clinton for the attacks against her, he is playing into the hands of the conspiracy he acknowledges has been out to get both Clintons. He says other journalists should know better, but so should he. She didn't blow it. She did nothing wrong.

    I cannot respect Drum when he doesn't think about something he seems to almost understand.

    1. Drum is a "both sides do it" maven and getting worse by the day (eg. "Why are Americans so Gullible?" re: Trump).

    2. He never much mentions Chris Matthews, does he?

    3. He's too busy fluffing GOP shills like Frank Luntz.

  4. "We said the best-sellers which claim to make Einstein easy . . ."

    Nice strawman, but I can't think of a single "best-seller" that claimed that the Theory of Relativity could be made "easy."

    Like others have said here before, scientists who have devoted their entire lives to it still don't completely understand it, which is why they keep searching, experimenting, and testing it to learn more.

    It is only Somerby who expects it to be made "easy" in a single book, and runs to his blog to proclaim the authors nincompoops when they can't explain it. To him.

    Well, I tried to explain algebra to my cat once. He didn't get it. So I guess that makes me a terrible explainer.

    1. Do you think it possible that Bob is using the specific Einstein example as part of a much broader, and larger problem of the way our "experts" explain things to the lay public?
      Perhaps you should stick to your Dick and Jane readers for a little while longer.

    2. Anything is possible. Perhaps you should stay within your Dick-and-Jane thinking and avoid overextending yourself.

    3. Somerby seems to think the problem is with the explainers instead of with the level of education of the readers. Again, why should anyone think any complex subject should be explainable in a trade book? This is not intended as explanation. It is another form of entertainment. Somerby has complained that journalism has morphed into entertainment. So has serious reading. So has higher education (students are consumers who must be entertained because learning is always supposed to be fun).

      Maybe the problem is that we are emphasizing pleasure instead of hard work in our culture.

    4. Yes @ 1:23, I think youy have it. We are here to work hard.

      And clearly, all who do not proper have not worked hard enough. Like poor Bob, here. Failed an upper division course in his major, tried three careers and yet, with hardly a penny much less family to console him in his dotage, is left to stumble through the briars of bafflegab with only the random Clintonite to console him.

      Bob should have worked harder. Our culture wouln't be melting if there were less like him.

  5. There are many incomprehensible and poorly explained phenomena in books -- why is everyone so fixated on Einstein? Some of the things people don't understand are actually relevant to their lives. For example, look at how confused Bill Maher is about aging and health, and look at the potential for spreading his confusion afforded by his show. Look at the confusion about child discipline and child-centered parenting. Look at issues related to global warming. Why isn't Kevin Drum devoting any energy to understanding that stuff? Maybe guys are interested in Einstein specifically because there are no consequences to getting it wrong.

    1. Einstein is good click-bait. Put Albert in a headline, and all of Drum's readers get to show off how much they (think they) know.

    2. If Einstein had him some abs he'd be even better click bait.

  6. To say that time stops in a black hole seems silly to me, but I probably still think of time as a flowing river. Black holes though, I know something about. When I was a high school senior I graphed black holes by size a mass.

    Simply put (ha ha ha) the really big ones are not very dense. They can be the size of a universe and contain a whole lot of empty space.

    I would still claim that the universe itself IS a black hole. There is supposed to be some dispute about whether it has enough mass to contain light.

    Except - it is expanding thanks to Kaley Cuoco's haircut or something.

    So go back 10 billion years. The expanding universe would be that much smaller and (presumably) still have the same mass. Ergo, the mass at that time would certainly be inside the event horizon (for lack of a better term for the radius of a black hole).

    Okay that is bafflegab, but it cannot be explained any better without some math. To wit, the escape velocity of an object is a function of its mass and its radius. Set the escape velocity at the speed of light and then you can a) either determine the radius for a given mass to be a black hole, or b) determine the mass for an object with a given radius to be a black hole.

    In my (probably simplistic and wrong) concept objects are solid. The sun, for example is currently made of chemicals. Chemicals exploding as a hydrogen bomb. The explosions keep it from collapsing. When it runs out of fuel it will contract, collapse on itself due to gravity.

    Compress it a certain amount and the chemicals (made up of protons, neutrons and electrons) will just become neutrons. If it lacks sufficient mass, it will stop there - and be a neutron star. If, however, it has more mass, it will collapse further, crushing the neutrons down to their primal quarks.

    I would posit a stopping point. I would say if the mass is enough to crush the quarks that they will not be crushed. Compress them too much and they will simply explode (creating a very big bang, as it were) (see how nicely I tied that up?

    Modern physics, however, does NOT believe in the solidity of matter. They think that quarks can (and will) be crushed. That resistance is useless, and a very, very massive object will collapse down to nothing. A nothing, which they call - a singularity.

    A singularity is a mathematical concept. It is a point, it has ZERO size, none. And yet, somehow, it STILL has mass.

    I would say that you can imagine such an object in math, but I doubt if such an object either can, or does, exist.

    I am, however, with this pointless (but hopefully somewhat funny) blather, NOT trying to explain General Relativity (which I will NOT claim to understand) but only discussing the so-called Black Holes.

    As one of my econ professors used to say "clear to everyone?" (and none of us students really wanted to admit that it wasn't)

    1. If you don't ask a question when given the chance, it's on you, not your professor.

  7. You want to understand science? Get an education -- or at least take some undergraduate classes. And that's only the beginning. Science isn't easy. Science isn't "fun." And stop this nonsense that it's possible to understand physics -- even 17th century physics -- without knowing some math! But, of course, in America, stupidity is considered a state of grace.

    1. Douche N. ManamealotFebruary 24, 2016 at 4:20 PM

      Our kids are doing much better on the standardized gold standard tests. By any rough rule of thumb. At least until 2013. And because our leaders never mention it, you wrote a whole comment reinforcing their false meme.

    2. The 2015 average scores were 1 and 2 points lower in grades 4 and 8, respectively, than the average scores in 2013. Scores at both grades were higher than those from the earliest mathematics assessments in 1990 by 27 points at grade 4 and 20 points at grade 8.

  8. Part of the problem of explaining relativity with text is the difficulty of translating mathematics to words. In a 4 dimensional system (space + time) the math is internally consistent & allows predictions of objects behaving the way observation shows them to. Trying to explain that behavior in English is like trying to describe the taste of a color.

    1. Obviously you've never dropped acid.

  9. "Remember when an emperor's claim made no sense and no one could tell except one little child?"

    Remember when Bob's fans regularly came to the comment box to proclaim our own Mr. Bob was that Special Little Boy?

    Shame on all of us for forcing Bob to have to give us this hint on his own.