Part 1—Not Isaacson's fault, scribe says: This morning's Washington Post includes a brief but intriguing report.
The report was written by Valerie Strauss, a long-time education blogger for the Post. In the hard-copy paper, it appears beneath this headline:
"What to believe about Albert Einstein's childhood and education"
In hard copy, Strauss' report is just 507 words long; it's derived from this blog post, which is slightly longer. The report appears on page B2 in this morning's Metro section. On most Mondays, the page is devoted to education reports.
Strauss' report isn't especially long; it isn't prominently placed. That said, we think it's a fascinating report. Strauss begins like this:
STRAUSS (2/22/16): There is huge news in the science world: Scientists just announced that they have detected gravitational waves from the merging of two black holes in deep space—something predicted a century ago by Albert Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity.Strauss goes on to answer some questions about Einstein's childhood and about his education. These are the findings in the slightly longer blog post:
The finding serves to underscore—again—the prodigious genius of Einstein, a theoretical physicist whose work fundamentally changed the way humans view and understand their world.
The outlines of his life story are well known: He was born in Germany in 1879, worked as a patent clerk in Bern, Switzerland, starting in 1905, and in 1915 completed the earth-shattering General Theory of Relativity, which helped explain how space, time and gravity interact and propelled him into the scientific stratosphere.
It isn't clear that Einstein started talking late, as he once seemed to say. It would be wrong to say that he was a bad student, as is sometimes claimed.
No, he never flunked math, Strauss says. Beyond that, "the evidence strongly suggests that he was not" dyslexic.
One last point:
According to Strauss, "researchers at Cambridge and Oxford" said, apparently in 2003, that they believed that Einstein "displayed signs of Asperger’s as a young child."
Was that a sound judgment? We have no idea, but as we all know, "researchers" have said everything that possibly could be said at some point in time.
Most shocking was Strauss' claim that Einstein declared, at age 13, that Kant was his favorite author, based upon his reading of the “Critique of Pure Reason.” Flawlessly, we imagined the scene as the youngster announced his judgment:
"He had me at 'the transcendental unity of apperception is that unity through which all the manifold given in an intuition is united in a concept of the object,' " we pictured the youngster telling the elders. Of course, everyone gets to make a mistake, or so we say around here.
Strauss focused on Einstein as a child. For ourselves, we were intrigued by those first three paragraphs, in which she set the stage for her rumination.
No, it doesn't actually matter, but we couldn't helping wondering this:
How many readers of the Post could discuss "gravitational waves" in any significant way? Put a bit more baldly, how many readers have any idea what gravitational waves actually are?
Our second question cuts a bit closer to the bone:
How many readers of the Post could discuss what it means when Strauss says that the General Theory of Relativity "helps explain how space, time and gravity interact?" How far could the typical reader get with any such discussion?
How far could the typical reader get? Not far at all, we'd guess. That said, nothing actually turns on the fact that most of us couldn't discuss these subjects. In the conduct of our daily lives, it doesn't actually "matter."
Various other situations don't actually "matter" either. It doesn't matter if a string of best-selling books about relativity will, in the end, be incomprehensible to the vast bulk of readers.
It doesn't matter if those best-selling books give rise to multi-part PBS programs which would also be very hard for the typical viewer to discuss, summarize or explain.
In the vast sweep of things, it doesn't matter if reviewers at major newspapers swear that those incoherent best-selling books make relativity so easy to understand that even a dachshund could get it.
Some folks may shell out money for books they won't understand in the end. That too won't be the end of the world, especially since many such people may not realize that they didn't understand the books!
In the real world, nothing turns on the average person's ability to discuss or explain any of Einstein's discoveries. It doesn't matter that professors have produced a wave of books that no one actually understands, despite what reviewers say.
It doesn't matter that this syndrome exists. That said, we've long thought that this is a fascinating part of our academic and journalistic cultures. And no, the phenomenon isn't restricted to books that purportedly make Einstein easy, although Einstein-made-easy is the leading edge in a fascinating publishing/PBS industrial complex which purports to make a wide array of academic subjects accessible to us the laymen and shlubs.
(Have you ever read Professor Dennett's 1991 book, Consciousness Explained? Twenty-five years later, we haven't read it either! Eventually, we'll try to explain. We'll also examine a set of puzzling but reliably lauded mathematics-made-easy books.)
Are our basic judgments correct about this intriguing realm? Is there a set of Einstein-made-easy best-selling books which actually don't make Einstein easy? Have reviewers and professors reliably vouched for the clarity of these books despite their incoherence? Does PBS keep airing programs which don't make Einstein easy? Last November, was Nova's treatment of Einstein's lady on the fast-moving train an instant classic in the field of non-elucidation?
We began advancing such claims last week. Over the weekend, our favorite blogger responded.
To tell you the truth, we aren't real sure whether his posts agreed with our claims or took the opposite stance. In each of his two weekend posts, he seemed to be arguing both sides of the issue at various times.
On Saturday, Kevin Drum discussed our incomparable complaints about a passage near the start of Walter Isaacson's best-selling book, Einstein: His Life and Universe. (For Sunday's post by Drum, click this.)
We had said we were forced to describe Isaacson's passage as bafflegab. "Somerby is complaining about a big problem here," Drum said. "But it's not Isaacson's fault."
His analysis continued from there. In comments, we the people joined in.
For what it's worth, we're not after "fault" or blame as we examine this fascinating part of academic culture. In the main, we're looking for coherence and comprehension.
Eventually, Drum seemed to say that bafflegab is close enough for Einstein-made-easy work, especially since such work is aimed at us the laymen. He specifically referred to the puzzling claim that spacetime, whatever that is, is or should or can be viewed as some sort of "fabric."
It's sometimes said that Drum is no Kant, but he's our favorite blogger. Could someone possibly tell the Maddow Show about his fantastic work on lead?
Tomorrow, we'll look more closely at what he said about that Isaacson passage. We'll also be posing this thoughtful question:
Whatever happened to standards?
Tomorrow: "For laymen, fabric is fine"
Coming: Certainty voiced in some comments