INITIAL REACTIONS: Reviewing the look of pure bafflegab!


Part 2—Bowling balls and trampolines and elevators oh my:
Last Thursday and Friday, we posed a bit of a question:

Does the passage shown below strike you as coherent?

The passage is taken from Walter Isaacson's best-selling book, Einstein: His Life and Universe. Do you feel you have even the slightest idea what Isaacson's talking about?
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.
For Friday's report, click here.

There it is—Isaacson's initial account of "one of the most beautiful theories in all of science, the general theory of relativity." We repeat our award-winning question:

Do you feel you have any idea what Isaacson's talking about?

In fairness, we noted several points about that puzzling passage. We noted the fact that it comes very early in Isaacson's book. We said a fair-minded person would hold out hope that Isaacson would explain that puzzling passage at some later point in the book.

We also noted the good-natured jest with which Isaacson ends that passage. "Okay, it's not easy," Isaacson writes, "but that's why we're no Einstein and he was."

In that good-natured jibe, Isaacson seems to agree with our basic premise—as presented, that passage will likely prove to be very hard for most of us shlubs to understand, discuss, comprehend, paraphrase or explain.

Did Isaacson go on to explain that passage in his book? We leave that question for later in the course we'll be supervising—a course in the academic/journalistic culture of incoherence, confusion and complete total incomprehension.

Did Isaacson ever explain that passage? Taking our cue from Frost, we'll set that aside for another day! But good God! As that passage stands, we'll describe it as we did last week:

It's vintage bafflegab!

Isaacson's passage is crawling with relatively unfamiliar references—references the typical reader of best-selling books won't likely be able to discuss, paraphrase or explain. Consider some examples just from that second paragraph:

Do you the reader have any idea what it mean to talk about "the warping of space and time?" We all can picture the warping of wood. Do you feel you know what Isaacson means by the warping of space and time?

We all can picture a curve in a road. Do you feel you understand the "curvature" to which Isaacson refers in that passage? Do you feel comfortable talking about the "dynamics" of such a curvature?

According to Isaacson, the warping of space and time—rather, the dynamics of that warping—"results from the interplay between matter, motion, and energy." Consider:

For most of us the humans, "interplay" is a word we can comfortably use and understand in a wide array of contexts. That said, do you feel you know what Isaacson's taking about when he refers to "the interplay between motion and energy?"

Do you feel you have any idea what he's discussing there?

Uh-oh! At this point in that second graf, we're asked to engage in a thought experiment. The passage which follows will seem familiar to readers of Einstein-made-easy books. That said, do you have any idea what this sub-passage means?

"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."

Presumably, no speaker of English will be confused when Isaacson describes the surface of a trampoline as a "two-dimensional fabric." Suddenly, though, we're asked to imagine something happening "in the four-dimensional fabric of space and time."

Putting aside the question of those four dimensions, do you know why he refers to "space and time" as a "fabric?" Forget about the reference to "space and time" as a four-dimensional fabric. From that passage, do you have any idea why Isaacson refers to space and time as a "fabric" at all?

Why on earth does Isaacson call "space and time" a "fabric?" No explanation is found in that passage, a passage which ends with that good-natured jest:

"Okay, it's not easy, but that's why we're no Einstein and he was."

We're no Einstein? Presumably, Einstein himself would have been puzzled by that passage had he been asked to read it at, let's say, age 21. He would have been puzzled because the passage involves unconventional locutions without any attempt at explanations of same.

Since we're just on page 4 of Isaacson's book, this may not reflect an ultimate problem with that book. But as it stands, that passage strikes us as world-class bafflegab—and we haven't even tried to wrestle with the relevance of that "enclosed elevator accelerating up through space," or the effects we would feel!

To us, that's prime bafflegab. In our view, it's bafflegab of a type which is common in Einstein-made-easy best-sellers—books which are commonly praised for their wonderful clarity by teams of mainstream reviewers and claques of physics professors.

The bafflegab is obvious there, to the point where Isaacson jokes about it. That's why we were intrigued by Kevin Drum's treatment of that passage in last Saturday's post.

Drum is our favorite blogger. In our view, his work on lead abatement may be the most impressive work ever produced on the web, with one obvious exception.

(We'd rank Drum's work behind our own treatment of the press coverage of Campaign 2000. By virtue of the code of silence mandated by Our Own Tribe's Tribal Rules, that body of work still can't be discussed. We liberals can't be exposed to our nation's recent history. It's journalistic careers in the balance!)

Let's return to our current topic:

Isaacson's passage strikes us as pure bafflegab. Tomorrow, we'll look at Drum's reaction to that passage in which, we'd have to say, he rushes past the basic point concerning that key term, "fabric."

Originally, we thought we'd be on Day Two of our first week on Wittgenstein by this point. That said, as Laura Ingalls Wilder used to tell Manly, "we have all the time in the world!"

We have all the time in the world! We say that even as our American culture, which no longer exists, slides into the swamp which contains the mud of the nether world.

Our journalists don't seem equipped or inclined to discuss that either! From what planet in what corner of space and time were these apparent life forms sent here?

Tomorrow: Close enough for Einstein-made-easy work!

Thursday: Confidence found in the comments


  1. It is unfortunate that Mr. Somerby both overuses and misuses bafflegab.

    1. I think it's his vocabulary-builder "word of the month."

      I'm just amused by the many, many rambling, disconnected, semi-coherent, and lengthy posts Bob has put up to complain about the "bafflegab" of others.

    2. Codswallop from a congenital complainer.

  2. Yes, Bob, I do understand the interplay between energy and motion every time I step on the gas pedal and my car moves.

    Do I understand how crude oil is refined into gasoline? Do I understand how energy is stored in gasoline, or the intricate workings of the internal combustion engine to convert gasoline into the energy to move a 2,000-pound machine at pretty fast speeds if I so choose? Do I fully understand how the energy produced by the engine is transferred to the transmission and the wheels?

    Nope. But I do understand then when the gas tank is empty, the car won't move. No energy, no motion.

    1. If you're driving at a constant speed on a level road, that fuel-burning engine isn't changing the energy of your car. It's turning the chemical energy of the fuel and air into heat.

    2. So if I run out of gas on a level road, my car will maintain a constant speed because it was producing was heat anyway.

    3. Should read: "because it was ONLY producing heat anyway."

  3. Kevin Drum may understand Einstein but he still doesn't understand how you can generalize from a small random sample to a general population. He continues to insist that most of the findings of experimental psychology are invalid because of the sample sizes. There are courses in sampling theory but he thinks his common sense overrules the expertise of mathematicians. So, I do not share Somerby's enthusiasm for the guy.

  4. The passage cited from Isaacson strikes me as totally coherent. What strikes me as incoherent is the nonsense being put forth in these posts.

  5. The Huffington Post continues its unfair attacks on Hillary Clinton.

    1. Yes, they have run a few editorials by Clinton supporters and some criticism of Bernie, but this is like comparing the news coverage of the NY Times (which is supposed to be unbiased) with the editorial/opinion pages. Huffington post, in its supposed news articles, is consistently unfair to Clinton when it should be unbiased.

      It runs the least flattering pictures it can find. It frequently puts such pictures of Clinton beneath headlines unrelated to her or her campaign. I has a disproportionate number of articles criticizing her campaign and a disproportionate number praising Sanders or proclaiming that he can with the general election, is a phenomenon, is beloved by the kids, etc. Whatever Clinton does, her successes are spun as weaknesses and her losses are multiplied by being split into many negative articles. Sometimes there are 5-6 negative Clinton articles to a single Bernie item (usually positive).

      There are any number of serious Democrats who are not for Sanders. They have written columns in Huffington Post and elsewhere. That has nothing to do with the coverage she receives on the news side.

    2. Today on the front page section there are three positive news articles about Bernie and nothing about Hillary.

    3. Today they are slamming her for her Hollywood ties and running a very unglamorous photo designed to align her with angry black thespians who are costing Democrats votes.

  6. The example of the bowling ball on the trampoline is interesting, but it's a terrestrial one, that depends on our familiar Earth's gravity. We can relate to that.

    But planets and stars in space actually aren't resting on a trampoline, there is no up or down, they are not comparable to bowling balls on trampolines. At the risk of sounding like a fool, I don't know how the comparison works in space- it presumes a flat plane, with an up and a down in terms of gravity. What flat plane? Agree that there's so much unexplained by writing of these mysteries of science. It's sort of presumed that you will know what they mean, what they're talking about. Which is very flattering for the reader and the writer; of COURSE we know what you mean! All nodding and agreeing, when it's still seriously unclear at the basic level.

    1. The billiard balls move in straight lines on a flat fabric, curved lines on a curved fabric. Bodies far from the sun move in straight lines, but near it they move in curved lines, because the fabric of space-time is curved near the sun.

      I think that's about all you can get from the trampoline analogy.

    2. The Leaping Berylians defied the laws of physics due to the superior power of faith in the creator of life and law.

  7. Thanks to the creative Congressional initiative of Albert Arnold Gore, Jr. all of us can benefit from
    a course in the academic/journalistic culture of incoherence, confusion and complete total incomprehension.

    This service is provided at no cost by one unencumbered by any academic or journalistic credentials which has thus enabled him to produce work of such outstanding quality that guild rules prohibit its discussion as a matter of self preservation.

    1. You think it is a triviality that Bush stole the election from Gore, let terrorists bomb the Trade Center, started wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, bungled Katrina, and blew up our economy?

    2. No. But clearly you buy into the paranoid theory of a three career failure that all the events you cite flow from those same villains indentified by Richard Nixon following his electoral defeat at the hands of Edmund G. Brown, Sr.

    3. On the other hand, you (and I) just comment repeatedly and anonymously, on the blog of a "three career failure." And, classic cheap shot, again.