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.For Friday's report, click here.
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.
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