Friend, did you understand the front-page report in last Friday's New York Times?


Part 2—Our tolerance for incomprehension:
As we noted yesterday, Professor Greene's 2004 book, The Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time and the Texture of Reality, went to the New York Times best-seller list.

So had his previous book, The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory, when it was issued in paperback. So had earlier books of this type, including several massive best-sellers by Professor Hawking.

In part, Professor Hawking's sales were driven by his substantial fame. Also, by the widely-bruited idea that his books would be easy to understand for us, the average shlubs.

That said, did anyone actually understand what Professor Greene wrote in his best-selling books? Did we average shlubs really understand Professor Hawking's books?

You can sign us up as skeptics. To understand our skepticism, consider the featured news report from the front page of last Friday's New York Times.

The report was written by Dennis Overbye (no relation), a long-time science writer for the Times. In 2014, Overbye was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Explanatory Writing based on what the Boston Globe called "his authoritative illumination of the race by two competing teams of 3,000 scientists and technicians over a seven-year period to discover what physicists call the 'God particle,' " otherwise called the Higgs boson.

Last Friday, Overbye wrote about another major event in the world of physics. His report was 2600 words long. It was placed in the top right-hand corner of the New York Times' front page.

There was a type of history behind this lengthy report. It bore the kind of colorful headlines the Times had famously used in 1919 when another prediction by physicist Albert Einstein had turned out to be right.

That said, did anyone understand last Friday's lengthy report? Underneath a colorful headline, Overbye started like this:


A team of scientists announced on Thursday that they had heard and recorded the sound of two black holes colliding a billion light-years away, a fleeting chirp that fulfilled the last prediction of Einstein's general theory of relativity.

That faint rising tone, physicists say, is the first direct evidence of gravitational waves, the ripples in the fabric of space-time that Einstein predicted a century ago. (Listen to it here.) It completes his vision of a universe in which space and time are interwoven and dynamic, able to stretch, shrink and jiggle. And it is a ringing confirmation of the nature of black holes, the bottomless gravitational pits from which not even light can escape, which were the most foreboding (and unwelcome) part of his theory.

More generally, it means that a century of innovation, testing, questioning and plain hard work after Einstein imagined it on paper, scientists have finally tapped into the deepest register of physical reality, where the weirdest and wildest implications of Einstein's universe become manifest.
Did anyone understand that? We were only three paragraphs into a lengthy report which would run 57 grafs in all. Already, though, weren't we lingering on the edge of a bottomless pit of confusion?

According to Overbye, physicists now had the first direct evidence of gravitational waves, defined as "the ripples in the fabric of space-time that Einstein predicted a century ago." That said, how many readers had any familiarity with the concept of "space-time," as opposed to the more familiar concepts of "space" and "time?"

How many readers knew what it meant to refer to "the fabric of" space-time, let alone knew what it meant to say that this "fabric" had been proven to contain "ripples?"

Tell the truth! Even here, in paragraph 2, haven't most of us crossed into the land of marginal comprehension? And good God! For most of us, didn't our incomprehension deepen when we were told that we live in "a universe in which space and time are interwoven and dynamic?" A world in which space and time are "able to stretch, shrink and jiggle?"

How many readers had any idea what any of those statements might mean? How many readers had any idea what it means to be told that space and time are able to jiggle?

By the way—can space and time jiggle on their own, each in its own separate way, without reference to the other? Or can space and time only jiggle as "space-time," the previously-mentioned conglomerate which very few New York Times readers could discuss, comprehend, picture or imagine in any serious way?

Whatever! By now, we would suggest that most readers were already lost in type of a "bottomless pit," before they even had a chance to wonder what that concept might mean in the current context.

Bottomless pits are known to exist in the realm of magical writing, but are there really "bottomless pits" in outer space? In what way could such pits actually be "bottomless?" How many New York Times readers would have any real idea?

Do people understand what they're reading when they read work of this type? As Overbye continued, the question arose again.

In paragraphs 11 and 12, readers encountered the various statements we highlight below. LIGO is an acronym for the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory:
OVERBYE: The discovery is a great triumph for three physicists—Kip Thorne of the California Institute of Technology, Rainer Weiss of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Ronald Drever, formerly of Caltech and now retired in Scotland—who bet their careers on the dream of measuring the most ineffable of Einstein's notions.

''Until now, we scientists have only seen warped space-time when it's calm,'' Dr. Thorne said in an email. ''It's as though we had only seen the ocean's surface on a calm day but had never seen it roiled in a storm, with crashing waves.''

The black holes that LIGO observed created a storm ''in which the flow of time speeded, then slowed, then speeded,'' he said. ''A storm with space bending this way, then that.''
Do you know what it means to be told that "the flow of time speeded, then slowed?" For ourselves, we can picture certain things. Does that mean that we actually know what this statement means?

Beyond that, we all can picture what it means when we're told that various objects "bent this way, then that," perhaps in a very high wind. Do we know what it means to be told that "space" did that? Do we have the slightest idea?

Twelve paragraphs into this lengthy report, we will guess that most Times were far out at sea, caught in some very strong breezes. Soon thereafter, Overbye began providing some basic background about the things Einstein said a hundred years ago.

Our advice: Prepare yourself to understand nothing of what's being said:
OVERBYE: When Einstein announced his theory in 1915, he rewrote the rules for space and time that had prevailed for more than 200 years, since the time of Newton, stipulating a static and fixed framework for the universe. Instead, Einstein said, matter and energy distort the geometry of the universe in the way a heavy sleeper causes a mattress to sag, producing the effect we call gravity.

A disturbance in the cosmos could cause space-time to stretch, collapse and even jiggle, like a mattress shaking when that sleeper rolls over, producing ripples of gravity: gravitational waves.

Einstein was not quite sure about these waves. In 1916, he told Karl Schwarzschild, the discoverer of black holes, that gravitational waves did not exist, then said they did. In 1936, he and his assistant Nathan Rosen set out to publish a paper debunking the idea before doing the same flip-flop again.
According to the equations physicists have settled on, gravitational waves would compress space in one direction and stretch it in another as they traveled outward.
Presumably, every Times reader can picture "the way a heavy sleeper" might "cause a mattress to sag."

(Presumably, we're talking about the weight of the sleeper's body, not the depth of his slumber.)

We all can picture that! That doesn't mean we have any idea what it means to be told that "matter and energy distort the geometry of the universe" in much the same way.

We all know what a mattress is. We don't know what "the geometry of the universe" is! For that reason, it's very hard to picture the latter behaving in the manner of the former. Homer would have skipped this simile, knowing it wouldn't help.


We all can imagine a 300-pound sleeper rolling over and making his mattress jiggle. That doesn't mean we have any idea what it means when we're told that "a disturbance in the cosmos," whatever that might be, "could cause space-time to jiggle" in much the same way. Judged by any normal standard, few Times readers had the slightest idea what Overbye's statement might mean.

We've looked at three chunks of the lengthy report which topped the front page of Friday's New York Times. At the point where we've left off, we're twenty paragraphs into a 57-paragraph piece. Very few readers have any idea what Overbye's talking about.

We don't mean to single Overbye out. He's a 71-year-old MIT grad who presumably knows a lot of math and science.

That said, he works in a field where we the humans display a large degree of tolerance for massive incoherence, confusion and incomprehension. Indeed, an entire industry is built around the promulgation of work of this type, in which we average shlubs are told that modern physics has been made so easy-to-understand that even a schoolchild can get it.

In closing, let's state the obvious. It doesn't actually "matter" if Times readers didn't understand Overbye's front-page report. It doesn't exactly matter if readers only think they understand the contents of Greene and Hawking's best-sellers.

Nothing much turns on our tolerance for this type of incomprehension. Our cell phones will still work for us in the morning even if we can't explain why.

That said, large branches of contemporary academics are built upon this type of incomprehension, of which we the people are extremely tolerant. And uh-oh!

In the last century, a big-name "philosopher" seemed to say that it has ever been thus.

Tomorrow: Obedient critics understand every word!

Thursday: Isaacson's nineteen professors


  1. Yep, all them whippersnappers talking 'bout things I don't understand, and using them big words and all.

    1. You don't understand. Scientists will sometimes try to use an analogy, but when the concept is too abstract the analogy can be misplaced and doesn't really help our understanding. Nevertheless, people (like you) will convince themselves that they understand quantum physics because they can picture a mattress sagging.

    2. On the contrary, I will never understand quantum physics. But I do enjoy reading about it and won't play so dumb as to pretend I can't learn anything because I do.

      Or maybe his feigned incomprehension is just another high horse Bob rides to point out yet more NYT incompetence.

  2. If you want to begin to understand, I recommend one of the free online courses offered by Harvard or Stanford. Start at the beginning with the foundational courses and work your way up.

    If, on the other hand, you are suggesting that papers ought not to present snippets of science news that gloss the deeper understandings of those making discoveries, because it produces a false sense of comprehension that is empty upon examination, I disagree. The wider society needs to know that scientists and other researchers are making progress in their areas of interest. The point is not what they found out or what they know, but the fact that knowledge is advancing.

    If you (Somerby) are suggesting that the scientists or philosophers themselves do not know what they are talking about (because trade books aimed at the general public are flawed), I think you are very wrong.

    There are no shortcuts. If you want to participate in discussion of this stuff, pay your dues and acquire the fundamentals. A long ago degree and casual reading won't do it. The fault is not with Green or Hawking or Einstein. It lies with your assumption that work intelligent people devote a lifetime to should be explainable in ways that are easy to understand within much effort. That is never true.

    1. within should be "without" -- sorry for typo

    2. Well said. I think this article did a pretty good job in sparking my curiosity to learn more. And even then, I realize that I will never have the full understanding Bob expects to get out of a single newspaper article.

  3. Mr. Somerby could have shortened his post to: Popularization of science topics, especially those involving cosmology, is very difficult, and few have the skill of Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson, or Dr. Carl Sagan.

  4. tdraicer: The language of physics is math. Without the math, explanations can only be metaphors. Apparently these metaphors don't work for Mr. Somerby, in which case he better learn the math.

  5. Scientists clearly don't meet the comedian's exacting standards.

  6. The "bottomless pit" of a black hole is a singularity. If you cross the event horizon of a black hole, you will fall into the singularity within a finite amount of your proper time, and on the way, you'll be stretched radially and squeezed transversely by infinite tidal forces.

    You don't understand that? Too bad, because I don't either.

    1. Here is something we can all comprehend.

  7. First TDH seems to ridicule Leibnitz, who was a co-discoverer (if that's the word) with Newton of calculus. Then he's upset because he doesn't understand astrophysics, after reading an article in the Times and perhaps some best-selling book. I know I don't understand these things, and don't expect the NYT to cure my ignorance. As another commentator said, these scientists, aside from being the cream of the crop mathwise, go to school for years to try to figure this stuff out, and even for them it's very difficult. For that matter, pretty much anything in the NYT or any other media source doesn't really explain many things on numerous subjects. What any of us know is only a small fraction of reality. This is apparently a pet peeve of TDH, but I don't think his point is really worth making.

  8. This stuff is not easy to comprehend even if you have some college level exposure to math and the physics of special relativity (which leads to the theory of General Relativity concerning gravity waves). A starting point in Wikipedia is which gives some background for "the geometry of the universe".

  9. Bob's point here is epic. Uncertainty is more common than most would like to think.

    Scientists, especially astrophysicists, frequently do not know much about their subject, they just know more than the average shlub. They guess at things and work hard to have the math fit their guesses. Their work isn't terribly applicable to everyday life. When you see people market themselves like some physicists do, you've got to be cautious of their goals and expertise.

    A physicist I know that works in environmental science (more noble to my sensibilities than astrophysics) had to write a chapter in a textbook about how physicists were using a very complex measuring technique incorrectly for decades and were getting skewed results.

    Another scientist I know is the lone person in their department that does not purposefully skew their results to bend to political will.

    If you've ever dealt with medical issues, you are likely aware of how little doctors really know. It can be disconcerting to have a Harvard educated internist look things up on the medical info network that they subscribe to.

    If you've ever dealt with auto mechanics, general contractors, lawyers, etc you will see there are actually very few experts that genuinely have expertise.

    1. Thanks Mr. Know It All.

  10. "If I could explain it to the average person, I wouldn't have been worth the Nobel Prize."

    Richard P. Feynman

    “What I am going to tell you about is what we teach our physics students in the third or fourth year of graduate school... It is my task to convince you not to turn away because you don't understand it. You see my physics students don't understand it... That is because I don't understand it. Nobody does.”
    ― Richard Feynman, QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter


  11. "...excitement runs high concerning the change of life which is currently scheduled for the start of the week." Bob Somerby

    Well it took exactly two posts for the excitement to turn into jeers in the combox, Brother Bob.