BREAKING: Einstein-made-easy biz strikes again!


New product yields more confusion:
Sure enough! Right on time, the "Einstein made easy" business has struck again.

Its latest product was announced in Wednesday's New York Times. At the start of the Times review, Dwight Garner said the new easy-to-understand best-selling book possesses two principal virtues.

The new book is extremely short, Garner said. Also, its statements are "resonant:"
GARNER (3/23/16): The short and resonant essays in Carlo Rovelli’s “Seven Brief Lessons on Physics” began as columns in Il Sole 24 Ore, the Italian newspaper. Even better, they appeared in that paper’s culture section, its editors sensing that its arty readers could use a bit of stretching.

Mr. Rovelli is a theoretical physicist, one of the founders of loop quantum gravity theory, and he possesses a welcoming prose style. His columns were a sensation. First gathered into a book in Italy two years ago, they outsold “Fifty Shades of Grey” in that country. The book has gone on to be a best seller in several countries including, this month, the United States.

Of the five words in this book’s title, the second explains its immediate appeal. If one is going to make one’s head hurt—and some of the counterintuitive aspects of quantum mechanics made even Einstein’s head hurt—short doses have their appeal.

The essays in “Seven Brief Lessons on Physics” arrive like shots of espresso, which you can consume the way the Italians do, quickly and while standing up. As slim as a volume of poetry, Mr. Rovelli’s book also has that tantalizing quality that good books of poems have; it artfully hints at meanings beyond its immediate scope.
According to Garner, this new best-seller isn't just "brief." It's also pleasingly "short!"

Its author has "a welcoming style." Also, the new book, whose essays are "resonant," "artfully hints at meanings beyond its immediate scope."

This is a way of telling you that won't understand this book. That said, you may not know that you don't understand it. This takes us to the basic trick of the Einstein-made-easy trade, in which we're offered the aesthetic experience of imagining that we understand something quite deep.

As he continues, Garner quotes some of the things readers won't understand, without betraying the game. At one point, he quotes Rovelli saying this: “space is granular, time does not exist, and things are nowhere.”

Almost surely, you'll understand none of that even after play-reading this book. You will get the pleasure of being stroked. Below, Garner describes the game without explaining the game:
GARNER: Mr. Rovelli, who is director of the quantum gravity group at the Centre de Physique Theorique of Aix-Marseille University in Provence, understands that the way to reach fickle literature majors (his book is for “those who know little or nothing about modern science”) is to appeal to their aesthetic sensibilities.

He compares Einstein’s general theory of relativity
—which explains that the force of gravity, as we perceive it, actually arises from the curvature of space and time—to Mozart’s “Requiem,” Homer’s “Odyssey,” the Sistine Chapel and “King Lear” in terms of its soul-expanding qualities. He reminds us that the word “quark” was plucked, by the American physicist Murray Gell-Mann, from a seemingly meaningless word in a nonsensical phrase in “Finnegans Wake”: “Three quarks for Muster Mark!”
Almost surely, those literature majors won't understand anything Rovelli says about "the curvature of space and time."

On the bright side, they'll be distracted from noticing that, and they'll have their souls expanded, as Rovelli cites Mozart and Finnegan's Wake—another book that no one ever came within a New York light-year of "understanding."

We haven't read Rovelli's book yet, except for the opening passage available on line. That said, what kinds of problems do readers encounter when they start thumbing such books?

They encounter the culture of incoherence! Consider this early passage, in which we've highlighted two unusual statements:
ROVELLI (pages 6-7): Newton had tried to explain the reason why things fall and the planets turn. He had imagined the existence of a "force" that draws all material bodies toward one another and called it "the force of gravity." How this force was exerted between things distant from each other, without there being anything between them, was unknown—and the great father of modern science was cautious of offering a hypothesis. Newton had also imagined that bodies move through space and that space is a great empty container, a large box that enclosed the universe, an immense structure through which all objects move true until a force obliges their trajectory to curve. What this "space" was made of, this container of the world he invented, Newton could not say...
We're only on page 6. Already, readers will have no idea what Rovelli's talking about, although they may not notice.


"Newton had also imagined that bodies move through space?"

What could Rovelli possibly mean by that? Why would Newton, or anyone else, have to imagine that bodies (objects) move through space?

If you go to a major league baseball game next month, you'll see an object, in this case a baseball, move roughly sixty feet through space at least two hundred times. On occasion, you'll see someone hit that object with a bat; as a result, you may see the object travel an additional 400 feet through space.

Rovelli's is the kind of peculiar statement which riddle Einstein-made-easy books, often passing without the reader's notice. By the way:

"What this 'space' was made of, this container of the world he invented, Newton could not say?"

Does that statement seem to make sense? We all understand what it mean to explain what a baseball is made of—or a baseball bat. But what would it mean to try to explain what space is made of? Do you have any idea?

Is it your impression that "space" is made of anything at all in any conventional sense? Has another peculiar formulation slid by, again without being noticed?

As a general matter, Einstein-made-easy books are full of such formulations. Because these formulations employ no technical language, readers routinely fail to recognize an obvious fact:

They don't understand these formulations! That is, they couldn't explain what these formulations mean if somebody asked them to do so.

As far as we know, there is no standard name for such formulations. That said, they're similar to the type of formulation to which Wittgenstein referred in this statement from Philosophical Investigations:

"Philosophical problems arise when language goes on holiday."

By that he meant this:

Conceptual confusion enters the world when familiar pieces of language are removed from the familiar contexts in which we understand their use, their application, their meaning—when they're kidnapped for use in entirely new contexts where, in truth, their meaning is unclear, even to the professors who have performed the kidnapping.

We recently heard something very good about Liam Neeson the actual person. If Neeson the actor wants to extend his Taken franchise, he could cast himself in the role of Wittgenstein attempting to explain where "philosophical problems" and other forms of confusion come from.

In this new movie, we won't enjoy a titillating scene in which Neeson's daughter disappears in a flash from a hiding place beneath a bed. More loftily, we'll see normal expressions yanked from their normal surroundings and taken to distant ports of call, where they create all sorts of confusion in ways which, on the bright side, do move "resonant" product.

On Monday, we'll be returning to our award-winning course of study on "the culture of incoherence." We'll spend the week exploring one part of Nova's recent program on the general theory of relativity.

That new Nova program aired in November. You can watch it here.

After spending a week on Nova, we'll look at the part of Einstein's 1916 book from which Nova was working in the part of its program which we will review. After that, we'll spend some time exploring Wittgenstein's musings on "language gone wild."

Rovelli's book is brief and short; our course of study will be long. It's easy to create incoherence, hard to get it untangled. As Wittgenstein tormentedly put it:

"We feel as if we had to repair a torn spider's web with our bare hands."

Alas, poor Wittgenstein! People seemed to notice the torment more than the prescriptions for clarity.

Starting Monday: Nova's extremely fast train


  1. We look forward to Bob taking us through another week of things he does not understand.*

    * Bob does not understand the things he does not admit to not understanding either. Alas, poor readers, that is a matter for every week.

    1. Bless his heart, he tries real hard.

  2. It is the essence of poetry that words are taken from their normal contexts and used as metaphors to express ideas and evoke emotion. Their virtue is that the reader can understand much more by their use than would be possible if the words remained in their original contexts. Does this practice undermine meaning or does it create new meaning? Certainly it creates the opportunity for readers to impose (project) their own understandings on what is written. That gives the reader greater satisfaction, in much the same way as Somerby's readers are "stroked". Is this wrong to do? If yes, then the entire fields of literature, especially poetry, are corrupt, empty, meaningless and flattering. This "problem" may be why science majors have such trouble with their introductory literature courses.

    Does Somerby want to overturn the humanities or does he want the sciences to stop putting out books using words -- math is the language of science after all. Or does Somerby want people to agree that meanings are so squishy in these books that no one can agree on the correct interpretation, much as they agree to disagree about interpretations of poems?

    Again, I don't see what all the fuss is about.

    1. "Again, I don't see..."

      Again, we noticed. You seem never to tire of showing off how deeply you can misunderstand Somerby's intentions.

    2. Again, from deep in bloggerm bowels you know his true intentions and that they are such that nary a question about them can be raised.

  3. Will somebody who loves and cares for Bob Somerby please lead him away from his computer and his blog for a much needed and long rest?

    1. An old fool and his obsessions can never be parted.

  4. CalTech's "The Mechanical Universe... and Beyond" is a good introduction to college level physics for the laymen, and has good explanations of special relativity.

  5. Coming Monday: Four simple questions reveal whether the speed of Nova's train is dictated by the authoritarian need for it to be on time.

  6. Resonant, eh? This is one of those words like luminous that I avoid. When a novel is described as having "luminous prose" I move on to the next review, as was the case with a work by a woman with the unlikely name of "Jhumpa".

    1. If the review says either "luminous" or "lyrical" I know I would hate it. Next.

  7. Resonant, eh? This is one of those words like luminous that I avoid. When a novel is described as having "luminous prose" I move on to the next review, as was the case with a work by a woman with the unlikely name of "Jhumpa".

  8. What does it mean to "understand" relativity theory? One can understand the math. One can be aware of the implications, such as chain reactions. But, do those two things constitute "understanding"?

    I feel that understand Newtonian mechanics, because I can see it. It's intuitive to me. I see things falling. I see bodies in orbits. I see bodies accelerating or decelerating. But, I can't see matter turning into energy, and I can't even visualize it. I can't visualize time slowing down or space curving. I wonder if anyone can really visualize these things. Maybe we shouldn't expect anyone to understand relativity theory in the same way that we understand Newtonian physics.

    1. Your feeling that you understand Newtonian mechanics is an illusion. The earth supposedly pulls the moon, but there's no cable. How in heck does the earth pull the moon? Newton himself didn't understand that. Every tiny speck of dust supposedly attracts every other speck, but that's never been measured. We accept it because the theory seems to work in cases we can measure.

      By the principal of inertia, a body should keep going in a straight line at a constant speed forever. You've never seen anything like that. You throw a ball, and it stops pretty soon.

      In special relativity, matter doesn't turn into energy. It IS energy, highly concentrated. Of course, I don't see that either. The theory, with that concept, gives quantitatively correct results, so I accept it.

    2. Better to demonstrate inertia by contrasting the travel of a hockey puck traveling on ice, the puck is less affected than a thrown ball which is acted upon by the outside force of resistance/friction caused by its traveling through the atmosphere and the outside force of resistance/friction from its encounter with the ground because of the direction of travel caused by the outside force of gravity. The hockey puck is likewise being acted upon by those outside forces but their combined effects are slower to become evident to the human observer and the contrast argues in favor of Newton's first law of motion.

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    4. Mike, you better have an infinite ice sheet, with zero friction. Inertia is just an idea, like the points and lines of Euclidean geometry. They're not real things in the world, but they can be used in a theory which gives results that agree pretty closely with experiment. So, no, you and David don't understand Newtonian physics, and you've never seen a Newtonian world.

      It's a good theory, heck, it's a great theory, but it's not the real world, which is incomprehensible.

    5. Now that you mention it, maybe I have heard something about this way to look at things a couple of times before. [LINK]

      [The following might require using a browser without an ad blocker.]


      (The second half of this episode has a go at the Einstein made easy genre. [LINK])

  9. The fact that no one has ever understood the Trinity hasn't slowed down Christianity.

    1. This is silly; Christians claim to understand the Trinity.

  10. I have no desire to understand AE because it is beyond me. I don't understand the composition of classical music either, but I appreciate it.

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  13. Sorry for the following off-topic post, but I'm just now getting caught up with some of Somerby's posts from last week and felt compelled to put my two cents in about Thursday's Howler:

    Somerby Self-Assurance Watch

    "Presumably, that's good for Ezra's bottom line." Bob is clearly insinuating that Ezra irresponsibly hired an unqualified person just because it would save him money. Does Bob have any real evidence of this? Of course not, but Bob makes the nasty insinuation anyway.

    "Respondents favored 'protesters were responsible,' 54-28." On the basis of this premise, Bob clearly implies that the protests will be politically damaging to Democrats. Does this conclusion truly follow from that premise? No, not really. I guess it's POSSIBLE that fewer people will vote Democrat (or more will vote Republican) as a result of what these protesters did, but there's absolutely no way of knowing this. Also, it is because of these protesters that Trump said some of the most shocking, ugly, and presumably politically damaging things a major U.S. politician has ever said. Here is a short video compilation of them:
    Which is more likely: fewer people will vote for Clinton and more for Trump because they blame Trump protesters for the violent incidents at Trump events, or fewer people will vote for Trump because of the unbelievably ugly and irresponsible things he said in reaction to the protesters?

    "Increasingly, we the liberals are turning our political movements over to very young, highly inexperienced people." Who are these liberals exactly who are turning things over to young people? Bob, did you make a decision to turn things over to them? I didn't. No one I know has. People, regardless of their age, are free to do this sort of thing . . . and so some have chosen to do so of their own accord. Are older liberals supposed to stop them?

    "It's helpful when we lesser beings understand such facts." A patronizing "we" if ever there was one.

    1. Excellent points even if late, and tardiness neve stopped Bob Somerby so why feel the need to apologize yourself.

      The insinuation about Ezra is part of Bob thinking an effective way to denigrate more successful "peers" like Klein and Josh Marshall is to call them "businessmen."
      That way failure in your field can be automatically claimed as a moral victory. It's Bob's own favorite slogan from his personal Ministry of Truth.

      Bob and Drum chose to highlight the one poll number favorable to Trump. He disppeared the rest, just as he accuses others of doing (see Maddow on EPA blame in Flint for example).

  14. by the way, the violence at Trump's rallies came to a head in early March - in terms of media coverage. check out these two poll averages since that time:

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