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.According to Garner, this new best-seller isn't just "brief." It's also pleasingly "short!"
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.
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.Almost surely, those literature majors won't understand anything Rovelli says about "the curvature of space and time."
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!”
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