TUESDAY, MARCH 15, 2016
Part 1—Origins of a false claim: I have here in my hand a slender, significant volume. As of this year, the original text of the book in question is exactly one hundred years old.
The book was written by Albert Einstein, the last century's most famous physicist. In the United States, the book is now in the public domain.
The edition of the book I own was originally published in 1961, by Bonanza Books, an offshoot of Crown Publishers, Inc., a subsidiary of Random House. I purchased my copy several decades after that date, for $2.98 (the price tag remains), from a remainders shelf.
On the cover of the book I purchased, Bonanza Books made a remarkable claim. Before we review what Bonanza said, let's establish a bit of background:
In the summer of 05, Einstein was 26. Despite or because of his manifest genius, he'd been unable to attain an academic position to this point in his life, or even a doctoral degree.
For that reason, Einstein was working as a Swiss patent clerk and pursuing physics "in his spare time." So Walter Isaacson put it in his best-selling biography, Einstein: His Life and Universe.
Rather plainly, Einstein had been putting his spare time to good use. In the summer of 1905, he was in the midst of the "miracle year" which would make him world-famous.
In that year, Einstein produced four or five scientific papers which triggered a set of scientific revolutions. In one of the papers, he laid the groundwork for what is today called quantum mechanics. In another paper, he presented the work which is called the special theory of relativity.
Ten years later, in 1915, Einstein produced the general theory of relativity, the second part of his relativity revolution.
The very next year, Einstein decided to write a book to help general readers wrestle with his new theories. By then, his theories were sweeping the world and creating vast waves of confusion.
Einstein's slender volume was published in German in 1916, in English in 1920. The book bore a straightforward title:
"Relativity: The Special and The General Theory"
An important point should be established without further delay. Albert Einstein never said that his book would make Einstein easy.
Einstein's claims for himself as a popular writer were considerably more modest than that. At the start of his book's short preface, he stated this intention, as translated by Robert Lawson:
"The present book is intended, as far as possible, to give an exact insight into the theory of Relativity to those readers who, from a general scientific and philosophical point of view, are interested in the theory, but who are not conversant with the mathematical apparatus of theoretical physics. The book presumes a standard of education corresponding to that of a university matriculation examination, and, despite the shortness of the book, a fair amount of patience and force of will on the part of the reader."
Just for the record, a university matriculation examination is a college entrance exam. What had Einstein therefore said in the passage we've quoted?
On the one hand, Einstein had said that a college student should be able to gain insight from his new popular book. On the other hand, he'd also said that patience and will power were going to be required.
He didn't say that his book would be easy. As he ended his preface, he added this further disclaimer:
"I make no pretence of having withheld from the reader difficulties which are inherent to the subject. On the other hand, I have purposely treated the empirical physical foundations of the theory in a 'step-motherly' fashion, so that readers unfamiliar with physics may not feel like the wanderer who was unable to see the forest for trees. May the book bring some one a few happy hours of suggestive thought!"
Einstein had ended on a mixed note. Despite the difficulties inherent in the subject, he said his book might bring "a few hour of suggestive thought" to a determined and disciplined reader.
He didn't say that the slender volume was going to make Einstein easy. One hundred years later, here's a question:
For those of us who aren't conversant with the mathematical apparatus of theoretical physics, was Einstein able to make his work accessible at all?
We'll tackle that question in bits and pieces as our course of study continues. That said, you might not go completely wrong if you place your bet on "no" in your next office pool on the subject.
We know one thing for certain. In the century which has passed since this book's initial appearance, publishers have routinely been less modest about its contents than Einstein, its author, was.
So it was in 1961, at Bonanza Books, an offshoot of Crown Publishers, Inc., where someone on the marketing end apparently hoped to move product.
On the cover of the book I own, the title of Einstein's volume appears, perched above a photograph of the author. But uh-oh! Directly below that photograph, this remarkable claim appears:
"A CLEAR EXPLANATION THAT ANYONE CAN UNDERSTAND"
A clear explanation that anyone can understand! One of these fearless nightclub comedians might burlesque that claim this way:
A clear explanation that anyone can understand. Except you and your family and friends!
(To view the cover to which we refer, you can just click here.)
"A clear explanation that anyone can understand?" That isn't what Einstein promised. Beyond that, the claim is cosmic rubbish, whether in the standard three dimensions or the more challenging four.
It gets worse! Two blurbs appear inside the dust jacket of my book. Each blurb seems to say that the book I decided to purchase actually makes Einstein easy.
As it turns out, each of these blurbs dates to 1920. Each of the blurbs had been edited to make it more reassuring than the original text from which it was drawn.
(One of the blurbs had been doctored in a second way. Bonanza attributed it to the New York Times, even though it actually came from a much more obscure publication.)
Tomorrow, we'll continue from here. As we end today's rumination, we include a modest spoiler:
In fact, most readers who pass that matriculation exam will find Einstein's book extremely difficult, unless they con themselves into failing to notice this fact.
Down through the years, many blurbs for Einstein's book have encouraged that type of self-deception. It's part of a fascinating academic / journalistic / publishing culture, a sprawling culture we'll continue to call "the culture of incoherence."
The culture spreads through many parts of our low-speed, low-IQ modern world. What did Wittgenstein have to say about this ubiquitous culture?
You're asking an intriguing question. But you're getting ahead of our tale.
Tomorrow: Blurbs and whispers
Coming Thursday: Samples of Einstein's easy-to-understand text