EINSTEIN MAKES EINSTEIN EASY: Ways to sell a difficult book!

WEDNESDAY, MARCH 16, 2016

Part 2—A certain claim quickly emerged:
Albert Einstein never quite said that he could make Einstein easy.

It's true that, in 1916, he wrote a short book about relativity, a slender volume which was aimed at the non-scientific reader.

Even there, as noted yesterday, Einstein stated in his preface that constructive use of his text would require "a fair amount of patience and force of will on the part of the reader." We'd call that a bit of a warning.

At the end of his preface, Einstein once again seemed to reject the idea that he could make Einstein easy. "I make no pretence of having withheld from the reader difficulties which are inherent to the subject," he understatedly said. By the end of his preface, it could almost be claimed that Einstein was offering only a bit of a prayer:

"May the book bring some one a few happy hours of suggestive thought!"

By now, it seemed that Einstein could imagine only one person enjoying his book, and for only a couple of hours at that.

In the body of Einstein's text, the demurrals persisted. Midway through his slender volume, he was introducing material with a disclaimer as daunting as this:

"I would mention at the outset, that this matter lays no small claims on the patience and on the power of abstraction of the reader."

Albert Einstein never said that he could make Einstein easy! That said, publishers have frequently made that claim or suggestion in the century since the book appeared. Major professors have often advanced variants of the same claim.

Can anyone make Einstein easy? To this point, it's our impression that the answer still seems to be no. That said, the claim surfaced almost instantly when Einstein's slender volume was published in the U.S., in English translation, in the year 1920.

Consider another slender volume which appeared that very year.

The book was written by E. E. Slosson, a respected and respectable journalist and chemist. In this excerpt, the leading authority on Slosson's life mentions the name of his slender book (my bold):
Edwin Emery Slosson (1865–1929) was an American magazine editor, author, journalist and chemist. He was the first head of Science Service, and a notable popularizer of science.

[...]

His many articles for The Independent about scientific topics won him a reputation as a leading popularizer of science. His book Creative Chemistry, published in 1919, was a collection of articles about industrial applications of chemistry...In 1920 he published another collection, Easy Lessons in Einstein, explaining the theory of relativity to a non-scientific audience.
In the inviting title of Slosson's book, the notion that Einstein could be made easy may have made its formal debut on the American stage.

(Slosson's book is now in the public domain. You can peruse it here.)

Let's be fair to Slosson! The inviting word "easy" was right up front in the title of his book. That said, storm clouds could already be spotted in the book's fuller title:

"Easy Lessons in Einstein: A Discussion of the More Intelligible Features of the Theory of Relativity"

That fuller title suggested the possibility that certain features of Einstein's theory might be less than easily intelligible.

(Then too, Slosson might have had high expectations for his readers in the general realm of intelligibility. His book began with a section which he called "A Prefatorial Dialogue." Modern readers, I'm just saying!)

Did E. E. Slosson mean to say that Einstein could be made easy? Whatever his intentions may have been, the inviting word had been introduced into the public discussion. And sure enough! The inviting word appeared again, that very same year, in a review of Einstein's book.

This review was written by Arthur Gordon Webster, a highly respected physicist who was founder and director of the American Physical Society. Webster's assessment of Einstein's slender volume appeared in October 1920 in The Weekly Review, an eggheaded publication of The National Weekly Corporation.

The word "easy" was present in the title of Webster's review. In fairness to whoever wrote it, the title was tongue in cheek:

"Relativity Made Relatively Easy"

According to that title, relativity had been made easy, or at least relatively so.

Did Webster think that Albert Einstein had actually made Einstein easy? In the nugget shown below, he quoted Einstein's preface and pandered a bit, then answered that question two different ways.

Had Einstein's book made Einstein easy? It was pretty much as Webster's readers liked it:
The book is "intended to give an exact insight into the theory to those who are not conversant with the mathematical apparatus of theoretical physics." In the opinion of the reviewer, in this attempt he has been eminently successful, that is, if an essentially mathematical notion can be made intelligible without algebraic symbols. There are a few symbols in this book but they are such as, if the reviewer can have his way, no person should graduate from college without understanding. I mean the elementary ideas of the infinitisemal calculus...
According to Webster, Einstein's slender volume provided an exact insight into his revolutionary theory—if an essentially mathematical notion can be made intelligible without algebraic symbols.

Einstein's use of mathematical symbols shouldn't bother the reader, Webster said—if the reader is a college graduate who's familiar with calculus.

To read Webster's full review, click here. In spite of the inviting word which appeared in his tongue-in-cheek title, we'll judge that Webster didn't say that Einstein had made Einstein easy.

In that same year, Slosson reviewed Einstein's book for the New York Evening Post. As best we can tell, only an excerpt remains on line. That excerpt also seems to warn that the slender new volume wasn't humongously easy.

By 1920, Slosson's "Easy Lessons" book had begun to float the idea that Einstein could be made easy. Webster's title floated the thought that he could be made relatively so.

Into this lofty world stepped the forces of commerce! Forty-one years later, Bonanza Books, an offshoot of Crown Publishers, Inc., decided to take the Slosson and Webster reviews and put them to profitable use. Bonanza would doctor the two reviews, creating reassuring blurbs for the edition of Einstein's historic book the company published in 1961.

The blurbs appear on the dust jacket of the copy of Einstein's book I purchased decades later. Each blurb had been edited to make it sound like Einstein's book had made Einstein easy. In the case of Webster's review, Bonanza attributed the blurb to the New York Times, a well-known big-name publication from which the blurb hadn't been drawn.

In the century since Einstein's book appeared, publishers have often been happy to suggest that it, and other similar books, can make Einstein easy. Well-known professors have played along with these fanciful claims and suggestions; reviewers have often leaped into print, swearing that the latest Einstein-made-easy book had truly accomplished this task.

Before we're done this week, we'll show you how Bonanza Books edited Slosson and Webster's reviews, creating reassuring blurbs from less sanguine reviews. Tomorrow, though, we'll start to ask this seminal question: How easy was Einstein's slender book?

How easy was Einstein's book? Prepare to gaze on excerpts.

Tomorrow: Less easy, perhaps, than is said

22 comments:

  1. Well...We're now into thousands of words saying only that Einstein isn't as easy as some people claim.

    Notice how few words it took to say that.

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    1. Well...

      It's clear you are not a student of philosophy, or you'd be quite used to wordiness and repetition (or, to be scrupulous, the appearance of wordiness or repetition generated in the minds of some by any text which interrogates another slowly and methodically)...

      Not that there's anything wrong with being something other than a student of philosophy...

      But that there is something very wrong with imagining you've uncovered any particular fault with a text in its length relative(!) to your own idiosyncratic valuation of its argument.

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  2. Well...We're now into thousands of words saying only that Einstein isn't as easy as some people claim.

    Notice how few words it took to say that.

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    1. One would think that a stand-up comic would know when the material is falling flat. And do something about it.

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    2. Slender gruel, in our view.

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  3. Slender is as slender does.

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  4. !n 1931 a song came out that contained the verse, "Yet, we get a trifle weary with Mr. Einstein's theory, so we must come down to earth some times". Some ten years later, this song became famous in the movie, Casablanca. The song, As Time Goes By. It is rarely sung with the Einstein verse.

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    1. I believe the composer's name was Herman Hupfeld, and, like Cole Porter, he created both words and music, such double-duty being something of a rarity in those days.

      I believe the hit recording was sung by Rudy Vallee. Back then, pop songs were divided into verse and chorus. Nowadays we usually remember only the chorus, which is why the Einstein reference is recalled only by aficionados such as EGB.

      To me, Gershwin's verses were almost as catchy as his choruses, but then he was a genius.

      Back to geniuses, at about the same, there appeared in The New Yorker magazine a cartoon for which Einstein supplied the caption, to wit: "People slowly accustomed themselves to the idea that the physical states of space itself were the final physical reality."

      As you can see, it was one of those New Yorker cartoons that evoked more smiles than belly laughs. I don't know whether Harold Ross ever paid Einstein for the caption, but it's as good as anything Thurber ever came up with.

      If any of you would like to see it, visit https://www.aip.org/history/exhibits/einstein/ae27.htm

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    2. The composer was Hupfeld. I am a docent at the Mission Inn in Riverside, CA. There were two macaws at the Inn. Joseph was the older one and roamed free in the courtyard. In 1931 he and his wife came by the Inn and became intrigued with the birds. An employee got Joseph down froma perch to show Einstein. The bird jumped on Einstein's arm and grabbed his finger.This did not break the skin but it made the finger so sore he couldn't practice his violin for three days. Mrs. Einstein was very upsetbut Einstein brushed off the incident. The common explanation is Joseph was old and cranky. But I jokingly offer a counter explanation that Joseph had heard the song and he too was "weary" of Einstein's theory. Case closed.

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    3. The composer was Hupfeld. I am a docent at the Mission Inn in Riverside, CA. There were two macaws at the Inn. Joseph was the older one and roamed free in the courtyard. In 1931 he and his wife came by the Inn and became intrigued with the birds. An employee got Joseph down froma perch to show Einstein. The bird jumped on Einstein's arm and grabbed his finger.This did not break the skin but it made the finger so sore he couldn't practice his violin for three days. Mrs. Einstein was very upsetbut Einstein brushed off the incident. The common explanation is Joseph was old and cranky. But I jokingly offer a counter explanation that Joseph had heard the song and he too was "weary" of Einstein's theory. Case closed.

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  5. Someone needs to write a book to make Somerby easy.

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    1. Dumb and Dumber Too: A Slenderella Story

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  6. You know, the whole thing about sitting on the stove basically got it for me.

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  7. Sure, Einstein is easy. But first you have to take the classes for undergraduate physics majors, not the one for "poets" that gets that pesky science course requirement out of the way. Of course, physics majors have to take the full calculus sequence, and a class or two in linear algebra would be helpful. Then Einstein's Special Theory of Relativity is within your grasp! But the General Theory... for that you need some graduate education, especially the grad school classical mechanics sequence (yes, that's still not only relevant, but essential) and a lot more math, especially the theory of tensors. But isn't science supposed to be fun? No, it isn't. And it's just one more thing in the Real World that can't be reduced to one of those entertaining little stories that pass for knowledge these days, especially on the Internet.

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    1. This is one of the reasons the dumb prefer vocations like real estate, politics, and blogging.

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    2. Yes, science is supposed to be fun. But it's like other games: the most talented and hardest working have the most fun.

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  8. Unless these theories are able to provide the secret to nuclear fusion or a shortish thrip to a distant livable planet I remain spectacle.

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  9. Unless these theories are able to provide the secret to nuclear fusion or a shortish thrip to a distant livable planet I remain spectacle.

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    1. Remain spectacle?

      A doubt-worthy claim.

      We think most would prefer to look away.

      Nevertheless, repeat it, click your shoes together, and you may have a shortish journey through space and time -- if we've learned anything from Hollywood.

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  10. Is this going somewhere? I keep waiting for this to resolve into an explanation of how naughty and tribal we liberals are.

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    1. Type "Hawking" into the Incomparable Archives. You'll see where it's heading. Nowhere.

      Boxcar Bob's Greatest Hits. Or so he thinks.

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