EINSTEIN MAKES EINSTEN EASY: How easy was Einstein's slender book?

THURSDAY, MARCH 17, 2016

Part 3—Let's take a look at the excerpts:
By all accounts, Albert Einstein should be counted among the handful of greatest geniuses in all of what our scholars insist on calling human history.

That said, Einstein's genius wasn't always completely helpful during his early years. His genius was apparently accompanied by an occasional air of disdain for his laggard professors. According to biographer Walter Isaacson, this attitude tended to slow Einstein's academic and professional rise.

In 1905, at age 26, Einstein authored his famous "miracle year," presenting four or five scientific papers which would revolutionize physics.

That said, recognition of his genius had been slow in coming. At that point, he still held no academic position, or even a doctoral degree.

Three years later, in 1908, Einstein even applied, without success, for a high school teaching job. In an act which made the gods roar with laughter, he submitted the special theory of relativity as a sample of his work.

"There were twenty-one applicants," Isaacson notes in his book, Einstein: His Life and Universe. "Einstein did not even make the list of three finalists."

By this time, major stars in the academic world were beginning to recognize Einstein's work. Elsewhere, the wheels of recognition were grinding somewhat slow, as Isaacson wryly observes.

Widespread recognition occurred within the next few years. In 1915, Einstein extended his work, presenting the general theory of relativity. This led to the publishing event we've discussed in our last two reports.

In 1916, Einstein wrote a slender book in which he sought to explain his scientific revolution to general readers. In 1920, the book was translated into English and published in the U.S.

By now, Einstein was world famous, but it was still believed by a few malcontents that his ideas were maybe perhaps just a bit hard to explain. One such grumbler was Arthur Gordon Webster, the high-ranking American professor of physics to whom we referred in yesterday's post.

For whatever damn fool reason, Webster thought Einstein was hard. In an essay in January 1920, the slightly grouchy, befuddled professor made few bones about this fact.

Webster's essay appeared in The Weekly Review, an egghead publication which has long been defunct. Einstein's slender volume hadn't yet appeared in English.

Rather plainly, Professor Webster didn't think Einstein was easy. Below, you see the way he began his essay, which bore the title "Einstein and the Man in the Street:"
When I was asked to write an article explaining the principle of relativity to the man in street I felt very much like quoting the words of Faustus:

So soll ich denn mit saurem Schweiss
Euch lehren was ich selbst nicht weiss?


I do not entirely understand the principle of relativity and it is impossible for the man in the street to comprehend it...
When Webster quoted Faustus, he used only one English word—"was!" Readers were expected to understand German and, beyond that, to accept Webster's sense of despair.

As Webster continued, he quickly criticized "the explanations I have seen in the daily papers," which "do not in the least explain why rays of light should be bent by gravitational attraction." In those days, professors were still perhaps disinclined to claim or suggest that someone's book, news report or promotional T-shirt had somehow made Einstein easy.

Grumpily, Webster continued at length; you can read his whole article here. He closed with an early example of snark: "This is the best that I am able to do for the man in the street."

By late October of that same year, Webster's attitude had improved. He returned to The Weekly Review to wrote a formal review of Einstein's book, which had now appeared in English.

Yesterday, we quoted an excerpt of that review, in which Webster seemed to say that college graduates who knew some calculus might have a fighting chance with parts of Einstein's book. But despite a possible pander or two, he still wasn't willing to call Einstein easy.

"Relativity Made Relatively Easy" (our italics) was his puckish title that day.

Well, time passed, and now it seemed, everybody was having a dream! In 1961, Bonanza Books, an offshoot of Crown Publishers, Inc., published a new edition of Einstein's slender volume.

Apparently, someone in marketing decided to con the public while they were at it. They pulled a selective excerpt from Webster's review, thus producing an upbeat blurb which seemed to claim that "any attentive reader" could certainly gain from Einstein's book.

One good con deserving another, Bonanza attributed Webster's blurb to the New York Times, a well-known daily newspaper of exactly the type he had criticized back in 1920. They saved their greatest con for the cover of the book, which featured Einstein's weathered face along with this absurd characterization of his slender text:

A CLEAR EXPLANATION THAT ANYONE CAN UNDERSTAND

Full stop! From that day to this, silly deceptions of this type have been common in the publishing world, as major professors say and imply that their books have made Einstein easy.

In such ways, the professors manage to augment their meager six-figure salaries. In the process, our society's fascinating "culture of incoherence" just keeps rolling along.

Just how easy was Einstein's book, whether in 1916, 1920 or 1961? As Professor Webster understood, Einstein's work, and Einstein's book, were never especially easy.

Einstein had tried to make his work accessible to at least some of those men (and women) in the street. But as we've noted in our earlier posts, he never promised a rose garden to the man in the street, and he certainly didn't create one.

We'd planned to offer excerpts today from Einstein's slender volume. In our view, a few excerpts from early parts of the book might help most people start to suspect that Albert Einstein's slender volume didn't make Einstein easy.

We think we'll postpone those treats till tomorrow, when we'll conclude this week's work. For today, we'll suggest that you swim in the sea of despond once voiced by Professor Webster.

In 1920, Professor Webster rolled his eyes at the idea that Einstein could be made easy. In 1961, Bonanza, an offshoot of Crown, doctored his words, helping the man in the bookstore acquire a different impression.

Major professors have played this game, in various ways, from that day to this. Next week, we'll join the gods on Olympus in laughter as we examine a recent attempt by Nova to explain Einstein's work.

Nova was working directly from Einstein's slender book. In fact, they were working from an early part of the book, the part involving the two lightning strikes and the fast-moving train.

Nova was working from page 24 of Einstein's book, a slender volume whose short pages contain few words.

By then, after just a few thousand words, Einstein's presentation was already unclear. Pretending they could make Einstein easy, Nova made matters worse.

Tomorrow: Let's take a look at the excerpts! Also, Einstein's focus group

17 comments:

  1. That's not the English word "was"! It's German, and it means "what". Golly.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Methinks you missed a little joke.

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  2. impCaesarAvg - I'm pretty sure that Bob was making a mild joke.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. He made lots of mild jokes in his career. In our view, that is why he is blogging to the likes of us today.

      Our guess? Collectively we three may be as much as half of his slender audience.

      That said, if it was a mild joke, iCA's reaction indicates Bob's work ist fuzzy.

      Delete
  3. In 1939 a group of concerned scientists met Einstein in his Princeton home and pleaded with him to write President Roosevelt a letter explaining the dire implications of his theories upon the development of superweapons capable of destroying all life on earth. The great scientist not only agreed to write such a letter, but to put it in terms so simple even a politician would understand.

    Unhappily, Roosevelt found Einstein's letter so impenetrable he had to set it aside after struggling gamely with the first few paragraphs, preferring instead to resume a well-thumbed volume of Kipling.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That letter was drafted by Leo Szilard. Einstein signed it because his name was better known. Though not as well known as Einstein, Szilard was a brilliant physicist.

      Delete
    2. Oh, you must mean the SECOND letter.

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    3. The letter was easy to read.

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Einstein%E2%80%93Szil%C3%A1rd_letter

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    1. Thanks Wendy for your help allowing Bob's Comment Box to break into double figures on two out of three posts yesterday. We know it was not easy.

      Your slender volume of thoughts bear witness to those of Bob.

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