Epilogue: Einstein makes Einstein easy!

MONDAY, MARCH 21, 2016

Presenting next week's key text:
Next Monday, we'll continue our examination of what we've called the "culture of incoherence." This award-winning course of study will be unfolding months.

Next week, we plan to move to Nova's recent hour-long broadcast, Inside Einstein's Mind. You can watch the program here.

The Nova program aired last November. It was timed to coincide with the hundredth anniversary of the general theory of relativity.

Whatever that is!

Nova is reputed to be one of our brightest news orgs. Was Nova able to make Einstein easy? How about slightly intelligible?

Why not take the Nova challenge? Starting next Monday, we'll be reviewing a standard part of Einstein-made-easy material. As presented by Nova, it involves the man who's standing on the railroad platform and the lady who's passing by on the fast-moving train.

Complete with two lightning strikes!

Nova's imaginary situation is taken from Chapter 9 of Einstein's 1916 book for general readers, Relativity: The Special and the General Theory.

To read Einstein's book, you can just click here. Nova's treatment of the topic can be found roughly eleven minutes into its recent program.

Do you understand what Nova said about the man on the platform and the lady on the fast-moving train? Next week, we expect to suggest that no, you do not.

For your perusal, here's the relevant text. We're starting at 8:55 of the Nova broadcast:
PROFESSOR SCHAFFER: Einstein's world in 1905 was dominated by two kinds of physics. One was about 200 years old, founded by Isaac Newton, British natural philosopher.

For Newton, all there is in the world is matter, moving.

NARRATOR: Newton showed that the motion of falling apples and orbiting planets are governed by the same force—gravity.

His equations are so effective, we still use them today to send probes to the farthest reaches of the solar system.

The other important theory of Einstein's day covered electricity and magnetism. That branch of physics had been revolutionized in 1865 by the Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell.

Maxwell's theory described light as an electromagnetic wave that travels at a fixed speed.

In Newton's world, the speed of light is not fixed.

PROFESSOR SCHAFFER: Einstein could see that there's a contradiction between Newton and Maxwell. They just don't fit together. And one of the things Einstein, hated—hated!— was contradiction. If there's one kind of physics that says this, and another kind of physics that says that, and they're different, that's a sign that something's gone wrong, and it needs fixing.

NARRATOR: For months, Einstein wrestles with the problem. Eventually, to resolve this contradiction, he focuses on a key element of speed—time.

WALTER ISAACSON: He realized that any statement about time is simply a question about what is simultaneous. For example, if you say the train arrives at 7, that simply means that it gets to the platform simultaneous with the clock going to 7.

NARRATOR: In a brilliant thought experiment, he questions what "simultaneous" actually means, and sees that the flow of time is different for an observer that is moving versus one that is standing still.

He imagines a man standing on a railway platform. Two bolts of lightning strike on either side of him.

The man is standing exactly halfway between them, and the light from each strike reaches his eyes at exactly the same moment. For him, the two strikes are simultaneous.

Then, Einstein imagines a woman on a fast-moving train traveling at close to the speed of light. What would she see?

As the light travels out from the strikes, the train is moving towards one and away from the other. Light from the front strike reaches her eyes first.

For the woman on the train, time elapses between the two strikes. For the man on the platform, there is no time between the strikes.

This simple thought has mind-blowing significance. Simultaneity, and the flow of time itself, depends on how you're moving.

PROFESSOR CARROLL: If there's no such thing as simultaneity, then there's no such as absolute time everywhere throughout the universe, and Isaac Newton was wrong.

NARRATOR: This concept, that time and space as well are relative, became known as special relativity. It led to remarkable results, such as the famous equation relating energy to mass.
The highlighted statement, along with its earlier highlighted kissin' cousin, is said to have "mind-blowing significance."


Do you understand why that would be true? Do you even understand what the highlighted statement means? Do you understand how the statement can be derived from the example involving the man and the lady?

Next week, we expect to say you don't. We'll even explain our work!

After that, it's on to Chapter 9 of Einstein's book. Remember:

According to Isaacson, Einstein's teen-aged niece said it was clear as a bell!

Key disclosure: In his historic book, Einstein didn't mention a man and a lady. He merely described a railway platform and a fast-moving train.

Presumably, Nova added the man and the lady to introduce a hint of romance. Presumably, the PBS program was looking for ways to keep us the lunkheads involved.


  1. I couldn't understand E's theory if you gave me a million bucks, but so what? I do understand that it changed how we look at the world. That's enough for me.

  2. I've read all of your Einstein posts and I'm not sure what point it is your trying to make. Those trying to communicate his work in minimally-mathematic terms are challenged by the very nature of the beast. What is it that you desire? Are you looking for crystal-clear, non-mathematic explanations of relativity? It seems that would be like trying to teach someone Spanish without speaking Spanish.

    1. "Are you looking for crystal-clear, non-mathematic explanations of relativity?"

      If you've really read all of these posts -- and there have been quite a few of them! -- I honestly don't understand how you could ask this question.

      Somerby obviously hasn't been looking for an explanation of relativity.

      He's been looking at how we talk about the explanations we do have. We often call these explanations "easy to understand." Somerby has been wondering why in the world we do that.

      For some, that's an interesting question.

    2. Oh, so it's a question of truth in advertising, is it? Calling explanations "somewhat easier to understand" or "somewhat less abstruse" just don't have the same ring to them.

    3. Alex Jones' CreditorMarch 22, 2016 at 1:33 PM

      "We often call these explanations 'easy to understand.'"

      A chorus of one.

    4. Did you notice that you used the phrase "truth in advertising" when discussing book reviews? No pretense anymore; just salesmen all the way down.

  3. Your scientists don't say how far apart the two strikes are (not very scientific of them) but if they were some few yards on either side of the man I'm thinking all the woman would see was one blinding flash of light. How might her experience differ if they were a mile on either side of her love interest?

    This business provides no help for those of us who count seconds between the lightning and the thunder to gauge how far away the strikes are hitting. As for the two famous trains that leave Chicago and Cleveland toward each other at different speeds...

  4. I don't think that the man and the woman were added in order to provide a hint of romance, but to provide clarity. Their presence makes it so that you can refer to "him", and "her" in order to tell us whose perspective is being considered at any given time, without having to make the example too wordy.

  5. I agree, gordo. Also, it's PC to include both sexes.

    I have a feeling that Bob doesn't really believe in relativity. I suspect that in his heart, Bob thinks that the two lightning strikes "really" happened simultaneously -- that the stationary man's perception is correct, while the moving woman's perception is distorted by her motion.

    1. California Coloring BookMarch 22, 2016 at 12:06 AM

      I thinks it's great that a dictator can make the trains run on time.

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  8. Does Bob Somerby understand why Al Gore never became President? Does he understand anythging about politics, journalism, or even network television news. Does he even understand standardized school testing?

    Next week, we expect to say he doesn't. We'll even explain our work!

    1. All three network television news casts led their reports with deflategate stories. Do you understand why?

      I always hated Toto. That dog is like those jerks that tell how magicians do their tricks.

  9. "Presumably, Nova added the man and the lady to introduce a hint of romance. Presumably, the PBS program was looking for ways to keep us the lunkheads involved."

    Bob, you used to warn us about writers who craftily used words like "presumably" to put their thumb on the scales.

    1. Bob has always written with his middle finger in his readers faces.

    2. @10:28

      That must be difficult for B.S. to hold his nose with one hand, flip the bird with his other hand, and still manage to manipulate a key board.

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