Prologue–One hundred years of confusion: In 1905, at age 26, Albert Einstein began a revolution.
Ten years later, in 1915, he presented the work which is now described as the general theory of relativity. For the past hundred years, journalists, professors and science writers have been trying to explain what he discovered, invented or said.
Late last November, Nova launched the latest attempt. The PBS org aired an hour-long program, Inside Einstein's Mind, timed to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of the general theory.
To watch the entire program, click here. The program opens like this:
Nova/Inside Einstein's Mind:According to the narrator, Einstein "tamed gravity." In the process, he "changed everything we thought we knew about the universe."
NARRATOR: It's a mysterious force that shapes our universe.
It feels familiar, but it's far stranger than anyone ever imagined. And yet, one man's brilliant mind tamed it:
Using simple thought experiments, Albert Einstein made an astonishing discovery:
Time and space are shaped by matter.
PROFESSOR JOHNSON: We get rid of this force of gravity, and instead we have curvature of spacetime.
PROFESSOR LEVIN: Right now, the space around me is being squeezed and stretched.
NARRATOR: He called it "the general theory of relativity." How did one person, working almost entirely alone, change everything we thought we knew about the universe?
UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER: Einstein is toiling as the world seems to be falling apart.
PROFESSOR DIJKGRAAF: He was able, with pure thought, to solve the riddle of the universe.
NARRATOR: Inside Einstein's Mind. Right now, on Nova.
Professor Dijkgraaf went that one better. According to him, Einstein "solved the riddle of the universe" with the general theory.
Let's offer a basic conjecture. At this point in the hour-long program, very few PBS viewers could have explained what Nova was talking about.
More specifically, very few viewers could have explained what it means to say that "time and space are shaped by matter," the narrator's nugget statement.
Few viewers could have explained the subsequent statements by two professors. We refer to the statement that Einstein got rid of gravity, replacing it with "curvature of spacetime." Also, to the statement that the space around Professor Levin was "being stretched" as she spoke.
Let's go beyond that. Presumably, few viewers could have explained an apparent contradiction which seems to occur within that introductory passage, which runs one minute and ten seconds.
We refer to the narrator's apparent claim that gravity is a "mysterious force that shapes our universe," as compared to Professor Johnson's subsequent statement, in which he says that Einstein "got rid of this force of gravity."
Whatever! In theory, it doesn't matter if PBS viewers couldn't explain the overview statements made at the start of this program. In theory, the subsequent hour would be devoted to explaining the "astonishing discovery" Einstein made.
Let's be fair! If Einstein's discovery was so primal–if it really did "change everything we thought we knew about the universe"–it may not be surprising if those introductory statements still seem puzzling, even if a hundred years have passed since the discovery in question.
A skunk might wonder why Einstein's discovery would still seem confusing, even after orgs like Nova have had a hundred years to explain it. Such skeptics could perhaps be said to lack a devotion to the journalistic and publishing cons which have been perpetrated down through the years–to the "culture of incoherence" in which our culture swims.
Whatever! It really shouldn't be all that surprising if PBS viewers couldn't explain this program's opening minute. A hundred years later, relativity is still widely understood to be confusing, quite "hard."
In airing this program, Nova and PBS were alleging that they could "dispel the confusion"–that they could elucidate, clarify or explain Einstein's hundred-year-old theory.
Last November, we sat before our TV screen, eager for elucidation. At roughly the eleven-minute mark in the program, we thought we saw one of the worst "non-explanation explanations" we have ever seen.
Starting tomorrow, we'll examine that non-explanation explanation. It involves the man standing on the railway platform and the lady passing by on the (very) fast-moving train.
Next week, we'll look at Chapters 8 and 9 in Einstein's slender volume from 1916, chapters Nova was closely tracking in its non-explanation. How clearly did Einstein explain his revolutionary discoveries?
To examine Einstein's slender volume, click here. According to Walter Isaacson, Einstein felt the book would be understandable for general readers because he read its contents to his teen-aged niece, who (falsely) told her uncle that she understood it.
One hundred years later, Nova became the latest to try. In our view, its effort began to collapse around the ten-minute mark.
Despite that collapse, the narrator continued ahead. You probably know what we're going to say:
It's all part of a hundred-year-old culture of incoherence!
Tomorrow: Let's take a look at the transcript!