THE LATEST ATTEMPT TO EXPLAIN: Did Nova enroll us in fantasy camp?


Part 1–Its first attempt to explain:
At the 90-second mark, Nova's latest broadcast about Albert Einstein builds on its nugget statement.

The hour-long PBS program, Inside Einstein's Mind, first aired last November. It was scheduled to coincide with the hundredth anniversary of Einstein's "general theory of relativity."

To watch the entire program, click here. If you choose to watch the program, this is what you'll see:

In the program's first 1:15, Nova's narrator offers an overview of what is to come. Almost surely, that overview will be hard for most viewers to explain.

(For background and transcript, see yesterday's report.)

In fairness, the program is just getting started. At the 90-second mark, Nova's narrator restates its slightly arcane basic thesis:
NARRATOR: Gravity. The most familiar, yet most mysterious, of nature's forces.

One hundred years ago, Albert Einstein made a mind-blowing discovery:

What we feel as gravity is in fact the push and pull of space and time itself.

He called his idea "general relativity." It is perhaps the most remarkable feat of thinking about nature to come from a single mind.
"What we feel as gravity is in fact the push and pull of space and time itself?" According to the narrator, this idea constitutes "general relativity."

"What we feel as gravity is in fact the push and pull of space and time itself?" Almost surely, most PBS viewers would have a hard time explaining that statement, which, we're told, constitutes a "mind-blowing discovery."

Implicitly, Nova was promising to explain that idea in the hour to come. For the rest of the week, we'll review the first point in Nova's program where it makes this attempt.

How well was Nova able to explain Einstein's mind-blowing discovery? About three minutes into the program, Nova's narrator began to describe the way this attempt would proceed.

"To gain an insight into Einstein's mind and the true wonder of general relativity," the narrator said, "we need to trace the crucial thought experiments that led to his great discoveries." At about the nine-minute mark, the program begins to describe and explain the first of these "thought experiments."

More precisely, the program describes a thought experiment which led Einstein, in 1905, to the theory known as "special relativity."

Special relativity came in 1905; general relativity followed ten years later. Starting around the nine-minute mark, Nova attempts to describe and explain the thought experiment which produced that initial breakthrough.

We're going to spend the rest of the week examining that attempt. For today, let's note something odd about the way Nova begins that effort.

Later today, we'll post the full transcript of the passage in question. Right now, consider the brief discussion shown below, which starts this first attempt at real explanation.

In this passage, Nova explains the world of physics out of which Einstein's "special relativity" emerged. To our ear, this passage seems odd.

Does it seem odd to you?
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.
We're not saying that any of that is "wrong." We're saying that Professor Schaffer's animated declaration seems transparently odd.

According to Schaffer, Einstein hated—hated!—contradiction. More specifically, Professor Schaffer declares that Einstein thought this:

"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."

We're sorry, but ten minutes into a hour-long program which actually runs just 51 minutes, that presentation strikes us as rather odd. Does it really take one of history's greatest intellectual giants to realize that a flat contradiction between two dominant theories means that "something is wrong?"

It's hard to see why you'd need an Einstein to come up with that. But if you watch the Nova program, you will see that Professor Schaffer excitedly offers this in a way which seems to suggest that Einstein's genius was already poking through in the hatred—hatred!—he felt for such contradictions.

We're not saying that Schaffer is "wrong" in anything he says in that passage. We're saying that something is strange, peculiar, odd about his declaration.

Wouldn't anyone have known that a contradiction like the one described meant that "something was wrong?" It seems that anyone would have known. But in this program, we're encouraged to think that Einstein displayed his genius this way, by noting the sky is blue.

We offer that early, puzzling passage as a bit of a warning. Beware the Einstein-made-easy program which offers you an aesthetic experience, rather than a clear explanation leading to actual clarity.

Alas! Many times, Einstein-made-easy broadcasts and books resemble a type of fantasy camp. The reader or viewer gets to pretend that he or she "understands Einstein."

In the case of an Einstein-made-easy broadcast, a viewer gets to click off the set and go to bed with the feeling that a "mind-blowing discovery" has been made wonderfully clear.

Often, though, that viewer has perhaps been sold an illusion. On the one hand, he's been offered some statements which are so obvious as to be almost totally fatuous. Other statements hurry past, although they're completely unclear.

Einstein hated contradiction! He knew that a contradiction meant that something was wrong! This is the way the Nova broadcast begins its discussion of Einstein's first major "thought experiment," the one which led to special relativity in 1905.

We offer that as a warning sign. You may be at a fantasy camp! Beware basket-weaving ahead, perhaps mixed with incoherence!

Tomorrow: The lady on the very fast train and the two lightning strikes


  1. I suspect that it isn't the nature of contradiction or discrepancy that made Einstein unusual, but the extent to which it bothered him. Scientists not only notice such contradictions but the contradictions plague them and they continue thinking about them until they find a way to reconcile or resolve them. It is the dogged persistence motivated by cognitive dissonance that makes someone a scientist and not a person interested in other things. Einstein no doubt hated that contradiction to the point that he kept thinking about it in his spare time until he came up with ideas to resolve it. That is what scientists do.

    To say that he "hated it" means that he was sufficiently bothered by it to keep thinking about it. If you don't know that feeling, you are probably not a scientist or other kind of researcher. Such questions much bother you on a visceral level so that you cannot sleep or stop obsessing over them until you have a solution. That motivation is what separates scientists from playrights or doctors or comedians. I see nothing whatsoever wrong, odd, or fantasy campish about a narrator noting that Einstein felt that contradiction on an emotional level. If he didn't, he would have shrugged and gone on to something else in his life and not have arrived at a thought experiment, much less a theory.

    It is easy to mock what you don't yourself experience. I am very tired of this series of small-minded, oddly expressed complaint about the gap between what Somerby personally experiences and what others feel about science.

    I am not a physicist but I am a research scientist and there is nothing odd about the highlighted sentences in the quote presented today and I feel strongly offended that Somerby thinks there is something manufactured about it just because he cannot relate to it himself. It is how I feel about my own consuming questions -- I hate the contradictions too and they not only motivate my work but I think about them at night, in the shower, while driving and in all spare moments. That is how inspiration is generated -- by persistent thought devoted to a single problem.

    1. Of course I may be wrong but I think what Bob is saying, for one thing, is that these "Einstein-made-easy" presentations are somewhat hyperbolic and histrionic.

    2. In our view, what Bob am demonstrating, for one thing, be "we are somewhat hyperbolic and histrionic."

  2. Alas! Somerby seems to hate a lot of things. Including, he says, hate.

  3. It appears to little me that the "contradiction" re light speed was not generally eve noticed and that when Einstein explained it, few had ever noticed it.

  4. It seems pretty obvious that the speed of light has to depend on the relative motion of the source and detector. If they're moving together, it's faster; if they're moving apart, it's slower. On the other hand, Maxwell's equations give an invariant speed of light, independent of the motion of source and detector. As far as I know, the only person who took this discrepancy seriously was Albert Einstein.

  5. When we first read this entry, we quickly distributed hard plastic helmets to our analysts, and just in time, too. As they read the entry for themselves, they began to beat their heads against the wall and wail in despair. To an ignoramus, many things will seem strange, peculiar, and odd. "Does it really take one of history's greatest intellectual giants to realize that a flat contradiction between two dominant theories means that 'something is wrong'?" asks our resident ignoramus. No, it took one of history's greatest intellectual giants to solve the contradiction. Do all "flat contradictions" in physics mean that something is wrong? Can any ignoramus see that such contradictions must lead to that trivial conclusion that something is wrong? Quantum mechanics predicts a number of seemingly contradictory results. Sometimes quantum particles act like waves and sometimes they act like particles. Sometimes measuring a property of one of a pair of particles means that you instantly know the state of the other particle. Einstein hated these "contradictions" as well, but do they mean that quantum theory is wrong or that our perceptions are wrong? An ignoramus won't be able to tell, and a willful ignoramus will never be able to.

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