Part 1—We think of that Nova broadcast: In this morning's New York Times, Michael Wilson pens an intriguing report about the arrest of two "self-proclaimed fortunetellers."
On Sunday, the second self-proclaimed fortuneteller was led away from a Times Square shop in handcuffs. Apparently, it's now against the law in New York to engage in conduct like this:
WILSON (4/26/16): Ms. Delmaro, 27, was arrested in May and charged with taking money, sometimes in increments as high as $100,000, from a marketing executive from England temporarily working in New York. The man, Niall Rice, 33, had met a woman in a drug rehabilitation facility in Arizona months earlier and had fallen in love, but she broke it off. Distraught, he first visited a different psychic in Manhattan, then Ms. Delmaro.Apparently, New York City police have come to believe that Delmaro and her mother-in-law were deliberately scamming their clients—that they can't deliver the types of results they have repeatedly promised.
When Mr. Rice came to learn that the object of his affections had died of an overdose, Ms. Delmaro continued to promise a reunion with the woman, who she said had been reincarnated into a new body—with the help of special crystals, a time machine and an 80-mile bridge made of gold.
Mr. Rice eventually went to the police and pressed charges. He told detectives he paid $713,975 to the two psychics. He said in an interview in November that he was depressed and desperate at the time, and that he thought he would get his money back in the end.
Wilson's report is intriguing. At this point, though, we'll make an admission:
When we read Wilson's report this morning, we thought of the many people, down through the year, who have claimed to make Einstein easy.
We thought of Nova's hour-long broadcast, Inside Einstein's Mind, in which the PBS program seemed to offer an explanation of special relativity.
(The program aired last November. To watch the whole program, click here.)
We even thought of Walter Isaacson's 2007 best-seller, Einstein: His Life and Universe, in which the former Rhodes scholar seemed to explain the same part of Einstein's work, with the ballyhooed assistance of eighteen physics professors.
Let's offer a quick review:
Albert Einstein propounded the special theory of relativity in the year 1905, when he was just 26. In 1916, he published a book intended for general readers, in which he attempted to explain the special and general theories.
To peruse that book, click here.
Over the course of the past hundred years, professors, journalists and publishers have offered Einstein-made-easy work. In these presentations, they've attempted to explain, or they have pretended to attempt to explain, Einstein's revolutionary work.
We'll admit it! When we read today about those fortunetellers in chains, our thoughts drifted off, if only briefly, to this century of high-minded work.
Did these people really believe that they could make Einstein easy? Let's review what Nova said in its broadcast last fall.
The broadcast was written and directed by Jamie Lochhead. The program seems to constitute his first writer credit for Nova.
His previous effort as a director was for the three-part BBC series, The Wonder of Dogs, which appeared in 2013. Another director credit that year: Easter Eggs Live, a British series in which "Mark Evans explores the weird, wonderful world of eggs."
Did Lochhead believe that he'd made Einstein easy? To be honest, we don't really doubt that he did. At any rate, here's what his Nova program said about special relativity:
About ten minutes into that program, Nova's narrator pictured a man standing on a railroad platform and a woman moving past on an extremely fast train.
(For the relevant transcript, click here.)
As the woman's train is passing the man, lightning strikes occur on either side of the man, up and down the line. We're told that the man is standing exactly halfway between the two strikes. When the lightning strikes occur, the woman on the fast-moving train is directly adjacent to him.
Because he's halfway between the two strikes, the light from the two lightning strikes reach the man simultaneously—at the exact same time. But because the woman has sped ahead, toward one strike and away from the other, the light from one strike will reach her sooner than the light from the other strike.
"For the woman on the train, time elapses between the two strikes," the Nova narrator says. (He's already deep in an array of conceptual weeds.) "For the man on the platform, there is no time between the strikes."
"The simple thought has mind-blowing significance," the Nova narrator says as he continues. He draws these mind-blowing conclusions from that simple example:
"There's no such thing as simultaneity."
"Simultaneity, and the flow of time itself, depends on how you're moving."
"The flow of time is different for an observer that is moving versus one that is standing still."
Let's make another confession. When we read about those fortunetellers, we briefly recalled those statements. That said, similar statements have been sold to us rubes over the past hundred years!
In recent weeks, we've explored the way the logic of this presentation breaks down. We imagined a second man, Man B, standing way down at the end of the railway platform, in the direction the train was going.
Man B is standing stock still, like the first man on the platform. But for him, "time elapses between the two strikes," as it does for the woman on the fast-moving train.
We also imagined a Woman B, riding in the caboose of the train. She is moving at very high speed, just like the original woman who is riding in a middle car on the train.
Woman B is moving at very high speed. But she draws adjacent to the original man on the platform just as the light from the two strikes arrives. For her, as for the original man, "there is no time between the strikes." (To simplify our presentation, we're agreeing to use Nova's shaky formulations.)
As we've noted in previous weeks, we don't understand the point Nova was trying to make in that part of its broadcast. Do you know who else didn't understand?
Everyone else who watched the program! Everyone else—and you!
When we watched that Nova program, it struck us as one of the most obvious non-explanation explanations we had ever seen. Sadly though, this sort of thing has been quite routine in the past hundred years as professors and journalists have pretended to make Einstein easy.
We can't explain that presentation by Nova—and dear reader, neither can you! In fairness, though, we note a key point:
In that part of its broadcast, Nova was working directly from Chapters 8 and 9 of Einstein's 1916 book!
That book was written for general readers. Its chapters were very brief.
Early on, in Chapters 8 and 9, Einstein presented the famous scenario with the railway platform, the fast-moving train and the lightning strikes. For the past hundred years, programs like Nova have rushed along like that fast-moving train, pretending they knew how to make sense of the words Einstein wrote.
Was Einstein able to make Einstein easy? In the next two days, we'll look at Chapters 8 and 9 of that historic book, his book for general readers.
The chapters in question are very brief. One hundred years later, we don't understand what those chapters say, and neither, dear reader, do you!
Tomorrow: Chapter 8, "On the Idea of Time in Physics"