FRIDAY, APRIL 29, 2016
Interlude—Truthfully, clear as mud: One hundred years ago, Albert Einstein wrote a brief book aimed at general readers.
To peruse the entire book, click here. In the preface to the book, Einstein stated his general intention:
"The present book is intended, as far as possible, to give an exact insight into the theory of Relativity to those readers who, from a general scientific and philosophical point of view, are interested in the theory, but who are not conversant with the mathematical apparatus of theoretical physics," Einstein wrote.
"The book presumes a standard of education corresponding to that of a university matriculation examination," he further said. "Despite the shortness of the book," he said its presentations would require "a fair amount of patience and force of will on the part of the reader."
Albert Einstein wasn't claiming that he could make Einstein easy. In truth, much of his historic book is about as clear as mud, at least for the general reader for whom the book was intended.
That wasn't Einstein's "fault." By all accounts, he had spent the previous twenty years exploring, examining and challenging the established state of physics as it had developed since Newton. He hadn't spent time developing skills as a writer of popular science.
He didn't hold an advanced degree in magazine writing, the way some of "these kids today" do. Judging from appearances, he hadn't spent a lot of time wondering how to explain his revolutionary work to us bantamweights and rubes.
What made him think that his brief book would make sense to general readers? According to Walter Isaacson, he read the text of the book to his niece, who was 16 years old.
His niece was baffled by the book, Isaacson says, but she didn't want to say so to her famous uncle. In this wonderfully comical way, history's greatest physicist got the idea that his book would make sense to us, the unwashed and clueless.
One hundred years later, that judgment is still mistaken. The humor enters the story when our leading professors, publishers and journalists can't discern or refuse to acknowledge this unmistakable fact.
In yesterday's award-winning post, we reviewed the text of Einstein's very brief Chapter 8. In that chapter, he imagines a pair of lightning strikes and develops "a definition of simultaneity such that this definition supplies us with the method by means of which, in the present case, [we] can decide by experiment whether or not both the lightning strokes occurred simultaneously."
In that brief chapter, Einstein's writing is somewhat fuzzy, but his basic rumination is simple. In his next chapter, which is even shorter, he introduces a fast-moving train—and his work becomes clear as mud.
We'll go first! One hundred years later, we have no idea what point Einstein was making in that three-page chapter, which runs perhaps one thousand words.
We don't know what point he was making and, dear reader, neither do you! In our view, neither did Isaacson when he tried to explain that material in his 2007 best-seller, Einstein: His Life and Universe.
Neither did the PBS program Nova, when it tried to explain the same material in last November's hour-long broadcast, Inside Einstein's Mind.
At roughly the ten-minute make of its broadcast, Nova tried to explain what Einstein was saying in chapters 8 and 9 of his historic book. Ninety-nine years later, Nova's presentation was less clear than your typical puddle of mud. Truthfully, though, so was Einstein's own work, back in 1916!
It shouldn't be shocking to think that Einstein may not have been a skilled popular writer. The humor enters our tale when professors and journalists, one hundred years later, are still unable to notice this fact, or perhaps refuse to acknowledge it.
We had planned to move on today to the text of Einstein's Chapter 9, in which he discusses the fast-moving train which Nova explained so poorly. Reading back through Einstein's chapter this morning, we noticed again that its text is very unclear.
It can be extremely hard to unpack such balls of confusion. One hundred years later, we're therefore going to postpone our reading until Monday.
It's easy to create incoherence; it's hard to untangle such webs. In the Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein described the matter thusly:
"We feel as if we had to repair a torn spider's web with our fingers."
Wittgenstein wasn't trying to untangle confusing accounts of modern physics, but he was discussing a near relation. He was discussing so-called philosophical problems, the kinds of confusions which "only occur in doing philosophy."
It's hard to untangle certain kinds of confusion and incoherence. One hundred years later, no general reader will be able to explain what Einstein meant in his brief chapter 9.
That said, Nova and Isaacson can't explain what he meant either! For ourselves, we're going to take a few more days before we walk you through its text. One hundred years later, we want to address that particular "web" in the clearest possible way.
You won't understand Einstein's Chapter 9! If you read it and think you do understand, we'll suggest that you haven't read with sufficient care.
One hundred years later, the professors and publishers still seem inclined to defer to Einstein's greatness. They still haven't noticed the ways in which his discussion of that fast-moving train just doesn't seem to make sense.
One hundred years later, has anyone ever explained that chapter? In fairness, high-profile programs like Nova will always go out and pretend.
Coming Monday: That very brief chapter 9