EINSTEIN'S OWN WORDS: On first looking into what Einstein said!


Part 2—Chapter 8, one hundred years later:
Exactly one hundred years ago, Albert Einstein wrote a brief book aimed at general readers.

If you enjoy doing math in your head, you already know the year in question. Einstein's brief book appeared in 1916, bearing this title:

Relativity: The Special and the General Theory

To peruse that brief book, just click here. Our hardback edition bears this claim, right on ITS front cover:


By "anyone," the publisher may have meant this: "Anyone except you and your friends and everyone else you know."

Presumably, there wasn't sufficient room to get all that on the cover. Reluctantly, the publisher agreed to edit it down.

Albert Einstein's brief book was designed to explain his revolutionary work, which is generally referred to as "relativity." One hundred years later, we pose a basic question:

Do you have any idea how to explain "special relativity," the theory Einstein propounded in 1905 in his "most famous [scientific] paper?"

In our view, pursuit of that question could be revealing. Here's why:

It has now been a hundred years since Einstein explained this part of his work in his brief book for general readers. In 2007, Walter Isaacson revisited that part of Einstein's brief book in his best-selling biography, Einstein: His Life and Universe.

Did we mention the fact that Isaacson's best-selling book was a major best-seller? (The book provides a fascinating, lucid account of Einstein's life.)

Last November, the PBS program Nova covered the same material in an hour-long broadcast, Inside Einstein's Mind. Like Isaacson, the Nova program worked directly from Einstein's brief book as it discussed the "mind-blowing significance" of the ideas which emerged from special relativity.

Nova is a high-profile PBS program. Having said that, we repeat our question:

Do you have the slightest idea how to explain special relativity? Could you bear up under mild questioning about the "mind-blowing" conclusions concerning which Nova postured?

We're willing to suggest that the answer is almost certainly no. One hundred years later, we're going to say that very few people have any idea how to explain the "astonishing conclusion" and "great conceptual step" (Isaacson's terms) which emerged from that part of Einstein's work.

No one knows how to explain this first part of Einstein's work! In large part, that's because of our "culture of incoherence," a culture which is observed all through the academy and the publishing industry.

Last November, Nova's treatment of special relativity was essentially incoherent. As usual, everyone agreed not to notice.

This is the way our culture works in a wide array of areas. This culture becomes especially comical in our Einstein-made-easy work.

That said, the confusion surrounding Einstein's work may stem from a more primal source. It may begin with Einstein's brief book, which may not have been preternaturally clear. This helps establish an obvious point:

Albert Einstein didn't get famous as a writer of popular science! He wasn't Dr. Seuss with a whole lot of physics. When it came to explaining his work to us bantamweights, he may not even have been Bill Nye the science guy.

That said, let's be clear on one point. Isaacson and PBS have now had a hundred years to notice the fact that Einstein's brief book may not have been overwhelmingly clear. The fact that they haven't noticed this problem is a comical part of the world we've described as the "culture of incoherence."

In an earlier report, we discussed the comical way Einstein—he wasn't a writer of popular science!—assured himself that his brief book would make sense to general readers.

Einstein wasn't a writer of popular science! We'd have to say he proved that point with the method he choice back in 1916—the method he chose to assure himself that his work would be clear to us rubes.

Einstein's book wasn't especially clear in that way. Just consider the two brief chapters from which Isaacson and Nova worked as they described the "brilliant thought experiment" (Nova) which led to the "great conceptual step" (Isaacson) at the heart of special relativity, one of the most famous theories in the history of science.

In Chapters 8 and 9 of his brief book, Einstein sketched the "thought experiment" to which Isaacson and Nova referred. (That term was used by Isaacson and Nova. It isn't used in the standard translation of Einstein's book.)

As Isaacson and Nova would do, Einstein described an extremely fast-moving train passing a "railway embankment." He also described the two lightning strikes cited by Isaacson and Nova. (Maddeningly, they're called lightning strokes in the standard translation.)

In two brief chapters, 8 and 9, Einstein sketched this famous scenario. What the heck! Let's look at Einstein's actual words as he starts his very brief Chapter 8.

Chapter title included:
VIII On the Idea of Time in Physics

Lightning has struck the rails on our railway embankment at two places A and B far distant from each other. I make the additional assertion that these two lightning flashes occurred simultaneously. If now I ask you whether there is sense in this statement, you will answer my question with a decided “Yes.” But if I now approach you with the request to explain to me the sense of the statement more precisely, you find after some consideration that the answer to this question is not so easy as it appears at first sight.
With that slightly puzzling passage, Einstein began a rumination on the concept of "simultaneity." One hundred years later, Isaacson and Nova can't explain that rumination, and everyone else has agreed not to notice or mention that fact.

Why do we say that passage is slightly puzzling? Here's why:

Einstein starts by telling his interlocutor that two lightning flashes have "occurred simultaneously." This seems like a simple statement concerning an everyday occurrence. But Einstein proceeds to ask his friend "to explain the sense of the statement more precisely."

Most likely, the friend won't know what Einstein means. The burden, of course, is on Einstein here. He will need to explain what he means by this request.

Einstein proceeds to do so in a very brief Chapter 8. This leads to Chapter 9, in which we're introduced to that fast-moving train, which is passing the railway embankment at the time of those two lightning strikes.

It's these brief chapters, 8 and 9, from which Isaacson and Nova were working when they tried to explain the "mind-blowing" conclusions at the heart of special relativity. Tomorrow, we'll run through that brief Chapter 8.

On Friday, we'll read Chapter 9.

Tomorrow: Einstein explains

Thoughts on the cutting of slack: We know, we know! We're moving along somewhat slowly as we work through this material.

Readers, it's been a hundred years! We think you can wait one day.


  1. In my opinion, Chapters VIII and IX are models of lucidity. They are worthy of careful study. To heck with Isaacson and Nova.

    And I'm cool with "stroke". It's like "song". I don't say entertainers perform sings, I say they perform songs. In the same vein, we discuss lightening strokes, even though it's perfectly acceptable to discuss lightening strikes. Remember, this translation is almost a hundred years old!

  2. Bob seems to be almost intentionally confused. This example doesn't yield all of relativity theory (at least, not to me), but it clearly illustrates that simultaniety isn't a well-defined concept.

    I would ask Bob which observer is correct. I suspect Bob would say that the man standing still is correct, so the lightning strikes "really" are simultaneous. But, the man is not really standing still. He's moving with the earth's motion and with the sun's motion. In fact, there doesn't seem to be any absolute way to define absolute motion.

  3. The slowest boy on the world's slowest narrative train thinks his readers impatience arises from the pace of his train's progress. No, it's your willful ignorance so massive that it that threatens to rupture the very fabric of spacetime. But that's a matter for the general theory.

  4. Briefly noted, Chapter 8 is brief. Very brief. Perhaps Chapter 9 is as brief as Chapter 8. We don't know from the fuzzy explanation of the post's author which chapter is briefer. But they are both in a brief book. How brief is the book? So brief it has been described as brief repeatedly by someone who once wanted you to know its volume was best described as slender. Was slender a more accurate description of the volume than brief? It is impossible to tell from this description although anything is possible. It is also possible that a reviewer of the book, when reviewing previous commentary on it, might offer a brief review for his own readers so they do not get lost musing over both the complexities contained in this slender container and the incoherence in which it has been repeatedly bathed for a century despite its very brevity.

    1. Is it the volume of the volume we should be concerned about, or the weight of the brief made by the author regardless of how slender the thread from understanding to misunderstanding or the breadth of the gap between comprehension and incomprehension?

  5. My current theory is that these endless posts about Einstein are a way of clearing out the trolls. I can't think of anything more calculated to drive away non-serious readers and commenters than this series.

    1. What was your theory before you came up with the current one?

    2. Is it a special or a general theory?

  6. Grasshopper. Relativity is something few people can comprehend. Most of us don't have it in our little heads to do so, though, naturally, we don't have the capacity to accept that there is something we can't understand, so, we naturally dismiss those things.

    Though, I'm hoping, might be the point of this "Groundhogs Day" exercise.

    If you are really interested in understanding, though probably never comprehending relativity, check out http://boomeria.org/physicslectures/secondsemester/relativity/tompkins.html

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