Part 4—The case of the hundred-year fail: Not to boast, but we constitute the target audience for Albert Einstein's brief book.
The book appeared in 1916; it was aimed at general readers. In his preface, Einstein explained who the book was for. One hundred years later, we meet his basic criteria:
"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. The book presumes a standard of education corresponding to that of a university matriculation examination, and, despite the shortness of the book, a fair amount of patience and force of will on the part of the reader."
We're interested in relativity. That said, we're not "conversant with the mathematical apparatus of theoretical physics."
Regarding patience and will, we've spent decades reading a steady succession of Einstein-made-easy books. We've watched a succession of PBS broadcasts, programs which have often taken the form of a multipart series.
Since last November, we've also spent a lot of time trying to puzzle out Einstein's brief book, especially the part of the book which inspired one part of the latest PBS broadcast. We refer to Nova's hour-long program, Inside Einstein's Mind, which appeared last November.
We've tried to puzzle out Einstein's brief book, and we've failed. The reason for this is fairly simple. One hundred years later, after all this time, the relevant part of the book remains largely incoherent, just as it ever was.
We refer to Chapters 8 and 9 of Einstein's brief book, the two short chapters which formed the basis for Nova's silly account of special relativity. Last Thursday, we took you through Einstein's brief Chapter 8, which seemed to establish a few very simple points.
In Chapter 9, Nova's fast-moving train appears, as do its two lightning strikes. In the process, Einstein's attempt at explaining his work turns incoherent. In our view, Einstein's work becomes as clear as mud.
Here's the remarkable part of our story: One hundred years later, our leading professors and journalists still haven't noticed this problem! Meanwhile, Nova gave the task of explaining this material to a writer whose previous program was called The Wonder of Dogs.
Everybody understands the way this industry works. Our professors and journalists pretend that they can explain Einstein's work; we pretend that we understand the various things they tell us. This silly behavior lies at the heart of our society's sprawling "culture of incoherence," a wide-ranging set of behaviors which create the gong-show pseudo-discussions found in most parts of our world.
Is it possible that Albert Einstein failed as a popular writer? Is it possible that Einstein himself couldn't make Einstein easy?
It's possible, and in this case, it actually happened! One hundred years later, the Novas and the Isaacsons haven't yet noticed or acknowledged this fact. Instead, major professors blurb Isaacson's book, saying how wonderfully clear it is. In return, he blurbs their books and appears in the Nova broadcast!
When it came to explaining that fast-moving train and those lightning strikes, Issacson's book was as clear as mud. But then again, so was Einstein's own book, which he checked for clarity by reading its text to his niece, who was 16 years old.
She found it baffling, Isaacson says. But she didn't want to tell her famous uncle.
Isaacson treats this as a humorous story, which of course it is. It doesn't enter his standardized head that this comical method may have helped produce a muddled text.
After all this prolegomena, let's turn to the text-in-itself:
Einstein's Chapter 9 is brief; it's also clear as mud. When we say it's brief, we mean really brief. It contains seven paragraphs and one graphic. The chapter runs roughly 900 words.
For Einstein's whole book, just click here.
In the first paragraph of this chapter, Einstein introduces the fast-moving train which Nova described in last November's broadcast. ("We suppose a very long train travelling along the rails with the constant velocity v and in the direction indicated in Fig. 1," Einstein writes.)
In our view, Einstein is already lost in the weeds before this first paragraph is done. But he goes on to pose a basic question in paragraph 2.
We highlight that question below. Already, we'd have to say that Einstein's work is puzzling, perhaps as clear as mud. Please note: In the standard translation, Einstein speaks about a railway embankment, not a railway platform:
EINSTEIN: As a natural consequence, however, the following question arises:Let's do a quick review:
Are two events (e.g. the two strokes of lightning A and B) which are simultaneous with reference to the railway embankment also simultaneous relatively to the train? We shall show directly that the answer must be in the negative.
In Chapter 8, Einstein discussed a pair of lightning strikes; we knew that they were equidistant from the midpoint of the railway platform. When light from the strikes reached that midpoint at the same time, we agreed that it made sense to conclude that the strikes were simultaneous.
Now, Einstein is making a puzzling statement. He says those lightning strikes aren't simultaneous for someone on the fast-moving train which is rapidly moving past the railway station!
Specifically, he is referring to someone in the middle car of the fast-moving train, as you can see from his text. But how weird! The two lightning strikes are simultaneous for someone standing on the platform. But they aren't simultaneous for someone on the train!
At this point, Arsenio Hall should appear to say, "Things that make you go oooh." Instead, let's note what Einstein is and isn't saying.
Einstein doesn't say this:
He doesn't say that the two lightning strikes may not appear to be simultaneous to the observer on the train. He doesn't say that the strikes may not seem simultaneous.
Seeming to speak in an absolute sense, he seems to says that the two strikes "aren't" simultaneous to or for or with reference to that observer. Certainly, that's the way his words were taken on Nova's program last fall.
(A reader may complain that we're ignoring Einstein's actual language, which is a bit more technical. That's part of the problem. This chapter is larded with technical language, language which needs explaining. The general reader may choose to recite that technical language, but he won't understand what he's saying.)
At any rate, this is Einstein's paragraph 3, along with the start of paragraph 4. For "embankment," read "railway platform." To review his graphic, click here, see Chapter 9:
EINSTEIN (continuing directly): When we say that the lightning strokes A and B are simultaneous with respect to the embankment, we mean: the rays of light emitted at the places A and B, where the lightning occurs, meet each other at the mid-point M of the length A ~ B of the embankment. But the events A and B also correspond to positions A and B on the train. Let M' be the mid-point of the distance A ~ B on the travelling train. Just when the flashes of lightning occur, this point M' naturally coincides with the point M, but it moves towards the right in the diagram with the velocity v of the train. If an observer sitting in the position M' in the train did not possess this velocity, then he would remain permanently at M, and the light rays emitted by the flashes of lightning A and B would reach him simultaneously, i.e. they would meet just where he is situated. Now in reality (considered with reference to the railway embankment) he is hastening towards the beam of light coming from B, whilst he is riding on ahead of the beam of light coming from A. Hence the observer will see the beam of light emitted from B earlier than he will see that emitted from A. Observers who take the railway train as their reference-body must therefore come to the conclusion that the lightning flash B took place earlier than the lightning flash A. We thus arrive at the important result:We're Einstein's target audience. One hundred years later, we don't understand why he said those things. Neither does anyone else who watched last November's Nova program.
Events which are simultaneous with reference to the embankment are not simultaneous with respect to the train, and vice versa (relativity of simultaneity).
Please understand: we're not saying there's no possible explanation for Einstein's century-old remarks. We're not saying that relativity is "wrong" in some sense.
We're saying that, one hundred years later, attempts at explaining or elucidating this material remain as clear as mud. Einstein's initial attempt was unclear. From that day to this, our professors and journalists have failed to make his work more clear.
Some of what Einstein says or seems to say in that passage is obvious. Let's review what that is:
Consider an observer in the middle car of that fast-moving train. Obviously, light from the two lightning strikes will not reach that observer at the same time.
As Einstein explains in paragraph 3, this observer has "hastened towards" one lightning strike and has hastened away from the other. For this reason, "the observer will see the beam of light emitted from" the one lightning strike "earlier than he will see [the light] emitted from" the other strike.
That much is perfectly obvious. Of course, the same thing will be true for an observer who is standing motionless at the far end of the railway platform. He too "will see the beam of light emitted from" the one lightning strike "earlier than he will see [the light] emitted from" the other strike.
Meanwhile, an observer in the caboose of the train will have the same experience as the observer who is standing at the midpoint of the railway platform. The light from the two lightning strikes will reach the (fast-moving) caboose at the same time, as will be the case for the (motionless) observer at the midpoint of the platform.
For that reason, it's unclear why Einstein goes on to say what follows. One hundred years later, we can't explain what he means:
EINSTEIN: Now before the advent of the theory of relativity it had always tacitly been assumed in physics that the statement of time had an absolute significance, i.e. that it is independent of the state of motion of the body of reference. But we have just seen that this assumption is incompatible with the most natural definition of simultaneity; if we discard this assumption, then the conflict between the law of the propagation of light in vacuo and the principle of relativity (developed in Section VII) disappears.Why does Einstein refer to "the state of motion" of the observers? Why does he focus on their "state of motion," rather than on their propinquity to the lightning strikes, which seems more directly relevant here?
We can't answer that question. Presumably, an observer in the caboose has the same "state of motion" as an observer at the midpoint of the train. And yet, the strikes will appear to be simultaneous to the one observer, but won't appear to be simultaneous to the other.
By the same token, a person standing at the far end of the platform will experience the two lightning strikes in the same way as the observer in the middle car of the train. For each observer, the strikes will not appear to be simultaneous, even though their "states of motion" differ.
We're Einstein's target audience. One hundred years later, we throw our lot in with his teen-aged niece. We don't understand what he wrote in this chapter; we don't know how to explain it. We don't understand the point he was making. In our view, Chapter 9 doesn't make clear sense.
In our view, Einstein did a lousy job in this attempt to explain this matter for the general reader. We don't find that hugely surprising. The more striking point is this:
One hundred years later, no one has been willing to say that Einstein did a lousy job when he tried to write for us rubes! Beyond that, no one has been able to clarify the point of that very brief chapter.
Back in 2007, Isaacson's explanation of this material was about as clear as mud. Last November, we had an instant reaction to Nova's broadcast: when we watched the relevant part of the program, we thought that Nova had provided one of the most obvious non-explanation explanations we had ever seen.
Last November, Nova's explanation actually was clear as mud. In fairness, that may be what you'd expect from a writer whose previous work includes the mini-series documentary, Easter Eggs Live.
On the merits, Nova's presentation was a joke. That said, it was a familiar joke.
For the past one hundred years, a string of ranking journalists and ranking professors have pretended to make Einstein easy. We've all engaged in a certain transaction:
They have pretended to explain the material; we consumers have agreed to pretend that we understood what they said. It's a bit like the famous old joke from the Soviet Union, in which the worker describes the economic system:
They pretend to pay us, and we pretend to work.
Gigantic swaths of our public discourse are phony, fake, fraudulent, faux. The phoniness of our public discourse can be seen in a wide array of areas, covering a wide array of topics. They pretend to explain all sorts of things. We agree to pretend that they've done so.
That said, this "culture of incoherence" is especially rich in the case of our Einstein-made-easy books and TV shows. What's most amazing is this:
One hundred years later, our major professors and journalists still lack the skills with which they might explain this giant's work. In some cases, they may also lack the honesty which would let them acknowledge this problem.
We're often struck by the state of these peoples' skills. How have they managed to remain so unskilled?
When our award-winning series continues, we'll start to describe one hundred years of intellectual sloth. Our elites are lazy, indifferent, inept.
In the case of Einstein, it doesn't much matter. In other areas, we pay a very large price for this professional sloth.
Starting next week: The later Wittgenstein