MONDAY, OCTOBER 12, 2020
When professors and press intersect: Without any question, it's our favorite type of mainstream news report.
One example of the genre appeared on October 7. The piece reported a clear, distinct fact:
Roger Penrose had won the Nobel Prize in physics.
At the New York Times, Dennis Overbye—no relation—was assigned the task of explaining what Penrose had won the prize for. The analysts crowded around, expectant.
OVERBYE (10/7/20): The Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to three astrophysicists Tuesday for work that was literally out of the world, and indeed the universe. They are Roger Penrose, an Englishman, Reinhard Genzel, a German, and Andrea Ghez, an American. They were recognized for their work on the gateways to eternity known as black holes, massive objects that swallow light and everything else forever that falls in their unsparing maws.
Dr. Penrose, a mathematician at Oxford University, was awarded half of the approximately $1.1 million prize for proving that black holes must exist if Albert Einstein’s theory of gravity, known as general relativity, is right.
Black holes must exist if Einstein's theory is right? An obvious question came to mind:
If Einstein's theory ever falls, must Penrose return the cash?
For the record, we assume that Penrose fully deserved the Nobel Prize. We assume that he's one of the world's greatest physicists, as he's long been described.
The amusement begins when Overbye starts discussing what Penrose has proven. The analysts crowded around, expectant.
Overbye started like this:
OVERBYE: Black holes were one of the first and most extreme predictions of Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, first announced in November 1915. The theory explains the force we call gravity, as objects try to follow a straight line through a universe whose geometry is warped by matter and energy. As a result, planets as well as light beams follow curving paths, like balls going around a roulette wheel.
Einstein was taken aback a few months later when Karl Schwarzschild, a German astronomer, pointed out that the equations contained an apocalyptic prediction: In effect, cramming too much matter and energy inside too small a space would cause space-time to collapse into a point of infinite density called a singularity. In that place—if you could call it a place—neither Einstein’s equations nor any other physical law made sense.
Einstein could not fault the math, but he figured that in real life, nature would find a way to avoid such a calamity.
In 1965, however, a decade after Einstein’s death, Dr. Penrose slammed the door on Einstein’s hopes.
Should journalists ever say that material "objects"—things like planets—"try to do" certain things? Ideally, they probably shouldn't—but on this early point, we'll grant the Times a pass.
A more significant question arises. As a reader of the New York Times, do you have any idea what it means when Overbye seems to say that we're living in a universe "whose geometry is warped by matter and energy?"
Admit it—no, you don't! You couldn't explain that peculiar construction in a million years.
If it makes you feel any better, neither could anyone else! We'll guess that Overbye belongs to that group, especially after reading this:
OVERBYE: A talented mathematician, [Penrose] invented a new way of portraying space-time, called a Penrose diagram, which bypassed most of the mathematical complexities of general relativity.
His diagrams are now the lingua franca of cosmology. He proved that if too much mass accumulated in too small a place, collapse into a black hole was inevitable. At the boundary of a black hole, called the event horizon, you would have to go faster than the speed of light—the acknowledged cosmic speed limit—to get away. So you could never escape. Inside the boundary, time and space would switch roles and so all directions would lead downward, to the center, where the density became infinite and the laws of physics, as we knew them, would break down.
He showed that the black hole would become a gateway to the end of time, the end of the universe.
Just for starters, admit it! You'd have a hard time explaining the term "space-time," as would every other New York Times subscriber.
You've heard the term a million times, but you couldn't really hope to explain it. In truth, you have no real idea what that term might be said to mean, or why anyone ever uses it.
Meanwhile, do you have any idea what it means when Overbye says that time and space "switch roles" inside a black hole? Do you have even the slightest idea what that could possibly mean?
New York Times subscriber, please! Of course—of course—you don't!
We're at our happiest when we get to read journalism of this type. At such moments, the Veil of Maya is torn away. We're given a glimpse of human mental functioning as it actually is.
Here's what we mean by that:
The New York Times is a general interest newspaper. That said, it's entirely possible that no subscriber (and no editor) could explain what Overbye's talking about in the passages we've posted.
Did a million people read Overbye's report? If so, it's entirely possible that none of them could explain what he was saying.
Despite this fact, editors at the New York Times put the report in print. It's entirely possible that they didn't realize that no one, themselves included, understand their news report.
Why would an editor do such a thing? What makes it possible that the editors didn't even realize that their report was incomprehensible?
The bulk of the later Wittgenstein's (admittedly murky) work was designed to answer such questions. Simply put, his answer might go like this:
Overbye's piece is full of sentences which share a "surface grammar" with other sentences which are perfectly comprehensible. That is to say, his sentences sound like other sentences we could easily process, respond to, explain.
(Example: "After five years of marriage, the spouses switched roles. Spouse B accepted a teaching job and became the family's breadwinner. Spouse A stayed home with the kids."
(No one would be puzzled by this use of the term "switched roles." It may seem to us that we understand this familiar term when it appears in Overbye's new, unfamiliar context, even though we actually don't.)
Overbye's sentences are perfectly formed. They conform to standard grammar; they employ no obvious technical language. As a buttered pill may slide down a struggling dog's throat, they may slide past without arousing suspicion or concern.
It may seem to us that we know what they mean! Actually, though, we don't.
According to the later Wittgenstein, large amounts of high-end academic work conform to this pattern. It's easy to feel that we know what the statements in question mean. Under questioning, it would turn out that we don't.
Whenever the Times presents Overbye's work, readers are exposed to this broken attempt at communication. We read along, mouthing every word, perhaps gaining the impression that we understand what's been said.
We may feel that we understand. Truthfully, we don't.
By all accounts. Penrose is one of the world's greatest physicists. He also may have superhuman patience. According to Overbye's presentation, he's being honored for work he did in 1965!
We assume that Penrose's work on Einstein's theory and black holes was, and remains, correct. Still, we're never happier than at moments like this, when professors and press intersect.
In theory, professors and press are two components of our modern guardian class. In theory, they help us keep our flawed thinking on track as we navigate this veil of tears.
In truth, we often see through a glass extremely darkly when these elites intersect. We'll examine such couplings all week long, focusing on our failing nation's upcoming (scary) election.
Commander in chief Donald J. Trump could still get re-elected! On balance, have our various press/professor couplings provided serious help?
Before we're done, we'll even return to Penrose himself—to a strange (alleged) idea. According to rueful anthropologists, we get a glimpse of our actual mental functioning at puzzling moments like this.
Tomorrow: The moral philosopher's research