MONDAY, JULY 26, 2021
After that, conceptual chaos: Has anyone ever been able to make Einstein's universe understandable for the general reader—for the non-specialist? Has anyone ever been able to make Einstein easy?
In the first two weeks of our rumination on this topic, we've mentioned five books by four different writers who tried to accomplish that task. Our list includes Einstein's own early attempt to explain his universe to the general reader.
We've mentioned the following writers and the following books:
Albert Einstein: Relativity: The Special and the General Theory (1916)
Stephen Hawking: A Brief History of Time (1988)
Brian Greene: The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory (1999)
Brian Greene: The Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time, and the Texture of Reality (2004)
Walter Isaacson: Einstein: His Life and Universe (2007)
These are hardly the only books which have tried to make Einstein easy. For now, though, they'll have to do. We offer a quick overview:
Einstein's 1916 book stands out for the obvious reason. The book was Einstein's own attempt to make his theories of relativity understandable for the general reader.
As of 1988, Hawking was considered to be one of the last century's most accomplished theoretical physicists. Surprisingly, his book became a massive best-seller. It was widely praised for the way it made modern physics understandable.
Greene is also a major theoretical physicist. Each of the books by Greene was turned into a multi-part series on PBS.
This leaves Walter Isaacson as the outlier on this list. Isaacson isn't a physicist, and his book, alone on this list, is structured as a full biography of Einstein, not just as an account of the science.
Isaacson isn't a physicist, but he is a highly experienced major journalist and a widely acclaimed biographer. Beyond that, he had access to a wide range of major physicists as he assembled the parts of his book which detailed Einstein's universe rather than Einstein's life.
No one could think that Isaacson shirked as he tried to get the science right—or in his effort to make the science understandable. In his Acknowledgments, he thanks a long list of major physicists who helped with those tasks.
His list starts—repeat, starts—like this:
Brian Greene, the Columbia University physicist and author of The Fabric of the Cosmos, was an indispensable friend and editor. He talked me through numerous revisions, honed the wording of the science passages, and read the final manuscript. He is a master of both science and language...
Lawrence Krauss, professor of physics at Case Western Reserve and author of Hiding in the Mirror, also read my manuscript, vetted the sections on special relativity, general relativity, and cosmology, and offered many good suggestions and corrections. He, too, has an infectious enthusiasm for physics.
Krauss helped me enlist a protégé of his at Case, Craig J. Copi, who teaches relativity there. I hired him to do a thorough checking of the science and math, and I am grateful for his diligent edits.
Douglas Stone, professor of physics at Yale, also vetted the science in the book. A condensed matter theorist, he is writing what will be an important book on Einstein’s contributions to quantum mechanics. In addition to checking my science sections, he helped me write the chapters on the 1905 light quanta paper, quantum theory, Bose-Einstein statistics, and kinetic theory.
The acknowledgements start with Greene himself. From there, they proceed through an extensive list of highly qualified physicists who served as editors and, in some cases, as virtual co-writers.
In addition to the scholars named above, Isaacson describes the contributions of a dozen more highly qualified academics. No one could think that Isaacson shirked in his attempt to get the science right, and to make it understandable.
Isaacson was diligent—and Isaacson is smart. From the jump, he understood that it wouldn't be easy to make Einstein's universe accessible to the general reader. Near the end of his lengthy list of acknowledgements, he offers these well-chosen words:
Ashton Carter, professor of science and international affairs at Harvard, kindly read and checked an early draft. Columbia University’s Fritz Stern, author of Einstein’s German World, provided encouragement and advice at the outset. Robert Schulmann, one of the original editors at the Einstein Papers Project, did likewise. And Jeremy Bernstein, who has written many fine books on Einstein, warned me how difficult the science would be. He was right, and I am grateful for that as well.
In addition, I asked two teachers of high school physics to give the book a careful reading to make sure the science was correct, and also comprehensible to those whose last physics course was in high school. Nancy Stravinsky Isaacson taught physics in New Orleans until, alas, Hurricane Katrina gave her more free time. David Derbes teaches physics at the University of Chicago Lab School. Their comments were very incisive and also aimed at the lay reader.
Isaacson was warned that the science would be hard. Presumably, he knew that coming in.
Beyond that, he even checked with two high school teachers to make sure that his accounts of this (very difficult) science would be comprehensible for general readers. We're forced to make a whimsical point:
Based upon her name, one of these teachers may have been related to Isaacson. In a brief but instructive part of his book, Isaacson describes the way Einstein, a giant of world intellectual history, tried to check the lucidity of his own 1916 text.
Einstein asked his awestruck teenaged niece to review his 1916 text as a way to assess its lucidity. This seems to have been a flawed decision, for reasons Isaacson whimsically describes in his book.
Walter Isaacson isn't a physicist, but he had plenty of help from such experts. Imaginably, he may have received too much help from too many such experts.
Some of these scholars, Greene included, blurbed the book with words of high praise. In quite a few cases, they praised the book for the way it made the science accessible for the general reader.
"Isaacson's treatment of Einstein's scientific work is excellent: accurate, complete," Yale's Professor Stone wrote in his editorial review of the book. Also, Isaacson's treatment included "just the right level of detail for the general reader."
In his acknowledgements, Isaacson thanked Harvard professor Gerald Holton for being willing "to read my book, make comments and offer generous encouragement." Holton joined Stone in his assessment of Isaacson's book.
"It is excellently readable," Holton wrote in his own review of Isaacson's book. As a general matter, we'd strongly disagree with that assessment.
We'd strongly disagree. We're general readers ourselves, and it seems to us that Isaacson's attempts to explain the science are almost wholly incoherent almost every step of the way. In fairness, the same has been true of the many writers who tackled this daunting project before him.
Professors Greene, Stone and Holton are high-ranking academics. They actually do understand the mathematics and the physics of Einstein's astonishing universe.
They know the mathematics, and they know the physics! But perhaps for those very reasons, they may not always be the best judges of what will be understandable to the general reader, who very much does not.
Next week, we'll examine one highly significant, puzzling passage from Isaacson's book—a passage which comes straight from Einstein's 1916 text. On its face, the presentation has never seemed to make sense, and no one has ever noticed.
That said, it seems to us that Isaacson's treatment of relativity is basically incoherent, right from the first few paragraphs he offers on the subject.
To our eye and ear, his presentation has the feel of a text written by committee—of a text which may have been edited and reviewed by too many qualified experts.
Beyond that, these highly qualified theoretical physicists understand the mathematics which underlie Einstein's deeply challenging universe. But do they understand the warp and woof of clear, cogent explanation—the kind of cogent explanation which would have a chance of making sense to general readers?
We know of no reason to assume that they do. But at any rate, Isaacson's treatment of relativity strikes us as almost wholly incoherent right from his opening passages.
Einstein devised his special theory of relativity in 1905, when he was just 26. Isaacson starts to tackle that topic in Chapter Six: Special Relativity, 1905.
(Einstein's general theory of relativity came along ten years later.)
Chapter Six starts with five fateful words: "Relativity is a simple concept." What follows, though, is extremely unclear. In our view, there's a great deal to learn from that fact.
For all we know, it may be true that relativity is "a simple concept" in its broadest outlines. It may also be true that Einstein's special theory of relativity can be made understandable for general readers.
But has anyone ever delivered on any such claims? As far as we know, the answer is no.
In our view, a great deal about our world can be learned from that fact.
Tomorrow: Six puzzling paragraphs