TUESDAY, JULY 13, 2021
Krauthammer's second opinion: In one of his lesser-known poems, Robert Frost said he had "a lover's quarrel with the world."
(The statement became a bit of a trademark. In 1964, the Academy Award for Best Documentary film went to a biography/profile, "Robert Frost: A Lover's Quarrel with the World.")
Decades later, in June 1988, the Washington Post's Richard Cohen had a somewhat jocular columnist's quarrel with the nation's book reviewers. His columnist's quarrel concerned the warp and woof of the world.
Stephen Hawking, one of the world's greatest physicists, had written a wildly popular book designed to explain modern physics to general readers. Hawking's book started with Einstein, then moved on from there.
According to Cohen—and yes, he provided quotations—reviewers had sworn that Hawking's best-seller was lucid, accessible, clear, comprehensible, even easy to read. As we noted yesterday, the querulous columnist now complained that the book was anything but.
The lucid and accessible book was "incomprehensible," the querulous columnist said. Cohen even seemed to suggest that he'd been misled.
He had believed the reviews he read! As a result, this happened:
So I turned to the book itself. Surely a book read (or at least bought) by so many would be accessible to me. But it wasn't—not fully, not so I could stand in class and tell the teacher what I had learned. I understood some of it but not, I think, the parts that really mattered...
In his book, Hawking refers to theories or discoveries that scientists claim in their own name...I have one for Hawking himself: the Hawking Limitation. It is the inability of the ordinary person, the ordinary educated person, to understand what in heaven scientists like Hawking are talking about.
These scientists today! According to Cohen, even educated people could no longer hope to understand what they were talking about.
As he continued, Cohen worried about certain public policy consequences of this state of affairs. Five months later, a second columnist at the Post offered a second opinion concerning's Hawking's book.
By now, the book was a massive best-seller, but Charles Krauthammer wasn't sure why. He'd won the Pulitzer Prize one year before. But now, it had come to this.
Like his colleague Cohen before him, Krauthammer had tried to read (and understand) Hawking's best-selling book. But on December 2, 1988, right at the start of his column, Krauthammer said he'd tried to understand the book—and he seemed to say he'd failed:
There are two great mysteries in this world. First, how did the universe begin? Second, how does a book that attempts to answer that question—a book about muons and gluons, about thermodynamic arrows and space-time singularities, about quantum gravity and superstrings, a book that argues convincingly against the existence of Einstein's cosmological constant—become the No. 1 best seller for 20 weeks in a row? Having now twice read Stephen Hawking's "A Brief History of Time," a smash popularization of modern physics, I am preoccupied with the second question and no closer to an answer for the first than I was when I started.
By now, the book had topped the best-seller lists for twenty consecutive weeks. Krauthammer said that he'd read the book twice. Later, he said he'd devoted 13 hours to the Sisyphean task.
Krauthammer had given the old college try. Defeated, he offered this verdict:
"The problem with Hawking's book is that it is utterly incomprehensible."
No, really. That's what he said!
Five months later, this second opinion comported with the first. But where Cohen had tended to fret and to fume, Krauthammer offered a (slightly puzzling) account of his reading experience.
At one point, Cohen had said this: "Most of us believe that anything, if written clearly, can be understood by a reasonably educated reader." At least for Cohen, Hawking's book had brought that long-held idea into question.
Krauthammer went further as he described his experience. With apologies for the lofty language, he began to describe the phenomenology of his thirteen hours:
[The book is] incomprehensible in a very interesting way. Hawking's language is simple. The syntax is clear. The exposition is careful, at times even graceful. With the exception of E=mc2, now a staple of subway walls, not a single equation appears in the book. (Hawking was persuaded of the well-known rule of thumb: every equation cuts your sales in half.)
If given enough attention, every sentence makes sense. But when you have registered all the sentences, you realize in the end that you understand nothing. It is not Hawking that is beyond comprehension, but modern physics.
According to Krauthammer, the language was simple, the syntax was clear. On its own, each sentence made sense.
He seemed to say it wasn't Hawking's fault! But in the end, Krauthammer said, the reader of this best-selling book is going to understand nothing.
At that point, the columnist's logic turned on itself, but what he said was important. In our view, the Pulitzer winner introduced two key words into the conversation:
For example: I understand, and if asked can readily repeat, the current notion of superstring theory that the universe has 10 (or 26) dimensions, all but four of which are curled up into tiny little balls. But what can that possibly mean?
I can also recite Hawking's solution to the age-old question: Did the universe have a beginning, or has it existed through an infinity of time? Hawking proposes a finesse: space-time is finite in extent but has no boundary or edge. Meaning: space-time is like the surface of the earth, which also is finite (197 million square miles) but round and enclosed, so that you can go around forever without reaching a beginning or an end. A universe of no beginning and no end, but no infinity. I understand. But what does it mean?
Krauthammer said the could "repeat" the various things which Hawking said. He could "recite" his formulations.
He could repeat and recite the author's key formulations. But in the end, Krauthammer said, "What could [those formulations] possibly mean?"
In our lexicon, if you can repeat a claim but you don't know what it means, then you don't understand it. For some reason, Krauthammer started saying that he did "understand." He just didn't know what Hawking's recitable claims could possibly mean.
Krauthammer said he could repeat and recite; could that be what reviewers were doing? Were the reviewers simply reciting, then imagining that they were able to understand?
Tomorrow, we'll return to Walter Isaacson's joke—the joke he offered right at the start of his widely praised biography, Einstein: His Life and Universe.
We'll also return to the bowling ball on the trampoline—the metaphor which is endlessly used to explain Einstein's claim about the curvature of "space-time."
There's a bowling ball on a trampoline, and then some smaller balls come in. As we noted yesterday, Isaacson employs this metaphor very early, on page 4 of his book. After that, he offers his very good joke.
Everyone repeats and recites this well-worn trampoline hook. It's meant to explain the curvature of space-time, whatever space-time is.
Everyone knows how to repeat and recite it. But does anyone actually understand what it actually means?
Tomorrow: "We're no Einstein," he jokingly said